Panel discussion tackles race and class in various films

By Austin Ferguson

The Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI) continued its slate of events for Black History Month with the Conversation Cafe on Feb. 18.

Before the event, CDI’s Executive Director Pamela Pruitt reinforced the overarching theme of CDI’s events for Black History Month.

“Freedom and equal opportunity,” Pruitt said. “Blacks in America have had that struggle to make sure that we continue to strive for ‘Blacknificent,’ which is the theme, to let everyone know that we are good people, we are brilliant people, we are excellent.”

The event took place in the Rue Auditorium in Sweigart Hall with the purpose of discussing contemporary issues in race and class, especially in regard to media. 

Moderated by the Assistant Director for CDI Jonathon Sun, the panel for the Conversation Cafe consisted of sophomore criminal justice major and CDI student employee Roberto Dacosta-Reyes, Assistant Professor of English Kelly Ross, Graduate Assistant for Residence Life Nikkaya Roper and Associate Professor of Music Justin D. Burton, who has completed research revolving around critical race theory.

Together, the panel tackled modern issues in race, class and gender, with an emphasis on race, through recently popular films that dealt with those issues. The list of movies discussed included “I Am Not Your Negro,” “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures,” “Black Panther,” “The Hate U Give,” “The Green Book,” “BlacKKKlansman” and the first season of the FX mini series “American Crime,” subtitled “The People vs. O.J. Simpson.” 

The panelists first gave insight on “I Am Not Your Negro,” which was director Raoul Peck’s vision of American author James Baldwin’s unfinished book, “Remember This House,” which was intended to detail Baldwin’s accounts of the assassinations of his friends and activists Medger Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.

Dacosta-Reyes, Ross and Burton all expressed admiration for Baldwin’s work before his untimely death due to stomach cancer in 1987.

“It’s because of people like James Baldwin that help us make these films about injustice normalized and people can actually think about it without the films being heavily criticized for being too radical,” Dacosta-Reyes said.

Ross added, “[Baldwin] really confronts classism and racism, which is part of what makes it such a fascinating film.”

Burton was both fascinated and frustrated with how well Baldwin’s messages echo in today’s society.

“Why do we need Baldwin in 2016 to wake us up,” Burton began. “When he already said these things? One of the frustrating things about Baldwin is how we can replay him now, and we’re dealing with the same stuff.  It’s an indictment that we would be woken up by James Baldwin decades after he tried to.”

After tackling similar themes of injustice and the black experience in negative lights in other films, the panelists offered their opinions on “Black Panther,” which shows the epitome of what Sun called “black imagination” in terms of defining black excellence.

Roper expressed her admiration for the film.

“With this movie, it was such an empowering thing for me. When [Black Panther] came out, the black community felt so hyped. This was for us, we were represented. Wakanda wasn’t just villages or huts, it was buildings and so much technology, like Vibranium,” Roper said.

Roper also highlighted the final dialogue between the characters of T’Challa and Kilmonger.

“It kind of represents the black community when it comes to change,” Roper said. “When one person wants to bring change, bring good to something, there will always be someone in your own community who suffers pride or jealousy and wants that for themselves.”

The only film that the panel found quite a bit of criticism for was “The Green Book,” which Burton outlined what he found problematic with the fundamentals of the 2018 drama.

“The perspective is entirely a white one,” Burton said. “It’s entirely about how a white man comes into contact with a black man and becomes better because of it. Mahaersha Ali’s character was flat … and that’s because [director] Peter Farrelly made a movie about race without consulting anybody who knew anything about race. God, I hate that movie.”

The Conversation Cafe finished with the panel discussing how everyone, including students and faculty on Rider’s campus are able to tackle issues of race on a daily basis.

“We notice what’s going on, but we’re not really doing anything,” Roper said.  “It’s figuring out the gap and how to fill that gap.”

Ross added, “Specifically with media, my friends who are directors always say, ‘Go see movies made by directors of color and go see movies directed by women, because they are out there… but they’re not getting widely released and they’re not getting rewarded.”

CDI’s next event for Black History Month will take place on Feb. 23, when it will host Soul Food Sunday in Daly Dining Hall at 4:30 p.m.

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