Wil Haygood is an author most recognized for his book “A Butler Well Served by this Election” that was later adapted into a movie The Butler directed by Lee Daniels.
Haygood also is a professor at Miami University in Oxford, OH. The Columbus native was a prevalent speaker through the Melvin Van Peebles Symposium on campus held from March 30 through April 1.
In his keynote speech on March 31, Haygood discussed how Black people have been treated in films and how this behavior has seeped into other sectors of our lives.
Film has a history of terrorizing black people. Haygood cites The Birth of a Nation as a stand-out example of extreme stereotypical depictions of Black people.
Despite this, the film made between $50 and $100 million over a 4-year domestic run and was the first movie shown in the White House. The Birth of a Nation is still recognized as one of the most controversial and racist movies to come out of Hollywood.
According to Haygood, films like this are the start of stereotypical roles only being the opportunities available to Black actors.
“Cinematically [Hollywood] doesn’t want anything to do with Black storytelling. We’ll take the maids, we’ll take the shoeshine man, and we’ll take the slave, but we will not take the full-scale human experience of t
he Black man, or the Black women, or the Black child.”
Films like The Birth of a Nation made it very hard not only to break into, but also make waves in the film industry as a Black person.
The first major Black filmmaker was Oscar Micheaux who made it entirely on donations and showing his movies on his own. It was decades later when Melvin Van Peebles came along with a similar impact on the industry.
“There was a mountain in front of Melvin Van Peebles...It’s very difficult to move a mountain when the country has an attitude that the mountain should be there.”
Peebles was a true pioneer to Black storytelling outside of stereotypes. When he faced doubts in Hollywood, like his predecessor Oscar Micheaux, he made the film himself and Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song grossed $15 million out of the box office. Haygood discussed this amazing progress.
“Melvin was inside of the mountain. He might not have been moving the mountain, but he found a way into the mountains,” he said.
Photos courtesy of James DeCamp and Paul Vernon.
Haygood touched on how book and movie bans for the sake of white fragility have become a common trend around the country. He highlights that in this time it’s important to uplift Black art and film to combat these threats to accurate story telling.
Haygood encouraged OWU students to walk up the mountain.
“Hollywood likes storytellers and people who have moxie. [...] Fly with your ideas because there are a lot of people who are waiting for you and waiting to open the door. [...] If you don’t do it then they won’t know that it exists, so you have to do it. You have to walk up to the mountain.”