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.

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