“You can’t cast too many Blacks in one film. Nobody will watch.”
“It’s just how it is.”
“It’s an absolute truth.”
As a child (born in 1958) growing up in a film industry family, I heard this “absolute truth” from the experts — writers, directors, producers, actors, costume designers. Although everyone I knew seemed to agree, I was puzzled. I remember asking what the difference was between an all-Caucasian cast and an all-any-other-racial-heritage cast. I didn’t understand why the industry, brimming with creativity, insisted on following the herd regarding this specific convention. Some expressed regret, so I asked why they didn’t do something to change it. Their answer was always a variation of “It’s-Just-How-It-Is.”
With its rocketing success, the film Black Panther has rewritten that “absolute truth” of my childhood. Of course, several other films have already shown this “truth” to be nowhere close to “absolute.” Black Panther is a strong and timely reminder that “absolute truths” should always be questioned. As a kid, I was also told that an all-female cast wouldn’t work, that if actors came out as gay their careers would grind to an abrupt halt, that females needed to be frighteningly skinny because everyone looks heavier on film and “nobody likes a girl with a fat ass” (a quote from an actor, at a dinner party, which drew raucous approval from men and women alike). I was told these “absolute truths” would “never change.”
Even the most decent adults can get bogged down in business analysis, lulled by the familiarity of convention, and lose track of the purity of an idea. Claudette Colvin was 15 years old in 1955, when she was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat on a bus. Malala Yousafzai was in her teens when she was shot in the head, and lived to become a voice for females and education worldwide. Emma Gonzalez — a survivor of the February 14, 2018, high school shooting in Parkland, Florida — has catapulted the #NeverAgain movement to unprecedented levels. Naomi Wadler was 11 years old when she took the stage on March 24, 2018, and stunned the nation with her eloquence in support of Black lives. Samantha Fuentes, wounded at the Parkland shooting, showed us that vomiting onstage can be an act of inspirational courage.
It’s-Just-How-It-Is can’t stop the Claudettes or the Malalas or the Emmas or the Naomis or the Samanthas. Sometimes we need young voices to remind us of the power of decency — hearts and minds unburdened by cost-benefit analysis, less tied to socio-cultural infrastructures. Until February 13, 2018, school shootings were “just how it is.” After February 14, 2018, with several killed and wounded at Margery Stoneman Douglas High School, It’s-Just-How-It-Is transformed into Never-Again.
Young people are rewriting our absolutes. They’re today’s self-evident truths and tomorrow’s inalienable rights. They’re our nation’s We-The-People, leading us as we renew our vows to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They’re our future and our now.
Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author. Her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, was written in reaction to seeing gay students bullied in high school. The story follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, with her circle of friends, as her new high school opens her world. Tightwire, Amy’s second novel, continues to follow Caroline, this time as a rookie psych intern treating her first patient — a stormy, brilliant, troubled young man who ran away from the circus to find himself. Amy’s blog includes posts about a variety of subjects including the resistance, gender equality, LGBTIQ+ ally support and racial equality. Amy collaborates with educators who include her books and essays in their classrooms.