Black Media Ownership is Critical in the Fight for Liberation

by Raisa Habersham

Chris Rock has been on the press junket circuit in support of his upcoming movie “Top Five,” a story about a comedian’s rise to stardom while dealing with the pressures of fame. In addition to promoting his film, the comedian has spoken on several topics from Ferguson to Bill Cosby. And now, the state of Black Hollywood can be added to that list.

In an essay written for The Hollywood Reporter, Rock tackles the prejudices of the entertainment industry, stating that while he has gone out his way to mentor upcoming black talent, there are still challenges that blacks face (read: the blatant system of racism in which the industry operates).

Rock’s sentiments on the state of black talent in Hollywood are thoughts that meander in my head nearly every day as I seek to engage with more black-created art and media, specifically when I’m looking for new music from black artists and new films from black producers and filmmakers. It can be difficult when the mainstream industry is only focused on playing music from the same handful of popular artists, and when the only “black films” that get made are ones that reinforce age-old ideas about blacks in cinema. This leaves no opportunity for independent black creators to gain momentum and tell their stories. The same can be said of other creative mediums such as art, dance, writing, and television.

Growing up, I was exposed to several forms of artistic expression. I naturally gravitated to music and film, growing a love for jazz and R&B, as well as a strong appreciation for black films. I was a 90s child, listening to Goodie Mob and The Lost Boyz, Janet and Whitney, Sade and Najee the Next. There was a plethora of black talent creating a diverse splendor.

The same can be said of the caliber and quantity of black films I saw growing up. I’ve always said the 90s was a good time for Black folks in the realm of arts and entertainment, especially black women. I mean who didn’t want the “Halle” cut? Who didn’t sing the “Living Single” theme song when it came on? And who can forget Brandy dominating in music, movies, and television? Mo-to the, E-to the… You know the rest. What was perhaps most beautiful about that particular period in black entertainment was the heavy emphasis on celebrating blackness. As times have changed, I have wondered, “What happened?”

It’s difficult to pin-point an exact reason, but the two most glaringly obvious—which Rock alludes to—are lack of black ownership within the entertainment industry, as well as the extreme prejudices that still exist.

Gina Prince-Bythewood articulated the difficulties racism can have in her open letter asking for support of her new film “Beyond the Lights.” The “Love and Basketball” director and screenwriter expressed trouble getting a distributor, even with the success of “Love,” which also had its share of problems.

“People ask me all the time if I feel discriminated against as a black female director and I actually don’t. I get offered a ton of stuff,” she wrote. “But I like to direct what I’ve written. I feel what’s discriminated against are my choices, which is to focus on people of color as real people. Those are the films that rarely get made and those are the films that take a lot more fight. But I’m up for the fight, because if we don’t fight for this, we stay invisible.”

Prince-Blythewood’s assertions aren’t unfounded when you consider just a year ago, “The Best Man Holiday” director Malcolm Lee and actress Nia Long stated movie executives were hesitant to green light it. The movie went on to gross more than $71 million worldwide with a $17 million budget.

The discriminatory attitudes of entertainment executives is further heightened by the lack of black media ownership. According to the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, minority television station ownership has been down for the past 15 years with blacks owning 1.3 percent and women owning 6.3 percent. In contrast, white television owners have increased by 7.8 percent within the last year.

Given the reporting surrounding Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s deaths, ownership and diverse art forms are particularly needed in times when we are met with injustice and violence.

Take 2013’s “Fruitvale Station” and this year’s “Dear White People”: While the former addresses inequalities endemic within the criminal justice system, the latter confronts the everyday micro- and macro-aggressions black people deal with through satire. Both movies told stories from the black experience rarely captured in mainstream entertainment platforms.

Simply put: Black arts and entertainment is essential to projecting accurate representations of us artistically and can be quite influential in expressing frustrations with a system politically set up to work against us.

Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Raisa Habersham is a regular contributor at For Harriet.

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