Almost a week ago, in an assignment for my screenwriting class, each student had to post two ideas and two comments on the class Canvas page for a short script that we hoped to write. My class is overwhelmingly white and male and so, just to shake the table a bit, I made one of my ideas the almost autobiographical tale of a burnt-out grad and her gay part-Black best friend. It would, I hoped, in an ambitious 10 pages, cover the questions of success, failure and identity, but frankly, aside from the extensiveness of the plot, I had doubts about posting the idea at all. Mostly, I was afraid, especially as the sole Black person in my class (I’m one of at most four Black people in ALL of my classes this semester), to be the person who makes it all about race. Yet everything is about race — a fact of which I would soon be reminded as I completed the task.
As I scrolled through everyone else’s idea posts, looking for a place to leave my remarks, I came across one of my classmates’ submissions and stopped scrolling instinctively, guffawing. When a Black frontierswoman is terrorized by ex-Confederate soldiers in the Wild West, began the student, whom we can call Justin for now, she must choose between fleeing or fighting alone. Objectively, I didn’t have an issue with the script, except for the fact that Justin is a white male. Subjectively, I wondered aloud, again, why people wrote from perspectives they didn’t know. Now, this isn’t to say that writing from any identity outside of your own is off-limits — it isn’t. But when I realized Justin would most likely be using the n-word in his script, for “authenticity,” I felt the writing of oppression should be left to those who experience that type of oppression.
Explaining this thought requires the question: Can white people make a race-based film? The answer is yes, but only if we’re not necessitating it to be a nuanced or sophisticated one. Consider the films “Detroit” by Kathryn Bigelow and “Django Unchained” by Quentin Tarantino — both are innovative and interesting works but neither really say something new of racial strife, only serving to remind the people that they are central players in historical oppression, in graphic form. For a racial group that, despite their intentions, can only ever be on the “winning” end of racism, writing about race and racists initiates the regeneration of one-dimensionally racist characters — old white men with old white minds, unabashed Neo-Nazis and unafraid wizards of the Ku Klux Klan — a dangerous pattern that obscures the shape-shifting manifestations of racism in the current day.
For white people, racial oppression is an easy plot device that instantly makes a movie “deeper.” For Black people, racial oppression is an everyday reality that we don’t have to go see on screen. Unless it’s like “Get Out,” a movie written for Black people by Black people to show the intricacy of racism with an unmatched sensitivity, there’s nothing new that can be said in a movie about the twisted past and present of racism as long as it’s not working to write racists with nuance, who, if we’re being completely candid with ourselves, are most likely people a lot like Justin.