More than just representation: A look at recent incendiary Black media projects

Netflix/Courtesy

This awards season, many of the films being recognized are works led by Black artists. “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” one of Marvel’s most well-crafted and monumental contributions to the comic cinema realm, stands as a beacon of hope for diversity and representation in mainstream commercial films. The underrated Boots Riley film “Sorry to Bother You” is an acidic love letter to rebellion and a twitchily charismatic exposé on the predominantly white culture of capitalism. Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” serves as a technicolor magnum opus following the success of his sonorous film “Moonlight” in 2016.

These films, and the many more released this past year, have helped lead the crusade for diversity in Hollywood media projects. Representation aside, however, these movies serve as ineffably significant works of art in their own right. Ingenious overlapping of animation styles; a kitschy and tantalizing siren storyline; a fluid adaptation dripped in satin lighting and potent emotion. These details would be traits of good films regardless of their strides toward representation, but here they are grounded and empowered by impressively diverse casts and crew.

I, as a Latinx woman, am commenting on the rolodex of incendiary Black media projects produced this past year from an outside perspective. But even from my external understanding of these Black presences in art, it seems that this theme of already magnificent works being elevated by their focus on underrepresented communities has been a large theme in 2018’s films.

And it’s a theme that can be found in other media and art fields as well.

On television, we’ve seen many shows centered around Black casts and their narratives. In the summer, the second season of “Dear White People” premiered on Netflix. The show, which tracked the stark, literal and figurative black-and-white sides of campus politics in its first season, explored the more muddied gray area in its sophomore year. By doing so, show creator Justin Simien curated a collection of narratives that were both universal and situated in the reality of Black identity.

“Insecure” is in its third season and continuing to deliver on the golden nuance and comedic timing it struck in its inception. Not only is the HBO series created and lead by Issa Rae, a Black woman spearheading inventive and transcendent comedy-writing, the show tackles the disjointed struggle of dual identity Black people may experience in their public lives. Rae’s character navigates economic tightropes, white-centric work environments and the world of romance with deft control and seasoned hilarity. What’s more is that the show is unafraid of allowing non-Black audiences to be left in the dark every now and again, honing in on complicated topics specific to the Black experience — an important reminder for audiences to respect that some spaces are not for them.

From screens to headphones, Black-powered podcasts have been gaining electricity and taking the entertainment world by storm. The New York Times’ podcast “Still Processing,” hosted by Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris, is simultaneously a thoughtful rumination of modern pop culture trends as well as a magnifying glass on the significance of Black presence within that culture. Each episode explores a variety of topics, from last week’s episode on reality, to one about Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop that aired over the summer. Wortham and Morris use their distinctive journalistic voices to navigate these topics with a welcoming familiarity while discussing their powerful insights on today’s cultural phenomenons.

In a less formal, more tonally relaxed setting, the podcast “2 Dope Queens” is a comedy podcast hosted by Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams. It would be enough that this podcast has two Black women as its face. This work goes above and beyond with hilarious content ranging from dating, sex and pizza told through the voices of two best friends. Their chemistry is natural and relatable, speaking a fluent and jubilant language of totally comfortable friendship.

And while the realm of digital media is filled with beautiful odes to Black experience, diverse projects and great representation, one can look within their own cities to find empowering local events hosted by Black and POC communities. Last year, Oakland’s SOMArts Cultural Center hosted its fifth annual “The Black Woman is God” art exhibit. This collection of local artworks is informed by the beauty, vulnerabilities and magical quirks of Black women. And in turn, these women, from all over the Bay, were able to see themselves in pieces on display in a formal gallery setting — something that can be hard to come by in fine arts environments that often value age and Eurocentric standards of beauty over relevance when it comes to pieces on display.

Right here in Berkeley, the La Peña Cultural Center is working to provide artistic spaces to POC community members. Recently, the center held its first “Empowering Womxn of Color Open Mic” of their spring season on Jan. 24, and will have two more open mics Feb. 28 and March 10. Here, Black womxn alongside other womxn of color in the area are welcomed onto the stage with open arms, and encouraged to share their stories through poems, music and other creative mediums. In this space, womxn of color are able to build connections through artistic mediums in a warm, communal environment.

The world is blooming with powerful Black-centered works of art. And while the films that focus on Black narratives and representation are currently at the forefront of media cycles, garnering the most recognition, it would be a loss to not acknowledge these other projects and the many I have not addressed, that are innovatively and crisply engaging with essential Black stories.

Maisy Menzies is the arts and entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected] .