Monday, June 27, 2016


“This award, this is not for me. This is for the real organizers all over the country. The activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students, that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do.
All right? It’s kind of basic mathematics:, the more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize. Now this is also in particular for the black women, in particular, who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you.
Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to de-escalate, disarm and not kill white people every day. So what’s going to happen is we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function and ours.
Now — I’ve got more, y’all. Yesterday would’ve been young Tamir Rice’s 14th birthday, so I don’t want to hear anymore about how far we’ve come when paid public servants can pull a drive-by on a 12-year-old playing alone in a park in broad daylight, killing him on television and then going home to make a sandwich. Tell Rekia Boyd how it’s so much better to live in 2012 than 1612 or 1712. Tell that to Eric Garner. Tell that to Sandra Bland. Tell that to Darrien Hunt.
Now the thing is though, all of us in here getting money, that alone isn’t going to stop this. All right? Now dedicating our lives to get money just to give it right back for someone’s brand on our body, when we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies and now we pray to get paid for brands on our bodies.
There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of. There has been no job we haven’t done, there’s been no tax they haven’t levied against us, and we’ve paid all of them. But freedom is somehow always conditional here. “You’re free,” they keep telling us. But she would’ve been alive if she hadn’t acted so… “free.”
Now, freedom is always coming in the hereafter. But, you know what though? The hereafter is a hustle. We want it now. And let’s get a couple of things straight, just a little side note: The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job, all right, stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression. If you have no interest in equal rights for black people then do not make suggestions to those who do. Sit down.
We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind, while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil, black gold. Ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is, though, the thing is that just because we’re magic, doesn’t mean we’re not real.”
Jesse Williams, receiving the BET Humanitarian Award, 2016

Saturday, January 23, 2016


For many years I have been watching the film industry and other media insidiously manipulate the images and angles through which African Americans are viewed. This manipulation has been going on so long and been so consistent and pervasive I could write a book about it, but Donald Bogle already did.
       Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films is a popular book originally published in 1973. It is currently in its fourth edition, updated to include the entire twentieth century. Mr. Bogle will need more updates as the pattern continues into the twenty-first century.
It did not surprise me that Academy Award nominations were rained on Precious, the 2009 movie about a black family that is seriously dysfunctional. That kind of focus is in keeping with the Academy’s history of honoring particular types of roles played by black actors. Among the more than 300 Oscars handed out since 1927, fewer than twenty have gone to black people. 
The winning roles for black actors have largely been when they played characters that conform to conventional white expectations for African Americans—servants, slaves, musicians/athletes, or people who were corrupt and/or cruel. 
The black actors who have received Academy Awards for both leading or supporting roles are: Hattie McDaniel (a maid in Gone With the Wind, 1940), Sidney Poitier (a handyman in Lilies of the Field, 1964), Denzel Washington (a slave in Glory, 1990), Whoopi Goldberg (a dishonest psychic in Ghost, 1991), Cuba Gooding Jr. (a boxer in Jerry Maguire, 1997) Halle Berry (a waitress in Monster’s Ball, 2002), Jamie Foxx (the singer Ray Charles in Ray, 2005), Morgan Freeman (a former boxer in Million Dollar Baby, 2005), Jennifer Hudson (a singer in Dreamgirls, 2007) and Mo'Nique (a brutal and abusive mother in Precious, 2010).

In 2012, the Academy returned to where it began with McDaniel, awarding an Oscar to Octavia Spencer for her role as a maid in The Help. In 2013 two movies about American slavery—Lincoln and Django Unchained—received lots of attention. Both included black actors; however neither of the award winners for these movies was black. (Jamie Foxx was not the right kind of slave.) There was another slave movie released in time to be considered for the 2014 awards, Twelve Years a Slave. That movie excited the country so much, they totally forgot about Fruitvale Station, the movie they were marveling about earlier in the year. 
In my opinion, and I wasn’t alone in this, Fruitvale Station was an excellent movie that dealt directly with contemporary issues. And that, no doubt, was its undoing. 
Why focus on a movie that makes people squirm when you have a perfectly good "black" movie set in the distant past that reassures us all that we’ve made such great progress. Twelve Years a Slave wowed the Academy and received the 2014 Best Picture award. Steve McQueen, the black director, apparently was not so impressive. He managed to direct the Best Picture, but he was not the Best Director. Lupita Nyong’o  received an award for Best Supporting Actor in her role as, surprise! a slave.

The dubious exceptions that prove this insidious rule are Louis Gossett (An Officer and a Gentleman, 1983) and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland, 2007), who won Oscars as strong military men, though both characters were stern and pitiless. In the same year Precious was released, Morgan Freeman starred in Invictus as Nelson Mandela, one of the most inspirational figures of our time. Although Freeman was nominated, I was certain that a role depicting a black man as a shrewd, resourceful, inspiring leader would not receive an Oscar. I was right.

By celebrating only roles that are subservient, cruel, demeaning and/or within an “acceptable” profession, Hollywood's majority reinforces America’s assumption of white dominance.
The case of Denzel Washington is a stark illustration of this practice. Washington is one of the most talented actors ever; he became Malcolm X and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in the title roles of two films about complex and empowered black men—Malcolm X (1992) and Hurricane (1999). The Academy Award voters didn't find either of those to be winning performances. In 2002 when Washington finally received an Oscar as best actor in a leading role, it was for Training Day, a film in which he played a brutal and crooked cop. That was a role he could be honored for.

Academy voters for Oscar winners are 94% white and 74% male, and their average age is sixty-three. I expect this trend to continue.
And it is. 

Excerpted from "The Viewers Involvement" in the essay collection, Not All Poor People Are Black by Janet Cheatham Bell.