When we allow Hollywood to have “black film” as a genre it limits us. They do one film a year with a black cast, and that’s their black film. I want us in every genre—sci-fi, romance, period pieces—that is really my fight. To make it more normal to open up casts, and you’re seeing it more in television than in film. A show like Scandal is not a black show. It’s a political show, with Kerry Washington at the head. That’s what I want more in film.—Gina Prince-Bythewood, Paste Magazine
If you’re an actual film buff, there’s little chance that you pay attention to the recommendation features on Netflix, such as the “More Like This” suggestions that come along with each movie or TV show. We’ve all had that moment where we’ve been somewhat annoyed—offended, even—because of a Netflix recommendation. Like, dude. Just because I watched an episode of Scandal, it doesn’t mean I’m about to watch the Tyler Perry movie starring Kerry Washington. In fact, because it’s so difficult weed through the forest of good and evil recommendations, we at Paste make it a point to help you find the Netflix goods at the start of every month.
It’s easy for most of us to ignore these recommendations, but what if you’re a filmmaker, and you want to make sure that your movie is being marketed to an audience that makes sense? Last year, Gina Prince-Bythewood released an incredible film about love, the music industry, politics and artistry, titled Beyond the Lights. On the surface, it’s a familiar tale of star-crossed lovers (played by formidable talents Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker), but on the whole, it’s a complex feature made with care for issues big and small. For the many critics who fell in love with—and championed the film—it was disappointing to see how many people missed out on this great story, which is why many of us made a point to continue shouting from the rooftops about it, especially when it arrived on Netflix in June.
One major issue Prince-Bythewood addressed, while discussing the long road to Beyond the Lights’ release, is a major issue for many black filmmakers and TV showrunners, especially those creating stories with a predominantly black cast. In film, even more than in TV, “black” becomes a genre, which leads to inaccuracies in marketing and—on a much grander scale—a suffocating of black creatives, who are being told that, because of the racial identity of their characters (or because of the film’s soundtrack), their movie is clearly meant “for” one particular group of people, and not for another. When Prince-Bythewood first took her film to Relativity, they planned to market the movie under their “Urban Banner.” That was the actual name they’d given the department. Prince-Bythewood took a stand and explained that Beyond the Lights isn’t an urban tale (indeed, Mbatha-Raw’s Noni is a British singer-turned American pop star living in a California mansion, and her love interest is a police officer on a serious political path). Relativity eventually changed the name of this marketing section to the “Multicultural Division.” A small victory, but an important change in terms of language, at least.
Still, Prince-Bythewood—like other black filmmakers—cannot dismantle the idea of the “black film” all on her own. And it all comes down to a question many of us have been asking for a long time—what makes a black film? A few black faces? Can a white filmmaker put white actors in the lead and still make a black film (I believe so Is it a category that should be done away with altogether? For Prince-Bythewood, the mere existence of it is problematic, because it seeks to link films together by race instead of genre. She took to Twitter last night to address this issue, as it is specific to Netflix:
Indiewire's Shadow & Act reported on these tweets, and then immediately began an investigation into this question of how those suggestions are made. Through two articles (one from Wired, and another from the Consumerist) they discovered that the suggestions come from hired “taggers” who watch Netflix movies and shows, then fill out a questionnaire that helps create the algorithm. And while this sounds like the best job ever, it's obvious that either the taggers or the algorithms (or both) are focusing heavily on the race of the characters in the film. Shadow & Act editor and filmmaker Tambay Obenson went on to test out Prince-Bythewood's argument. Indeed, it would appear that all films with black characters look alike to Netflix:
For me, the most telling Netflix “More Like This” image came when I looked up Fruitvale Station. No offense to Cam’ron—a favorite rapper of mine—but really, Netflix? And A Different World is somehow “like” a film about a victim of a police brutality? In what way, other than in the race of the main characters?
Gina Prince-Bythewood is one of many, many voices criticizing diversity issues in film, but it’s important that she’s taking aim at this seemingly minor issue. There are major issues in Hollywood, as many of us have had confirmed by the recent report out of the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism—Hollywood is unsurprisingly mostly white, mostly male and almost exclusively heterosexual (the movies are, anyway). These statistics (along with this fascinating but troubling story about Issa Rae’s struggle to get her TV show made in an industry opposed to awkward, dark-skinned black girl protagonists) are a reflection of a now obvious, glaring problem.
But Netflix is a part of this world, and the beloved streaming provider is showing that—like nearly all aspects of American culture—it, too, has a race problem. It’d be easier to ignore it in a world where race problems in your queue are completely divorced from race problems in society, but we know that these algorithms and taggers are reflective of much bigger issues. That Netflix doesn’t think the people who watch The Notebook or Walk the Line will watch Beyond the Lights (and vice versa) is one more reason for movie lovers to stay woke and join filmmakers like Prince-Bythewood and Ava DuVernay (who also took to Twitter on similar issues last night) to demand changes in marketing and distribution approaches.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.