The Renaissance Is Black
January 29, 2021 2:04 PM EST

When I wrote my first movie script 10 years ago with a close friend, he and I argued about whether or not the main characters should be Black. I believed then that we wouldn’t be able to sell a movie with Black protagonists.

Things are different now. In the past few years, while publishers, film studios, streamers and networks have shown a surge of interest in Black stories, I’ve sold a book, Black Magic: What Black Leaders Learned From Tragedy and Triumph; a movie, One and Done, a story about a Black high school basketball phenom who commits a crime and resuscitates his dream at a historically Black university; and a television series, How to Survive Inglewood, about a suburban Black teenager who comes of age and comes to terms with his people after his parents’ ugly divorce.

See a pattern? I don’t go out pitching only Black projects. But it’s clear that today, the word Black is trendy in media marketing and boardrooms. It’s a buzzword. Blackness has become its own niche vertical for highbrow liberals. And within that vertical, there’s a window of opportunity for Black people to tell and sell our stories. But seizing it comes at a cost.

Gioncarlo Valentine

In my work as a writer, the cost is wedging my projects featuring Black protagonists through development processes run by white executives. To make it to greenlight, I’m asked to incorporate notes that dilute the tone and shorthand I use to reflect and resonate with Black people. The execs, of course, never tell me straight up to make my project more appealing to white folks. Instead they ask, for example, if I can “incorporate more levity to let in a broader audience.” The most common note I receive to whitewash my art is to “make the main character more likable.” In other words: reduce her confidence, edge and defiance, and inflate her gushy kindness and vulnerability. It’s a way of softening Black characters to fit preapproved roles, in a world where white characters can be real, cunning and cutthroat. Tony Soprano, Cersei Lannister and Walter White were kind and vulnerable at times. But their resilience and arrogance made them dynamic and even relatable. Why shouldn’t the same apply for my characters?

How did we get here, to this moment of conflicted opportunity for Black creators? There’s no one answer—it’s a blend of factors. One reality is that, in sports and music, Black athletes and artists have made boatloads of money for white executives for decades. Why wouldn’t anyone in the entertainment industry put their chips on Black? Another is the leverage Black creators have been able to build thanks to technologies like the iPhone and platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, TikTok, Twitter and Instagram. Those tools have made content creation and distribution more accessible for Black writers and filmmakers so they can prove their work comes with a built-in audience before going to corporations for buy-in. A third reason, though cynical, could be the high volume of clicks and views generated by traumatizing videos of our brutalization by police and neighbors. Hollywood has been profiting on stories of Black suffering since its beginning. But these viral videos might, subconsciously or overtly, be leading media executives to lean toward producing more of that content. And yet another factor, one that feels particularly current, is those same executives feeling the pressure of the moment to perform inclusion. Or maybe they just genuinely want to support our work. Maybe.

Regardless of why, there is a feeding frenzy now for Black creatives, and we need to move fast. Because moments pass. A few weeks ago, a family friend in her 60s called me. She’s seen this cycle before. She called to tell me she was doing her best to get her employer to buy my book in bulk while the company was working to show efforts to educate its employees on Black experiences. As our phone call concluded, she warned, “Hurry up and send me the preorder link, young Chad. You know this window won’t be open for long.” I believe her.

It feels like every 10 to 15 years the floodgates of Black opportunity open. We’re trendy once per decade like baggy pants, tie-dye and the actual color, black. Michael Jordan, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Eddie Murphy defined international pop culture in the early ’90s while the L.A. riots simmered. In 2008, President Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American President of the United States two years before Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy announced hip-hop’s transition from an important Black musical genre to the defining sound of the early 21st century.

Alexis Hunley

Each of these moments seemed primed to solidify opportunities for Black creators and permanently elevate conversations about equality in our country. Instead we got Donald Trump as our President. The current moment of opportunity for Black artists could be seen as a product of Trump’s presidency, which boldly highlighted the centuries of crimes against Black people in the U.S. that continue today. But now Joe Biden is President and Kamala Harris, a Black woman, is Vice President. And the Wicked Witch is gone. Does that mean we’ve achieved racial equality?

Hell the f-ck no. The societal failures that led to Trump’s election in the first place remain. But the symbolic healing of Biden’s victory may reduce the appetite for Black voices and ideas. Every time I received a “Happy Inauguration Day” text on Jan. 20, I wondered, Will those book deals and greenlights all soon fade away?

Maybe. So what does that mean for me, now, as a creator? It means I have an urgent choice. I can license my experiences and culture while the opportunity exists. Or I can pass. If I choose the former, I have to know that corporate interest in my stories will fade when attention diverts, and that the experience of selling off pieces of my stories will hurt. It’s uncomfortable and humiliating to sit in rooms full of white people and explain our pain over and over again. It’s demeaning to take notes on my screenplays and stories from white executives at studios and networks who encourage me to change my voice for “mainstream” audiences. If I take the money, those are the taxes I pay.

But the choice is mine. I can take the money, or leave it. I can think of these opportunities as some form of reparations, because I know no actual reparations will come, or I can reserve myself and leave that money on the table. That is a choice for each Black creator—and each Black person—to make right now.

Lynsey Weatherspoon for TIME

It’s the choice we face when companies invite us to speak to rooms full of white employees about our experiences as Black people in corporate America. It’s the choice of affirmative action. It’s the choice of accepting or declining a promotion or new job that feels like a representation grab, and risking being demeaned and devalued as such. Every Black employee is faced with that choice when given the mic in a meeting to speak as the voice of “diversity.” Each person must make that choice with the strength of their own stomach and their own bills in mind.

But I’m going to seize the moment. After all, I’m a subject-matter expert. I’ve been Black for 300,000 hours. (Which means I’ve reached my 10,000 hours of master training 30 times over, thank you very much, Malcolm Gladwell.) I’m a creator and an entrepreneur, and money is leverage. I choose to seize that leverage to do what I can to keep this window open for myself and others when the day comes that Blackness is no longer trending. For me that means creating more, partnering with Black producers, hiring Black production crews and investing in fellow Black artists. It means telling my story—the story of a Black creative and entrepreneur—right now, while it’s happening, so others like me can stand beside me to hold this window open.

But make your own choices. That’s freedom.

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