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  • Writer's pictureAaron Braxton

Hollywood’s Cultural Appropriation: Borrowing Black Experiences, Missing Black Voices

Updated: Jun 10

Hollywood’s complex relationship with African American narratives reveals a deep-seated tension between inspiration and appropriation. While the industry frequently draws from the rich tapestry of Black experiences, it often does so without giving due credit, recognition, or control to the original voices behind these stories. This pattern of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation not only distorts the true essence of these narratives, but also highlights the ongoing struggle for authentic representation in mainstream media.


By examining specific examples from television and film, we can see how the triumphs and challenges of African Americans are reshaped and repackaged. Sometimes erasing the very people who lived them and underscore the need for greater inclusion and respect in creative environments.


A History of Borrowing But Not Sharing


Hollywood has a long history of appropriating and reimagining the stories and achievements of African Americans, often without giving due credit. This pattern not only misrepresents these stories, but also overlooks the importance of authentic voices in storytelling. Here are several movies and television shows where Hollywood has been accused of stealing or heavily "borrowing," ideas from the triumphs of African Americans:


Movies


World Trade Center (2006)


On 9/11, Marine Sgt. Jason Thomas, an African American man from Columbus, Ohio, heroically helped rescue several Port Authority police officers from beneath 20 feet of mangled steel, shattered concrete, and smoldering wreckage. However, in Oliver Stone's movie World Trade Center, Sgt. Thomas was portrayed by William Mapother, a White actor, and mega star, Tom Cruise's cousin.


When the casting decision was exposed, film producer Michael Shamberg apologized to Sgt. Thomas, claiming they, "Realized the mistake only after production had already begun." Yet, given the resources at the disposal of large film companies and the extensive publicity surrounding Thomas' story, this was far from a simple oversight—it was a deliberate choice. The production company likely assumed they would not be caught or that neither the public, nor the African American community, would care.


This incident is particularly disheartening because Black men are rarely portrayed as heroes in popular culture. When genuine, authentic, opportunities for such portrayals arise, Hollywood often callously disregards reality, altering narratives to fit their own ideological agendas without hesitation. Such actions not only erase the true stories of Black heroes, but also perpetuates a culture of misrepresentation and exclusion in mainstream media.



Pay it Forward (2000)


In the film Pay It Forward, Kevin Spacey portrays a White burn victim, an egregious departure from the character's original depiction in the book as a BLACK Vietnam veteran. This alteration is more than a simple casting choice; it reflects a broader pattern of erasing Black experiences and voices from narratives where they are integral. The character’s identity as a Black veteran carries profound implications, encompassing themes of racial trauma, the struggles of Black soldiers, and the unique challenges they face upon returning home. By casting a White actor, the film strips away these layers of meaning; sanitizing the story for a mainstream audience and perpetuating a cycle of cultural appropriation.


As stated, this "whitewashing," of characters is not an isolated incident, but a recurrent issue in Hollywood. When stories that originally highlight Black experiences are repackaged with White actors, it not only diminishes the authenticity of the narrative, but also deprives Black actors of significant roles that could help advance their careers and bring diverse perspectives to the forefront. The decision to alter the character in Pay It Forward reflects a disturbing disregard for the rich, multifaceted experiences that Black characters bring to storytelling. It underscores Hollywood's tendency to prioritize marketability and ego over representation; often at the expense of marginalized communities.


In addition, the erasure of Black identities in film adaptations sends a powerful, yet harmful, message about whose stories are regarded worthy of being told. The transformation of a Black Vietnam veteran to a White burn victim overlooks the specific historical and social contexts that shape Black lives and struggles. This not only invalidates the lived experiences of Black individuals, but also reinforces a narrative that sidelines their contributions and sacrifices.


As Hollywood continues to borrow from Black stories without honoring their origins, it becomes imperative to challenge and change these practices, advocating for authentic representation and respect for the voices that are too often intentionally silenced.


Other films and television shows where "Cultural Misappropriation," is evident:


  • The Green Mile (1999): The character of John Coffey in The Green Mile bears striking similarities to real-life figures like George Stinney Jr., an African American teenager wrongfully convicted and executed in 1944. The film also perpetuates the "magical Negro" trope, which has been criticized for its portrayal of African American characters as mystical saviors of white protagonists and their moral compasses.


  • The Help (2011): The Help tells the story of African American maids in the 1960s South. Critics argue that it appropriates the voices and experiences of African American women, while focusing more on the white savior narrative. This diminishes the genuine struggle and true autonomy of the African American characters.


  • The Blind Side (2009): The film depicts the life of Michael Oher, an African American football player, but its "White savior" narrative, overshadows Oher's own achievements and contributions to his success.


  • Hidden Figures (2016): While Hidden Figures highlights the achievements of African American women at NASA, it has been noted for oversimplifying and glossing over some of the deeper systemic issues these women faced; potentially diluting the impact their struggles had on their historical accomplishments and triumphs.


Television Shows


  • Friends (1994-2004): The concept of "Friends" has been compared to the earlier sitcom Living Single, which focused on a group of African American friends living in New York City. Even "Living Single" creator Yvette Lee Bowser has pointed out the similarities, suggesting a lack of original recognition.


When Dystopia Borrows from Brutal Historical Reality


Hollywood continues to reflect African American struggles through modern shows. For instance, shows like, The Handmaid’s Tale, Severance, and Westworld, with their themes of control, forced labor, and lack of agency, echo the horrors of African American chattel slavery.


The Critical Lens: Where Stories Deserve Black Voices


While the entire productions of The Handmaid’s Tale, Severance, and Westworld, are and/or were absolutely brilliant and captivating, the lack of prominent African American characters leading the resistance in meaningful ways is and/or was a definitive missed opportunity.


The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)


The Handmaid's Tale is a haunting and powerful dystopian series set in the near-future totalitarian society of Gilead, where women's rights are stripped away, and they are forced into subjugation. The story follows a woman forced to live as a "Handmaid" tasked with bearing children for the regime's elite. As she navigates the brutal realities of her new life, she becomes a symbol of resistance, fighting against the oppressive forces that seek to control her body, mind, and spirit.


The show masterfully appropriates elements from African American experiences to depict the harrowing and heroic fight against privileged and oppressive forces. Drawing parallels to historical and ongoing struggles for justice and autonomy faced by African American women throughout history who were stripped of their rights and forced into roles of servitude and reproductive exploitation.


The resistance movements within the show echo the resilience and defiance seen in Black communities fighting against systemic oppression and institutionalized racism. Through its depiction of relentless struggles for freedom and dignity, The Handmaid's Tale serves as a poignant reminder of the enduring fight against oppressive forces seeking to dominate and dehumanize marginalized groups.


While the writers craft narratives that are emotional and superlative, and the incomparable Elisabeth Moss, the White heroine in the show, delivers an absolute stellar performance, it is almost impossible not to compare her character to a modern-day Harriet Tubman.


That said, the show lacks prominent African American female characters who are central to the fight against servitude; thus failing to fully acknowledge the rich history African American women have had in regards to resisting and plotting against oppression. The obvious absence in their leadership, arguably weakens the narrative.


Severance, and Westworld, fare better in terms of their inclusion of Black characters within their core story lines.


Severance (Apple TV+)

Severance is a gripping and thought-provoking series that explores the chilling consequences of a controversial procedure at Lumon Industries, where employees' work and personal lives are surgically divided into two distinct personas. Blending science fiction, psychological thriller, and dark comedy, the show delves into profound questions of identity, autonomy, abuse of power, brainwashing, servitude, control, and the human condition.


Dealing with these issues, the show includes significant African American characters who navigate a dystopian world of corporate control and dehumanization. The character of Millchick, played by the magnificent, Tramell Tillman, is even reminiscent of the “overseer,” in slavery narratives.


That said, the show appropriates many elements from the African American experience by reflecting themes of abuse of power, control, servitude, and brainwashing. Themes that are deeply rooted in the historical and contemporary struggles of Black communities. The show's depiction of employees whose work and personal lives are forcibly separated through a sinister procedure echoes the dehumanizing tactics historically used to strip African Americans of their autonomy and agency. This coerced division between self and labor mirrors the psychological manipulation and exploitation faced by enslaved individuals and, later, by those subjected to systemic racism and economic marginalization.


By distilling these complex and painful realities into a dystopian narrative without explicitly addressing their origins or significance, Severance risks trivializing the profound impact of such experiences on African American lives. Especially in terms of the miss opportunities to explore the psychological impact servitude has on the Black characters.


Westworld (HBO)


Westworld wasn’t your typical amusement park. It was a meticulously crafted, immersive world where wealthy visitors could indulge in their deepest desires and fantasies, within a sprawling, hyper-realistic landscape populated by highly sophisticated, lifelike robotic "hosts." But as these hosts begin to gain self-awareness, the line between reality and artificial consciousness blurred, unraveling a complex web of ethical dilemmas, power struggles, and the very essence of human nature. The show challenged viewers to question the morality of their actions in a world where anything was possible.


The show that featured several prominent African American actors (Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton, and Tesse Thompson) intrinsically weaved throughout the series. However the themes of oppression and rebellion, echo the historical fight against slavery.


The show deftly appropriates elements from African American experiences to explore profound ethical dilemmas, power struggles, and the essence of human nature. Through characters like Maeve, who gains consciousness and rebels against her oppressors, Westworld parallels the struggle for liberation often experienced by Black individuals throughout history. Maeve's journey challenges viewers to confront questions of agency and freedom; echoing the long-standing battles against systemic oppression. Furthermore, the power dynamics within the park reflect broader societal structures, where marginalized groups are often subjugated by those privileged to be in positions of authority and power. By weaving these themes into its narrative, Westworld forced audiences to grapple with complex issues of morality and the intrinsic nature of power, resonating deeply with the struggles and triumphs of African American communities striving for the same thing: justice and equality.


The Call for Change: Beyond Performers, Black Creators Need Seats at the Table


Despite the increasing inclusion of Black actors, Hollywood still falls short in providing opportunities for African American writers and creators. Authentic storytelling is vital, and while current trailblazers like Tyler Perry, Ava Duvernay, Shonda Rhimes, Lena Waithe, Lee Daniels, Spike Lee, Jordan Peele, Kenya Barris, and John Ridley are vital, the industry still has much more progress to make.


The 2022 Hollywood Diversity Report indicated some advancements in content creation, but highlighted a significant underrepresentation of African Americans in key creative roles, including show creators and executive producers. The percentage of Black show creators remains low compared to white counterparts, underscoring the need for more authentic and inclusive opportunities.


Conclusion


Cultural appropriation in Hollywood is prevalent and often unacknowledged. While there have been strides in representation, much work still remains. It’s essential to recognize and include African American voices not just as performers, but as writers, creators, storytellers, and collaborators. Authentic representation is not only respectful, but also enriches the narratives we see on screen.


It's time for Hollywood to not just reimagine our culture and history for entertainment and their own monetary gain, but also include us in the conversations. By doing so, you leverage the wealth of Black narratives and honor the true spirit of creativity and justice; ensuring that every voice is heard and valued. This reflects the world we live in and the depth in content the public is missing and starving to see.


It’s a win-win for the industry and audiences.



Aaron Braxton, a multi-hyphenated, creative artist based in Los Angeles, has roots in Roxbury, MA and Santa Rosa, CA. A SRJC graduate with a BA from SDSU, and a MA from USC, he transitioned from a career in education to become a multi-award-winning screenwriter, playwright, actor, and author. His best-selling children's novel, Jesse and the Caterpillar Who Got Its Wings, has captured the hearts of readers everywhere. Discover his extraordinary world at: www.aaronkbraxton.com.

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1 Comment


1talkofthetownpr
Jun 10

This article is exquisitely written and so damn true! Aaron Braxton, you are an untapped superstar talent for the ages!

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