91.7 WVXU | By tt stern-enzi
Published February 16, 2023 at 4:11 AM EST
Representation is the official term now to define what it means to be seen authentically. But I am old enough to remember what it felt like to read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man where, in the novel’s introduction, his unnamed protagonist spoke of what it meant to be invisible.
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
Most of the time, I focused on the early elements of this quote, but what truly matters more, especially as part of this conversation, is that final piece — because people refuse to see me. That refusal takes the form of not allowing for authentic representation. For decades, gatekeepers in the film and television industry have ensured that Black invisibility remains intact. I’ve referenced and quoted those lines often throughout my career as a film critic.
It is exciting, in this moment, to be able to compile a list of shows spotlighting Black leads and recognize that there are more that did not make the cut. There are not simply more potential stories to be told; growing numbers of them exist right now. Black folks and everyone can see a more dynamic spectrum of our perspectives.
What does it mean to create Black stories for wider audiences? Is that more important than representation?
The 1619 Project (Hulu)
The series, based on the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, is about the legacy of slavery and its impact on democracy, race, music and capitalism today. The written project gave rise to a conservative backlash across the country and the streaming re-interpretation continues to challenge audiences to consider that history needs to be seen from a more holistic perspective. Does the effort to guarantee that Black people be seen as fully human and American demand that white people be demonized? Not if the intention is to remind us that we are all one people, supposedly indivisible.
Kindred (FX on Hulu)
It’s time to go Black to the past, but we can’t do so without acknowledging how tragic and traumatic that can be. Octavia Butler’s acclaimed novel explores the personal impact of slavery. In its way, it is a slave narrative, written during the post-civil rights era. The series, from 2016 MacArthur Fellow Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, updates the novel by shifting the modern setting from the 1970s to the 2020s. No longer is the country’s bicentennial the contemporary anchor; instead, Kindred becomes more of what it always was — a story about the entanglements of the quintessential American family, which is defiantly both Black and white.
The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime) / The Gaze (Vimeo)
There is a powerful genius at play in Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the Barry Jenkins series adaptation. So often, Hollywood ramps up the beatings of Black bodies to glorify the historical horrors of slavery, but rarely allows for a more thoughtful alternative reimagining of the psychological inhumanity and the persistent grace of those seeking to rise up and overcome.
Jenkins (Moonlight) pushes the boundaries even further with his complementary piece The Gaze, which focuses on the backgrounded faces of those not granted full exploration in the main narrative.
Harlem (Amazon Prime)
Is this series a spiritual cousin of Sex and the City? This question bothers me, but I can understand how and why different audiences may feel as they approach Season 2 of Harlem. It may read as a mere sample of Sex and the City — leaning on its protagonist’s narration of her socio-sexual concerns and those of her three best female friends — but the lives and backstories of these women elevate them beyond the common comparisons. It is time we get to know them a little better.
The Best Man: The Final Chapters (Peacock)
Black love and Black friendship — each instilled with an undeniable sense of loyalty — grounds the decades long journey of the ride-or-die crew presented in The Best Man franchise. Transitioning from film to streaming, legacy becomes more present than in the two feature films. Wedding drama recedes, opening the door to societal issues and the roles they play in how characters navigate being seen not only by each other, but the world. At its best, The Final Chapters documents how life and love, humor and grace can lead to moments of closure.
Atlanta (FX on Hulu)
What should the story of an underground hip-hop artist look like as he and his small but loyal crew rise from the ATL to global exposure? What does Black masculinity mean in and beyond the culture? Can we have surreal encounters within and outside our common (and commonly stereotypical) experiences? Donald Glover, as creator and star of the series, obviously believes we can, and he shows us how all of that might unfold in trippy, but truly necessary ways. While in lesser hands Atlanta could have gone completely off the rails, the team here adeptly built a new rail system to carry things forward.
You People (Netflix; warning explicit trailer)
I spoke of American family as part of the breakdown for Kindred, but You People seeks to do so more directly, capturing the friction and fracture, at least on the surface, in a more immediate way. Militant Black parents meet outwardly progressive white parents when their children present the idea of their more perfect union.
Bel Air (Peacock)
Remake or reboot? A creative rejuvenation is more like it. From a half-hour sitcom with broad stereotypical hijinks to a somewhat more nuanced tale of intra-racial class distinctions, Bel Air illustrates how remakes can succeed on their own without being slavishly devoted to the source material.
Truth Be Told (Apple)
A celebrated writer (Octavia Spencer) dedicates herself to creating a podcast investigating stories in an attempt to mine deeper truths. Family and race factor into the personal and professional angles without slipping into overtly heavy-handedness. And there’s the added benefit of featuring Spencer as a whole woman juggling her dogged determination with a sensuality we’ve never seen on display before. Amen.
Small Axe (Amazon Prime)
A forgotten reminder that the Black Diaspora is not just an American experience. This gem, from writer-director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), tells stories of the Black British that weave seamlessly into the same fabric stitched together on this side of the Atlantic. Black men fight to integrate the police system. Black love is intrinsically rooted in musical grooves. Educational systems create barriers to hinder the progress and potential of Black children. And Black Power struggles punch away at the big systemic eye that refuses to see all.
Having spent 20 years as a freelance writer and film critic in the Greater Cincinnati region (covering the film industry and film festivals with the alt-weekly Cincinnati CityBeat and television affiliate Fox19, while earning distinction as an accredited critic on Rotten Tomatoes and membership in the Critics Choice Association), tt stern-enzi began curating film programs at the Mini Microcinema and other regional venues, also serving on the advisory board for the University of Cincinnati Center for Film & Media Studies. These efforts have paved the way for tt to step into the role of lead programmer/curator for the rebranded Over-the-Rhine International Film Festival during its first two years before settling into the position of artistic director for the 2021 edition. He is also a board member of the Film Festival Alliance and Art House Convergence.