Sterling K Brown: ‘I’ve never seen this black family on screen’

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John Sciulli

The new film Waves has sparked a broader conversation about black representation on screen and in Hollywood. Its star actor, Sterling K Brown, explains why.

This is an actor who is no stranger to family drama. From his appearance in the groundbreaking film Black Panther, to starring in NBC’s hit series “This is Us”, the Golden Globe and two-time Emmy award winner has made a career of tackling complex family dynamics that challenge perceptions of what it means to be black in America.

Brown continues that trend in his latest film, Waves, written and directed by Trey Shultz. The movie follows an upper-middle-class black family shattered by a traumatic event. Brown plays the father, Ronald, whose intentions of keeping his family together and creating a better life for his children ultimately backfire.

Waves transcends common depictions of black families on screen by challenging ideas of black masculinity, black family dynamics, and status. But Brown concedes that part of the power behind the film is the narrative it tells using majority black actors.

Brown also admitted he was nervous to take on a film that might contribute to stereotypes of the African American male as violent.

“You don’t want to see him vilified,” he tells the BBC. “I think [they] did a wonderful job of humanising this young boy, recognising that he was lost. He is good and he made a terrible mistake.

“And so I realised that that fear was the reason not to step away, but it was the thing to step into.”

Stepping into complex roles has defined Brown’s career. And though race isn’t always an explicit focus, he seems drawn to roles that reiterate that the black experience is not monolithic, but multidimensional.

“I’ve definitely never seen this black family on screen before because they’re an upper-middle-class family. They’re not struggling to survive, they have means, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have problems.”

He adds: “I think there are as many ways of being black as there are black people,” a concept he feels is not always apparent in television and film.

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The Williams family in Waves eat together at a diner

Hollywood film veteran and current professor at American University, Russell Williams, highlights this idea when he tells the BBC: “In most films that feature an African American family, a major conflict that they are experiencing is because they are African American.”

Waves premieres at a time when conversations around diversity and representation in Hollywood have grown increasingly common.

It used to be commonly thought that there could be only one black role per film, says Brown. “Whether you’re in comedy and it was Eddie Murphy and in dramas, Denzel Washington… everybody else was like ‘well, Denzel’s eating right now, I guess I have to wait for these crumbs from the table of joy.'”

Black actors have always struggled to feature in mainstream television and film. In the late 1960s and 1970s Hollywood first came to realise there was an African American audience willing to spend their money if they saw themselves portrayed on screen.

The Hollywood-financed film Shaft – starring black actors – did so well that it saved its parent media company from going under financially. This sparked the “blaxploitation” era in Hollywood, and black actors began to appear more in mainstream media.

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Richard Roundtree in seminal blaxploitation crime drama Shaft, in 1971

“You may have had black actors on screen, but the writers and directors were not. So they were very cardboard, mainly stereotypical. There was very rarely well developed characters in those years,” says Professor Williams.

“As we bring things forward, there are a lot more roles on screen. You see a diverse representation of African Americans but still numerically that’s not going to compete with the major market, but I would say overall the industry seems to be moving in the correct direction.”

Williams says that films like Waves set the right tone not only for movie-going audiences but also decision-makers in the industry.

“You have to have people in the room, either as the writers, producers, directors and even in the independent or studio system that decides what money and which projects are going to be put in play, to really change the entire face of the motion picture inclusion world.

“I’m very excited to see if this [film] is the kind of leeway that directors are going to have in terms of telling more diverse stories.”

Brown says he hopes his roles help diversify the African American narrative on screen and also have this ripple effect in the industry.

“I think sometimes the younger people can think that that we exist in a post racial society. I’m 43, so everything [for me] is viewed through the prism of being an African American.

“What I’m hopeful for is that I help create opportunities for others. When you step out into the world, you’re not just representing yourself but your family and, whether you like it or not, your community at large.”

Additional reporting by Chelsea Bailey

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