Black people in movies. What happens when we ain’t the hooker or the hood?

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I can’t help it.  I’m black and I love the movies.  So we all knew this post was coming sooner or later.  Why not now?  What is Black History Month for if not for posting polarizing commentary on the industry you love?

In the last few months, the issue of race in the business of movies has been in the forefront.  I first noticed it shortly before Red Tails opened.  Suddenly, many people in the industry were talking about George Lucas being forced to use his own money for his passion project.  The story of how no studio would touch the movie because it featured a cast of African-Americans was repeated more times than the trailer.  During this time, the sustained success of The Help at various award shows ran as a constant backdrop.  I was so excited to have this issue out in the open for discussion.  Unfortunately, we didn’t discuss a damn thing.

A great number of people went out to see Red Tails to support George Lucas’ project.  I did too.  I encouraged others to go in my Trailer Park review.  Even after I saw it I still told people to go see it.  Now let me clarify, I did not tell people to go see Red Tails because I thought it would be or even was a good movie.  In fact, the movie bored me.  It lacked structure, emotional involvement, and the weight of being real.  I was so desperate to show that my community and I would support a black movie despite what those studio people said, I went.  We were right to do this, but we were also oh so wrong.  The word to go see this movie was so pervasive that my theatre was packed at ten o’clock in the morning on a Friday because black high school students were bussed in as part of their class.  Of course, white people were there too.  There is nothing that will get a white liberal to do what you want quicker than implying it might be racist if they don’t.  It was not exactly quiet in the theatre due to the kids being restless, but I was restless too.  What if we had brought all these people out for a good movie?  The kids would have settled down to watch and the rest of us wouldn’t have had the stereotype of black people not knowing how to act in a movie theatre reinforced. Wouldn’t everyone have been more likely to take a chance on the next movie with a primarily black cast?

The weekend after Red Tails overperformed in its opening, a fellow black screenwriter posted this on her Facebook page, “In regards to The Help…didn’t Hattie McDaniel already play that part and win an Oscar. In the 1930s. Wow. Progress.”  That post was followed closely by a link of “movie posters that told the truth.”  (The one for The Help is pictured.  All the posters can be found here.)  I was astounded.  Hattie McDaniel’s caricature of a happy, subservient, Mammy that only lived to please Scarlett, was no where close to the human beings portrayed in The Help.  I just don’t see it.  Skeeter didn’t swoop down and save anybody.  The decisions that Aibileen and Minny made were all their own.  They only expected danger from what this white lady brought into their mist, not deliverance.  All that talk confused me even more because I never heard it about Avatar, the biggest white dude saves the ignorant colored people storyline of the last twenty years.  We all should have known something was going on when there was a motion capture movie in production and Andy Serkis was nowhere to be seen.  If worst comes to worst at least actors of color can look forward to motion capture jobs in the future.

As I’m writing this, I finally see what the problem is.  Not all black people are alike.  Despite what we have been trained to think, no one black person can speak for all black people.  The backlash against Tyler Perry movies should be proof enough of that. This problem crosses many racial groups.  Asians, who are even more culturally split than black Americans, are all but absent from representation in movies.  They can’t be neatly put in a box to symbolize anything.  Well, except maybe mathlete or fetish fotter.  Historically, non-whites on the U.S. screen have only existed in relation to whites. We went to Red Tails because George Lucas, a white man, was saying he didn’t believe what the studios said and we wanted to prove him right.  We wanted to show what we could do if they gave us a chance.  We went to a movie devoid of substance because we need the white people in power to help us change things.

I wish a white person had told us to go to Pariah instead.  In spite of the off-putting name, I believe we should have mobilized for this movie too.  A sweet coming of age tale populated with people, who are unquestionably black, telling a universal story.  It was beautiful.  A story written for black actors that wasn’t about being black.

The white people I’ve met who have said they wanted to be black, all stated how badly wanted to belong to a community.  There is a community there, but it’s not specific, nor is the experience universal.  Just because we talk about being black, being black doesn’t define us.  So, if you are yearning to be black to belong, “Stop it and join the ornithology club!”  Or, you can be the only white person in a room full of black cast and crew.  Come on, we dare you.

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