Why I'll Ask "Is It About Black People" Before I Watch The Movie You Recommend To Me

It’s normal being a black person who falls in love, laughs with friends, pursues their dreams and just sits to grab a drink at the bar. Our story shouldn’t be minimised to slavery and hardship.

13/12/2016 04:56 SAST | Updated 13/12/2016 18:58 SAST
Babalwa Nyembezi

I exhausted a colleague yesterday. I asked him "Is it about black people?" at least five times. Each time he told me about a new movie, series or documentary that he thought I just had to see.

And while I appreciate why anyone would find this question exhausting, it matters to me. It matters because I'm tired of being particularised or reduced to a single story, tired of people who look like me being used as extras in the media I consume, when my experience of being a black person in this brown skin is universal to me.

So, a few months ago I made the decision to consume mostly content created by or about people who look like me, where the brown protagonist, antagonist and narrator share their stories about whatever it is that matters to them. Why? Because representation matters. And because it's normal being a black person who falls in love, laughs with friends, pursues their dreams and just sits to grab a drink at the bar. Our story shouldn't be minimised to slavery and hardship, and while I acknowledge that these are valid - there's more to brown people's stories.

It affirms something in me to see brown people on my screen, or read about brown people's experiences from a brown person's perspective. It assures me that I'm okay, that my existence in this world doesn't need to be justified. Sikhona and just that is perfectly alright.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, speaks about the single story. The single story that most of us grew up reading, where the characters in the picture books weren't brown and didn't have curly hair. Where Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were all beautiful princesses with pale skin who were rescued by charming princes with skin like theirs and golden hair. Then we grew up and started watching TV, and there were shows like "Friends", where none of the characters looked like me, spoke like me, or shared my world view. (Disclaimer: I've never actually watched "Friends" because by the time I discovered it was a thing, I was already tired).

For those people who don't have brown skin, it must be difficult to imagine a world where you're not the norm - where your lived experience isn't universalised. But try.

Imagine that in all of the rom-coms you've gone to watch at the movies, none of the main characters looked or spoke like you. Imagine that in all the books you picked up the worldview of the author was nothing like yours, and you understood the characters' experience of life only because you'd read it in a book. It'd probably help you better relate to the people around you who looked like the people in the movies and books you watch.

Babalwa Nyembezi

Now, can you imagine having to step out of your own lived experience with every piece of media that you consume until you're about 15? Imagine you read Sweet Valley High, and you know that Todd with the blue eyes and golden hair is the hottest guy in school and he's attracted to Jess, the most beautiful girl in school, who also has golden hair and blue eyes. Imagine that your hair and eyes are nothing like any of the characters in the books you read. Instead, your hair grows out coiled and curly, and your eyes are muddy brown. Imagine that until you're a first year at a University Currently Known as Rhodes, you never pick up a book written by someone who writes about people with beautiful brown skin and hair that coils up into the sky like a crown.

Can you imagine that? I'm sure it's difficult but try. And then try to understand why representation is so important. Why as brown people we need to tell our own stories, so that others who live in brown skin every day know that their experience of life too, is universal.

I hope my colleague understands why I get so excited when I hear that there's a new movie, series or doccie that was created by a black man or woman. It's not only because I love supporting brown people, it's because I'm unlearning years of Jess and her golden hair being the universally attractive one. I'm unlearning years of understanding that people who look like me are only important as an extra, and never the main character.

I want to raise a generation that doesn't have to ask "Is it about black people?" because it won't be necessary. Because the stories of people who look like me will be out there, en masse, in the world for brown babies who look like me to consume. A generation that lives secure in the knowledge that they're universal too.

Is it about black people? Yes. In my world, it always is.