Why Hasn’t Octavia Butler’s Work Been Adapted?

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In an infamous debate with Art Critic Robert Brustein over the need for black theater, August Wilson, writer of such plays as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Fences, said that “those who would deny black Americans their culture would also deny them their history and the inherent values that are a part of all human life.” If we consider how little attention and funding is put towards to cultivation of black, and other oppressed minority, art in this country you can begin to understand why so little of our work has been transformed into the larger spectrum of mainstream culture – whether it be in anthologies of the “greats” or on the big screen.

Instead of Lilith’s Brood (also known as the Xenogenesis trilogy), which allows us to view human condition through the specifics of black culture, we see Will Smith tossed into films like Independence Day and I Am Legend, in roles devoid of any cultural significance and could be easily played by European Americans, and told to treat it as a substitute for black roles and/or films.

Moreover, any attempts of trying to present an African American-centered story for larger consumption is ultimately dismissed as “too black” thus unmarketable to mainstream audiences, who can’t seem to handle either playing the “other” even in terms of just being the audience of an experience or seeing black folks outside of stereotypes of what they think we are.  It’s no wonder why film projects featuring real life subjects such as Nat Turner Toussaint L’Ouverture have a hard time getting green lighted but a Quentin Tarantino’s fictionalized Django Unchained will probably out by the end of next year.

Also there is the point that Butler’s novels prominently feature black women in roles Hollywood isn’t quite ready to adapt. There are no sassy, neck-swerving, one-dimensional jezebels and mammies. But rather we see black women as leaders, heroines and immortals, contemplating their existence beyond the scope of racial, gender and social dynamics of this country, this time period and most cases, this world.  And in a society that likes to remind black folks of just how limited our existence be, no way should we be allowed to see ourselves anywhere near the future.

Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.

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