In photographer Carell Augustus’ new book Black Hollywood: Reimagining Iconic Movie Moments, he takes some of cinema’s most memorable images — think Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain or Janet Leigh’s fateful shower in Psycho — and casts them with black actors and actresses, placing them in spaces that have been longed denied to them.
Augustus saw the project as a chance to address an omission that persisted well into the 1980s, when he grew up watching mainstream hits like Back to the Future and Say Anything.
“We were left out of these stories,” he said. “And oftentimes, when we saw ourselves in these stories, we were, you know, getting arrested or in a prison scene or in a gang scene. And I just wanted to do whatever I could to sort of change up the narrative, visually and artistically.”
Augustus shot his first photograph for the book back in 2010, before Black Lives Matter and #OscarsSoWhite. He knew people might view his project as a reaction to those movements.
“At some points, I found myself in tandem with these movements, and I just embraced it,” he said.
Surprisingly, you won’t find too many A-listers in these pages. No Denzel or Halle Berry, not that Augustus didn’t go for them.
“When I first started this book, my fantasy was to get all the Black A-listers in Hollywood, right? And then I realized if I did that, I would have probably 11 people,” he said.
He expanded his net, finding performers who may not be household names but have built a healthy portfolio of credits. Instead of Gene Kelly hanging from that street lamp, it’s Dulé Hill (The West Wing, Psych). Janet Leigh gets replaced by veteran actress Simbi Khali (3rd Rock from the Sun).
One of Augustus’ favorites was Amber Stevens West taking on Audrey Hepburn’s iconic role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She graces the book’s cover in that sultry black satin gown. A supporting player in entertainments like 22 Jump Street and New Girl, West said a centerstage movie role like Hepburn’s eluded her when she first started her career.
“It’s very much the story of a lot of Black people in Hollywood, where they’re typecast as, like, the friend and they’re kind of filling a role as, like, the diversity piece in the project,” she said.
In some cases, Augustus even flips genders. The first photograph he shot and also the first in the book sees Aisha Hinds ( True Blood, Shots Fired) as Gen. George S. Patton, saluting an unseen audience in front of a giant American flag. Here Hinds substitutes George C. Scott’s withering gaze and granite stance for a knowing smile and curvy bend at the hips. She brings some swagger and a little sexiness to the role. Hinds said this was no accident.
“I think the superpower of a Black woman is to occupy the space and the fullness of who she is. And, you know, we don’t have to deny our sex appeal in order to also operate in strength,” she said.
Hinds’ Patton pairs well with arguably her best role to date as the great abolitionist Harriet Tubman in WGN’s Underground. Hinds says both interpretations can remind people that Black women have always been leaders in the fight for this country.
“We’re constantly at war with so many things, and we’re constantly sort of taking the battle scars and the battle wounds, you know, and people are constantly looking to Black women to lead armies of change,” she said.
Unlike movements like #OscarsSoWhite, Augustus doesn’t see his book as a force for change, but he hopes that it subverts people’s expectations. And by placing these actors in images central to Hollywood’s idea of itself, it implies that these images belong to Black people, too.
“What I want from this book is for people to finally see and realize that we should be considered a standard, too.”
The audio for this story was edited by Reena Advani.