CultureFilm / TV

stop turning black stories into white apologist trash

April 19, 2019
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The Best of Enemies starring Taraji P Henson and Sam Rockwell is gearing up to be this year’s Green Book — A narrative intended to be around the Black experience that ultimately serves as white apologist trash. From the beginning, I and others automatically saw this as a Black woman and her love of the Klan help save the day in a town struggling with integration. Unfortunately, this telling like many other retellings of our ancestors’ biopics couldn’t be further from the truth.

It wasn’t until this week that I actually saw a picture of Ann Atwater — the civil rights activist being portrayed by Taraji that I wanted to know more about the real woman. Ann was actually darker than Taraji, more heavyset and most importantly, not an apologist. I decided to watch a clip of her on YouTube discussing how she and Claiborne P. Ellis — the former Klansman —eventually became friends. But it was not her love of him, or white folks that created that.

Ann is very clear in the clip that he used to refer to her and her people as ‘niggers’ and she was quick to call him and his people ‘crackers’. That she went toe to toe with him as an adversary on a regular basis. That it was the Black and white children who wanted to go to school together that made her decide to finally work with him on integration. Not Paul. She also states she helped him become a Christian because it was the Lords purpose for her. There was no love story. She was a Black woman, radical for those times and that’s the part that will get lost in story, much like our other civil rights leaders.

I think about how I was taught about MLK and Malcolm X. Two figures that throughout elementary school were often juxtaposed against one another. King, seen as the symbol of peace with X, seen as the more radical ideologue with his protest centered in violence. We were taught by white folks to “Have a Dream,” but never discussed his nightmare that was fighting white supremacy during the 60’s.

It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned about the radical King actually was. The protests, times spent in jail, the fighting back despite most of the nation and his own community not agreeing with the civil rights movement. How often he called out white the dangers of white moderates and how hard the state through a program called COINTELPRO attempted to take his life. King was turned into a symbol in an attempt to appease white guilt. I often say they only loved him after they killed him.

In movie depictions he is the peacemaker who worked in tandem with Lyndon B Johnson. Interestingly enough, when Ava DuVernay created the movie Selma, she decided to go the more realistic route of what actually happened vs how white people have turned Johnson into a white savior, much like they did Lincoln and Washington. This realistic depiction of Johnson as someone who was just as anti-Black as most white men during the 60’s was met with immediate backlash from the Hollywood critic community, which in turn led to Selma’s struggles during award season despite it’s great storytelling.

Compare that to Hidden Figures, which re-wrote the racists boss character to show him destroying a “colored only” bathroom sign just to make him seem like “a good white person” in the end. That never actually happened and most of the men in that movie at the end, although shown as compassionate remained racists in real life. The Black women who were radical for the work they did still remained hidden figures.

In real life, our story has always been much different from that in the history books. It has always been an attempt by white folks in power to rewrite the narrative of our existence at every chance to reduce the guilt felt from being the descendants of slave owners and domestic terrorists. The pressure has always fallen on us to have to get it correct at the expense of backlash and blackballing and even death. There is a reason many of our civil rights leaders are no longer with us, and it was often the hands of whiteness that took us out.

Even with Greenbook, Mahershala Ali who played Dr. Don Shirley was called out by the family of Shirley who states their fathers character inaccurate portrayal. Although Ali apologized, Viggo Mortenson who played the white racist Tony Lip who ends up getting past his thoughts to befriend Shirley spoke out against the Black family saying the film was accurate. Of course, the movie was written and produced by the white sons of Tony Lip. Another attempt to reduce their father’s racism and erase the true narrative of the Black experience.

It is important that we as Black people no longer allow white media to retell our stories, erasing our real-life experience. We see it happen on that level and it mirrors what happens in the streets. Systems of violence like police brutality reduced to “one bad apple narratives,” reducing the Black experience.

All in all, these attempts to rewrite our stories is to further push assimilation into white society as if “peace” was ever what they wanted. Our icons are radical and revolutionary. Their stories deserve to be told in that way. I’d hate to see how they will re-write the history books for Donald Trump; I can only imagine voices like Candace Owens will be what they record, rewriting the actual truth of the Black resistance under the hands of white supremacy.


Writer and author, George Johnson is bringing our viral conversations to real life situations.