Friday, March 4, 2011

The Oscars, Black Movies and Exclusion

Let’s discuss the 2010 paucity of black actors in lead roles in mainstream Hollywood movies or the lack of quality black oriented films. A recent NYT article did that.
Crammed into this year’s field of 10 best picture Oscar nominees are British aristocrats, Volvo-driving Los Angeles lesbians, a flock of swans, a gaggle of Harvard computer geeks, clans of Massachusetts fighters and Missouri meth dealers, as well as 19th-century bounty hunters, dream detectives and animated toys. It’s a fairly diverse selection in terms of genre, topic, sensibility, style and ambition. But it’s also more racially homogenous — more white — than the 10 films that were up for best picture in 1940, when Hattie McDaniel became the first black American to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.” In view of recent history the whiteness of the 2011 Academy Awards is a little blinding.
This retreat from race by the big studios partly explains the emergence of a newly separate black cinema with its own stars (Morris Chestnut, Vivica A. Fox), auteurs (Ice Cube, Tyler Perry) and genres (including tales of buppie courtship like “Two Can Play That Game” and of neighborhood striving like the “Barbershop” franchise). Emerging from outside the mainstream and indie world, the prolific Mr. Perry has become one of the most successful directors and producers of any color.
Mr. Lee has been among Mr. Perry’s critics. “We’ve got a black president, and we’re going back,” Mr. Lee said in 2009. “The image is troubling, and it harkens back to Amos ’n’ Andy.” The philosopher Cornel West has been more charitable (“Brother Tyler can mature”) and last year he put a larger frame around the issue of race and the movies in America, noting that with “all the richness in black life right now,” that “the only thing Hollywood gives us is black pathology. Look at the Oscars. Even ‘Precious,’ with my dear sister Mo’Nique, what is it? Rape, violation, the marginalized. Or else you get white missionary attitudes toward black folk. ‘The Blind Side?’ Oh my God! In 2010? I respect Sandra Bullock’s work, but that is not art.”
This summoned forth exasperation and frustration from various people of differing ideologies who were tired of hearing presumably liberal whites or Blacks complain about this. Not all of these people were conservative though many of them were white. The writer Mitch Albom, who tends liberal on social issues, proclaimed on his radio show “Aren’t we over this?”  Evidently we are not.
Recently Anthony Mackie added more fuel to the fire when he said in an interview that Blacks in Hollywood were being lazy.
"To be honest I think the barriers have been broken. I think right now [blacks] are being kinda lazy on our game," Mackie said. "There are enough brothers with distribution deals and production deals where we should be making our own movies."
Mackie, who starred as Tupac Shakur in 2009's Notorious, said there is no shortage of black directors, writers or stars.
"Oprah got her own network," Mackie said. "Michael Jordan own a franchise. We got black money. So there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to tell the stories that we want to tell and portray ourselves the way we want to be portrayed."
I like Mr. Mackie and I really enjoyed his work in Night Catches Us
I’m glad to hear that he will be taking a prominent role in a film adaptation of a book I’m reading now, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith.

But I’m not sure he’s correct here.  As the NYT article mentioned there are some black people who are making “their own movies”. There are also various other black and biracial actors, producers, writers, and directors who have pointed out that contrary to Mackie’s statement, the barriers in Hollywood are still very much there. Spike Lee is of course the most vocal about this. But that’s really just bickering about one side of the equation-the supply side.

What’s just as important is the demand side. Although many artists in Hollywood are indeed liberal (at least publicly-right Charlie Sheen??) art can’t exist without commerce. You can make the most thoughtful film ever but if it flops, you may lose a chance to make a second one-at least with someone else’s cash. And Oprah aside, most black individuals don’t have a spare $20-100 million available to risk on a big budget film. Oprah has done that, to her credit but the financial results were mixed. Beloved lost money. The Great Debaters did ok but not great. Precious did quite well. Danny Glover has been trying to get an epic film made about the Haitian Revolution for some time. It’s difficult for him to line up financing because the movie obviously would not have any white heroes in lead roles.

The white British writer Neil Gaiman refused for a long time to have a film made of his story Anansi’s Boys, because the industry wanted to change the heroes (children of an African god) from black to white. The fantasy writer Ursula K. LeGuin did not have editorial control when a television adaptation was made of her Earthsea trilogy and MUCH to her dismay, most of her lead characters, who were people of African, Pacific Islander, or Native American appearance in her book, were changed to Caucasian appearance for the television version. So definitely something funny is going on. Someone ought to be raising an eyebrow.

And there it is. There are many stories which can be told with predominantly Black casts. But if the film only appeals to roughly 14% of the population in the US and less than that in overseas markets, all things equal it will be more difficult to convince anyone –racist or not- to put their money behind it. How do we get white or non-Black audiences to see their reflected humanity in predominantly black movies, the way that blacks have done for white movies? People talk about Chinese cinema or Bollywood but forget that those producers have a built in market of hundreds of millions of people. Black American artists don’t have that.
Like him or not Tyler Perry is the most successful black producer, director and studio head. But he still has to go through a “mainstream” distributor to get his films shown. It’s not quite as easy as just saying do your own thing. It takes time, connections and resources. And if Mackie is going to call out other people for being “lazy”, one must ask how much of his own hard won and well-deserved wealth is he using to create, produce and distribute black movies? I’m sure he must be doing that since he’s not a lazy man.

So going back to this year’s Oscars, with the possible exception of Night Catches Us I can’t really think of any films that featured Black actors or actresses in roles I thought were difficult, complex, multifaceted and were Oscar worthy.  So this year’s so-called exclusion really wasn’t. But the deeper challenges remain-both for black producers, directors, distributors and actors AND for the black audience. If the black audience doesn’t support black films those films won’t get made.
Of course some “colorblind” people will grouse why does any of this even matter and aren’t we injecting race where it doesn’t belong. To them I can only quote the late Dwayne McDuffie, the black comic book writer and media group owner who did indeed create his own company.
“You don’t feel as real if you don’t see yourself reflected in the media,” he told The Chicago Sun-Times in 1993. “There’s something very powerful about seeing yourself represented.”

What are your thoughts on the lack of Blacks in the recent Oscars? Were there any Black actors or films you thought were overlooked? Does Mackie have a point or is he not seeing the bigger picture? Do you care if you see yourself in movies or do you have more important things to worry about? Do movie images impact reality?
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