Tonight the Black Lives Matter Global Network took to the Oscars stage. Five years of building up black communities. Five years of experiencing police repression. Five years of centering black stories as the way we honor both the dead and the living. We took to the Oscar stage because Black Lives Matter refuses to stop fighting and loving and pushing for the dignity of black people everywhere.
There is an African proverb: “Until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero.” In no place is that more true than American filmmaking. Each year, the Academy Awards are a celebration of hunters and a silencing of lions: a glorification of the lion’s slaughter through the centering of white film and stories. These stories both create and feed white fantasy; they enable Eurocentrism and entitlement with carefully constructed, beautifully written tales about white love, war, domination, family, power and every imaginable interaction, both real and imagined, that affirms for white filmgoers that everything is, indeed, about them, and the stories remind people of color of their insignificance.
This practice came to a head in 2016 when #OscarsSoWhite protested that every single Oscar nominee was white and most of the films made that year were white-centered. This in a nation where people of color were almost 40 percent of the population and were projected to outnumber whites by 2050; in a world where people of color were the vast majority—whites constitute only about 16 percent of the global population; and at a time where people of color were unapologetically struggling for racial justice through #BlackLivesMatter and #NoDAPL.
The 2016 awards marked the taking of a side; it was a declaration that filmmakers were hunters. But the proverb about lions and hunters is not simply one of diversity and inclusion; it is ultimately a proverb about power. It is about whose stories get told and how the telling of stories both mirrors and embeds societal power.
Lions telling stories is about reframing who is the hero or shero. Lions telling stories is about reminding folks that there is a savanna undiscovered by hunters, that there are relationships between lions, between men and women, children and adults; there is a search for food and the building of shelter. For black people, there is love, not only war. Stories by and for black people are not fantasy. There is no time for escapism—only radical imagining and freedom dreams for Wakandas and Wrinkles.
Stories are also about affirming our existence. In a world that tries to erase our presence, our stories are a claiming of space. They tell us that we are not alone or crazy, that we are not who they tell us we are. When black people tell stories, we also uplift black reality. We retell the stories of black struggle, not through the creation of a messianic leader or, worse, white saviors, but through the masses of black people who made up the civil rights movement in Selma.
We remind folks that when police steal the lives of our people, they are stealing fathers and sons who have love and laughter away from their daughters, mothers and uncles, as they did with Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station. When black people tell stories, there is the amplification of black realities—of realities yet untold except by those who live them.
Where are the films about stopping Los Angeles, the largest jailer in the world, from incarcerating people in black and poor communities? Where are the films about the 55,000 houseless people, the 1 in 22 black men, who live on the streets of Los Angeles? Where are the stories of Wakiesha Wilson, Ezell Ford, Redel Jones, Kisha Michael, Kendrec McDade, Anthony Weber or any of the 400 people killed in the last five years by police in Los Angeles County? Where are the stories of black domestic abuse survivors like Marissa Alexander, who dared to stand up to her abuser and was imprisoned for it in Florida, the same state where George Zimmerman was protected by “Stand your ground” law as he stalked and murdered 17-year-old Trayvon Martin?
When black people’s stories are told, we need not be perfect to be heroes; we can be complicated, broken and brilliant Killmongers. We can stand at the intersections of black, queer, revolutionary writer identities. When lions tell stories, they are messy and complicated and beautiful and ugly all at the same time. And every story shapes and is shaped by black realities.
The Black Lives Matter Global Network took to the Oscar stage because we are “rooting for everybody black”—because through black filmmakers, our stories are told without making the hunters the heroes.
Melina Abdullah is professor and chair of Pan-African studies at Cal State L.A. She is one of the original members of Black Lives Matter and a core organizer with the Los Angeles chapter. Abdullah is a single soccer mama of three children.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors is an artist, organizer and freedom fighter from Los Angeles and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network. She is a New York Times best-selling author, popular public speaker and Fulbright scholar.