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Questions Brought Up By Killing Me Softly: The Roberta Flack Documentary (2014)

October 9, 2015

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Why is there a divide among us as a society based on the experiences we’ve had? The narrative of Mike Connolly’s ultra self-aware documentary Killing Me Softly is an encapsulating interrogation of this notion. It doesn’t present the typical rags to riches tale of Roberta Flack’s life as it so slyly mentions in its opening. It can’t because Roberta’s life won’t allow that. The documentary instead uses Roberta’s fame and career to examine bigger issues in our society, like the problem of representation and the clamor for authenticity. Often times those who digest art ramble about its authenticity, an argument that I stand both for and against. On one hand audiences want to know that the picture being painted physically or lyrically in a song is true to the artist’s own life. We tend to become fascinated with calling out others because their representation of life doesn’t fit into what we know as “true”. The narrative of Killing Me Softly focuses on how Roberta’s middle-class upbringing affected her music styling’s, lyrical arrangements, and how her crossover into mainstream society left her out of conversations on soul and Blackness at the time and even now, simply because her model of Blackness didn’t fit the scheme of society’s.

The same is said of modern musicians today. Rapper, Drake’s authenticity has continuously been called into question since he rose to prominence. Major complaints have taken place that his Canadian heritage, television fame, and docile looks doesn’t qualify him to rap on top of hard beats or curse and immolate the slang of the culture he grew up in. The representation of his life from his own eyes and voice gets poked and prodded as if we the spectator and listener can see through him and know of his life’s experiences better than him. Art is art, shouldn’t we just accept what’s in the frame if it feels authentic and is effective in its ability to connect with people’s emotions and their own experiences regardless of background? I never thought I’d mention Drake in a review, especially one focused on legendary musicians… but I did.

Why are we so adverse to focusing on the positives aspects of society manifested in the pre-1964 segregation era? We tend to ignore that time period because of the negatives, but society wasn’t all horrid and to ignore that is to deny accurate representations of the past. A decent amount of Blacks excelled in that time. Some were able to live in middle and upper classes in their own areas and neighborhoods. Nuclear families existed. Few films of the era even delve into this reality, but most notably Eartha Kitt’s powerhouse film Anna Lucasta does. There was a pride installed in the homes of these Black families who wanted respect and prosperity. We tend to ignore this in virtually every portrayal or conversation of that time period in current speech.

 

Why is it so difficult to allow for alternative representations of Black lives throughout history? Instead it seems we are obsessed with creating the image that prosperity among Blacks throughout history is owed to white wealth and outside aid. This only perpetuates the stereotypes of Black inferiority as Black representation seems to only focus on overcoming adversity and poverty. While these are very real, and much-needed representations of the strife that many Blacks endure, it’s a disservice to the race as a whole to lack alternative representations of Black lives. Race sadly always has been and will continue to exist as an issue until we can consciously expand our awareness in this plane of existence to see beyond it. But, the stories of artists who were given a chance by determined Black families that worked hard to build up careers and financial stability is often ignored. Outside of the occasional television show or film from the 1990’s, we rarely see stories that depict the households that produced Black youths whom thirved in college then built careers and sought to pursue higher opportunities for themselves and their future offspring. Why are these stories ignored instead of allotted to bring pride into the hearts and mind of the general population?

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Why don’t we as a society give more credit and reverence to the Black singer-songwriters of the 1970’s? Take a moment to think of the quintessential Black soul artists of the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Who are the first to come to mind? We often times get so caught up giving allegiance to the soul singers of mainstream clout who possessed great vocal talent, but whose success is largely owed to their phenomenal backing bands and the songwriters who wrote their catchy hooks. The artists that are often thought of first come from similar backgrounds of racial strife and gospel singing to ultimately blow mainstream white America out of the water with their talent. Yet, often times we forget, or even just ignore, the phenomenal soul singers who not only confronted race, societal, and political structures, but also wrote, organized, and constructed their own style of music like Eugene McDaniel, Gil Scott Heron, The Last Poets, Odetta, and Donny Hathaway. These artist not only blew away listeners of all races, but they painted pictures of a diverse Black society in America at the time holding anyone who listened to their lyrics accountable for now knowing the truth.

The great, uplifting achievements of these people fall out of the general consciousness leaving an impacting impression on the very few instead of the hungry many. Roberta Flack’s music was considered “white” by many during her peak. Her influence got diminished because her upbringing bestowed a difference of perspective to what most are used to hearing and reading about Black lives. Roberta’s influence has been timeless, enough that her music has bridged the gap between races and the ages from music sampling to covers by contemporary artists. Yet even still, despite all the amazing things Roberta has contributed to the popular music genre, if you don’t mention the song “Killing Me Softly” people still ask, who is Roberta Flack?

SEE IT. What questions does it call to mind for you?

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