Since the beginning of time, storytelling has been an important event in African and African American communities. Through storytelling, questions were answered, history was conveyed, and lifelong lessons were taught and learned.
The art of storytelling is deeply imbedded in African culture. In the western country of Ghana, storytellers were called “griots.” After dinner, villagers might hear the sound of a drum or a rattle announcing a story was soon to be told. They collected around a central fire and settled down to listen.
This ancient form of entertainment thrilled listeners, with stories about the gods and goddesses. Griots told tales of war and battle, heroes, leaders and kings. Stories were often accompanied with music, dancing and song. There was no written language, so stories kept their history alive.
When Africans were brought to the Americas during the infamous slave trade, the slavers denied them many of the traditions they had practiced for thousands of centuries. Stripped of their name, the right to pray to their gods or speak their native language, enslaved Africans held on to their stories of the Motherland. It was all they had.
After slaves were transplanted to America, the role of storytelling became even more important. It was the only known way slaves had to preserve their culture and legacy. Centuries later, prolific author Alex Haley set out to recapture the story of his ancestry, which became the best-selling book-turned-TV mini-series called Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The film aired in 1977 to a record-breaking 130 million viewers. It had great influence on awareness in the United States of African-American history and inspired a broad interest in genealogy and family history.
With a scant amount of roles going to people of color in Hollywood, African Americans have had to take control over their own narratives, or risk becoming obscure. Being ignored by Hollywood , however, has given black filmmakers creative autonomy and helped preserve the integrity of their story lines.
Though often made on a shoestring budget, some films have gone on to gain critical acclaim and attention rank high at the box office. Unable to sell his biopic, “Malcom X” to Hollywood executives, film maker Spike Lee, solicited funding from wealthy black celebrities. Many felt the film was snubbed by the industry and did not get the recognition it deserved, but Lee’ said regardless, the film was too important to black people not to make.
Stories of black life may not always translate into box office dollars, but they remain sentimental favorites and form bonds between filmmakers and their African American audiences. John Singleton’s urban movie, “Boyz ’n the Hood,” which captured the lives of young black men growing up in a gang ridden area of Los Angeles, is one example.
Tyler Perry’s plays, films, sitcoms and TV dramas have made him an undeniable commercial hit since he came on the national scene in the 1990s. As writer, producer, director and actor (as a male and as his female character, Madea), in his own films, Perry is known for a wide body of work which looks at black life from all sides. As of 2014, “The Haves and the Have Nots” has given Oprah Winfrey’s OWN its highest ratings to date. The series has also been critically acclaimed as being "one of OWN's biggest success stories…”
Lee Daniels has won two Academy Awards—one for “Monster's Ball,” which he produced, and for directing “Precious.” Acting awards went to Halle Berry and Monique for the respective films. In 2013, Daniels directed “The Butler,” a historical fiction drama featuring an ensemble cast portraying unique events on the 20th Century presidents of the United States at the White House. The Butler received positive reviews and became a box office success. He continues to wow audiences with his latest involvement with “Empire,” the new TV drama about a hip hop musical family business
If director Marie DuVernay’s biopic, “Selma” wins the Oscar for the best film on Sunday, she will stand on the shoulders of other great black story tellers. The 42 year-old director, who won the Best Director prize for her second feature film “Middle of Nowhere,” at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, became the first African-American woman to win the award. For her work in “Selma,” DuVernay is the first black female director to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award. With “Selma,” she is also the first black female director to have a film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, though did not receive a nomination for best director.