What Happened to Black Stories?
Over the years, film adaptation of books has become a common and profitable phenomenon in the film industry. While the West has been quick to adapt books telling white stories to film, books with Black stories have not received a similar treatment.
Based on records from Box Office Mojo, film adaptations have been profitable, with movies such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy grossing over 2.9 billion dollars worldwide. Other film adaptations have done just as well or better: Harry Potter installments ($7.9 billion), Jurassic Park ($1,029 billion), The Jungle Book ($966.6 million), Titanic ($2.18 billion), The Da Vinci Code ($758.2 million), and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe ($745 million).
So what happened to Black stories and why has the film industry been so silent about them? Out of ten books made into film, you may find just one which tells a Black story, and even that is often racist (as is the case with Black Panther) and far from accurate. It certainly can’t be the result of a lack of Black actors—the likes of Lupita Nyong’o, Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Oyelowo, and many more invalidates that argument.
Even Black Panther, which was widely celebrated as a major Black movie, appears within a broad Hollywood tradition of over 100 years that portrays Africa as wild, weirdly exotic, and mysterious. This tradition typically depicts Africans as tribal savages, backward, and subordinate. The framing of Africa and Africans in this way has served to provide the world, especially Africans themselves, with a view of Africa and her people that justified the civilising mission of Westerners on the continent. Black people dare not believe that Black Panther proves that Hollywood now has a different perspective of them. We must be careful lest joy over the film blinds us to the racist ideology embedded within it.
One would have expected that, in view of current advocacy for diversity and inclusion, producers would have learnt to accurately represent racial diversity on screen by exploring ideas and stories from Black authors. But most of them are still wallowing in the past, leading Black filmmakers to take their destinies into their own hands. For example, Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira are teaming up to adapt the award-winning novel Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie into a TV mini-series. And Kunle Afolayan recently disclosed that he is working on adapting Matigari, a novel by Ngũgĩ waThiong’o—the Kenyan literary icon who is renowned for books like A Grain of Wheat, Petals of Blood, and Weep Not, Child—into a movie.
Speaking on the film adaptation, Afolayan said, “Ngũgĩ is like the Wole Soyinka of Nigeria in Kenya, and one of his books is going to be adapted into a film, and it’s going to be a South Africa-Kenya-Nigeria co-production, and I’m representing Nigeria.”
Though books by Black authors have not received the recognition they deserve via film adaptation, it is important to note that a few books by Black authors have been adapted to film over the years. For instance, Lee Daniels’ Precious (2009) was adapted from Sapphire’s 1996 novel Push. Not surprisingly, the film was nominated for six Oscars, with Mo’Nique winning the award for best supporting actress for her brilliant portrayal.
There was also The Color Purple, the 1982 book written by Alice Walker and released as a movie in 1985. The film was nominated for 11 Oscars but never won one. Furthermore, movies like Call Me by Your Name, Get Out, and Half of a Yellow Sun have created opportunities for Black filmmakers to tell authentic stories they can identify with.
Last year saw more of this as more books written by Black authors started being adapted into film, including Dawn by Octavia Butler, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.