Dear Future Hollywood Executives,
This is a dispatch from June 2020, in the middle of a pandemic and escalated racial-political tensions. The world has gone mad; from Rome to Dallas, we are fighting a virus that kills our lungs. But for Black Americans, we are fighting the virus and an illness called white supremacy that crushes our souls. In this chaotic soup, Black Americans are creating stories that we will tell in our communities for generations. I ask you, as gatekeepers, to please listen to these stories and assure they are told through the medium of film.
There will be many pitches that come across your desk: the girl who started a blog about her sourdough starter, the doctor at a New York hospital who saves lives by breaking laws, and the search for the coveted vaccine. I am asking you to also consider the stories that are about the Black Instacart worker, the unemployed Black tech recruiter, and the Black protester who fought for human rights. The stories we see on the silver screen must not only reflect white experiences, they must highlight how Black America had a different pandemic.
I am an amateur oral historian. Over the past three months, I have recorded stories from people across the United States. Some of the most precious stories come from Black Americans who talk about being Black in the time of coronavirus. I deeply worry that in five, ten, fifteen, twenty years, these stories will be pushed aside for narratives you believe will connect better with white audiences.
Thus, I implore you today to please remember the history of Hollywood and the lack of Black stories in portrayals of traumatic times.
As a little girl watching Titanic, I remember asking my mother where the Black people were. Did they not board the boat of dreams and feel the icy water strike their ebony skin? My mother did not have an answer because she did not know there were Black people aboard. My mother did not know about Joseph Philippe Lemercier Laroche, a Haitian engineer of African heritage who on that fateful night in April, placed his wife and two daughters in a lifeboat. What was it like to be Joseph? With dark skin, traveling on one of the most luxurious ships in history? To have people stare at you confused as you passed them on the decks? While I actively debate whether or not Jack would have fit upon that piece of wood, I still hunger to see Joseph’s story. His family’s story. But that was not deemed important by the creators of one of the highest grossing films of all time.
Even in events that were long lasting, like war, Black stories are rarely given the love and respect they deserve. On June 6, 1941, Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy to loosen Hitler’s hold upon Europe. I have walked on those beaches. A teenage Black girl, feeling the sand in my toes and wondering how much blood was spilled there. I also wondered, who there looked like me? Who with my melanin, watching the explosions on the beach took a deep breath and jumped into the cold waters, and moved forward? I wondered because in my youth, I rarely saw them in your movies. I did not see them taking leading roles in films like Saving Private Ryan or Inglorious Basterds. But they were there.
Corporal Waverly Bernard Woodson, Jr. was only 21 years-old when he ran onto Omaha beach. A kid from West Philadelphia, born and raised, he was the definition of American heroism. As a medic, he dodged bullets and saved countless lives, but because of racial attitudes of the time was not awarded the Medal of Honor he deserved. Corporal Woodson embodied the best of this nation and medical community. A few years ago, I watched Hacksaw Ridge, which celebrated Desmond Dodson. I must ask: Where is my Corporal Woodson movie? And what of the Black women who served their nation?
The 6888 Central Postal Directory Battalion was an all-black women’s unit that saved morale in the European theater. Processing two years’ worth of backlogged mail, these women connected American soldiers with home and comfort. Despite their service, they were not welcomed with open arms and praise when they came home. I remember watching A League of Their Own as a child, one my favorite war films, but one that focused only on the white women who played baseball. Where is my Black woman mail room feature? Where are the stories of Black women, holding up our nation as we have always done, in times of tragedy and trauma? While we had a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, I beg to ask you why that movie easily stands out to me, but movies with white stories far outnumber them?
As you are reading this, I ask you to acknowledge the failure of your industry in creating diverse stories. Over the past few weeks, many of your studios (Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Disney, etc.) have come forward in publicly supporting the Black community during the escalations surrounding the murder of George Floyd. I ask you to remember those promises of support and channel them into creating stories that show the experience of Black Americans during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.
You may be wondering, how you can do this properly?
Hire Black writers. Hire Black directors, script writers, lighting professionals, and makeup artists. Support your Black staff.
Be sure your stories are molded by the communities they represent. Give Black creators the resources to tell their stories. Risky? Perhaps. But may I remind you that in 2018, Disney “took a risk” in releasing Black Panther, breaking records and earning the studio seven academy award nominations. You might worry people will not show up to your movies about Black stories, but I swear to you: if you write them, they will come.
In closing, I wish to tell you that this pandemic is will be filled with Black stories. There will be stories of tragedy, but also stories of joy within the darkness. Make sure the stories you tell about Black people are not just ones of death, but also of triumphs and successes. Even in the middle of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, the Harlem Renaissance was blooming. Find our stories, find our people who can tell them, and then put them on the silver screen where the world can see what we did during a time of COVID.
A Black Woman
Greenspan, Jessie. A Black Medic Saved Hundreds on D-Day. Was He Deprived of a Medal of Honor? . History.com. June 4, 2019.
Hervieux, Linda. He Served With D-Day’s Only African-American Combat Unit. His Widow Is Still Fighting for His Medal of Honor. Time Magazine. June 4, 2019.
Wentling, Nikki. Paving the way: The 6888th all-female, all-black unit inspires others. Stars and Stripes. October 19, 2019.