- Arts & Entertainment
- Politics & Government
- Race & Diaspora
- Social Justice
- Women & Gender
- Youth & Family
Influential Moments in Black Culture: 2015 Edition
Written by Saudia Durrant on January 2, 2016
2015 was a defining year of social and political achievements in the African-American community. We experienced extreme highs and lows, ranging from Bree Newsome relieving South Carolina of its Confederate flag to the lack of police officer indictments in the killings of Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland.
While the gap between progress and struggle is complex, let us look back at ten amazing moments in 2015 for unapologetic Blackness:
This year jumped to an amazing start, with Ava DuVernay emerging in a male-dominated film industry with a raw and fresh approach to depicting a major icon in social justice. David Oyelowo led a tremendous cast as civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. during the fight to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Selma, Alabama.
DuVernay’s unapologetic portrayal of America’s dark past ruffled some feathers, specifically for the unglamorous depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Many believed this was the reason DuVernay was snubbed by the Oscars for a Best Director nomination, but she won in other ways, such as getting her very own Barbie doll and receiving major recognition for opening up new lanes of achievement for Black women.
Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza, and Patrice Cullors had no idea that a conversation on Facebook would lead to a new chapter in the civil rights struggle, specifically (but not exclusively) for millennials. After the shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida, and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a movement was birthed from social unrest. The brutal deaths of innocent Black men like Emmitt Till and Medgar Evans echoed and forced conversations about race on social media.
The subsequent failure to indict police officers in the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and Tamir Rice inspired a new generation to organize and mobilize. #BlackLivesMatter has transcended what some assumed to be a trend and become a serious political movement, fueled by Black millennials who have leveraged this platform to directly address 2016 presidential candidates such as Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders.
After a 14-year career trek, ballerina Misty Copeland became the first African American woman to be promoted to a principal dancer at the 75 year-old American Ballet Theater.
It took a 32-year-old woman of color to change the standards of the dance world, giving hope to thousands of young, aspiring Black ballerinas. Copeland also earned a spot on Time’s 2015 List of the 100 Most Influential People and sparked the trending hashtag #BlackGirlsBallet.
Despite its public use during the Jim Crow Era and by the Ku Klux Klan, the Confederate flag still circulates freely and is protected by the First Amendment. In July of 2015, a young Black woman named Bree Newsome firmly objected to this and decided to literally take the matter in her own hands by removing the Confederate flag from a flagpole at the South Carolina state Capitol. “You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today,” she stated to police officers demanding her retreat.
Newsome was immediately arrested and charged with a misdemeanor offense. When asked in an interview why she removed the flag, she responded, “It is time for us to bury hate. It’s been too long. It’s literally killing us.”
Viola Davis became the first African American woman to win Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series at the 67th Annual Emmy Awards. She was nominated for her role in Shonda Rhimes’ “How to Get Away With Murder,” alongside other Black female powerhouses like Taraji P. Henson (“Empire”), Kerry Washington (“Scandal”), and Gabrielle Union (“Being Mary Jane”), who were visibly and openly excited for her, disproving the stereotype that Black women are unsupportive of one another’s successes.
While delivering her acceptance speech, Davis acknowledged the difficulty for actresses of color to receive leading roles and major accolades compared to their white counterparts.
The 20th anniversary of the Million Man March in October united the Black community in a fresh call for “Justice or Else.” The commemorative demonstration, which took place in Washington, D.C. just like the original, allowed Black men and women to lead the discourse on the communal anguish of inhumane killings, and the unwavering pledge to end white supremacy.
The mothers of Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, and Trayvon Martin appeared together, reminding the world that we should never forget the flawed justice system that failed their children. Minister Louis Farrakhan returned as a major organizer, using his voice to challenge the community to pursue self-improvement as well as to acknowledge a new era in the civil rights movement.
The University of Missouri found itself at the center of controversy after years of campus racism hit a new high. Student activists from the movement Concerned Student 1950 organized a campus hunger strike as an effort to force the school’s administration to acknowledge and repair its social strife. Leaders demanded change in response to University system president Tim Wolfe’s refusal to respond to Black students’ reports of racial antagonism and race-related safety concerns.
The strike gained more national attention after Mizzou’s Black football players refused to suit up until Wolfe’s resignation. Days later, the school board requested the immediate resignation of Wolfe and announced measures that would be taken to reassess race relations. This moment proved of the power of organized and economics-driven responses to systemic racism!
John Boyega, actor and one of the leads in the newest installment of the “Star Wars” series, found himself in the middle of a major Twitter war during what should have been pure excitement about the new film. Racist fans exploded in anger upon seeing him in a trailer for this latest chapter in the franchise, outraged that it featured a Black character in a starring role. Tweets circulated demanding “justice” for white actors with the hashtag #BoycottStarWarsVII. One tweet even stated, “If White People aren’t wanted in Star Wars, then our money must not be either.”
Never mind that the film series’ creator, George Lucas, is married to a Black woman, or that African American stars like Samuel L. Jackson, James Earl Jones and Billie Dee Williams all had major roles in previous installments.
Boyega smoothly countered his trolls in a New York Times interview by saying, “I’m confident in who I am, and I’m a confident Black man. A confident, Nigerian, Black, chocolate man. I’m proud of my heritage and no man can take that away from me.” Another win for unapologetic Black excellence.
“Straight Outta Compton” smashed the summer’s box office expectations, chronicling the lives of N.W.A., a rap group that revolutionized pop culture with raw lyrics about the hard realities in inner cities, gun violence, racism, and police brutality. It followed N.W.A’s formation in the gang-ridden streets of Los Angeles, their ascension to fame, their challenges to racism and police brutality, internal group conflicts, and the building of new hip hop generation.
From its opening scene to the sobering final moments depicting Eazy-E’s untimely death, “Straight Outta Compton” was a massive hit that earned $134.1 million and the number one film spot by just 17 days after its release. Producers Dr. Dre and Ice Cube opened the doors for a new wave of Black actors, including Ice Cube’s son O’Shea Jackson, Jr., who gave an amazing performance as his own father.
NBC’s “The Wiz Live!” reminded Sony Entertainment and other production companies that Black actors can more than hold their own. The live television musical starred newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy in an adaptation of the 1975 Broadway hit “The Wiz” — which itself was an all-Black remake of the 1939 classic film “The Wizard of Oz.” The Broadway musical was turned into a star-studded film in 1978, boasting talents like Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Lena Horne and Richard Pryor.
“The Wiz Live!” featured dazzling costumes, trendy choreography and major musical talent (including Ne-Yo, Queen Latifah, Elijah Kelley, and Mary J. Blige), raking in roughly 1.1 million viewers for its debut. It also surpassed ratings expectations, performing 42% higher than NBC’s 2014 airing of “Peter Pan Live.”
It was named the most tweeted live segment program on record, tripling the numbers of tweets for “The Sound of Music Live” in 2013.