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Black Skin, White Masks

by Jonny Wright


The last time I went to the cinema with my wife was to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights (2021), the movie version of the play we had already seen at the King’s Cross Theatre. It was a life changing experience because afterwards my wife’s waters broke! Twenty-two months later and baby duty means we haven’t had the chance to go to the cinema together since. So we made a special effort to organise a ‘date day’ around our daughter’s childcare and we chose to see the Ben Affleck movie Air (2023). In The Heights is a musical set in Washington Heights, New York and Air is a movie about Nike’s Air Jordans (iconic basketball trainers), and yet these two very different movies have been criticised for the same thing, which is writing Black people out of our own stories. Washington Heights is a predominantly Afro-Dominican community, and the Afro-Latinx community felt there was an erasure of Afro-Latinx characters from the movie. Whereas Air casts Michael Jordan as little more than an extra in a film about the sneakers that he made famous.  

For too long, Black people have played a supporting role in our own stories. So, the film Cry Freedom (1987) about the anti-apartheid Black Consciousness activist Steve Biko becomes about the White journalist saving Biko, or Dangerous Minds (1995) becomes about a White teacher saving Black and Brown inner city students rather than about the students themselves. We don’t even get to play the lead when we are the bad guys: despite winning the Best Lead Actor Oscar for his role as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (2006), in reality, Forest Whitaker’s screentime was dwarfed by James McAvoy’s. Plays such as Lin-Manuel’s Hamilton (2015, first performance) have used colour-blind casting to give actors of the global majority more substantial parts. However making ‘White’ stories diverse just kicks the metaphorical can down the road when it comes to centring actors of the global majority in our own stories. 

One of my favourite movies, Raging Bull (1980), suffers from the same affliction. My late father hated the movie because he said that it should’ve been about the Black boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and not the Italian American Jake LaMotta. If only it were as simple as that; writers, actors, directors, we need a way into a story. I’m sure Martin Scorsese, the Italian American director of Raging Bull, felt more able to tell his fellow Italian American boxer’s story than that of Sugar Ray. The White writer of Air, Alex Convery, probably felt more able to tell the story of the geeky White people who worked for Nike than the story of the self-titled ‘Black Jesus’ whose basketball brilliance made Nike a household name. This is not to say the aforementioned movies shouldn’t get made; they’re good movies and writers often need to write from the heart and a place of familiarity. Rather, it’s a call for when writers of the global majority do the same – write their own stories from the heart and a place of familiarity – for studios, producers and other gate keepers to be more open-minded about what they green light. Just because they might be less familiar with a story from a Black perspective doesn’t mean they shouldn’t make the movie, and it doesn’t mean that people from across cultures and communities won’t watch it. There is room in this world for both a movie about Michael Jordan’s sneakers and also one about the great man himself. Hopefully, the next time my wife and I are able to go to the cinema together (in another few years), we will have more choice.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.