The Review/ Short Read/

What Makes a Black Movie Star?

Black Star curator Ashley Clark reflects on the roots of this ambitious retrospective

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by Ashley Clark
Nov 2, 2017

On Friday, November 3, TIFF launches this season's major retrospective Black Star, presented in collaboration with the British Film Institute (which originally organized the series at the BFI Southbank in October 2016) and with the support of the Hal Jackman Foundation. Below, series curator Ashley Clark describes the origins of the programme, and the questions he set out to answer with it.

My involvement in Black Star began in 2015, when the British Film Institute commissioned me to curate a ten-week film series under that moniker. In creating the programme, it was extremely important for me, first and foremost, to not simply deliver a one-size-fits-all “Black cinema” season. When it comes to putting together diverse content, some organizations stumble into the trap of viewing “Black cinema” or “Asian cinema” or “queer cinema” as genres in and of themselves, when in fact these subject areas contain myriad intricate shades.

This is something I’ve been sensitive to since my youth, when I’d gaze at the shelves in the so-called “Urban” sections of video stores and see, side by side, VHS copies of Menace II Society (fine), New Jack City (OK, fine), The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (excuse me?), and The Color Purple (what?). The connection here, obviously, is… that all these films have Black people in them! This might seem like a rather extreme example, but it is nevertheless illustrative of how carelessness can lead cultural institutions even more august than the (now mainly extinct) local video store to forego complexity in favour of simplicity.

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One of these things is not like the other

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So, taking the title Black Star very literally, I thought to myself: “Why not focus this programme specifically around the idea of Black stardom?” Considering this tack, some of the questions that struck me were: What has it meant to be a Black star over the years? What are the historical, industrial, social, and political conditions that have informed notions of Black stardom? How do we decide who our Black stars are? More broadly, I wanted to consider how the widespread attitude in film culture that the director (or sometimes the screenwriter) is the true “author” of a film so often slights the essential contributions of the actor. For example, In the Heat of the Night may be “A Norman Jewison Film,” but what would it be without Sidney Poitier’s searing, iconic lead performance?

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In the Heat of the Night: Guess which one took home the Best Actor Oscar

I was keen, also, to craft a programme in dialogue with ongoing and urgent issues around diversity in the film industry — for example, the #OscarsSoWhite controversy in 2016 (which was sparked when, for the second year running, no actors of colour were nominated for Academy Awards), which sparked a wider conversation about the types of roles that the Academy has rewarded Black actors for playing. Prior to Viola Davis (a 2017 Academy Award winner for her role in Fences), the last three Black women to win Oscars have been Octavia Spencer (playing a maid in the The Help), Mo’Nique (playing an abusive welfare mother in Precious), and Lupita Nyong’o (playing a terribly abused slave in 12 Years a Slave). I point this out not to criticize the quality of the performances or the films, but to indicate a pattern of film-industry standards.

Black Star, then — which is presented at TIFF in its fourth iteration, following its London debut in 2016 and subsequent stop at New York’s MoMA in April of this year — explores how images of Blackness have been historically constructed and challenged both within and outside the mainstream film industry. Celebrating a range of influential figures — from Hollywood icons like Poitier, Lena Horne, and Denzel Washington to independent trailblazers like Oscar Micheaux, Marlon Riggs, and Barbara O. Jones — this programme explores the vibrancy and resilience of Black representation in cinema, which has thrived against a backdrop of industry constraints, structural racism, and exclusion from the Hollywood apparatus. It offers a chance to rediscover, champion, and celebrate great Black icons, to tell stories about fascinating, complex figures, and to provoke conversations about what Black stardom means today.

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