Actress Anika Noni Rose
How Far Have People Of Color Come?
They say if you live long enough you will eventually see everything. That’s the feeling I got watching the Academy Awards last night. Ever since my parents first took me to the movies I have been bewitched by the special magic of the silver screen. In the period before the advent of wide screen color television, going to the movies was a very big deal – especially after the invention of Cinemascope and Technicolor films.
The importance of “moving pictures” in our popular culture can be readily seen in the grandeur of the movie theaters of the mid twentieth century – just as the magnificence of Grand Central station reflects the critical importance trains once were to our material culture. These palatial edifices were modern secular temples where we went to worship the gods and goddesses of popular culture as they cavorted about the giant silver screen conjuring up grand illusions.
All of the theaters had stages with heavy velvet curtains. And as the giant speakers pumped out symphonic music announcing the coming attractions, the curtains opened slowly, titillating our senses and filling us with great expectations. In those days people dressed up in their Sunday best – suits and ties for men, silk stockings and gloves for women – when they went out to the movies.
It was a very big deal indeed, especially if you were living in a small southern town where there wasn’t much to do, and if you were black it was your only window into the goings on in white America. And If you were black you always had to be on guard for racist insulting images of your people. Often times I was glad that we were sitting in segregated balconies – which the white folks called “the Crows nest” – so I wouldn’t have to watch them smirk at the black buffoons on the screen. Glamour and heroism, the staples of Hollywood fantasy, was confined to white characters exclusively.
Black people were either mindless African savages terrified of the white Tarzan, or grinning, shuffling, Sambos who waited on and fussed over white folks with ever ready smiles. They had no families, no lovers, no network of friends, and no life beyond serving or amusing white folks. Indeed the great Afro-American writer Langston Hughes pointed this out after concluding a stint in Hollywood.
On June 2, 1939 – just as Hitler was beginning to plunge Europe into a war that would kill 50 million people – Langston spoke to a conference of radical writers at Carnegie Hall. The title of his speech was Democracy And Me, and he said of the black image in Hollywood’s popular films: “On the screen we are servants, clowns, or fools…in so far as Negroes are concerned, Hollywood might just as well be controlled by Hitler.”
In such a world it was obvious that come Oscar night there were no black faces on the red carpet. And although in eighty two years no black director has won an Oscar for a feature film – in spite of the fact that Spike Lee should have won several – and no black executive can green light a film at a major company, African Americans are now an integral part of the film business.
Tyler Perry has his own “back lot” in Atlanta – 3000 miles from Hollywood – and thus green lights his own films, and Ice cube is a genuine movie mogul who makes all decisions about his projects. Will Smith is the biggest movie star in the world, and although Morgan freeman and Denzel Washington are consummate masters of the actor’s craft, they are but two of a gifted phalanx of black actors and actresses who are both talented and well schooled.
And they cut as glamorous a figure with their beautiful black, brown and beige selves as any of the alabaster stars Hollywood can offer. They exhibit all the elegance one hears in Duke Ellington’s classic tone poem “Black, Brown and Beige Suite.”
Back in the day it would have been impossible to imagine a movie about a heroic African such as Nelson Mandela – for whose portrayal Morgan Freeman garnered an Oscar nomination – hence this is definitely a sign of progress. Yet Hollywood, like the rest of the white dominated media, still appears to prefer pathology over heroism when portraying black life.
My daughter Makeda observed for instance, that while the white critical establishment has gone ga ga over “Precious” and “The Blind Side,” for which Sandra Bullock finally received an Oscar, they were practically indifferent to “The Great Debaters,” a wonderful film that was both exciting and spiritually uplifting.
The Motion Picture Academy ignored this film in spite of the fact that it was heavily promoted by Oprah Winfrey – who produced it and whose endorsement is usually enough to insure commercial success – and starred Denzell Washington, who also directed the film. The obvious difference between this film and the Oscar winning films is that they depict radically different views of African American life. And that difference is instructive.
The Great Debaters
In this year’s two Oscar winning movies the most pathological aspects of African American life are presented to the world with great fanfare. Here the black youths are nihilistic grotesqueries who are nearly sub-human; while in The Great Debaters the black youths are brilliant, optimistic, joyous, elegant and self-confident; in a word heroic!
And since the movie is based in a black college in the deep south during a period when African Americans lived under a system of “white supremacy,” sustained by armed white terrorist in and outside of the government, the black adults who taught them and prepared these Youths to compete in a system where everything was arrayed against them were some of the most heroic figures this nation has yet produced. And it was based on a true story to boot!
Professor Melvin Tolson, the distinguished poet and fearless freedom fighter played by Denzell Washington, is such a fascinating historical figure he deserves a full length film just on his life and works. Melvin Tolson was the son and grandson of preachers – those black clerical bards who created the greatest oratorical style in the world, poets by audience demand – and he was at times a poet, professor and professional pugilist.
Hence Tolson was a natural at the art of debate, and the students he trained were invincible! As the late James farmer, the founder of CORE, cavalierly observed after vanquishing Malcolm X in a debate: “ Malcolm never had a chance; he didn’t come up under Professor Tolson.” This is the stuff of heroic epics, but the Motion Picture Academy was unmoved.
Hence this years Oscar awards suggest that when it comes to the Afro-American image on the silver screen the more things change the more they remain the same. White folks are still more comfortable with bizarre tales of black pathology than uplifting stories of black heroism, and apparently a lot of black folks too, judging by ticket sales.
This is why the white critical celebration of “Precious” has been greeted with suspicion by some of the smartest black film critics and pundits. In spite of my having disagreed with him from time to time – in print and radio commentaries – the reigning Dean of Afro-American film critics Armond White sometimes gets it right. And he has been vociferous in his critique.
Speaking of Afro-American media moguls Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey’s role as “Executive Producers” of the movie White argues, “Perry and Winfrey naively treat Precious’ exhibition of ghetto tragedy and female disempowerment as if it were raw truth. It helps contrast and highlight their achievements as black American paradigms—self-respect be damned. “
Had Mr. White left it at that, one might have been tempted to say Amen! But Mr. White is too often like the proverbial cow that gives a great bucket of milk then kicks it over before it can be used. His review “Pride and Precious” published in the November 4, 2009 edition of The New York Press, a small downtown newspaper from which the above quotation was excerpted, supplies incriminating evidence of this tendency.
For instance, Mr. White does not just dismiss the film as art, he goes on to besmirch the character and question the motives of Ms. Winfrey and Mr. Perry in a convoluted argument that strikes me as pretentious and irrelevant sophistry. It is a tedious polemic that confuses more than it clarifies, obfuscates more than it enlightens.
A representative sample of what I am talking about can be seen in the following passage: “Let’s scrutinize their endorsement: Precious isn’t simply a strivers’ message movie; Perry and Winfrey recognize its propaganda value. The story of an overweight black teenage girl who is repeatedly raped and impregnated by her father, molested and beaten by her mother comes from a 1990s identity-politics novel by a poet named Sapphire. It piles on self pity and recrimination consistent with the air-quotes’ own oft-recounted back stories. Promoting this movie isn’t just a way for Perry and Winfrey to aggrandize themselves, it helps convert their private agendas into heavily hyped social preoccupation.”
It is hard to find a more compelling example of erudition and nonsense in one paragraph. Mr. white ranks right up there with pundits like Monica Crowley and David Brooks in demonstrating that ideology can trump erudition when passion triumphs over reason. I had hoped for a more useful i.e. coherent critique from Mr. White alas.
Being a pugnacious polemicist by nature, I am tempted to deconstruct his pretentious albeit muddled tract, but so expansive a discussion is far beyond the scope of this commentary. Yet if the argument around “Precious” and the proper role of black cinema persists, I may be forced into the fray. However the rhetorical excesses of Mr. White notwithstanding, there are some legitimate questions surrounding “Precious” that cry out for thoughtful discussion.
To begin with it is fair to ask if there is an ancestral imperative that require black artists to clarify and diversify the black experience in this country; to honor their struggles, which, after all, made it possible for them to be doing what they are doing and be recognized and handsomely paid while pursuing a labor of love. One of the major battles of our most thoughtful and committed ancestors was to counter the dehumanizing images of black culture and personality that flowed from the white owned and controlled apparatus of mass cultural indoctrination.
Indeed, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, founded the Association For the Study Of Negro Life and History in the 1920′s because he thought the physical survival of African Americans in this country depended upon changing the racist images of whites were painting of us in the mass media, especially movies! A good place to begin in an attempt to asses how far we have come would be to critique the images of black women in “Gone With The Wind,” seventy one years ago, with the images in “Precious.”
While most black Americans I knew found Ms. McDaniel’s character “Mammy” embarrassing, compared to Monique’s character Mary Jones she was a paragon of virtue. While Mary Jones is a nihilistic socio-path engaged in criminal child abuse, a scourge on society, Mammy was the vessel through which the highest values of the ante-bellum and post-bellum southern aristocracy was communicated to the children of the high and mighty.
She was a critical link in the socialization of the white southern elite. Consider what the white racist Mississippi novelist and Nobel Laureate William Faulkner had inscribed on the tomb stone of his black maid: “Mammy, her white children bless her.” And in his eulogy delivered at her funeral he credited her with teaching him how to become a civilized man and said: “If there is a heaven Mammy will be there.”
Then Faulkner named his next novel after her favorite Afro-American spiritual “Go Down Moses,” and dedicated the book to her memory. Which, of course, is irrefutable evidence of how racism fucked up even the smartest white southerners!
Both Hattie and Monique are full figured dark skinned women; and in their roles they were cast as the antithesis of the glamorous movie star. With shabby clothes and bandanas on their heads, the publicity pictures for both films are remarkably alike. Both are perfect representations of the black mammy stereotype physically.
Yet if Hattie’s antebellum slave mammy was a far more humane character cast in a racist, sentimental plantation romance from over half a century ago the critical question becomes: what does this say about the judgment of those who celebrate this film as a triumph for black Americans in the cinema; the taste of the black literary audience that has made pathology laden “ghetto novels” the best selling genre of black fiction; or the preferences of the hundreds of whites who make up the motion picture academy that award the Oscars?
This is, to be sure, a touchy question. For I am against imposing a politically correct conception of art on black creative artists that amounts to a dramatic version of “the sunshine news.” This would be a dangerous business, because as Mao Tse Tung observed in his “Lectures at the Yeman Forum on Literature and Art, all art may be propaganda “but not all propaganda is art.” I am inclined to let a thousand flowers bloom, and as all who are familiar with Milton’s “Paradise Lost” recognize: The Devil is more interesting than God as a subject for literary treatment.
This is because the essence of drama is conflict and thus unsavory characters and dirty doings make for exciting stories that can also provide an opportunity for moral lessons. But to pull this off requires sharp intelligence, deep insight into human character and sound literary technique. Otherwise a narrative can slip unintentionally from tragedy to farce. I have yet to decide in which category Precious rightly belongs, but I for one hope it’s success does not accelerate this trend toward the bottom in Afro-American popular culture which seems to be growing ever stronger.
Hattie McDaniel and Vivian Leigh
A mountain of Strength and Purveyor of Aristocratic Southern Values
Monique As Mary
A Twisted Nihilistic Child Abuser
Monique Wins It All!
Unlike many of the Oscar winners last Sunday, Monique seemed neither shocked nor lost for words when her name was called out as winner of the Academy Award. Like anyone who received such a coveted prize she was visibly moved, but she never lost her composure. Indeed, her acceptance speech was ideal: eloquent, cogent and brief.
“First, I would like to thank the Academy for showing that it can be about the performance and not the politics.” She said. And I jumped for joy when she said “I want to thank Miss Hattie McDaniel for enduring all that she had to so that I would not have to.”
As she was walking to the stage, decked out in a blue dress with white flowers in her hair like Hattie McDaniel wore when she received her Oscar, I was thinking about Ms. McDaniel, the first black actress to win an Oscar, who also won for Best Supporting Actress in the plantation school fantasy “Gone With The Wind” – a racist, sentimental romance bemoaning the “lost cause” of the confederacy.
It is a measure of how far we have advanced in American society that when the movie was released Ms. McDaniel was not allowed to attend the premiere in Atlanta, while today Monique hosts a nightly television show from that same southern city that’s broadcast nationwide over the black entertainment Network.
Still, when we compare the image of black women in “Gone With The With The Wind” and “Precious,” and the latter turns up wanting, the thoughtful observer must wonder exactly how far we have come in terms of controlling our image in the movies? And in searching for the answer to this complex question, it is no small matter that this movie is based on a text written by a black woman and created by a black scriptwriter and director.
Monique concluded her acceptance speech with generous props to those who made the movie possible. Looking out into the audience where they sat she said, “ Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey because you touched it, the whole world saw it. Ricky Anderson, our attorney of Anderson & Smith, thank you for your hard work. My entire BET family, my Precious family, thank you so much. To my amazing husband Sidney, thank you for showing me that sometimes you have to forego doing what’s popular in order to do what’s right. And baby, you were so right. God bless us all.”
The lady has a point alas. Whatever one may think of the subject matter, the enthusiastic response of those who saw it tells us that some people find it a compelling story. And thus one can argue that it deserves to be told. And great performances should be rewarded whether we like the characters or not. Furthermore, when one listen to Monique’s explanation of why she chose to play the role one begins to see the project in a different light.
Revealing that she was sexually abused by her brother, Monique says that she became committed to this project after reading the script because she felt it would throw a light on family abuse and inspire people – men and women, black, white or other – to stand up and speak out because help is available and they can heal themselves with professional help.
While therapy and moral instruction are certainly worthy goals, it’s long past time to celebrate the heroism in Afro-American history and culture. To make movies that inspire our youths to strive for greatness; to reach for those things that others say are beyond their grasp is the essence of the ancestral imperative.
I want to see some movies on brilliant and talented afro-Americans like the Astronauts Dr. Mae Jamison – a pioneer in space medicine who is brilliant and beautiful – and Dr. Ronald McNair, a PhD in laser physics from MIT, an accomplished jazz saxophonist and a black belt in Karate.
Before his life was prematurely ended in the Challenger explosion he was planning to hang out at the space station and practice Charlie Parker riffs on his sax, which were already out of this world. Dr. McNair was also a splendid husband and father. Not bad for a black man who began life as a sharecropper in the racist state of South Carolina.
And where, the thoughtful person must ask, are the movies on Duke Ellington and the beautiful gifted pianist/singer Hazel Scott, and her husband Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. who was also the pastor of the venerable Abyssinia Baptist church. And how is it possible that a major movie has been made on that crude, sadistic, palooka Jake La-Motta while the story of the fabulous of Sugar Ray Robinson – who whipped La-Motta four out of five times, spanking him like he was his daddy – remains untold on the silver screen.
Aside from being considered by many boxing wise guys as the best pound for pound pugilist ever, Sugar was also a drummer and tap dancer who was good enough to headline an act. He was also the best dressed man in America, with such high style the Caddillac company produced a special Flamingo Pink color just for his cars! And what of Daniel “Chappie” James, the air force fighter pilot who became a four star general and commander of NORAD with the power to launch nuclear weapons without consulting the president that could destroy the earth! I could go on, but the point is made.
Jenny From the Block
Yet the question remains: When will stories of Afro-American heroism trump tawdry tales of gloom and doom as the principle themes for artistic explorations of black life? In a way this is the question being asked by all non-white American minorities seeking to define their image and culture in the popular imagination.
The feisty Nuyorican actress Rosie Prez, who speaks English with an El Barrio brogue, has observed ironically that she and Selma Hyak are the only actresses who regularly play Latina’s in American movies because the others are often cast as various European nationalities – especially the gorgeous Jennifer Lopez, the biggest Latin movie star of them all.
Hence achieving a fair representation of our people in the mass image making machinery is the challenge that now confronts the black and Latin communities, no matter what we may think of Precious.
Harlem, New York