The Hollywood America Deserves

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A painting by Jacob Lawrence from his Harriet Tubman series

One of the rather frequent responses I get when posting the stories of people like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, or Robert Smalls is that their story deserves to be a movie. A biopic is seen by a lot of us as the ultimate testimonial to a person's life. Moreover, movies have the unique power to reach and influence millions of people. Finally, movies offer the possibility of all the imagery and input we hold when thinking of, say, Harriet Tubman to be made manifest before the world. I think this impulse is basically correct. It is especially correct given that Hollywood doesn't just ignore slavery and the Civil War but turns out revisionist dreck like Gods and Generals.

At the same time I think it's important to not talk as though it were an entity separate from the politics, economics, and history of America. The person who would bankroll a Harriet Tubman biopic would likely be someone who was particularly touched by her story. Such a person would not have to be black, but I don't know how you separate the paucity of black people with the power to green-light from the paucity of good films concerning black people in American history.

Moreover, movie-making is risky and expensive. Any discussion of the lack of a Harriet Tubman biopic should begin with the shameful fact that median white wealth in this country stands at $110,000 and median black wealth stands at around $5,000. It would be nice to think that this gap reflected choices cultural and otherwise, instead of the fact that for most this country's history its governing policy was to produce failure in black communities, and most of its citizens supported such policies. It would be nice if Hollywood were more moral and forward-thinking than its consumer base. But I would not wait around for such a day.

What I would do is interrogate the basic premise that holds that black lives (or any heroic life) is not truly legend unless a financier decides it should be. Movies are an art form—one that I very much enjoy—but they are one of many. Those of us who are unhappy with Hollywood's presentation of black life should not restrict themselves to Hollywood. What was the last play we saw by a black writer? What was the last book by a black writer we read? What did we give for Christmas, Kwanzaa or Hanukkah? When was the last time we went to see an exhibit by a black artist?

Finally, this is a particular moment in Hollywood—one wherein glorious righteous violence and what Alyssa Rosenberg calls "transgressive badassery" reigns supreme. I do wish Hollywood would do other kinds of movies. But a constant view of slavery through lens of badassery somehow feels like more of the same.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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