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​They’ve Gotta Have Us Charts Black Experience in Cinema

Over the last seven years, from the Best Picture win for “12 Years a Slave” to the box-office dominance of “Black Panther,” Black cinema has exploded with expanded stories and roles for actors and creatives. While individual voices have tried to approximate the importance of this era, never have those perspectives been joined together nor given the allotted space to do so. An upcoming docuseries changes the former but needs more of the latter. Though Simon Frederick’s “They’ve Gotta Have Us” features a myriad of interviews from Black cinema’s greatest figures, each sharing crucial and enlightening stories detailing their respective struggles for artistic equality, the individual episodes often fall short of the time required for the often complicated topics. 

Split into three parts, the first episode uses Barry Jenkins’ monumental Best Picture win with “Moonlight” as a watershed moment, then circles to the beginnings of Black cinema: from Lena Horne to the ‘90s renaissance. Frederick charts what amounts to 70 years of history over the course of 30 minutes, and for the most part succeeds. For instance, when Harry Belafonte discusses the limitations of being a Black romantic lead under the Hays Code, and the ways he and Joan Fontaine navigated around censors, the series is captivating.

Furthermore, Fredrick covers the importance of Sidney Poitier, later allows Robert Townsend to dissect the lampoonish elements of “Hollywood Shuffle,” with regards to the stereotypical casting cinema employs for Black actors, and finally analyzes the importance of Spike Lee. However, one must wonder how anyone can tell the history of Black cinema without mentioning the name of Oscar Micheaux. The docuseries’ exclusion of his legacy speaks to the often too brief episodes, and the urgency to arrive at Black cinema’s most bountiful periods, even when its arid eras say just as much just as powerfully.        

Originally aired on BBC Two in 2018, and now airing again through Netflix and Ava DuVernay’s Array, some interviews carry greater resonance today. For instance, the inclusion of the recently deceased Diahann Caroll and John Singleton: two figures instrumental in building the current Black cinematic landscape, but who only witnessed a glimpse of the fruits of their hard work, adds a somber tone to their words. Conversely, Jussie Smollett’s interview also brings a tinge of misbegotten potential.

However, the discussions surrounding the legacy of slavery with respect to casting invites the most intriguing analysis. Much of part two’s second half and two-thirds of part three, explicates the importance of Black Brits in the current surge and whether these performers should be cast in the roles of Black American figures, such as David Oyelowo portraying Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma.” Kasi Lemmons treads the question lightly, hypothesizing the benefits of actors who aren’t privy to the emotional baggage of the legacy of American slavery playing such parts.  

If Frederick’s docuseries exhibits one major fault, it’s the air of a post-racial victory lap. He opens every installment with a reel of Lupita Nyong'o, Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”), and Viola Davis winning Academy Awards for their respective roles. Meant to display the progress of the Black cinematic landscape with respect to mainstream Hollywood success, the images come as a cruel irony considering only one Black performer (Cynthia Erivo for “Harriet”) received a nomination for the 2020 Oscars. We now know today, as opposed to 2018, that Black actors—whether British or American—rarely escape the burden of slavery. Instead, Black performers are typically nominated as servants, slaves, or drug dealers. While one can’t completely blame Frederick for his exuberance, many held the same hopes, such discussions of slavery’s burden, or whether Hollywood’s witnessing a trend or a new norm, requires greater time than the bite-sized episodes deliver. 

Having said that, Frederick does rightly highlight the achievements of both Black American and British actors. Often when explaining issues of race, the American experience is held in higher regard to the British. But through Oyelowo, John Boyega, David Harewood, the docuseries explains their unique struggle of contending with the expectations of the roles Blacks can play in the UK. Additionally, while “They’ve Gotta Have Us” becomes solely an exploration of the British Black experience, often ignoring the importance of Black Lives Matter and #OscarsSoWhite in conjunction with the cinematic explosion (you can tell this originally aired on BBC Two), it does well in crafting another side of Black culture not readily explicated.   

Otherwise, “They’ve Gotta Have Us” operates best when discussing the artistry and fears associated when Black films succeed. For instance, when Ernest Dickerson provides a scene breakdown of “She’s Gotta Have It” or “Malcolm X,” or Ruth Carter recounts her process on “School Daze,” they offer captivating explanations of how Black filmmaking isn’t an island onto itself. It’s informed, in the case of Spike Lee, by MGM musicals, “Raging Bull,” and “Rumble Fish.” Consequently, these films have wider box-office appeal beyond Black audiences. For these reasons, when a commentator talks about any film, Fredrick astutely inserts a graphic displaying the film’s budget and gross, in a bid to undo the cliché that Black movies aren’t profitable.

Moreover, even when Black artists do succeed, their fortunes come with a price. In every episode, Frederick charts the pressures associated with upholding a mantle. For instance, Belafonte felt sorry for Poitier when the latter won Best Actor for “Lilies in the Field,” because he knew the burden of representation: to be a symbol who can’t afford to fail nor explore their craft beyond the confines of one’s typecast. Lee worked under the image of Spike Lee. And in a candid moment, Jenkins partly explains how he was relieved that he didn’t win Best Director—an award still without a Black winner in the history of the Academy. Jenkins hints at not only at the duress of the Black Excellence, but the constraints of living up to the symbolism of achievement as well. While “They’ve Gotta Have Us” might slightly jump the gun on a post-racial Hollywood and features some glaring omissions in explaining how Black cinema has arrived to where it is today (and in detailing with the constraints of being Black in Hollywood), Frederick fashions a collage of Blackness never before seen on either side of the pond. 

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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