The Learning Center in the Hyatt was full to capacity Saturday at 11:30AM for a discussion on new genre black film led by moderator Andrew Shephard, a PhD student at Stanford with a particular focus on Afro-futurism. On the panel were Karen Ceesay (The Walking Dead, Black Lightning, Stranger Things), Quatoyiah Murry (Editorial Manager at TCM and FilmStruck), and Daviorr Snipes (voice actor and professional actor with Alliance Theater Atlanta).
The discussion was framed around the success of Black Panther and Get Out along with other successful films featuring people of color and what it may all mean. One of the first questions that Shephard asked was about why it seems like the sea-change in black participation in genre film is happening now. Murry responded that it is something that audiences have been craving for some time and the conversation about the need for that kind of participation has been happening for a couple of years. She also noted that there has historically been an ebb-and-flow to black genre films, where there are several produced in a period of time but then it falls off, so she hopes that this time it continues. Snipes and Ceesay agreed, noting that social media and the internet have allowed a collective voice and view shared experiences worldwide.
Ceesay went on to say that she felt like it would stay when it was no longer a big deal that people of color are represented on film. “When everything is not weighted on this one thing, that this has to be awesome or we’ll never see it again. We’re pushing for mediocrity.”
Shephard, building a little on what Murry said about the ebb and flow of black genre films and that this is certainly not the first wave of them, wondered what makes this spate of films different. Snipes speculated that this is different because the current films are less niche than the 1990s genre. “The ’90s genre felt very specific to a particular section of the black audience. It wasn’t even generalized to the entire black audience. … It appealed to a particular niche segment even within the black genre. I think now these films are being given major budgets, they’re being given major production value, and they’re being showcased as this is for a global event.”
Murry added that “The difference with what we have now is that honestly I think it’s the genre. I think that horror and sci-fi lends itself better to the masses rather than a drama picture because I think that people in general of different races are more likely to go see something that doesn’t have them on screen if it has a fantastical element to it.”
One of the other things that should help to make this wave of black genre films permanent is an increase in the numbers of people of color behind the scenes. “Looking at Black Panther, you had people of color from the top all the way down. … It’s having the right people and it’s only when the people at the top who are greenlighting these projects are advocating for the right people that it’s going to stay,” Ceesay said.
Snipes also added that he thinks we are in a place where an Afro-centric drama can be successful without the fantastical element because if there’s a good enough story that it can survive. “I think it’s about the integrity of the story first and foremost. I think that’s why Black Panther and Get Out and these movies are so successful because there’s an integrity to the story that we who seek diversity are very hungry for right now.”
The rise of streaming and the multiple avenues for telling stories has opened the doors for more diverse stories to be told. As more diverse stories are told, the way that stories are told also changes. The wave of black genre films is expanding the way that black nerdom is represented. One example was Donald Glover and his vision of black masculinity in a more middle-ground territory that allowed not only black nerdiness to become mainstream but showed diversity in what blackness can be. Shephard noted that genre tropes can enable certain types of black expression. Snipes noted that genre films are breaking new ground for many groups and that it’s exciting because we have no idea how far we can push this.
Shephard wrapped up the discussion by asking what each panelist would like to see more of with regard to black genre cinema. He had previously put in his bid for a Milestone cinematic universe with Icon and Static. Ceesay said she just wants to see “more, more, more. More of everybody.” Snipes said he would like to see more up and coming dark-skinned actresses getting work. Finally, Murry said that she is looking for a day where black people can just be in movies and it doesn’t mean anything different, isn’t about representation or racial conversation.
It was a deep conversation that took place over a too-short hour, but as Murry noted, these are the conversations that we need to be having as a community. I look forward to more panels like this at future Dragon Cons.