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The business of being black in Hollywood

SHINING A LIGHT: Simon Frederick

BLACK CINEMA has certainly seen significant strides over the years. In a time where inclusion riders have become mandatory -making sure film studios are contractually obliged to diversify their cast and production staff - to films like Black Panther sharing diverse stories which are receiving critical and box office success, it’s safe to say that we are truly in the golden age of cinema for us black folk.

But how did it all begin? Photographer Simon Frederick reflects on this in his latest documentary series They’ve Gotta Have Us. Following up from BBC Two docu-series Black is the New Black, which premiered in 2016, Frederick explores the world of black filmmakers and actors, charting their rise to success and overcoming racism and sexism to create a more inclusive film industry.

The three-part series includes interviews from some of Hollywood's most notable figures including pioneers Harry Belafonte and Diahnne Carroll to new talents John Boyega and Jussie Smollett, as they share insights into inclusion and representation in the industry.

“What spurred me on was when Oprah Winfrey gave her speech at the Governor’s Ball last year and she spoke about the importance of Sidney Poitier winning his Oscar in 1964 and how much it was a pivotal moment for her,” said Frederick.

PICTURED: Harry Belafonte (Photo credit: Simon Frederick)

“What struck me was that she is one of the richest women on the planet, but yet if Oprah wanted to play the president of the United States in a film there would still be people that would raise their eyebrows to that notion. But they wouldn’t bat an eyelid at her playing the role of a maid or a slave or someone who was abused which are mainly the roles she has played in cinema.

“That got me thinking: Why is it that film is the only art form where black people aren’t allowed to express the full range of their humanity and artistry?” he questioned. “We are told what we should be, what we can be, and when we should be it and that’s what I wanted to speak to.”

Working on the series allowed Frederick to learn a great deal from some of his favourite Hollywood stars, gaining a greater insight into the struggles and responsibilities they endured which enabled them to pave the way for todays most promising black actors and directors.

"I learnt lots of things through the process of making They’ve Gotta Have Us. One being that I knew Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte were best friends, and when speaking to Harry, I asked how he felt seeing Sidney win his Oscar and if he was as excited as we all were," the photographer recalled.

PICTURED: Barry Jenkins (Photo credit: Simon Frederick)

“I was completely shocked by Harry’s answer because he said he felt sorry for his friend. But when he explained that giving this black man an Oscar didn’t change the conditions for black men in the film industry, I got it. He felt it was a tokenistic gesture and it wasn’t going to open the doors for black people in the industry. When he put it like that it was a big realisation for me."

Tokenism is something many black actors fear and actively attempt to avoid. In a recent interview with ELLE Magazine, Zendaya stated she purposely auditions for white roles in hopes casting directors will “change their minds, while actor Michael B. Jordan revealed in an interview with Variety that he told his agents that he didn’t want to audition for roles written for African-Americans.

Frederick feels that the older generation of actors paved the way for today’s stars that now have the option to decline roles that place the black experience in a stereotypical box. “What we have now is a generation of people in their 40s and older that realise there was a moment in film where everyone was working but they were taking on stereotypical roles and getting typecast.

“But what we're trying to show in this series is that the baton has been passed from one person to the next. From Hattie McDaniel to Sidney Poitier all the way to the younger generation who have realised that to make a decision to be an artist within this industry, is to have a career where you define it by yourself.

PICTURED: Diahanne Carroll (Photo credit: Simon Frederick)

"You make the decision that you’re not going to take those stereotypical roles, that you’re going to push the boundaries and not take roles that pigeon-hole you.”

Pushing boundaries are what many of today’s black stars are continuing to do. From the 2014 ‘Oscars So White’ campaign which called for more diversity among Academy Award voters and contenders to successful movies like Barry Jenkins Moonlight that show vast stories which feature black actors and filmmakers — Hollywood is now seeing the worth of richly textured black narratives and giving accolades where its due.

“There is no other industry like the film industry that awards itself so many accolades; it’s a very narcissistic industry,” said Frederick. “However, the Academy Awards are like the Olympics and they become a measure. Now there’s as lot of people that say they’re not an actually measure of talent or performance, but they are a measure and they are a yardstick.

“I think over the last three years the amount of nominations that black people have started to receive across the categories has increased, which is great to see.”

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