It’s time for Hollywood to take advice from Octavia Butler and stretch its imagination

In this deliciously rare clip, Octavia Butler talks about how she began writing science fiction in response to an absence of great storytelling she felt. After seeing a terrible sci fi film when she was 12, she explains, “I turned off the television and said to myself, I can write a better story than that.” Let Butler’s thoughts on the possibility inherent in science fiction serve as talisman and inspiration:

It’s a wonderful way to think about possibilities. It’s a wonderful way to explore exotic politics. It’s a wonderful–it’s a freedom. It’s a way of doing anything you want. There are all sorts of walls around other genres. Romances, mysteries, westerns. There are no real walls around science fiction. We can build them, but they’re not there naturally.

Butler’s Patternist series is one of my favorites. I read the first book, Wild Seed, 15 years ago and reread it every few years. It renders an alternate narrative about the trans-Atlantic slave trade and considers a possible identity where black people are mutants–not like X-men (which I also love) but something more supernatural, some alternate explanation of our capacity for empathy. It’s a really beautiful twist that shows our humanity, where some stories fall short.

In response to our complaints about the lack of diverse representations of women, women of color, transgender, lesbian, and gay folks, we’re often told that we should create the content ourselves. And the thing is, we do and have. Like Butler, we work to fill the void. We write the stories, create the web series, shoot trailers for films without a budget–all to manifest our stories for the cis white hetero male imaginations. And the gatekeepers of development budgets and distributors of our creative works are astonished by the public reception, the demand for more. The numbers show that the public will pay to watch movies and television shows with complex stories starring leads who aren’t white men.

These people have talent.

But as entertainment consumers, we must be ever vigilant regarding what stories we get to see on tiny and big screen. In response to Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar win, Stacia L. Brown so astutely noted this week:

We know how hard those actresses had to work to get it, know how many low-budget straight-to-DVD flicks they made to keep themselves visible, how many blond wigs and gold teeth and fishnets they had to don and exactly how much of their bodies they had to bare — just for the opportunity to be seen. We suffered through Whoopi encouraging her ex to appear in blackface. We accept not just the existence, but the five-year run of The Parkers. And we swallow the painful realization that though many a role easily procured by a Paltrow, a Portman, or a Witherspoon could be played, if not better, certainly just as well, by an actress of color, the film would not likely be attended by as large an audience.

Because this our sisters’ lot in all of the American workforce. We are offered little, we earn less, we hustle harder and stress more — all in response to the idea that our appearance and ideas and work are not as marketable as a white colleague’s would be. Why should Hollywood be different?

I’m haunted by Brown’s observations as I’m equally haunted by Adam Serwer’s:

Despite the film industry’s reputation for cultural liberalism, the films about the catastrophes of history it most recognizes are those in which a heroic white figure redeems the sins of others. We have films like Schindler’s List, which celebrate Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler – the Nazi who used his power to save some of his Jewish workers. We have Kevin Costner’s Lt. John Dunbar inDances with Wolves, who tries to save the Lakota Indian people from inevitable genocide. We have Amistad, a film about a revolt on a ship carrying enslaved human cargo that somehow turns into a story about the benevolent white American abolitionists who prevent the kidnapped Africans from being convicted of murder. And let’s not get started onThe Help.

Most films that tell stories of people of color are oftentimes movies about the exceptional white people who ultimately triumph against evil, and so people of color become vehicles for white redemption. They are exploited twice over – in history, and again in cinema.

Both Brown’s and Serwer’s critiques of Hollywood show how necessary it is for the viewing audience to agitate for diversity behind and in front of the camera–from executive producer to script supervisor. There’s a pattern of character-driven dramas, comedies, biopics in film that offer caricatures of black women, insisting on casting cis white hetero men as heroes. We have to keep pushing back and rewrite this persistent narrative that reduces us. Hunger Games fans might not have found Rue’s blackness so repugnant had Hollywood’s “progressivism” extended to producing work that accurately reflected America’s racial and gendered diversity.  

Octavia Butler imagined futures with complex narratives and blended identities well before Hollywood discovered the Marvel Universe. I’m not sure why they haven’t yet figured out that Afrofuturism would be some ill ass shit to produce for the screen. In an ideal world, someone would have already adapted Butler’s Parable of Sower for film. In my opinion, that would be an excellent summer blockbuster in lieu of Elysium or, hell, District 9, or–let’s just get really crazyAvatar. Our hero wouldn’t be the cis white male hetero savior, but a brown woman with unique abilities in a post-modern world not unlike our own. Enlist Alfonso Cuaron to direct it, or better Ava Duvernay. Hollywood, I just want more roles for Lupita Nyong’o, Laverne Cox, Nicole Beharie, Kerry Washington, Alfre Woodard, Viola Davis, Regina King, Thandie Newton, Angela Davis, Gabby Sidibe–and on, and on, and on.

I think we can stretch our imaginations further in 2014. Don’t you?

(H/t #Bims10Things for the Butler clip)

sm-bioSyreeta McFadden is a writer and aspiring screenwriter in Brooklyn.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

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  • Mike

    “We have films like Schindler’s List, which celebrate Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler – the Nazi who used his power to save some of his Jewish workers. We have Kevin Costner’s Lt. John Dunbar in Dances with Wolves, who tries to save the Lakota Indian people from inevitable genocide. We have Amistad, a film about a revolt on a ship carrying enslaved human cargo that somehow turns into a story about the benevolent white American abolitionists who prevent the kidnapped Africans from being convicted of murder.”

    All of these movies A. had a historical context which entirely justified the use of a white protagonist, as the alternatives make absolutely no sense (would you really have wanted a black Oscar Schindler?) and B. ultimately have little or nothing to do with race as a narrative element, instead focusing on themes of shared humanity, determination, compromise and spiritual growth. Yes, the main characters in these films were white, but the larger moral picture (that people should, you know, learn to help each other out) transcends racial boundaries. Any attempt to seriously analyze movie history needs to acknowledge this.

    I have to believe Serwer is trying to appear profound by needlessly bashing cinematic masterpieces or has totally missed the point of what they were about.

    • Sean Curley

      There’s a legitimate point about what stories get made there, though I don’t really think it applies to “Schindler’s List” at all — Schindler was white, sure, but so were the people he saved (they weren’t considered white at the time by a lot of people, mind you, but they are in the eyes of modern audiences, which is the important point); and “Schindler’s List” was wholly the result of the efforts of Steven Spielberg, who was Jewish himself.

      Spielberg’s other movie in that list, “Amistad”, is more of a case in point. That particular story really would not have made sense from any other perspective. Serwer’s statement that it ‘somehow turns into’ a legal drama is bizarre to me, because that’s what the story of the Amistad was. A bunch of white abolitionists (and an invented black abolitionist played by Morgan Freeman) banded together and won a court case. There are any number of movies where a black story has been filtered through a white lens (“Glory”, which is still a great movie, is an obvious example, as it didn’t need to be mainly from Matthew Broderick’s viewpoint), but “Amistad” is not one of them. Telling that story from the viewpoint of the captives would have been really boring.

      So while “Amistad” itself I don’t think is improperly focused, it would be more legitimate to ask why most of the films Hollywood makes have been those types of stories rather than the stories where blacks were the main agents. This isn’t to say that Spielberg should not have made “Amistad” — it was a story that interested him — but rather why Spike Lee or [insert black director here] hasn’t had more opportunities to make other types of historical projects. “12 Years A Slave” is a good start in the other direction, as is the upcoming “Selma” project directed by Ava DuVernay that Brad Pitt is producing.

  • Clint

    I’m glad Serwer finally pointed out some of Hollywood’s hypocrisy as pertains to minorities. I am absolutely dumbfounded black leaders, if not more of the population as a whole, didn’t see the whole Halle Berry & Denzel Washington Oscars history as a slap in the face rather than some victory as it was portrayed. Halle Berry was amazing in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge and didn’t get a sniff of the win. Yet, she portrays a stereotypical caricature of a southern black woman (and just happens to have freaky sex with the ultimate southern white boy Thorton) so they give her the Oscar in Monsters Ball? Then you have Washington which, in my view’s worse than that, because he gets snubbed for one of the best autobiographical performances of our time as Malcolm X only to receive one later for a stereotypical ghetto black man who also happens to be a corrupt cop? And all of that only under the pressure the voters received for not rewarding such great performances by minorities up to that point, to boot. How they corner the market in the media as being so progressive & caring toward actually promoting causes is beyond me.

    One noticeable absence in the film critique, though, is Django Unchained. It got an enormous amount of praise and I still don’t know why. Couldn’t it be lumped into the same category as not really having a black protagonist & leaning on a white champion similar to Serwer’s other examples?

    • Sean Curley

      “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” was an HBO TV movie, not a theatrical release, and thus was not eligible for the Academy Awards. And Berry won the Emmy, the Golden Globe, and the SAG for it in the TV movie categories, so it hardly went unnoticed.

      As for “Django”, Django and Schultz are co-leads for most of the movie, with Schultz as the mentor, but Schultz dies, leaving Django alone to win at the end. I don’t know how you could interpret that as “not really having a black protagonist”.