A few people have asked me if I had the power, money and time, what would my version of CNN’s “Black In America” look like. As everyone already knows, I was somewhat disappointed in the series as I found it emotional, but uneven.
I’ve thought about this question long and hard and come to these ideas:
Pick six people from different walks of life, backgrounds, socio-economic statuses, etc. who are all trying to achieve a goal, convince them to film nearly every aspect of their lives that year, and tell their stories of these goals interwoven with experts, statistics and background on how these stories reflect that of African American life.
Like I would pick a boy from a Southern family, like my cousin Shawn, who was the first boy on my mothers side of the family to graduate from college. My cousin was born in Newport, Ark. His grandparents (also my grandparents) were sharecroppers who worked their way out of the fields and into a comfortable lifestyle. In following someone like my cousin for a year as he tries to finish school you could tell the story of rural blacks who live in dying towns like Newport, of life of Southern urban blacks in cities like Little Rock, where his parents live now and of what it’s like to be a black student at a mostly white college. While discussing the pressures of being the “first” boy to graduate and all the pressure we put on him, I would tell the story of black students and college, what our graduation rates are like, just how many black kids go and finish, how lonely it can be for some students and how others struggle to make adjustments.
I would try to find a 79 year old black person looking towards their 80th birthday, like my grandmother did two years ago and tell their story, their history, their family history. My grandmother knows the story of her father, who remembers escaping from slavery in Mississippi in the middle of the night to move to Arkansas. She could tell the story of her and her husband, my grandfather, long past, who worked hard to get nine children out of poverty and wound up building their own home. With this story, I would talk about rural poverty in black communities and individuals working hard to help rural blacks overcome these odds. I would also talk about the legacy of slavery and sharecropping and how it affected the South.
For my next person, or persons, I would try to find a newlywed couple just starting out, going through the trials of the first year of marriage trying to buy a home and start a family. Perhaps they got shlacked with a tricky loan like many black people did and are now struggling to hold on to their house. Maybe one of them just finished college and is trying to find work. I would follow them while telling the story of black homeowners and marriage, interviewing experts, quoting statistics and tying it into with the stories of other couples.
I also would have wanted someone from a crumbling urban center in the Midwest who is working to make it better by reinvesting in the community, someone doing something unusual or who is unusual themselves, like our 20-something St. Louis Alderwoman Kaci Starr-Triplett or the Roberts Brothers or the group of black men who organized the march last year for jobs and against street violence.
Another person who was the “first” to do something in the year of Obama might have been nice. My best friend’s husband would have made an excellent character study: minister’s son, becomes the first black exec. director of the Missouri Democratic Party the same year Obama is running for office. That same year his wife becomes pregnant with their second child. He’s traveling everywhere, even goes to Denver for the convention. Of course, as timing would have it, his son was also born that weekend, early, while he was away in Denver. He’ll never forget that birthday. I would use his story as a jumping point to talk about black involvement in the political parties, how things have changed from Republican to Democrat over the last 60 years and why. I would also get into how hard it is to be the “first” of something and the pressures that came with such a high profile position.
I also would have picked a black Hollywood actress, relatively young, about the struggles with finding work as a black actress and how roles for black women are still far and in-between. It would be interesting to see a years worth of auditions and call backs and fighting to get the role that she wants while settling for parts that pay the bills.
Some of the people for my version that I might have picked could have been the same ones from CNN. Like the principal, the girl from the troubled home who wanted to go to college, the shy boy who had trouble finding his voice, the ex-con, the man trying to help the ex-con (there was not enough of this gentleman in the original piece), Geoffery Canada and his school, a girl trying to lose weight to tell the story of obesity in the black community, the well-to-do young man who went to the Tuxedo Ball, the woman battling breast cancer, etc. Only I wouldn’t just stop at interviewing them and one or two parents. I would exhaustively interview as many people from their lives as possible, film them more interacting with their parents, children, friends, co-workers and classmates. I would have wanted to interview teachers, historians, doctors, expects on both sides of the spectrum to give their opinions on the issues that arise in these stories. I also would have tried to link the stories to one another better to induce better storytelling so nothing stuck out like a sore thumb.
Also, instead of having children recite lines between the story breaks I would have chosen a selection of music and photographs or portraits of the individuals featured, photos from history. There seemed to be a real lack of historical perspective in CNN’s version. I also would have gone with a better principal photographer for the whole piece. It didn’t “feel” like a documentary, and I’d want it as close to a cinematic quality as possible so people could really feel like they were getting a well-planned, well-thought-out piece of art, not just information. This, again, goes back to showing versus telling. I want to see what it is to live these lives more than I want to hear people talk about living these lives.
If I couldn’t do that version of “Black In America” I likely would have picked issues that I’ve already written about on this blog (class, the diaspora, colorism, education, homosexuality, etc.) and build a series around that. But my biggest thing to be is to add depth and quality. Even though I know CNN and Soledad O’Brien spent a lot of time on the project, you honestly could not tell from looking at it. If you’re going to spend the money and time, it should look beautiful … even in pain, there should be beauty.