In the past few months, I have been so lucky to see two amazing pieces of theatre and also a film which have all featured all-black or majority black casts. On Christmas Eve, I saw the UKs first ever all-black production of the musical Guys and Dolls at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. This year marks the Shakespeare 400-year anniversary and last month I went to see the first all-black production of Hamlet in the UK. It was produced and directed by Black Theatre Live, an association determined to change the landscape for Black and Asian theatre across the UK. Most recently, I finally got to see the much-anticipated film – Black Panther that came out in UK cinemas earlier this week.
To me, it’s undeniable that the representation of black people in theatre or films often relies on tokenism or stereotypical portrayals. Black actors are normally reduced to marginal or secondary roles – rarely are they the hero or heroine. Black men are often type-cast as gangsters, womanisers or pimps, while black women normally play single-mothers or maids. They are either hyper-sexualised or depicted as angry or sassy. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, that first spread across social media in 2015, resurfaced again last year, sparking debate about diversity in Hollywood. Black actors and actresses continue to struggle to land substantial parts in films and theatre; they are often paid less than their white colleagues and are confined to roles based on their race.
Yes, this is not the first time we’ve seen films and plays with all-black casts. However, previously their subjects have almost always focused on homogenous notions of blackness and black identity. Although they may serve to educate on important parts of black history, they reinforce the notion that blackness exists in a fixed framework. Think of the last three major blockbuster films you saw in the cinema with a majority black cast. What were they about? My bet is either slavery, gangs or Nelson Mandela. I think that some (white) directors / audiences haven’t grasped the notion that black history, present and future experiences are based on so much more than slavery, rappers, gangs or the civil rights movement.
That is why I think these three performances are so important. All-black theatre pieces and films like Black Panther encourage visibility of black artists and performers in predominantly white spaces. Whether they break the stereotype of hyper-masculinity within the Black community such as in the all-singing all-dancing Guys and Dolls, or add new layers to a classic Shakespearean play, showcasing black talent and artistry brings distinct, vibrant nuances to productions. In the case of the African-set Hamlet, I thought that the play drew interesting parallels between issues of masculinity and mental health within black communities. Hamlet’s desire for revenge links with the question of what makes a good boy go bad; this reveals itself to be an ever-present issue today when we consider the rates of black on black violence and the fact that statistics consistently show that young black men are more likely to be in prison than at a top university.
Black Panther is by far one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time! It rethinks the image of Africa, reimagining it as a continent that is thriving of its natural resources, has built itself up from times of colonisation and harvested its own technology, knowledge and power. The casting and cinematography are beautiful, from the costumes to the natural hair styles (so many amazing braids and afros!!). Women are depicted as bold warriors and talented technological engineers. Combining action and humour, the film also conveys a clear political message. Black Panther seeks to revoke the image of a barren poverty-stricken Africa with the Afrofuturistic land of Wakanda depicted as self-determining and sustainable. With Donald Trump calling African countries ‘shitholes’ earlier this year, issues surrounding the depiction and description of ‘Third World’ countries are ever prevalent. Ultimately the film celebrates black excellence, black beauty and black power – a must see!
Yet, promoting black excellence in film and theatre often receives criticism. There has been notable previous backlash when a black actor or actress takes on a role that the world sees as being white. Think back to the torrent of online abuse J.K Rowling received when Hermione was cast as the black actress Noma Dumezweni in the stage production of Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, or when Idris Elba was told he couldn’t play James Bond because he was ‘too street’. I know for many this is obvious but it needs to be repeated that celebrating blackness does not equal anti-whiteness. It appears that only when white people are not present on screen or stage do people feel the need to complain. Only then do they realise the privilege they have always had. They take for granted the fact that most of the characters they have seen for the entirety of their lives look like them, sound like them or share the same (or similar) culture as them.
It will be a long time before we are able to de-condition our minds from imagining every hero or heroine as white (unless stated otherwise). Yet, these three productions hopefully will help diversify the white-washed world of film and theatre. It’s a definite step in the right direction. They are for the young black people who thought that musical theatre was for white middle class people only; the black students who found Shakespeare inaccessible and were unable to identify with his characters; for all those black children who have never had a superhero to look up to.