Written by Charlotte Smith
They’ve Gotta Have Us is a docuseries of three episodes on Netflix charting the history of Black Cinema. The series interviews a host of esteemed black figures from on and off screen in Hollywood from pioneer Harry Belafonte to recent Black Lives Matter activist John Boyega.
The series starts with the history of black cinema, consisting of only one or two black actors amid a very white Hollywood. Chief among them is Belafonte, who broke social taboos by portraying a romantic lead in a time when the 1934 Hays Code forbade showing sexual relations between races on screen. Hattie McDaniels, the first black actor to win an Oscar for her role in Gone With The Wind, is also discussed. Another is Sydney Poitier, who was described in the documentary as one of ‘America’s most beloved actors’ during the height of the Civil Rights Movement due to his positive role models.
A key theme running through all three episodes is that of stereotyping. Many roles for black actors were subservient – maids and butlers – and black talent behind the camera was almost non-existent. They had to rely on white writers, producers and directors for a long time, who often only made ‘one black movie a year’.
This started to change with the arrival of independent filmmaker Spike Lee, who was very different to anyone who had come before him and inspired a generation of filmmakers who came after. He aimed to tell stories his way, despite tiny amounts of budget. His 1992 drama Malcolm X had its budget cut after he was attached and he often had to find funding elsewhere – his first feature length film She’s Gotta Have It was financed partially by actor Laurence Fishbourne.
Spike Lee’s influence led into episode 2, which charted the rise of blaxploitation movies, often set in gritty and urban landscapes. Rap and hip-hop were huge cultural influences on this movement. During this period of rethinking race relations, Hollywood were becoming more open to black actors in leading roles but many stereotypes of thugs, drugs and prostitutes still persisted. The black best friend was a common character. A common saying at the time was ‘black films don’t sell foreign’, meaning they didn’t make money in foreign markets.
During this period, Gordon Parks’ film Shaft was one of the first ever to show a cool, black leading man in a Hollywood film. Black comedians such as Whoopi Goldberg and Eddie Murphy were some of the few who flourished, with Goldberg also starring in Steven Spielberg’s The Colour Purple. Denzel Washington became the game changer, managing to move from supporting character to lead actor by going for ‘everything Harrison Ford can’t do’. This led to a mix of genres, characters and films that weren’t always about race. This also opened doors for the talented stars of the hood movies that had been sidelined for years after the genre died out. Notably, James Earl Jones was cast in enormous franchise Star Wars as villain Darth Vader.
Episode 3 then looks at the spectrum of black-led films that have been made in more recent years. Despite often being categorised together as a genre, many of them could not be more different from each other. Many suffered from being marketed only to a black audience, such as A Secret Life of Bees which was based on a universally loved book, which had black characters in it. Black Panther is one credited as a cultural moment – a huge mainstream film focused on an advanced African civilisation without the influence of colonisation.
One point that came up several times in the documentary was the contribution of young British actors to this change. Many of these actors were interviewed and said they struggled to find parts in the UK, which led to them learning an American accent and aiming for parts in America instead. Despite racism in America being a huge issue, many described the racism in the UK as much harder to fight due to it being less upfront. David Oyelowo, the first black actor to play a Shakespearean King at the RSC, stated many national newspapers and an Oxford don criticised the casting.
Oyelowo has since appeared in many American films, notably Disney’s Queen of Katwe and as Martin Luther King in Selma. He is joined by star of the Oscar winning Get Out, Daniel Kaluuyla and Star Wars’ John Boyega, who again suffered backlash including being shrunk on a Chinese Star Wars poster.
Selma was directed by Ava DuVernay, who was the fifth director to take on the film. She turned it around, making King the lead instead of Lyndon B Johnson and elevating the roles of the women in the film. She is one of very few black female directors, who still struggle against the Hollywood system. However, at long last things are changing behind the scenes, helped by black actors setting up production companies and financing films.
The documentary ends on a positive note, focused on the changing landscape. The now historic Oscars moment, of Moonlight winning the Oscar for Best Picture ends the documentary.
Created by Thomas Sanders.