Ashes and Embers: Black film in the final year of Obama

Author’s note: a version of this article first appeared in the January 2017 issue of Sight & Sound Magazine.

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The intoxicating – for some – feeling of national progress engendered by the presence of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, seemed to embolden liberal-minded filmmakers to engage with traumatic material from a safe remove, particularly in the latter stages of his presidency. Consider the subjects of these backward-looking epics: reconstruction’s failure in The Hateful Eight (2015); slavery in Lincoln (2012), Django Unchained (2012) and 12 Years a Slave (2013); the civil rights movement in Selma (2014); the whole shebang in Lee Daniels’ expansive The Butler (2013), a fictionalised biopic of Eugene Allen, the White House butler who retired after 34 years in 1986, and was present at Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

At Sundance 2016, in the early stages of Obama’s last full year, this trend reached its apotheosis, but felt different. Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation was a spirited if clodhopping reimagining of Nat Turner’s slave uprising of 1831, its title cribbed from the racist D.W. Griffith epic which screened at the White House in 1915. Parker’s film, emerging at a time of Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and economic inequality, sparked a feeding frenzy among distributors, secured a huge deal, and won the Grand Jury prize.

Its juggernaut slowed amid lurid revelations about its director’s history of alleged sexual assault, and a second wave of lukewarm reviews upon release. And yet, though Parker originated the concept in 2009, it’s difficult to imagine The Birth of a Nation being realised without, in part, the confidence and national conversations inspired by two terms of a black president, not to mention the ugly backlash against him. (Though cut from a different cloth, the same might be said for the runaway Broadway smash hit Hamilton, which features a cast of black and Latino performers playing white American historical figures.)
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The closing stretch of Obama’s tenure appears to have infused black-authored and -focused work with a reflective streak that manifests narratively and aesthetically. With its story of a driven young black man remaking himself in a new city, Ryan Coogler’s stirring, Philadelphia-set Creed, released late in 2015, felt like an elegiac riff on Obama’s political birth in Chicago. Another clear example is Barry Jenkins’ second feature Moonlight, a Miami-set triptych about a young, gay black man searching to get a grip on his own identity. (Ironically, Jenkins’ debut, the gorgeous romantic drama Medicine for Melancholy, was released on January 30 2009, just ten days after Obama’s inauguration.) Speaking at the London Film Festival in October, Jenkins conveyed his feeling that, consciously or not, living through the Obama age had emboldened him to make a film with an uncompromisingly subjective look at a black experience, with no hand-holding or code-switching in order to court the eyes (and wallets) of white audiences – promisingly for aspiring black filmmakers, it paid off: the film was a critical smash, and drew the biggest per-screen opening average of 2016. Moonlight also inspired a fount of beautiful, insightful writing, particularly from black critics. “Did I ever imagine, during my anxious, closeted childhood, that I’d live long enough to see a movie like Moonlight[?]”, asked The New Yorker’s Hilton Als. Per Jenkins’ observation, Obama must share credit for the presence of such life-affirming art.

In 2016, explicit Obama nostalgia characterised two fictionalised biopics by independent filmmakers: rare if not unprecedented treatment for a serving president. Richard Tanne’s Southside With You whimsically reimagined Barack’s first date with Michelle Robinson, the future first lady, while Vikram Gandhi’s low-key Barry tracked Obama as he was defining himself intellectually, and forging his identity as a student at New York’s Columbia University in the early 1980s. The films contrast tonally but, especially when watched back-to-back, impart a powerfully rueful charge.

Obama’s impact was felt away from conventional cinema in 2016. “Before I met [Obama], I ain’t really see myself going nowhere, you know, I ain’t really care if I lived or died,” says a young black man in a scene during Beyoncé’s innovative visual album Lemonade, which was shock-released to great fanfare on April 23. “Now I feel like I gotta live, man, for my kids and stuff.” Lemonade was one of myriad examples of final-year-of-Obama art to look at black experience with subjectivity and creative flair, from Donald Glover’s brilliantly strange FX show Atlanta, to timely re-releases of classic, under-appreciated films from the LA Rebellion (including Haile Gerima’s blistering Ashes and Embers and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, an acknowledged influence on Lemonade), and the black stars of micro-blogging site Vine which, per The New York Times’ Jazmine Hughes, “became its own ecosystem of black culture, both by relying on familiar figures, experiences and jokes, and by creating the next batch of them.”

Well, in October, Twitter announced that it was closing Vine. A month later, a racist, sexist reality TV star was announced as Obama’s successor. As Trumpageddon hoves into view, it’s hard to know which direction black film will take: a further push into subjective, psychologically interior territory; a more explicit drive toward political bluntness? Late 2016 documentaries like Ava Duvernay’s 13th and Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, while hugely divergent in tone and formal ambition, highlight the molten racism bubbling at America’s core, share a searing urgency and, just in time for a terrifying new administration, make an implicit mockery of Obama’s oft-stated belief that the arc of history bends toward justice.

Whatever happens next, black visual culture in the final year of Obama will be poignantly picked over for decades to come.

Follow Ashley Clark on Twitter @_Ash_Clark.

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