Green Book - Mahershala Ali

White people imagining blackness

Ever since Birth of a Nation, Hollywood’s view of race has been from the viewpoint of whiteness. Even though Hollywood’s Golden Age provided us with classics such as Rear Window, Psycho, The Wizard of Oz and An American in Paris, it’s also indulged in its share of racial stereotypes.

America’s internal propaganda has relied strongly on the false narratives about black people and blackness as construct. Of course, it would have to be this way if slavery – legal human trafficking – was to become an intrinsic economic tool for a new nation.

The lies told about black people have been immense and long-lasting in their power. Some of the most popular lies include black people being thought of as innately criminal, sexually repugnant, animalistic, infantile, mules of the world, jezebels, etc. These lies have persisted because they have been passed down from one white generation to the next, some of whom are also power players in America’s upper echelon, such as the political sphere, economic sphere, and of course, the entertainment sphere.

All the ways white people in power have used stereotypes against black people have hurt in more ways than you can imagine. But the one that I’d argue is the most insidious is how they are used in entertainment. Whereas film and TV are often thought of as a safe space for the imagination to believe in the impossible, that same playground is where America’s collective imagination about blackness can explore its nightmarish beliefs on a grand scale. Storytelling has the power to inform us about ourselves and each other, and if the stories we receive tell us a certain group are terrible, we are more likely to believe it, especially if that message comes in the form of a pretty package like a film or TV show.

Black audiences have had to endure injustice done to Hattie McDaniels, who had to play a Mammy character in Gone with the Wind. They’ve had to see themselves in countless actors playing childlike maids and butlers who are grateful to their white masters. They’ve had to grapple with blackface numbers by Al Jolson-starrer The Jazz Singer, Judy Garland-starrer Everybody Sing, and even Fred Astaire (one of my favorite old Hollywood stars) in what he thought at the time was a loving tribute to his tap-dancing idol, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Blackness has always been something to consume or exaggerate, not something to actually understand and respect.

Unfortunately, blackface is something that even continued in the 1980s, with 1986’s Soul Man, a strange film starring C. Thomas Howell as Mark Watson, an affluent white teen who pretends to be a black kid in order to receive a college scholarship. This is a film Hollywood no longer talks about, with good reason. First, it’s poking fun at affirmative action. Second, there’s the visible problem of a white man wearing blackface. That, combined with his reason for doing so, doubles down on the white imagination’s perversion of black life, including the idea that it is easier to be black because of perceived government kickbacks. This idea disregards the real reason affirmative action was installed – to help black students and employees gain access to opportunities once only given to their white counterparts. By engaging in blackface and black stereotypes, the film reasserts how the construct of blackness supersedes the reality of multifaceted, human experiences of the black diaspora. Black life is something that can be worn like a mask or a costume just to achieve an end.

The Help, as I brought up before in this article, is another instance of blackness being reimagined in the white imagination. As Stockett has said herself, the book is an extension of her idea of what her black housekeeper could have said about her life. Some might decry the book as using Stockett appropriating her dead nanny’s voice for her own personal gain, a type of literary blackface, if you will.

There’s also the very real case against Stockett’s use of blackness for personal gain. According to ABC News, Ablene Cooper, a black nanny who worked in Stockett’s brother’s home, filed a $75,000 lawsuit against Stockett. She alleges that Stockett engaged in “unauthorized appropriation of her name and image” and says Stockett’s brother and wife agree with her. Certainly, the names “Ablene” and “Aibileen” are too close for comfort, and Cooper alleges that Stockett knew about her after she babysat Stockett’s daughter. She says that “she had been assured by Stockett…that her likeness would not be used in the book.”

The appropriation argument against the film is something the Association of Black Women Historians brings up in their open letter.

The Help‘s representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of the Mammy – a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families,” they wrote. “Portrayed as asexual, loyal and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them.”

“…Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech and culture,” the association continued. “Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent gives way to a child-like, over-exaggerated, ‘black’ dialect. In the film, for example, the primary character, Aibileen, reassures a young white child that, ;You is smat, you is kind, you is important.’ In the book, black women refer to the Lord as the ‘Law,’ an irreverent depiction of black vernacular.”

They also write about how black men were let down by the film by being portrayed as drunk abusers. “…We do not recognize the black community described in The Help where most of the black male characters are depicted as drunkards, abusive, or absent. Such distorted images are misleading and do not represent the historical realities of black masculinity and manhood,” they wrote.

Black people are blocked from access

So why have films that tell race from the privileged point of view been lauded in Hollywood? Why do black filmmakers sometimes have to make films that soften the truth in order to achieve mainstream success? It’s because Hollywood’s racial power structure is still in play. That not only means that white directors have more of a chance of having their race films taken seriously, it also means that black directors, directors who have the lived experience of racism often don’t have the access or connections they need to get their vision off the ground. If they do attain access, they still have to adhere to Hollywood’s strange rules about race in order to get their films in the theaters.

For instance, let’s look at Miles Ahead, released in 2015. Don Cheadle is a recognizable Hollywood name and the star of more than a few major hits, so you’d think that it would be easy for Cheadle to get a movie about jazz legend Miles Davis made. But Cheadle lamented about how difficult it was to get funding from studios, resorting to an Indiegogo campaign and his own coffers. The only way he could get the movie off the ground with studios, he said, according to Tambay A. Obenson for IndieWire, was to add a white protagonist.

“There is a lot of apocryphal, not proven evidence that black films don’t sell overseas,” he said during the Berlin Film Festival press conference. “Having a white actor in this film turned out to actually be a financial imperative.” The results of forcing in a white character plus financial concerns was a film that was lesser than what Cheadle actually wanted to make.

Even films made by white directors and producers have run into roadblocks when it comes to films about race. Red Tails, the 2012 film telling the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, had a tough road to the theater despite being produced by George Lucas. The Star Wars creator told Jon Stewart during an interview on The Daily Show that studios didn’t want to finance the film because they felt that there would be no market for a film with a mostly-black cast.

“They don’t believe there’s any foreign market for it and that’s 60 percent of their profit,” he said, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “…I showed it to all of them and they said, ‘No. We don’t know how to market a movie like this.'”

He also said another roadblock came up because the film didn’t have a white savior. Lucas used the example of 1989’s Civil War film Glory, which starred Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick. Even though Washington’s character’s story is much more important, it’s Broderick’s character that’s central, fulfilling the “good white person” stereotype and keeping the focus of the film solely around white emotions towards black pain.

“It’s an all-black movie. There’s no major white roles in it at all,” he said about Red Tails. “It’s one of the first all-black action pictures ever made. It’s not Glory where you have a lot of white officers running these guys into cannon fire. They were real heroes.”

How race films are rewarded boil down to racial stereotypes and tropes as well. There are many examples I could draw from: Halle Berry winning for her role as a downtrodden woman who falls in love with a racist in 2001’s Monster’s Ball, Denzel Washington’s role as a detective-turned-bad in 2001’s Training Day, Octavia Spencer’s role as Minny in The Help, Whoopi Goldberg as a comedic psychic in 1990’s Ghost, etc. In fact, it’s worth noting that Goldberg somehow won an award for a nothing role in Ghost while being blocked out of the Oscars for her transcendent performance in 1985’s The Color Purple.

But what I want to discuss at length is one of the OG moments of the Oscars awarding black roles that demean rather than uplift – Sidney Poitier winning for his role in 1963’s Lillies of the Field instead of his performance in 1961’s A Raisin in the Sun or 1967’s In the Heat of the Night.

Most of Poitier’s roles involve showcasing black dignity, and his roles as Det. Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night and Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun exemplify that. I’d argue that his role as Walter is the most significant performance of his career, because his character, while still dignified, had his dignity drowned in despair and broken by white supremacy. He showcased the grief that accompanies the black experience in America, and he showcased that grief in such a raw and unfiltered way that the Academy clearly wasn’t ready for.

Meanwhile, Lilies of the Field features Poitier playing a stereotypical role of a black man who spends the entire film doing chores for white nuns. Poitier’s character, Homer Smith, is a handyman and former soldier who feels lost; we are to believe he finds his purpose once again when he comes across the nuns and starts rebuilding their church. His usefulness comes down to the fact that he’s strong and resilient, the same types of things black men were exploited for during the slavery and sharecropping eras.

It’s this film that gets Poitier the Oscar for Best Actor. Part of this is because the Academy is notorious for giving actors awards for lesser films as an apology for not awarding them for the roles they should have won for. But Poitier was also able to win because his role as a handyman fit in with Hollywood’s limited idea of what blackness can be. Finally, Poitier was playing a role in service to white people, and for that, the Academy felt comfortable awarding him.

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