Friday, October 9, 2015

A Texas Detour on the Road to a Theory of Blacks in Film


Right now, speaking as a black person in this country, in this time of upheaval, my biggest concerns are not the police whose behavior so worries the BlackLivesMatter crowd and for good reason—for me, it’s mostly about the movies. Worries are not keeping me awake at night but do concern me as much as the actions of the Texas Highway Patrol. The worst the cops can do is kill you but Hollywood can dehumanize you or worse, stereotype you. And then the real cops shoot you because they’ve seen the same movie. That’s what the screenplay calls for and who is Officer Bovine to question such a well-regarded script? Or the very, very worse, you get a bad actor to portray you or people "like you" or bad actors to portray your tribe, whatever tribe that may be. Mao said that power comes out of the barrel of a gun but it also comes out of a camera lens, a different kind of power certainly but one that can be just as overwhelming and final. The issue for me is that the very strength of film, its ability to encapsulate life or something approaching life in a gripping and—this is important—effortless way for the audience, unlike reading where you have to pay attention and turn the page, is what makes it so dangerous. People will say “it’s just a movie,” but with such a powerful medium very often things are not that simple.
If you think this is shaping up as some kind of rant about a particular movie or star, it’s not. There are a few candidates out there, it seems to me, for going off on film (practically anything with Adam Sandler for example, but that’s just my view.) That’s more the role of the critics, isn’t it, to tell you which is a bad film or not? My opinion is offered solely as a viewer and with a sole caveat, one who is African-American. Nor is this about what’s going on behind the camera, an issue of current concern because of the recent ill-chosen comments of a certain Caucasian male Hollywood A-lister who seems clueless about racism in his own industry. You may say, well, who is behind the camera is intricately tied to who appears in front of it, a connection the A-lister missed despite his time in the business and that’s true. But as scientists write in learned papers, which it was my duty to read in my recent university experience, that is beyond the scope of our work here. Besides, that’s something that will have to be explained by someone who knows the industry, the ins and outs of filmmaking, how to position the casting couch so to speak, as opposed to who lies down on the couch which is what concerns me. Again, my opinions are expressed purely as a moviegoer, a consumer of the final cut who is African-American, the cinematic version of the “man in the street” who journalists used to talk to before the man in the street got a blog or a Twitter account and started speaking for himself. Mine is an inexpert opinion coming from someone who doesn’t “know film” but who knows black people and who has a certain consciousness and who is worried by what he sees.
There have been, it’s my thesis, having seen a lot of movies, old and new, as many of us have, only two eras of film for blacks in this country: “Pre-Dooley” and “Post-Dooley,” designations which we will tinker with slightly to make the former era “B.D.,” “Before Dooley,” for simplification, because otherwise both will be “P.D.” and confuse the reader. The “D” stands for Dooley Wilson who played ”Sam the piano player” to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca. Dooley Wilson like everyone else important was actually from Texas, from some pineywoods pisspot near Tyler, wherever that is (may Allah never find me there, don’t know why, but it sounds like the kind of place people are best known for leaving.) Wilson got out as soon as he could, from Tyler and from Texas, as many black people did at that time, and never looked back. It’s worth mentioning however the “Texas connection” only because so often in modern history, both U.S. and world, there is a connection to something that has happened or is happening south of the Red River: a link that others have commented on at length—and has been the subject of not a few screenplays itself, the worrisome “Texas connection.”
Before Dooley, there were three sub-eras for blacks in American film, loosely speaking, represented by three movies or kinds of movies, the blatantly racist like Birth of a Nation, any of the blackface films or anything with Stepin Fetchit or a Stepin Fetchit-like character, and the “Mammy” portrayals like Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind. These films or kinds of films were not accurate but were pretty consistent with the status of blacks in the Jim Crow America of the time. GWTW might even have been considered progressive in race relations, at that time. McDaniel won a best supporting actress Oscar after all, basically for rolling her eyes and warning “Miss Scarlet” not to commit some kind of foolishness, but an Oscar nonetheless, and McDaniel became a role model, not for her role in the film but for her successful entrĂ©e as a black into “the industry,” which was not cars or home furnishings or domestic service but movies. The credit you have to give her is despite her work in the film. The thing about films even today and even for whites, is that bad movies cannot be held against good actors. It’s the Hollywood corollary of the idea that bad things happen to good people. You can be an actor walking along Sunset Boulevard, minding your own business and humming a Shakespearean soliloquy or just humming because many big stars see themselves as singers too, when suddenly you get hit with a bad role, like lightning—and you’re not to blame. Taking the bad role is usually about working in a very competitive industry where everyone wants to be, and most actors usually want the work, even the good ones who may not need it, and often explain that they want to see what they “can do with the role.” Then there’s the paycheck that is often supersize. McDaniel got a paycheck and presumably a big one. Playing a maid in a white woman’s house in a film was certainly better than being a maid in a white woman’s house, which is the best that many black females had to look forward to, again at the time. Then, right on Mammy’s heels came Dooley Wilson playing Rick’s sidekick, the wise world-weary brother who loves and is loyal to Bogart, which makes Bogie cool, if he wasn’t before, because he can hang with Negroes and he’s not racist. That’s kind of my take on the action in Casablanca but it doesn’t really matter because the plot is incidental. Wilson is there as a presence more than anything else, a totem, and nascent stereotypes are there too but they’re different from what came before, which is an improvement. Wilson’s mere appearance on camera in this kind of film was progress. The conceit of Casablanca which has become immortal, both the film and its motif, is the black guy or girl who kind of has no life of his or her own but whose center of attention is focused on the white lead character and who serves as soulmate for the star although they’re not fucking. That’s Sam in a nutshell. We still see him today by other names and in other movies.
He’s spiritual too, that’s a big part of the package, black people are always spiritual and know things white people don’t, and in Casablanca Sam knows that the sudden appearance of Ingrid Bergman is “bad news” for Rick and that’s what concerns Sam most, what’s good or bad for Rick. When Bogie is getting ready to split for the desert, to join the Free French or whatever, he makes clear to the club’s new owner that Sam gets a piece of the action which is cool too, and new, groundbreaking, revolutionary in fact. Suddenly we’re making money in film and on film, a percentage of the action that hitherto had been reserved for whites, a step up from Ms. McDaniel whose only apparent reward on screen was her love of that scatterbrained scheming white girl Scarlet O’Hara. Sam is not getting any horizontal rewards that we see or at least not that one—not any concrete affection from Ingrid Bergman, Bogie’s love interest—and that’s where the storyline breaks down a little for me because most brothers of my acquaintance, feeling that a chick is not right for their best friend, for whatever reason, would make a move on her themselves, especially anyone as fine as Ingrid Bergman. But this is Hollywood not the real world and Hollywood is a parallel universe to our own, a virtual world where some rules we know on Earth apply and others do not. In any case that’s how Dooley Wilson changed our world for the better. He was still a stick figure but one who was making some money and getting significant screen time. He rolled his eyes once or twice but that’s cool. He got to sing and play the piano on camera which many of us even today might like. My theory is that we, black people, have been living in Dooley’s world ever since, certainly on camera but also to some extent on the streets of the U.S.A. Not because his role is so attractive to us still but because whites like it so much and they’re the ones who usually do the casting. We’re in a Post-Dooley Era only because he’s dead. At best we’re living in a post-Post Dooley Era that sounds like more radical change than there’s actually been. Things have changed but haven’t changed much. White people still see us as sidekicks and want us to have suffered so that we can be spiritual for them and they want us to be discriminated against so they can show how open-minded and cool they are by hanging out with us nonetheless. Dream on, many black people would say today. Unless all of this is supposed to happen on film and we’re getting paid for it, in which case the script is a little old but depending on the paycheck we may still join the cast.
There have been some hiccups in the telling of this particular narrative, yes. Everybody is on Bill Cosby’s case recently and apparently for good reason although as a black male my preference is for a trial before the hanging. Whatever his faults, Cosby was the first person to come close to changing the role of blacks on screen and in some sense in America. For purposes of this discussion no distinction is made between the big screen and the little one, it’s an increasingly artificial distinction anyway, with so many movie stars doing TV. Cosby’s most important role was not as the good Dr. Huxtable in the The Cosby Show, that would be my point, it was as the tennis-playing CIA agent on I Spy in the mid-60s, as the first African-American to star on a network television show, a big deal then and a big deal still, historically, whatever he may or may not have done since then. You’re struck watching the old show how much cooler Cosby was than his white partner Robert Culp, especially when Cosby was wearing his shades and this actually is a frequent experience for black filmgoers, how much more interesting for us the ethnic second-banana is to the white bread lead. There was a movie a few years ago in which Tom Cruise played a hitman and Jamie Foxx played the taxi driver who chauffeurs him to his victims and it occurred to me at the time how much more compelling Foxx’s role as the fearful taxista was to Cruise’s psychopathic killer. Foxx is from Texas too, another presumed pisspot called Terrell and he is a talented actor, also an Academy-Award winner: in a state enamored of Matthew McConaughey however, Foxx’s work doesn’t get much ink here although it has nothing to do, you can be sure, with race. The real reason is that McConaughey hangs out in Texas but Foxx split, apparently for good, like Dooley Wilson.
Mostly though, it’s my view, as blacks in America and on film we’re still playing Dooley in some shape or form. Even the great Denzel Washington: not long ago he was in a spy flick (yes, that’s my genre) with Ryan Reynolds, and Denzel did the buddy-thing or a modified buddy thing because they weren’t real buds or anything but the ending was what you would expect in today's cinema, he died for Reynolds, so that Reynolds’ character would live, which is a plot twist that white people like in life and in the movies. And, you know, it seems to me that Reynolds is an okay actor but hardly in Washington’s league and the only thing that Ryan Reynolds has done of any real note is being married to Scarlet Johansson which does give him points in a guy’s world that his acting does not. There’s a parallel here to our parallel universe, actually. Very often it’s been my observation that whites somehow expect me to take a spear for them, metaphorically speaking, the way Denzel took a bullet for Reynolds, or take a lesser position or less pay because “that’s what it means to be black in this country,” while the white guy or white girl gets the girl or guy and the big paycheck and gets to feel sympathy at my condition as a black person in this country, which makes my white friend empathetic or cool or whatever, on top of the higher salary. Does that sound familiar? If so, it’s because you’ve seen the movie. Probably multiple times. And you have to explain to them, you know—to your white friends—that black people are trying to get away from that particular narrative, right? That movie has been made. Several times. We’re trying to write some fresh material here. And Caucasians always seem a little hurt because that’s the plot they are used to. It’s coming from the big screen, that’s my opinion.
And it’s not just blacks for whom those same old lines are being written. Michael Pena is a very good young Latino actor but he seems to be dying a lot recently so some white guy with less talent can live: in Fury where Shia Leboeuf (who is a complete tool off the set, so they say, “a dick with no head,” he’s been called which is my favorite description of his non-cinematic persona) was deemed to be the one member of the tank crew who was survival-worthy in that World War II epic, and in a cop movie with Jake Gyllenhaal where Pena took a bullet for Jake. The question in many films is which characters live to see the final credits roll and as in other areas of white privilege those characters tend to be white. This is important because Hispanics run the very real risk of having Hollywood “handle” their narrative the same way Hollywood handled Native Americans’ narrative. It’s certainly starting to look that way. American Indians have had a rough time since the Plains Wars not just due to the original unwelcome intervention of the U.S. cavalry but also because people like John Ford, John Wayne and Gary Cooper took an early interest in their “story,” including depictions of alcohol, “savagery” and mayhem that was actually visited on Indians as much as they visited it on settlers. You can probably say that Native Americans’ lack of success doing the same thing to white people that whites did to them is how Indians lost the West. It was all a question of efficiency not morality or civilization. Until Hollywood screenwriters stepped in and changed the storyline.
It’s hard to have a balanced view of your own culture even today when, if you look at old Westerns, which were cutting edge cinema at the time, armed with bow and arrow or even a repeating rifle, the worthy Winchester, and at a pretty close range your team can still only hit the white guy in the shoulder. Or your team persists in charging a wagon train that has circled and your warriors don’t seem to notice they are getting mowed down by the dozens. Just as Hispanics in American film today are showing up very often not as themselves but as white people would like to see them, “humble and hardworking,” “with strong families.” Nothing wrong with any of that of course, never forget the strength of Hispanic families, which is real, but that seems to be the only thing Hollywood producers know about the culture. Or Latinos portrayed as drug dealers, and Latinas as hos. And maids! Don’t forget the maids. Talk to Hattie McDaniel, she can tell you, at least it’s a start in the industry. If blacks are doing better today it’s only because we’ve been fighting the stereotypes longer and the very conditions of our arrival in this country made us extremely suspicious of subsequent offers of employment from Caucasians, in Hollywood and elsewhere. We want to know not just how much we’re going to get paid, or if we’re going to get paid, but exactly what the work entails and if there’s health insurance. Believe me, you can’t be too trusting, whether it’s when the state trooper asks you to step out of your car or a movie producer says he’s going to make a film about “your experience as a black person.” The latter is potentially more dangerous than the former. You hand over your narrative to others only at great risk, that’s my view. If Hollywood producers didn’t even have to cast blacks or Latinos, they might not, that’s my opinion too.
A couple of years ago there was the completely forgettable Man on a Ledge with Australian hunk Sam Worthington, the film stands out in my memory only because the very white Kyra Sedwick played TV journalist Suzie Morales. C’mon now, they couldn’t find a Latina to play a Latina?
How is that any different from blackface?



A geek pretty much my entire life and liking numbers more than words, because they are true, and beautiful, and indisputable—right or wrong not both, or neither—it was my idea some time ago to write a formula as an assignment for a business class to describe any individual black actor’s success in Hollywood or lack thereof. It involved only two figures and a simple arithmetic operation, division.
You’d take the number of people the given actor had killed in his roles and divide by the number of times he had been killed on the screen. It was that simple. For women, and this is going to sound just a bit retro, the idea was the number of times she got the guy as opposed to the number of times she got dumped or was never the love interest. Okay, so that’s a little shaky—“The Chick Factor,” the second equation was called—but "The Kill Ratio" still seems pretty valid. And today, the world having changed in just a short while, even the women can be judged by who they’re capping: witness Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Whoever in the Hunger Games, a series of films which truth be told has never done much for me—especially after the first installment when a black contestant in the Games gave up her own life so that Katniss could live.
The point is violence, nothing more, nothing less. This is America after all and the number of people packing, on film and in real life, is awe-inspiring and, in some sense—this is an exaggeration obviously but not much of one—in our society “you are who you kill,” on screen and in real life. And somebody like Denzel Washington, his movie-homicide index you couldn’t even calculate. In his most recent one-man war The Equalizer he put down like a dozen Russian mobsters in the last half hour alone, and kicked the shit out of a couple of white cops before that, which was my favorite scene actually, so the rare roles like the thing with Ryan Reynolds where Denzel died to save Reynolds’ bacon was more than made up for. So, we may be moving out of the Post Dooley Era after all. Dooley may not just be dead but dead, you know? There’s a danger nonetheless, despite all this progress. And it’s coming from abroad.
One is reluctant to reveal one’s intimate viewing habits but Law & Order is one of my all-time favorite shows. Not the spin-offs but the original series, with S. Epatha Merkerson as the lieutenant and a varied rotation of assistant district attorneys and detectives. Recently the 20th anniversary season, which somehow missed my attention when it first aired, came into my hands and looking at the prosecutors, who usually include a hottie, this time the female lead was Alana De La Garza who is from Texas too, or grew up here. But it was actually the male prosecutor paired with Garza who caught my attention, Linus Roache, his face vaguely familiar as a character actor and not exceptionally convincing in L & O as a rabid-dog prosecutor for the County of New York. Googling, well, it turns out he’s British. Which raised a question that has been troubling me ever since: if Hollywood already has too many white actors, why are they importing more? This may sound mean-spirited but it’s not. We’re not talking about software engineers or nuclear physicists where there’s genuine scarcity, there’s no shortage of actors in this country, presumably many of them at Mr. Roach’s level or with his looks. The fact of the matter is that most of the British actors are Caucasian and are presumably not adding anything to the diversity mix on screen. The crop of British starlets in American productions which seems to be growing all the time, many of them named Emma or Emily—how is casting them any different from casting white American actresses at the expense of blacks and Asians and Hispanics? Especially when, like Linus Roache, they’re being hired to play Americans. Isn’t that like, to use an Anglicism, bringing coals to Newcastle? Apparently, Hollywood producers consider this some kind of diversity. It’s not. Nor is the new wave of Australian actors who seem to be everywhere at once.
One recent movie that really appealed to me was Zero Dark Thirty which had a couple of Australians, good actors, sure, playing respectively a CIA agent and a leader of the very non-diverse Seal Team Six (which may be an accurate portrayal because a recent USA Today story reported that US special forces, like much of the rest of our society, is a white show, too.) And my question is, like, are these Australian actors and actresses, although apparently well-trained, really doing something that American actors and actresses can’t do? And is there really a reason that a black person or a Latino or an Asian-American or an Asian from Asia couldn’t be in that particular role?
The Australian wave may have started with legitimate stars like Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe (who is apparently also pretty much a tool, off the screen and like everybody else has a “Texas connection” since he’s tight with Rick Perry and his band played at the Governor’s Mansion a couple of years ago, on one of the Perry kid’s birthdays.) But Kidman and Crowe are forces of nature. Margot Robbie and Sam Worthington are not. They are, respectively, a hot blond and a hunk, which America already produces and who are already over-represented in film. It’s not all bad news though. For black stars specifically there have been a few iterations during the Post-Dooley Era, a Post-Dooley 2.0 and 3.0 and now a 3.5. Starting in the ‘50s and ‘60s there were “good Negro” roles in which earnest black actors, after great trials, ended up bonding with skeptical Caucasians on screen. The actor was usually Sidney Poitier or someone like him. Poitier's homicidal index was low but no worry because almost simultaneously the Blaxploitation films started with the until-then unknown concept that African-Americans killing white people, even cops, was not only acceptable but could make for joyous cinema. Since then, in the wide sweep of American film, and our small slice of it, of the black actors, the most significant has probably been Will Smith, the self-described “Mr. Box Office” who made a series of movies in which he played a black person. No irony is intended. As a matinee idol, as a black conceived by whites, Smith was engineered inside out, and as we say in Texas he was “all hat and no cattle,” which is not a deterrent to success in the Lone Star State or in Hollywood. He had the moves and mannerism, he had the look, he talked the talk—but he was, in essence, a white director’s view of what an edgy black person is like. There was never any real threat, no reason for discomfort, no reason for guilt, Smith said once in an interview that he could have been elected president of the United States if he wanted to run and he was right but Barack Obama beat him to it. You could say that Smith’s most genuine performance was when he wasn’t trying so hard to please, in Ali. Since then, the market has cooled for what Will Smith is selling which is a shame because he's a first-rate actor but it’s still hard to underestimate his effect on film, especially in the way Hollywood keeps score: His movies made a lot of money. We’ve now reached the opposite extreme where black actors are “too real,” like Idris Elba who was recently dissed as “too street” to play James Bond. That’s only a correct assessment depending on how you view the Bond franchise: as tongue in cheek, a series of motorcycle chases and unlikely derring-do, or something more substantial. My guess is that if you did a survey of clandestine services across the globe, our own CIA included, the people doing the work would be a lot closer to Idris Elba than to Daniel Craig.
You may ask why it’s okay for Elba and David Oyelowo, of Selma fame, who are both British, to come to the U.S. and take American roles but the reason is, frankly, they’re not white. And if you can’t see the difference between what Elba and Oyelowo offer on the screen as compared to Sam Worthington, or Chris Hemsworth, then we might as well go back to blackface and have whites in all roles. For me, being African-American does not mean seeking ideological purity in a movie theater, exactly, but you don’t want to be embarrassed either. There’s a big ideological component to the arts that you can’t escape: nor, in this country, where minorities are still living something less than the American Dream, should we want to. My own modest contribution to The Struggle is not to see any film in which blacks are portrayed “in service,” working as either cooks, chauffeurs, maids or butlers. This prohibition includes almost any film with Oprah Winfrey. She’s actually a better actress than she is an interviewer, you saw that right away with her first roles, and there’s the added plus that when she’s in a film she can’t, as she does on her show, bring the subject around to what interests Oprah most, which is Oprah. But in the movies she specializes in quiet dignity in the face of adversity, or racism, while my preference is that black characters facing challenges do what white stars do and reach for a handgun. My only excuse for seeing Selma in which Oprah also showed quiet dignity is not knowing she was in the movie to begin with. My most controversial call, deciding to see the hitman movie with Tom Cruise, in which Jamie Foxx was chauffeuring Cruise around, was justified only because Foxx killed Cruise’s character in the end. Not having seen The Help or Driving Miss Daisy doesn’t prevent me from criticizing these films, however. Remember, this isn’t film criticism it’s just criticism. Political protest, you could call it, "talking shit to the white man," others might say. There’s a reason why Stalin and Mao sent a lot of artists and writers to prison, or worse, for the sake of revolutionary change. When the revolution comes, if the revolution comes, you like to think that anyone involved with Driving Miss Daisy, especially whoever wrote that title, will get a blindfold but no last cigarette.
It’s not that art imitates life or life imitates art. It’s that they are one in the same. Life is art and art is life, especially at the movies. We need to pay as much attention to who Hollywood is casting as to who the police are pulling over. Too few of one and too many of the other still lead us in the wrong direction as a society. But that’s just my opinion, as a moviegoer. Don’t mind me, it’s like the Republicans say, “black people are fixated on race.” And after all this venting it’s time to chill: Goina go check out a movie at Redbox, my idea is something called Lila & Eve, it’s been described to me as a kind of Thelma and Louise for colored people, with Jennifer Lopez and Viola Davis. The ideological police still haven’t cleared the multi-talented Ms. Davis for accepting a role in The Help, a movie which (again, not actually having seen it, only because my high principles won’t allow me) it’s my belief set back race relations in this country a century, playing into white women’s wet dreams about their “special relationships” with their maids: the same way Casablanca did for guys, but without the same pretensions to innovative moviemaking.

The thing is though, Viola Davis’s mom was a maid and Viola was born on a former plantation in South Carolina, which is worse even than Texas, if that’s possible, another one of those places black people are known for leaving on the first bus. She’s come a long way, baby, and as an African-American you question her street cred only at great risk to your own. Lila & Eve has a Rotten Tomatoes score of like 12 but it’s only $1.62 a viewing. The film may be execrable but the casting is revolutionary.

M.T.
mbeki.townsend@gmail.com

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