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My fondest childhood memories involved reading. My mom—a painter, storyteller, and homeschooler—always took imagination seriously. She worked play and daydreaming into our daily routine with as much intention and care as math and chores.

As a child, I approached the 1980 John Patience “Tales from Fern Hollow” children’s series, about animals in a village nestled by the trees of Windy Wood, with the same seriousness as algebra.

When my mom opened other traditional children’s books to read to me and my six siblings, she colored the characters brown—literally.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, she used a simple brown pencil and re-invented the names: Snow White became Chestnut Brown, and Mary’s little lamb had “fleece as brown as wheat. And everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to bleat.”

My mom—an Afro-Indian from Trinidad and Tobago—had the great storytelling wisdom that power lies in the subliminal messaging, not in the content alone. Her decisions affected my dream life, my fantasies, and the landscape of my psyche. This holds true now, 20 years later, when I imagine stories as a director and filmmaking professor.

In a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, “The Woman King” director Gina Prince-Blythewood responded to the news that the film, despite being a box-office success, was not nominated for a single Oscar category in this year’s upcoming Academy Awards.

“Why is it so hard to relate to the work of your Black peers? What is this inability of Academy voters to see Black women, and their humanity, and their heroism, as relatable to themselves?” Prince-Blythewood asked.

Her question is not only about diversity, equity, and inclusion; it is about human empathy and identification. A prominent characteristic of whiteness is the inability for many to recognize another as human, in different terms, as a member of one’s own species.

Whiteness in Hollywood storytelling is universal because moviegoers of color have had to perpetually exercise their capacity to experience the human story through white bodies, and identify their own humanness in white characters.  

The latest University of California-Los Angeles Hollywood Diversity Report shows that Black women remain significantly underrepresented in top theatrical and streaming films. For directors, only three out of 10 were people of color for top films in 2021, and 2.2 out of 10 were women.

This makes the mid-budget of $50 million of “The Woman King” nearly double box office gross, with a Black female director at the helm, a significant achievement.

Certainly, the problem of empathy is best addressed in a therapist’s office, not a studio boardroom. But perhaps it can be more helpful to view this issue of invisibility and erasure within a psychoanalytic framework, since the construct of a film reflects the human psyche.

To be sure, I am not a psychologist, but as a director and film professor, I have studied the intricate link between cinema and the subconscious mind for over a decade.  

Psychoanalysis is useful because it stresses childhood events in the formation of the personality. Rooted in the past, it looks to childhood trauma for present healing. 

D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film “Birth of a Nation” standardized the feature film and secured cinema’s place as the leader of mass entertainment. The film was the birth of Hollywood’s gold standard, and the first film screened at the White House. If viewed through psychoanalysis, the film is arguably Hollywood’s earliest memory, and that flashback to childhood is fundamentally anti-Black. 

One can see the monstrous child in the film’s white men dressing up in pointed hoods, playing warrior in their murderous rage, and in its white women whose childlike innocence projects a threat onto every Black body in her vicinity. 

This, in turn, tapped into the monstrous child in the psyches of some white viewers, which revived the clan; Ku Klux Klan-ritualized processions of terror in the streets were common before screenings of the film.

While Black representation in film and television has improved in the century since “Birth of a Nation,” the systemic anti-Blackness that served as the creative reservoir for the film has not been addressed. 

The 2016 U.S. presidential election, racial gerrymandering, attacks on critical race theory, and murders of unarmed black people all resonate with the Jim Crow climate of 1915. 

In this sense, the anti-Black psychic energy that fueled “Birth of a Nation” lives on in society, and in our stories. From a psychoanalytic lens, Hollywood’s childhood trauma has not been resolved.  

In psychoanalysis, dreams are a tool for accessing repressed material. The late author Toni Morrison famously said, “As a writer reading, I came to realize the obvious: the subject of the dream is the dreamer.”

To Sigmund Freud, the latent content of a dream mattered more than the literal, manifest content.

Films are also a projections of the filmmaker’s psyche, using text and subtext to make them Hollywood’s dreams. The script is the manifest content, while casting and audio/visual storytelling creates the meaning.

A film like “The Woman King” is a different dream in a history of dreams that projected white fantasies that manifested Black women as mammies, jezebels, piccanninies, and mulattoes.

Its invisibility to the Academy proves the point: It’s not Hollywood’s dream.

Hollywood must not present the same latent content in different forms. Efforts to tell different stories will address the symptoms, at best, but real inclusion will be challenging.

Hollywood needs to treat stories with Black female characters as necessary for all human beings—because they are universal. These stories must also be funded with the same hefty budgets that films with male leads receive, which historically is not the case, according to the UCLA report.

At the Hollywood Reporter’s Producer Roundtable recently, Viola Davis, who became the first black woman to receive an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony Award, said of “The Woman King” that “there was no precedent for anything. You have a movie that’s predominantly Black-female-led. There is no male lead. We’re not in G-strings rolling down poles. We’re in dirt, not looking like any sort of bastion of male desirability.”

This story of Black womanhood has no place in the traumatized white child psyche. If Hollywood’s standards of the universal are based on a traumatized model, all characters are the stuff of nightmares. 

The aim of psychoanalysis is healing through catharsis. Many would contend the aim of storytelling is the same. Perhaps viewing and endorsing a film like “The Woman King” is scary to members of the Academy.

Instead, this film could be seen as the exact tool Hollywood needs to experience catharsis, offering the blessing of fear within the safety of a story. Films like this offer hope for the collective psyche to heal from the past and become more human.

As I learned early in life, the color of a story’s character makes all the difference.Rachel Bass is a two-time Directors Guild of America award-winning director, professor at DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts, and Public Voices Fellow through the OpEd Project. 

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