Of the numerous crimes committed by Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the gravest one is that it is self-indulgent beyond measure. Tarantino describes it as a personal film, and I don’t disagree. True to form, his cinematic exercises are all about him. The whole affair reminds me of something Spike Lee used to say about the difference between white and black filmmakers, about how white directors can make a film that loses money (which Hollywood didn’t) or is just bad (which Hollywood is) and still receive second chances with decent budgets intact, but that black filmmakers get one chance to win or they’re done. It is not an absolute truth anymore (if it ever was), since black audiences and art have proven to be more viable markets since the 90s, but it was certainly true enough back when Spike said it.
One of the reasons why that second (or third or fourth) chance is important in film is because directing is a craft that, even if you have a natural proclivity for it, takes time to nail down. Surprising no one, white creators still receive multiple chances to take risks and figure out the market and elevate their skill set. They have every opportunity to learn the business, their craft, and the art form despite the occasional failure. White creators traditionally get to be what black creators do not: free to fail. Black creators not only aren’t given such chances, but often have to create opportunities for themselves.
All of which brings me to the series A Black Lady Sketch Show and Pose.
A Black Lady Sketch Show is not very funny. In three episodes I have laughed a handful of times. It has the beat and rhythm of the school its creators come from: the internet. And while I almost never make a case for diverse representation as reason enough to watch a show, I recognize the show’s historic import. It is inspiring to see the creative decisions and values of free black women, stretching the idea of comedy and destroying perceptions of a monolithic black womanhood. The sketches do not hit most of the pitches they swing at for my taste, but I was pleased to see traditional subjects and issues that, at any other time, are relegated to droll thinkpieces. It is not a good show, but it is an important one, and because of its singular nature, they deserve every chance to get it right, every chance to become great.
By the same token, I enjoy Pose a great deal. It’s a little surreal and camp, but so is the ball culture from which it derives much of its world and values. It is not a perfect show but it, too, is a necessary show. It is refreshing to see black and Latinx LGBTQ culture presented, not in a didactic or pedestrian way, but in an earnest and natural way; with its humanity intact, and all that entails. It is refreshing to see a love story or a dramatic arc play out with people who do never get shine, treated with the complexity that every other character in a series of its scale receives as a given. It is a show about the humanity of people society still treats as though they have none, and unapologetic about what space it has earned. It, too, is not a flawless production, but it is a series one can root for, its star secure in the firmament of culture-changing media. As a rule I don’t condone mandatory viewing as activism, but Pose makes such platforms easier to swallow precisely because it doesn’t need your pity/political watch. It’s just a good show that (two seasons in) keeps getting better, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s an award magnet.
Black creators are taking their shots, and while they’re not all net, they are putting points on the board, and well outside the traditional spectrum of black representation. May they at least get the shots of their contemporaries to get it all right.