Black History Month and Modern Film by Kelvin Sims

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Oh, how I wished Black History month didn’t matter.

It’s 2015, right? Obama happened. Dr. King and his Dream speech happened half a ‘hunnerd’ years ago, right? Surely, even in the antiquated South, they’ve got this race thing all smoothed out and Dr. King’s speech has legs, flesh, breath, right? I mean, surely it’s not just a vision a decade plus past a new century?

Well, 2014 came. And excuse the visual, but racial matters came along and took a big dump all over the place, showing us literally that America is still full of it.

Ferguson and Mike Brown happened. Unequal policing in communities or — rather to those same communities – was exposed.

Eric Garner happened. Or the lack of justice for all happened.

Eric Garner

Well, maybe Black History Month does still have a point. To paraphrase his purple majesty (Prince) as he stated during the Grammys: Like books, albums and yes, black lives, Black History Month matters.

And from an entertainment perspective, especially films, Black History Month matters. Take the controversy over whether or not the movie Selma was snubbed for Oscar consideration. It’s a legitimate argument that perhaps the movie wasn’t best picture material.

Selma Movie Poster

Selma Premiere I can't Breathe

But we all know the history of Hollywood – it hasn’t exactly always rolled out the red carpet for blacks and black movies. And the arguments I’ve heard against Selma being nominated are mostly weak and self-serving at best. One Academy voter who was quoted anonymously this week said the Selma cast did themselves no favor by wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts in support of the Garner case at the movie’s premiere. She said she was “offended.”

banner-12-years-a-slave-27027184_maxOffended? Heck, I’m offended that Hollywood has given us so many lame movies from Saturday Night Live alums and never has given great roles to truly funny guys Chris Rock or the late Bernie Mac. And I’m hotter than fish grease that no sequel was ever made after Love Jones – only the greatest romantic comedy ever, black or white. I even argued online with a writer from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (I won’t reveal her name) who said, rather snarkly I must add, dismissed the Selma controversy because 12 Years a Slave cleaned up last year at the Oscars. Damn, I knew there was a limit on the worthiness and number of black movies but did she have to give such voice to it? Did (traditionally white cast) Gone With the Wind winning one year preclude (traditional white cast) The Wizard of Oz from winning the next year? Amateur critic’s note: those movies didn’t follow in that sequential order but work with me to get my point. 

The Selma controversy matters and Black History Month matters because of my moms. She died after 88 hard years of Southern living, addled by dementia the last decade of her life.

Jim Crow 2But before that, she literally was the movie Selma. She wasn’t a marcher in Selma (freedom marches) but those fed-up marchers were her in spirit. She was told by mainstream media and traditional American history that she was family. Funny but she rarely got the invite to the family reunion. That was the Jim Crow effect, a postmaster who reserved America’s greatness mostly for those with the right hue.

I remembered once resenting my moms – it was back during the era of The Cosby Show, with the images of upwardly mobile blacks, possibilities. Why didn’t I have that?

Jim CrowBut I think it was some Black History Month binge of films shortly afterwards that opened my eyes and made my moms a hero to me again. It brought home that for most of my mom’s life at that time, she couldn’t vote. That Jim Crow Alabama mandates meant her unequal school was definitely an unequal 10-mile walk from what her white peers endured, which gave more meaning to her dropping out of grade school and that she didn’t have the same equal playing field. She was still smart as hell, worked harder than any man, raised 10 kids with minimal help from my father and pushed almost all of us to college degrees, Jim Crow be damned.

Black History Month matters. It ain’t always pretty and the images can be harsh sometimes – lynching photos don’t make the evening meal go down easily. And I’ve heard that voters might have had “history fatigue” with seeing the violent images in Selma just a year after 12 Years a Slave truly depicted what slavery was like.

Selma March

But movies like Selma are like Black History Month, warts and all, and they give us context. Selma sheds light on the hard roads we’ve traveled and the mountains we still must climb. Selma might not have been deemed worthy as Oscar worthy but just like the marchers in said movie, it moves us forward, moving history forward and little by little, makes things better for subsequent generations.

I hate to be so literal but if the Selma controversy serves a purpose of taking a beatdown to open up the eyes of Hollywood bigwigs, then it indeed was a great march for bigger purposes!

Black History Month matters. More than we know.  Often times more than we care to know.