During the past award season, a familiar refrain was that 2013 was “the year of black film.” Of course, those films have nothing to do with one another, and it’s unfair to dump a historical drama about a wrongly enslaved man, a romantic comedy about a flight attendant, and a biopic about a legendary baseball star all into the same category simply because they’re directed by and/or star black people. Still, despite the frequent recognition of 2013’s output of “black film,” very few received award recognition. And, as people begin speculating about the 2014/2015’s award season, it appears Hollywood has returned to status quo with a noticeable lack of racial diversity.
Right now, the majority of black life in film tends to be about dating or historical in nature. Hollywood seems to prefer seeing blacks in the past or as fonts of comedy. While last year’s critical favorites 12 Years a Slave and The Butler were based on books, work by black authors generally doesn’t make it to the big screen. Why? Well, they usually feature black people, which studios feel will limit the audience and therefore have weaker financial returns. But as with The Butler, Best Man Holiday, Think Like a Man, Ride Along, and several Tyler Perry films, movies with predominantly black casts make money. Literature by black authors is rich with silver screen potential and shows a diversity of that’s sorely missing.
The following is a list of novels by black authors that would make great films:
1. The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle
The elements of supernatural and horror in this psychological thriller would make it a perfect match for late-night big screen viewing. Pepper, a big man with poor impulse control, finds himself sent to an impoverished Queens mental institution for a crime he can’t seem to reconcile. He soon partners with Dorry, an elderly schizophrenic woman, Coffee, a man with severe OCD, and Loochie, a bipolar teenage girl. The quartet want to hunt the beast behind the silver door, possibly responsible for mysterious noises, smells, and missing patients. Is there really a beast, this devil that stalks the inmates? Or is it another delusion of the mentally ill, mistreated, in part, because of their lack of wealth?
2. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Although New Orleans became the national symbol for Hurricane Katrina’s destruction, many other cities along the Gulf Coast were devastated as well. Esch Batiste is a Mississippi teen, fascinated by the Greek myth of Medea and the loyalty that bonds children and parents. She and her brothers must prepare for the storm while their neglectful father lies injured and Esch comes to term with a heavy secret. Beasts of the Southern Wild and the HBO show True Detective have highlighted rural Louisiana towns, their poverty and resilience, and a film adaptation of Salvage the Bones could continue this trend, moving along the coast.
3. Long Division by Kiese Laymon
Long Division balances time travel with a coming of age story. In 2013, Citoyen “City” Coldson goes viral when video of his quiz show meltdown hits the internet. He’s sent to live with his grandmother in Melahatchie, Mississippi, armed with an odd, author-less book called Long Division that features a character also called City but set in 1985. This City and his friend Shalaya Crump have figured out a way to travel to the future where they steal personal items of Baize Shepard, who has gone missing in 2013. The story then shifts to 1964, with City and Shalaya helping another time traveler. The nonlinear storytelling can become hard to follow, but if audiences can trust a film like Looper with its time jumps, Long Division can be just as successful.
4. The Awesome Girl’s Guide to Dating Extraordinary Men by Ernessa T. Carter
Sharita is a conservative accountant looking for a Good Black Man to settle down with. Thursday is the daughter of a famous rapper and dates only white men. Risa is a punk rocker lesbian pining away for a lost love. And Tammy is a pampered model with something to prove.
“Chick Lit” may be a dismissive term for books about modern women’s dating habits but movies like He’s Just Not That Into You and Think Like a Man were both box office successes, so much so that the latter film has a sequel premiering this summer. The Awesome Girl’s Guide… would make a great romantic comedy, perfect for date night or Friends’ Night Out. The core group of friends deal with significant changes as they mature and learn that the “happily ever after” endings don’t always turn out the way we imagine.
5. Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler
It makes little sense why this trilogy, originally under the title Xenogenesis, has yet to make it to the silver screen. Lilith Iyapo awakens centuries after Earth is destroyed. The Oankali, an alien race, have been searching for survivors in order to crossbreed and repopulate the world. In the books Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago, humans fight to maintain their right to identity, and the parallels between their struggle and that of African-Americans post-American slavery are impossible to ignore. Science fiction on the big screen needs an injection of freshness. In the last few years, hope for the dystopian future relies mostly on teen white girls or middle-aged white men. After Earth, starring Will and Jaden Smith, was not as successful as it could have been, but there is space for people of color as leading characters in the future.