I watched “The Express” a few weeks ago. It tells the story of Ernie Davis, a young black man who played US college football in the late 1950s. Like other recent movies (i.e. The Great Debaters and Glory Road), this is a movie about firsts. In this case, Ernie becomes the first black man to win the Heisman trophy.
It is also a story of individual achievement. Although American football is obviously a team sport, it is because of Ernie that the team wins. This is exemplified in the final game of the film when (spoiler alert) the team is winning at the end of the first half, then Ernie gets taken off (because of injury and the blatant racism of the opposing Texas team). While he sits in the locker room, Texas catches up and then pulls ahead, and it isn’t until Ernie forces his coach to put him back on the field that he makes an almost solitary touchdown and his team wins.
This genre of movies is growing. And I think it’s because it makes audiences feel good. Not only do we get to see ourselves as less racist than in the past because it is now common for blacks to be part of football, basketball and debating, we also get to feel less racist because we’re making movies about black history. But what kind of history are we telling?
I think that one of the central messages of these films is that if individual black people work hard enough, they can succeed. This is a comforting story because it means that structural change isn’t necessary. Rather, it locates the solution (and maybe implicitly the problem) in black people, rather than the structures that shape all of our lives. Even when structural changes are encountered, they are often simplistic ones like the “whites only” country club that is supposed to host the award ceremony for the trophy that Ernie wins. What’s missing is, among other things, an analysis of all the economic and political structures that keep higher numbers of non-white families living in poverty (compared to white families), with less access to health care and education.
I think we’re telling a history in these films that does not challenge the status quo, and that maybe that’s why there’s so much money getting put towards this genre of film right now.