Black history powers film storytelling

By Odeth Rubio, Assistant buzz Editor

Historical figures taking central roles in blockbuster films is not a new thing. Looking back through decades of film history, there are mountains of settings, events and characters inspired by well-known historical figures.

Black historical figures have also been portrayed in many popular films, representing significant moments in Black history.

Many of these films have recently received awards and are critically acclaimed for their captivating plots, characters and memorable performances from the cast. One such film, titled “Selma,” depicts Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous march to Selma, Ala. Another film, “Harriet,” depicts the story and legacy of Harriet Tubman. The film “42” details Jackie Robison’s life and career when he became the first African American player in the MLB. 

John P. Claborn, professor in LAS, presents many of these films within his curriculum. Claborn has been teaching film courses, mainly introduction to film courses, for over a decade.

“I’ve been teaching film for probably 15 to 16 years now. Overall, mostly intro level, and I also incorporate film into my African American literature class,” Claborn said.

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A notable film to Claborn is the biopic titled “Malcom X,” which is based on the autobiography he co-authored. Claborn believes the film depicts X’s beliefs.

“‘Malcolm X’ is great, released in 1992 as a Spike Lee biopic starring Denzel Washington,” Claborn said. “He was very open about Black self-defense.”

However, Claborn finds that X’s story and historical impact is depicted more narratively when compared to Martin Luther King Jr.’s story and historical impact.

“There are films with parts where he shows up here and there, but ‘Selma’ is the only one that focuses substantially on his life,” Claborn said.

“Selma” focuses on MLK and his allies’ lives in activism during the Civil Rights Movement, mainly centering around the march led from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. — actions which ultimately inspired and led Lyndon B. Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Claborn said he believes historical films can be and tend to be historically correct, but it does depend on the nature and goal of the film as well. However, he also thinks history is extremely broad, particularly because historical figures can be hard to condense.

“That’s tough — that gets to the nature and purpose of the film,” Claborn said. “Part of the purpose of film is to portray (and) condense a lot when doing biopics. The important thing is to convey the emotional truth.”

Claborn believes historical films affect our society as they allow for individuals to be educated on topics they may not have heard yet. He also believes films create doors for more cultural production as well, such as in the film “12 Years a Slave.”

“In my African American literature class, we read Solomon Northup’s slave narrative and watched ‘12 Years a Slave.’ The 2013 film, which won Best Picture, marked a major turning point and more attention to Black stories,” Claborn said.

Courtney M. Cox, who was previously a sports journalist at ESPN, is an assistant professor in Media. She has also worked for NPR and WNBA. Her interest is focused on issues of labor identity, technology and sports.

“I study sports, so that’s going to be a very biased lens. I teach a sports and documentary class,” Cox said.

Cox said she believes Muhammad Ali is an important Black historical figure that has been portrayed in film culture repeatedly, and she understands the importance of this representation.

“I think Ali is one of the most interesting, important figures in general of the 20th century,” Cox said. “I think (about) how we conceptualize how Ali (came) back into public memory during the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta at the lighting of the torch, (and how) these are all these really important moments that are not only (captured) on film, but also tell us these larger kind of histories of who we say we are as Americans.”

Cox believes the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, are other notable Black historical figures that have been portrayed, figures which she personally feels connected to.

“I think Serena Williams is one of the most important figures of our time,” Cox said. “I think part of that is not only thinking about how athletes have been branded in a particular way, but if I extend that to Serena and to Venus, I think about Venus fighting for gender equity and pay equity at Wimbledon, which extended across major tennis tournaments.”

This can be seen specifically in the portrayal of the Williams sisters in HBO’s film “King Richard.”

“That film rejuvenates conversations for folks that weren’t around,” Cox said. “It brings folks into this space that didn’t experience their dominance firsthand in the 90s and early 2000s to see what this meant in terms of media coverage for women’s sports. (It’s) huge to think about what this means in terms of how they are understood in this space, how they experience racism and sexism in tandem with each other.”

But hearing stories is just one side of the narrative. Telling the stories makes all the difference.

“I’m really interested in who gets to tell these stories; I’m interested in how we receive them and how we understand the world around us,” Cox said. “I’m just as interested in who gets to write these stories, tell them, who’s cast for these stories, the angles that they portray. I’m interested in how we get historians and media scholars involved in researching and helping tell the stories accurately.”

However, Cox also added that there are many stories regarding Black historical figures that are not being told.

“Ali, the Williams sisters and Jesse Owens — these are the stories we know so well,” Cox said. “But for every story like that there’s so many voices, so many folks we lose to the archives. It’s about power. It’s about who matters, who gets to tell the story, who’s represented and how they’re represented.”

Cox also said that we need to see history from a marginalized-community perspective in any way possible.

“For me, it’s not only important to tell the story so they don’t fade away,” Cox said. “We learn from the past, so we can also celebrate these folks … I think the other side of it is thinking about the power of storytelling and the opportunities for folks both in front of and behind the camera to get opportunities to perfect their craft.”


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