In modern America, it’s time to mine richer material than the tired American Slave Story that chains them. Here are the thought leaders who will take us there.
These are divided times – toxic. We live in the midst of a spiritual, emotional, physical and psychological assault on our well-being – all of us, white and black, national and global, republican and democrat, poor and wealthy, angry and well-adjusted… humanity. This is an age in which our enemies are not only all around but mostly within. We are at war within ourselves. We deal in hell and with demons. The struggle is spiritual. What does it say when the quintessential everyman, Renaissance Man, Parts Unknown explorer Anthony Bourdain will hang himself in his Kaysersberg, France, room at the advanced age of 61? Is that the summation of his wisdom? Is that someone who “has it all”? Or are we all illing? What does it say when the thugs and gangsters as Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are seen as the men of peace? Who are we? Why are we doing this to ourselves?
In America, the complex soul of our world (or, at least, a central artery or the world’s mirror), what is the story that we keep telling ourselves, with which we keep creating and recreating our traumas? Why are suicide rates up 30% since 1999 at the turn of the millennium? The daily, weekly and monthly incarceration and murdering of black bodies by police enforcement is a ritual central to the existence of the American citizen; “we enslave and murder black lives, therefore we are.” The Indigenous populations of the United States of America are remanded to reservations after the holocaust of their kind. That’s how this system was founded. Freedom so eloquently stated in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution is relative to what? Slavery? Or as our beloved spirit Toni Morrison stated in her 1992 literary expose, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination:
“Race has become metaphorical – a way of referring to and disguising forces, events, classes, and expressions of social decay and economic division far more threatening to the body politic than biological ‘race’ ever was.”
In 2016, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation retold, reimagined and recontextualised DW Griffith’s controversial Civil War epic of the same name, Hollywood’s first movie in 1915, as he reincarnated ancestor Nat Turner. In the original, a Confederate colonel of the Civil War is the founder of the Ku Klux Klan.
2016’s The Birth of a Nation was a reset on the Hollywood industrial complex’s original 1915 Birth of a Nation lie. Earlier that year, the Roots television miniseries reimagined Alex Haley’s classic novel telling the epic multi-generational story of Kunta Kinte and his Gambian tribesmen. Later in 2016, it was Free State of Jones telling the 1863 true story of Newt Knight (played by woke and conscientious veteran of A Time to Kill, Matthew McConaughey), a Confederate army deserter who leads a band of runaway slaves, deserters and women in an armed rebellion against the Confederacy (the antebellum ghost of whose angry chants of “Make America Great Again, Make America Great Again!” rise as a presidential campaign slogan). Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation reset the American story for American cinematic history and rebooted Hollywood from the 20th Century 1776. The Birth of a Nation told the story of Nat Turner who leads a violent and historic revolt in Southampton County, Mississippi, 21st Century America. As perception is reality, we are in the midst of that spiritual reality, day by day, year by year, century by century. What is “Make America Great Again” if not a clarion call to the “good old days” of standardised discrimination and systemic racism, a reinstitution of those spiritually bankrupt practices? Isn’t it just the trump card for white privilege – aka, white terrorism?
The coup de grâce to business as usual in the Hollywood industrial complex, however, is Ryan Coogler’s adaptation of MCU’s Black Panther earlier this year. That film succeeds in raising the veil of superficiality in which Africa is associated with war, poverty, pestilence and the Maafa, the African holocaust, or the “destruction of human possibility involved redefining African humanity to the world, poisoning past, present and future relations with others who only know us through this stereotyping and thus damaging the truly human relations among peoples.” (Letter by Maulana Karenga, 2001) That movie, based upon characters envisioned by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at the height of the Civil Rights movement (read: spiritual battle), tells the truth that is a gateway to a future of unlimited possibility. It tells the truths of our collective past, of kings and queens from a continent that is the birthplace of all empires, civilisations and cultures.
The retelling of the Nat Turner slave rebellion, or the recontextualising of Martin Luther King’s Selma (Ava Duveruney, 2014) were only a beginning. They do as Ryan Coogler’s brilliant Creed did to renew the Horatio Alger story of overcoming tribulation for the 21st century. Just as Creed renewed Rocky Balboa’s American story (riffing off the story of Muhammad Ali’s vanquished foe Chuck Wepner) of struggle and hardship to eventual triumph from the 20th century analogue to those higher frequencies of the 21st, The Birth of a Nation rebirthed power of the Hollywood industry even if the conflict surrounding its director debuted the movie as inauspicious. Just as the 18th century’s George Washington was revised by the 20th’s Franklin D Roosevelt and then Barack Obama in the 21st, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, retold the story of degradation of the human spirit with its complete redemption, a sacrifice, no different from the sacrifices of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. But we Americans have much further to go.
The challenges with the American Slave Story is that it chains us all to a past. It shackles and locks us to the guilt, shame, anger – rage associated with America’s deplorable hell birthing.
I would say, not since the story of Moses and his Egyptian countrymen wandering the desert for 400 years seeking the holy lands of Israel has a narrative of brown-skinned African men and women so completely dominated the world’s conscious construct of who it is.
Since 2016, the Academy sought to be the countermeasure of 2015’s #oscarssowhite. There has been the wealth of complexions, stories, styles, voices, and visions – it offered the tapestry with such work as The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster; A United Kingdom, another film starring David Oyelowo as Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana; Chocolat, about the clown by the same name who becomes France’s first black artist in 1886; Hidden Figures, starring Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe about NASA black mathematicians who helped to launch the space program; Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven starring Denzel Washington as a renegade cowboy; Don Cheadle’s biopic Miles Ahead raising the spirit of magic jazz man Miles Davis; Will Smith starring in Collateral Beauty; Eddie Murphy’s Mr. Church; and Oscar Best film Moonlight, a Miami coming-of-age story about a young man’s initiation during the War on Drugs era. The last was the 2016 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, setting the place for 2018 Best Screenplay (Nominee for Best Picture and Best Director), Get Out, by Jordan Peele. This is a boon since 2015’s shameful showing by Hollywood.
But these films, exploring the diaspora with diversity, mastery and clarity to correct our harnessed vision are only the beginning. Let me tell you where the story goes from here – we take the blinders off and we stop telling ourselves, white and black, the American Slave Story outside of context because it does not serve us any longer. It is damaging us psychologically. It is weakening all of our children emotionally and spiritually. It is bankrupting us financially. It feels forced and controlled – stifling, filled with fear and dread. Free is free. Free without time. Free of agendas. Yes, free without a little racist cabal of naysaying Hollywood racist sycophants manifesting a racist agenda ad hoc globally. Or, at least, with that group held in check. The challenge with the American Slave Story is that it chains us all to a past. It shackles and locks us to the guilt, shame, anger – rage associated with America’s deplorable hell birthing.
We will recognise the contributions of our citizenry throughout history. For every Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age starring Cate Blanchett, producers such as Ava DuVernay or Oprah Winfrey will complete the stories as Queen Sugar for Queen Candace of Ethiopia (all four of them: Amanishakhete, Amanirenas, Nawidemak, and Malegereabar ), Makeda, Queen of Sheba and Hatshepsut, First Queen of Egypt. For every historic and epic telling of the stories Braveheart, 300 or Gladiator, we will add further context with the narratives of Akhenaten, Believer in One God, Sunni Ali Ber, King of Songhai and Mansa Musa, the richest man in world history (yes, wealthier than Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, combined). These stories will be told set in the ancient Kingdoms of Kush, Songhai, Mali, and Ghana.
Of course we will recontextualise the Wesley Snipes from comic Blade and drug crime lord in New Jack City to Hannibal of Catharge, one of the wisest tacticians in history. We will recast Laurence Fishburne, Denzel Washington, and Samuel L Jackson from Morpheus, Malcolm X and Nick Fury into Ramses III, Saint Augustine and Antar, the warrior poet. If we don’t hurry up (I cannot believe Sidney Poitier, James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson have not sat on cinematic Egyptian or Ghanaian thrones for our viewing pleasure; I cannot believe we let Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis and Lena Horne pass from this realm without that cinematic treat), we’ll have to pass the baton from trailblazers to Michael B Jordan, David Oyelowo, Jesse Williams, Zoë Saldana, Chadwick Boseman, Nate Parker, Lupita Nyong’o, Idris Elba, Kerry Washington, Naomie Harris and Viola Davis. The little black boy in Blackish, Miles Brown, he can be Tut, the Black Boy King. Producers such as Will Packer (Straight Outta Compton), Issa Rae, Heben Nigatu, and Misha Green will finance and executive produce these films. Directors and auteurs as Mobolaji Olambiwonnu (documentary Ferguson Rises) and Aaron Ashby (USC film school rising star) will direct these epics. These stories will be told. They will be told because the story of slavery, white supremacy and systemic discrimination, by itself, is tiring and warping. It is traumatic, and that trauma needs to be dealt with as we deal with systemic PTSD our nation continues to deal with ad nauseam like Dante’s Inferno and its nine circles of hell.
You see, American Slave Story is really one about beginnings and freedom against inevitable odds. It is a story from the beginning of our times as a species on the planet to the building of our first civilisation, Egypt, to the one that birthed every world empire that came after it – particularly the empire of America with its African-built White House, its African agrarian economy of tobacco, cotton and sugar (the one underlying the foundation for the industrial and our current technological revolutions), its African-built Wall Street and its African-built American infrastructure of roads, bridges, homes and cities. Nope, capitalism ain’t free. Capital has been purchased with the blood, sweat and tears of our African ancestors, baby. These are the stories we tell our children – the ones all of us woke folks tell our sons and daughters, future power people, kings and queens. Because we know the only way to go forward is fearlessly – a straight line from a glorious past to an even more perfect, powerful, and good future, the one populated with ancient kingdoms in the time before AD time, the one foretold in prophecy.