This column is not a statement. It is a question.
Race and movies. Movies and race. Race in any context is complex at best and explosive at worst. Movies are the dreams of our collective consciousness. It follows that the relationship between the two would be complicated and volatile. And so it has been.
From Bob Marley to Malcolm X everybody will tell you that history is not a dried relic growing yellow in the sun but that it is a living thing, active and inescapable in our everyday lives. No one exists in a vacuum. We are informed on an atomic level, second by second, by history. Everything that has happened is happening. In this way it is neither accurate nor useful to discuss things that happened forty, seventy, a hundred or four hundred years ago as though they have no bearing on what is happening today. History is what is happening today.
This fundamental principle is essential to establish at the outset of any discussion about race and culture. Racism is the single largest blight on American history and society, being directly responsible for no less than genocide, slavery and cultural eradication. It is impossible – and ridiculous – to suggest that the affects of four hundred years of such a history would somehow just evaporate one day into thin air as though they had never existed and that everyone should just decide to live solely in the Now with no regard to what has gone before. It would be nice if that were possible, if Native Americans could just one day wake up and decide that they were completely unaffected by the systematic expunction of indigenous culture or if Black people could simply decide today to not be affected by our brutal re-location, subsequent enslavement and the methodical dissolution of our practical humanity. Unfortunately, such is not the case.
This is not to say that things are as they were. They're not. And I would even venture to say a lot is better now. As I write this, a Black man, Barack Obama is running for the highest office in the country...and there's a good chance he's going to get it. The greatest golfer in the world, Tiger Woods, is a Black man. Richard D. Parsons, a Black man, is the CEO of Time Warner. Oprah Winfrey is, I believe, officially the Queen of the World. Tavis Smiley, Tyler Perry, Condoleezza Rice, Jay-Z...love or loathe them, American culture is filling up with fully-self actualized, hard working, ambitious, powerful, influential Black people. It's different now. And yet...and yet... all the wounds aren't healed.
You can track the healing process of race relations in America over the last hundred or so years through our cinema. And like all great art forms film is not only a mirror of current society but a shaper of the world in which we live. So that at any given moment in recent history you can look at our movies and see what was going on in race relations and what was coming...what is coming.
In 1915 movies as we know them weren't quite thirty years old. The biggest movie of the year was a three hour epic called The Birth of a Nation, directed by the first man to appear on the Mount Rushmore of film directors, D.W. Griffith. It was significant for a number of reasons: it was the first movie released for public consumption that was more than an hour long, it pioneered much of film technology, it broadened and solidified the vocabulary of cinematic storytelling...and it was a nightmare of virulent racism.
And it was a huge hit, the first "blockbuster".
There is no question in my mind that Griffith's movie suffers greatly for his perverse views on race in America. If you try to ignore the racial aspect of the movie (good luck with that) the film is filled with woefully one-dimensional, cardboard cut-out characters, it is melodramatic to the point of grotesqueness, and as historical fiction it resorts to turning the world upside down to tell its story with no trace of irony or moral ambiguity in sight. That's about as far as we can go without talking about race. In this movie Blacks are usually portrayed by white actors in blackface, and are presented as lazy, evil, cowardly, leering, rapists. The Ku Klux Klan – the Ku Klux Klan now – are the heroes of the picture even when they lynch a Black man and dump him on the doorstep of a mulatto politician or through a show of force prevent Black people from voting! I'm not making this up. Any story in any medium with such stupid characters and situations would normally be justifiably lambasted. It is still unclear to me why The Birth of a Nation is coddled in this regard. It is almost as though the fact that because so many of its flaws are specifically racially motivated it is absolved of any artistic responsibility to be good. Further, not only was the movie made, not only was it a big hit, but it was instantly regarded as a "classic" and to this day film schools talk about it as a great, seminal work of art, even to the point that it is now ensconced in the National Registry by the Library of Congress. And people wonder why African-Americans (and Native Americans and Asian-Americans, etc.) still get nervous about race relations here in the land of the free.
Black people got off to a bad, bad start in movies. It could not have been worse, really. The Birth of a Nation set an ugly template which, almost a hundred years later, we're still dealing with. But a lot has happened since then both in American society in general and movies in particular. There has been a Great Depression, two World Wars, the Civil Rights Movement, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, rock and roll and hip-hop music, television and the birth of the Internet...to name just a few. All of these things and many more have had an impact on race relations and race relations in the movies. So where are we now?
As always, the answer is complex and constantly changing. Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Halle Berry, Samuel L. Jackson, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker...these are some of the biggest names in Hollywood. There are others: Don Cheadle, Laurence Fishburne, Jeffrey Wright, Terence Howard, Antoine Fuqua, Angela Bassett, Larenz Tate, Vivica A. Fox, Alfre Woodard, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Joy Bryant, Derek Luke, the Wayans brothers, Martin Lawrence, Jennifer Hudson...and the list is getting longer. In the first seventy-two years of the Academy Awards only one Black actor ever won an Academy award for acting in a lead role. In the last eight there have been four. Of course, one won for playing an impoverished woman who falls in love with the white racist guard who killed her husband, one won for playing a lying, stealing, drug-dealing, rogue cop, one won for playing a murderous, psychopathic, grossly flatulent petty dictator and one...for playing a singer. Is this the face of progress?
Well...yes. Artistically speaking – and only artistically speaking – the real crime of The Birth of a Nation was that it de-humanized African-Americans to an incredible degree and created – or rather, perpetuated -- a context in which the Black character would then exist in mainstream American cinema. Within this context only certain kinds of Black characters could make their presence felt at all. Mantan Moreland, Stepin Fetchit, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen...were all extremely talented, multi-faceted performers but when appearing in Hollywood films their talents were showcased in highly restrictive environments. So that for instance, Mantan Moreland's performances in the various Charlie Chan movies he appeared in might be very similar in style and content to anything Lou Costello (of the famed Abbott and Costello comedy team) might do in his movies with three vital differences: Lou Costello was just one character, a comedic character to be sure but was not the only representation of an entire race of people – there were plenty of other characterizations to balance out his buffoon. Also, Costello's clown, though bumbling and sweet-natured, was allowed a full range of emotions. He might get frustrated with Bud Abbott or even angry. Mantan Moreland's Birmingham character would never be allowed to get angry at a white character. And finally, Lou Costello's character might have a sex life. He would be allowed to show attraction to or receive attraction from a woman. Not so much Moreland...in Hollywood films.
(For most of these performers and others they had another outlet in so-called "race movies", movies made by, for and about African-Americans. In these movies they were allowed to show much more of their range, pointedly never portraying the maids and servants they were forced to in Hollywood films and even starred in their own vehicles. These were among the first "independent films", made outside of the Hollywood studio system. These films were almost never seen by white people and have largely disappeared. But, we will be re-visiting them in the weeks down the road.)
These stock characters were what Hollywood had to offer African-Americans for years. And, naturally enough, Black America bristled at that. The unfortunate part of this justifiable anger was that much of that frustration was turned on the performers themselves rather than where it should have been directed: at the people making the movies who were so terrified of acknowledging Black humanity. The characters were seen as demeaning and the actors playing them were often criticized for "selling out". Indeed, Hattie McDaniel, in response to criticism from the Black community for playing stereotyped roles in Hollywood movies, once famously said "I'd rather play a maid for $700 dollars a week than be one for $7." Frankly, it's hard to argue with her. And it's foolish to ignore or dismiss the role she and others played in breaking down doors. It might not have looked the way we wanted it to but somebody had to do it. I will say in recent years a more balanced view towards McDaniel, Moreland, Stepin Fetchit and others has come to prominence and their rightful place in the history of African-American cinema has been recognized and become more appreciated by the Black community.
In 1950, three years after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in major league baseball, a movie was released called No Way Out, which showcased a strong performance by a young, New York stage actor by the name of Sidney Poitier. Poitier's young doctor was the kind of African-American character audiences of any race never got a chance to see. He's bright, driven, talented, brave, strong and still sometimes insecure. He finds himself in a rough situation when his personal and professional ethics force him to treat a rabidly racist criminal. It was a watershed moment for Black actors and American cinema and my guess is that Poitier – and everybody involved with the movie – guessed it at the time. Sidney Poitier, of course, carried the torch for Blacks in films for years. There were others, among them the incomparable Dorothy Dandridge, James Edwards, Brock Peters and Harry Belafonte – but Poitier was the standard bearer. It's hard to argue with his body of work. Cry, the Beloved Country, The Blackboard Jungle, The Defiant Ones, Porgy and Bess, the extraordinary A Raisin in the Sun (one of America's great plays), To Sir, with Love, In the Heat of the Night, Uptown Saturday Night, Let's do It Again...to name just my favorites.
The Defiant Ones in particular is an unusually smart, honest, balanced metaphoric fable on race relations in America...even today. AND it's an exciting, poignant, well-constructed film. It resulted in Poitier's first nomination for an Oscar, along with his co-star Tony Curtis. They play two convicts who have escaped from a train but are still chained together. They hate each other --and race is a big part of that -- but they are forced to rely on each other in their pursuit of freedom. By the end this reliance has turned into mutual respect and friendship. This could feel cloying or contrived but the powerful acting of the two leads keeps it from becoming so. The Defiant Ones was one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year and tellingly, that year was 1958. America was in the nascent stages of the Civil Rights Movement.
The marvelous thing about Poitier in these films...and some credit must be given to the directors, writers and fellow actors he worked with, was the tremendous amount of humanity he brought to each role. So unlike the limitations infringed upon African-American performers in the early years of film, Poitier's characters often showed the attributes of his earnest doctor in No Way Out but were just as likely to be angry, stubborn, cocky, withdrawn, foolish or weak. The problem of course, was that for years, Poitier was it. Hollywood had one Black, fully-realized human being, and that was all it needed. Again, African-Americans grew frustrated with this and again they turned much of their frustration on the performer, even though he had done nothing but represent about as well as anybody could both as a performer and as a person. Sometimes you just can't please people. And sometimes people just have to go through what they have to go through. Poitier himself seemed to realize that the backlash against him with the rise of the Black Power movement in the late Sixties and early Seventies had less to do with him per se and more to do with the situation and responded with his typical grace and wisdom...and just kept working. It's impossible for a public figure of Poitier's stature – and Black – not to have some awareness of history (as opposed to say, a president of the United States). Why people couldn't have realized that it was necessary for others to step into Poitier's shoes without turning on Poitier himself is beyond me. But he's a smart man. He figured we'd come around; and eventually, we did.
Poitier's success led to – limited – opportunities for other actors: James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Billy Dee Williams, the brilliant Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Diana Ross, Paul Winfield, Cleavon Little, again, among others. In movies like The Great White Hope, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Lady Sings the Blues, Sounder, The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars, Motor Kings, and Cooley High, Black artists were allowed to explore a fuller range of the African-American experience but still to an unsatisfying degree. Coming in to fill the void was a movie called Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song.
Everything about Sweetback was different. It was independently produced and directed by Melvin Van Peebles, it was angry, it was Black and it had a funky soundtrack. And the hero of the film, Sweetback, got away at the end! The movie today is primitive, at best, but there is no disputing its impact on Black cinema. It was a story from the streets, a movie made for Black people and a work of art that unequivocally called out white America. No one had ever seen anything like it before. It also made a fair amount of money. (Melvin's struggles in creating the film were recently documentarized by his son, actor/director Mario in How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass.)
When money talks no one listens like Hollywood, and before too long Shaft had hit the streets. Shaft had a (relatively) big budget, a phat soundtrack by music maestro Isaac Hayes, was sexy, stylish and the title character was a badass. Audiences flocked to the picture and Hollywood knew it was onto something. Naturally, being Hollywood, they took the easy way out and the genre of film called "blaxploitation" was born. These usually silly movies with fantastic soundtracks weren't much, but they were what Black people were given; so they responded with their dollars. Hollywood, being what it is, took that as the cue to not give up much more.
(There have been many theories proposed as to why blaxploitation movies resonated so much with Black people of all backgrounds and probably none of them tell the whole story. Part of it has to be that we just got tired of following the rules. For Black people to be accepted into American society too often felt like we had to be practically perfect, like Poitier's doctor in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? Who could live up to that? But like, "race" movies, blaxpoitation films are a larger topic that will be explored further in the coming months.)
In the midst of these trends and coming on the heels of the Civil Rights Movements came two of the most searingly frank and artistically dazzling ruminations on race relations of American cinema: Coonskin, an underground animated feature by Ralph Bakshi (he of Felix the Cat fame) and Blazing Saddles, the classic comedy directed (of course) by Mel Brooks who had the stroke of genius to hire Richard Pryor to work on the screenplay. Neither of these movies would be made today. Coonskin, in particular, was outrageously controversial and is, in fact still dangerous to this day. Bakshi, like Brooks, had the wisdom and foresight to bring in Black artists (Scatman Crothers, Phillip Michael Thomas, Charles Gordone, Barry White) to help him create his piece. Not that it helped him at the time. Coonskin is a cartoon that manages, at some point, to offend everybody. When people talk about riots in the streets over art...well, this was one of those movies. I saw it on video, years after it came out and had no idea what I was getting myself into. To me it hit like a comic Soul On Ice (Eldridge Cleaver's brutal collection of essays and a masterpiece) and at the time felt like the only real movie on the subject of race in America I'd ever seen. But so intense was the storm around the movie when it was first released that it was quickly pulled from theatres and for years languished in obscurity. It's still very difficult to find on video -- but if you feel like you're ready, you should try. It's as powerful a piece of animated movie art as you'll ever see.
As opposed to Blazing Saddles which everyone knows and loves. This brilliant movie managed to make everyone laugh at the dark side of our own natures. Many of the jokes were about things that people of all races had been saying within closed circles for years. Generally, talk about what is "politically correct" and what is not gets under my skin, but the realization that most Hollywood studios would be terrified to make this movie nowadays is enough to re-open the discussion. Or maybe this movie has already done its job, and we've moved past it and should just let it go. Maybe.
And that brings us to the Eighties. The Eighties were a funny time for Black artists in Hollywood. They were there but no one knew what to do with them. There was a standard joke that Hollywood was aware of five Black actors, three of them were comedians, one was an athlete and one was a singer. It wasn't unusual to find Richard Pryor in another movie, possibly with Gene Wilder (Silver Streak, Stir Crazy). A young phenom named Eddie Murphy burst upon the scene in the TV show Saturday Night Live and immediately broke to Hollywood to take it by storm with movies like 48 Hours, Trading Places and the smash hit Beverly Hills Cop. On the other hand, Louis Gossett Jr., a fine talent and working actor for years (he had performed in the movie A Raisin in the Sun with Poitier) won an Academy award for his scabrous but ultimately compassionate drill sergeant in An Officer and a Gentleman. The world was introduced to a young star of astonishing talent and range – but who didn't really seem to fit into anything that Hollywood wanted to do with a Black artist – by the name of Whoopi Goldberg. Even the name threw people off. She would find her place in mainstream film but it has always been an uneasy partnership.
But the two most important artists to come out of the Eighties, in terms of African-American cinema, were Spike Lee and Denzel Washington. These two have had the most lasting impact and continue to make a difference and define Black movies even today.
I remember the first time I saw Denzel Washington. My family went to go see a small movie called A Soldier's Story that starred up-and-coming star Howard Rollins Jr. The movie was based on the play by Charles Fuller and was smart, intense and tragic. But all of us came out of it talking about the young man playing the quietly intense, Pfc. Peterson, played by a guy none of us had heard of, Denzel Washington. Denzel, of course has gone on to an extraordinary career, which few actors – if any -- can match for quality, consistency, longevity AND box-office appeal. He has played roles that range from noble heroes to crooked cops; he's done comedies (The Mighty Quinn), romances (Mississippi Masala), thrillers (Man on Fire), biographies (Malcolm X). He's been People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive. He's won two Academy awards (Glory and Training Day). He's equally accepted and applauded by both the white and Black communities. By all accounts he's a great guy and he more than any other actor changed the way Hollywood looked at the Black actor both in terms of the nature of the work he engendered, produced and the amount of money he generated... as a serious actor. Denzel Washington is the Man. And yet, Washington wouldn't kiss or get otherwise seemingly romantically involved with a white woman on screen because he was concerned of the impact it might have on the success of his films, the emotional impact on the Black community and the political impact such an act might have on American society in general. He reportedly advised Will Smith not to kiss a man because it would be detrimental for Smith's career. Looking at both his career and Smith's it's hard to argue with Denzel's wisdom (just as it was difficult to dispute Hattie McDaniel's) on a practical level, though it might not be everything we might ask for in terms of an enlightened community. But even that's debatable. I tend to think that Denzel is unusually aware of the rate at which history is moving; he's not just thinking about himself as an artist and as a businessman but about his place as an African-American artist in the historical continuum. In other words, he knows his job and he's doing that one extremely well and the other struggles still to be had will be fought down the road by other artists.
It is difficult to over-estimate the relevance and impact of Spike Lee. And this is true for a number of reasons:
1. He's good. Without talent, vision and skill he wouldn't be what he is. It's very easy for people to discount Black artists simply because they're Black and it's done all the time. If he didn't continually put out vibrant, challenging and complex art, he would have been marginalized a long time ago.
(I remember when Living Color was a big band, you would hear people say that the only reason they were a hit was because they were Black. Preposterous. As though the whole world had been desperately waiting for a Black rock band – and Living Color was the only one. To reach this lame-brained conclusion one would have to disregard the actual reality that because most music execs didn't equate African-Americans with rock music, for a Black rock band to even get a demo heard was a major victory.)
2. The way his career came to be. The number one reason Spike Lee's career came into being is his own tremendous will. His funded his first feature film (She's Gotta Have It) with credit cards with a budget of $175, 000. It grossed some $7,000,000. A star, as they say, was born. Since then, he's never compromised his aesthetic, he's never compromised his values, he has always been electrifying and galvanizing both as an artist and as a celebrity. He's a veritable icon now and he's done it his way. Which leads to...
3. Lee's unwillingness to be bound by other people's expectations. She's Gotta Have It was a movie about a self-possessed, sexually independent young woman from Brooklyn. There's almost no mention of white people at all in the movie. Then came School Daze, a funny, flawed musical about the color caste system among Blacks in collegiate culture. Then he blew the doors off with Do the Right Thing. Do the Right Thing was the first movie that was an open discussion about race and was a major motion picture with a Black director. It was almost as if Lee was saying, "You want to talk about race, okay, let's talk about race."
Relatively early in his career, Lee was asked by a white journalist when and if he would ever direct a movie about white people. Lee responded by asking if the journalist would ask Scorsese, Lucas, or Allen when they would get around to making a movie with Black people as the focus. He has since directed The Twenty Fifth Hour and The Summer of Sam both with non-African-American leads. But he did those because he wanted to. As far as African-American artists in Tinseltown go, that may be his most lasting legacy: that Spike Lee determined the artist that Spike Lee would be, not Hollywood. And in doing so he forced Hollywood to come to embrace him on his own terms – as has Denzel. Let this be the new template for African-Americans in Hollywood.
Four times these two extraordinary artists have teamed up and each time has proven a scintillating movie experience. Their single-minded dedication to their craft, their awareness of the world in which they lived, and their marked financial success has done more than anything else in recent years to expand the horizons of Black people in American movies.
They have not... ended the discussion on race or solved everything that needed to be solved. Quentin Tarantino, in his magnum opus, Pulp Fiction, felt the need to include a scene where he says "nigger" to a Black man's face what feels like a million times. Not just any Black man, a Black hit man, played by the formidable Samuel L. Jackson. Later on in the movie we see another Black gangster, Ving Rhames, getting raped. What's really going on? It was a great part for Jackson however, and he was justifiably lauded for it, even earning a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Supporting. Whereas John Travolta, who was great, no question, but was nominated for Best Actor in a lead role, even though he and Jackson had just about the same amount of screen time and, if anything, Jackson's Jules had more lines than the quieter Vincent Vega -- including the amazing speech about "you are the weak, and I am the tyranny of evil men." What's really going on?
In the movie that put him on the map, In the Company of Men, Neil LaBute has a scene where Aaron Eckhart humiliates a young Black man for saying "ax" when he means to say "ask". He even makes the boy stand up and pull his pants down. First of all, that's never going to happen. Black people as a rule know more about white people than vice versa as a matter of survival. We have to. Not one single African-American in history ever tried to move into the corporate world still saying "ax". Not one. And the subsequent humiliation? I would have kicked Aaron Eckhart's ass first. I ask you, what's really going on? For both Tarantino and LaBute, their art reveals more about them than I think they're aware of. I don't even know that I'm saying they're racists, but I am saying there is something there to be aware of; for them as well as for Black people.
There are still an inordinate amount of negative stereotypes of African-Americans perpetuated in Hollywood films. It is a running truism among Black actors that at some point in their careers they will undoubtedly portray a criminal whether it's Ving Rhames or Chris Rock, and oftentimes they'll play several.
Admit it. Whenever you see a lone Black character in any given thriller, action flick or horror film you think, "That guy's gonna die." ( I can remember when my then girlfriend and I went to go see The Edge. As soon as we saw Harold Perrineau, completely unprompted we turned to each other and said, "He's through." Of course, that didn't prepare us for the particularly gruesome way in which he met his demise. Ripped apart by a grizzly bear? Why do they want to do a brother like that? They couldn't have him fall off a cliff or something?)
There is still a notable dearth of decent roles for Black women in movies. Every once in a while the magnificent Angela Bassett will get thrown a bone but nothing like what her talent demands. And there are so many others. Black directors and writers need to take responsibility for creating the work, for writing the roles, for making it happen. Change it.
And this is the point. We have come to this place at last. It is time for Black artists to embrace the opportunities that have been created by those who have gone before. I work with kids sometimes and I was once told by a middle-schooler that he didn't go see movies with white people in them. I asked him why, and he said "Why can't there be a Black Spider-Man? Why can't Neo be Black?" And I said to him, "There is no reason why. Make it happen. You want a Black Spider-Man? Write it, film it, direct it. This is our time."
And it is.
The idea behind the Civil Rights Movement, after all, was for Black people to fully claim their place -- not just as citizens of a nation, but as fully realized human beings on a personal level and everything that entails. Something we'd lost since our violent displacement from our home. In other words, in film it wasn't just about being represented, it was – is – about being represented as complete people; not even "only" being celebrated for our triumphs and our glories but also recognized and even empathized with for our failures and our weaknesses. So in Black history in film, the first struggle was simply to be seen as human at all, the second was to be seen in a positive light, both as an inspiration to future generations – to give them something to aspire to – and to remind others and ourselves that there was so much more to us than the stereotypes perpetuated by people who were invested in maintaining a certain image of who we were. Finally, the phase we're really just taking hold of now, is establishing our own identity and determining our own destiny. And this will dictate the new face of race in Hollywood movies. Where are we now? Who are we now?
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Bobby Bermea inherited his deep and abiding passion for movies from his mom. He writes about them as a fan: from the heart, without agenda or rancor and if he's lucky, with a little humor, wisdom and common sense. |
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