In this week's Windy City Times, we are publishing the second installment of a four-part in-depth essay by Max. S. Gordon.
Part One, Section V
It would be disingenuous not to admit that there have been times in Oscar's history when a beautiful black performance has been recognized by either a nomination or award: Diahann Carroll as Claudine, Diana Ross in Lady Sings The Blues, Denzel Washington for Training Day, Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field, Dorothy Dandridge for Carmen Jones, Don Cheadle for Hotel Rwanda, Forrest Whittaker for The Last King of Scotland. There was even a time that a black actor was awarded for stamina: Halle Berry in Monster's Ball. Berry's Oscar, the only Oscar awarded to a black female in the Best Actress category, furthered the suspicion that blacks can only win when the roles they play indulge in black pathology, or when we are the victims of white pathology: Lupita Nyong'o is whipped within an inch of her life because she hides a bar of soap from her master in Twelve Years a Slave, and Mo'Nique and Gabourey Sidibe were both nominated for Precious, a film about a young black woman who can't read, who is incested by her mother, raped by her father, steals food because she's hungry, gives birth to a child with Down syndrome and finds out she is HIV positive. ( Precious can't catch a break. )
Whoopi Goldberg as a performer of her own material used to have a genius, but Ghost wasn't a great movie, and, in my opinion, the Oscar for that film had Eighties corporate cynicism written all over it. The role of Oda Mae Brown ( the name says pretty much all you need to know about the character ) was full of black schtick, was crudely conceived, and required broad characterization much like Whoopi's Sister Act films. Ghost, billed as an eternal love story, was really about white innocence and its ability to transcend everything, even Latino criminals, who are eventually dragged down to hell for their real crime: messin' with pretty white folks. By the end, Patrick Swayze's Sam, having protected Demi Moore's Molly, and white womanhood everywhere, ascends to heaven. The movie uplifts as it fear-mongers. Ghost was a crowd-pleaser, and Whoopi's "mammy as medium" was the best thing in it. She won the award, fair and square, on Oscar's terms, even if the role was a stereotype and a downer for those of us who saw Whoopi Goldberg: Direct from Broadway and knew the greatest of her artistry. Oscar's most cynical critics would maintain that for the black actor, receiving the award not only applauds one's talent but also the kind of images our society wants to empower.
The problem with #OscarsSoWhite, and with America in general, is that too often blacks have to be exceptional to be even be considered at all, when in the cult of whiteness, white mediocrity is too often rewarded. White people never have to "transcend race". In some cases, they just have to be good, and sometimes they don't even have to be good. ( Mediocre white kids will eventually find their way into college somehow, especially if they have money; mediocre black kids, especially when they are poor, get taught a trade. )
I met a lot of this year's nominees with a shrug of the shoulders, longing for a time when the Oscar contest seemed to matter and when there truly were no "losers" in the bunch. ( Best Actress nominees of 1981: Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner's Daughter, Ellen Burstyn, Resurrection, Goldie Hawn, Private Benjamin, Mary Tyler Moore, Ordinary People, Gena Rowlands, Gloria. Spacek won. ) And the idea is not just to have any black actor nominated for anything; that is condescending, and an insult to the industry and to art. ( In response to the racial bias of the Oscars, other awards shows may try and compensate by handing out trophies to blacks like candy at Halloween, or, during a singularly white Oscar year, give a black performer the always dubious "Lifetime Achievement Award"particularly suspect when the recipient's "lifetime" is still under 60. )
What we demand, in the end, is fairness. Spike Lee and other critics are right - it has to begin with the studios; you can't nominate performances that aren't there. But Idris Elba's performance in Beasts of No Nation was there, and was disregarded by Oscar, to the surprise of many movie-goers, black and white. In a generous year in which a best actor nomination went to Matt Damon in The Martian, this just doesn't make sense.
"When you come out of Desperately Seeking Susan, you don't want to know who the director isyou want to know who the perpetrator is." Pauline Kael, State of the Art
It has been said that movies are our collective dreams, the stories that we all share, which is why they are so powerful. It may be for this reason that we are loyal to the film industry, even when it continues to disappoint us, year after year. Conventional movies and movie theaters should be in danger of going extinct. Hollywood, it would seem, is stale, out of touch, and the Oscars and studios being this white in 2016 is like walking through the offices of Google and Facebook and finding someone sitting behind a Selectric Typewriter or rushing past waving a telegram.
I was in a movie theater only a handful of times last year, which is rare, because I love to go to the movies. A movie in New York City costs fourteen dollars and that is before you pay another fifteen for popcorn and drinks, and, for some of us, more money on childcare and parking. A cheap theater ticket in New York can almost be as much as a night at the movies. You sit down and see characters that aren't particularly nuanced in a movie that isn't beautifully filmed and that will be available on DVD in a couple of months. Many of us leave the theater feeling ripped off, imagining what it was like when the lights went down on movie classics like "The Godfather", "Dog Day Afternoon", "Taxi Driver", "Singing in the Rain", "All About Eve", "Do The Right Thing", "To Kill A Mockingbird" and "The Wizard of Oz." This list doesn't include all my personal favorites, but what I am referring to here is the richness of the movie-going experience for generations of mainstream viewers - when one leaves the theater having seen a movie with a director's vision, and not a big-budgeted television show on a widescreen.
The industry seems deeply confusedwho are they even making movies for these days? While movies have been lacking, television, hasironicallybeen enjoying a renaissance for many years now and doesn't carry the stigma it did for movie stars in the Seventies and Eighties. We are seeing many of our favorite actors, and particularly actresses, stranded by conventional Hollywood because they are considered too old, too black, too fat, or whatever, now finding acclaim and amazing roles on cable, Netflix and Amazon. Reviewer Pauline Kael wrote in the 1970s about her frustration at having to go to a movie on the same evening that the second part of Sybil aired on TV, knowing that whatever she would see that evening probably wouldn't match Sally Field's extraordinary performance. She suggested in another review that if television kept making mini-series like Roots, which she also praised, it might finish movies off altogether. That was forty years ago, but she could have been writing about Hollywood now. Movies are in big trouble when the latest cliched Hollywood thriller has to compete with shows like The Wire, Game of Thrones, House of Cards and Breaking Bad.
There was a time when I naively believed that the Academy Awards were simply a talent contest for actors. I eventually realized that while the competition keeps us watching, the Oscars are really one long commercial for the movie industry. We watch the nominated movies so that we won't be left out on Oscar night, and we watch the winning movies to find out what we've missed. I have been tricked too many times to count into seeing the latest "must-see" movie, only to find out that not only wasn't it Oscar-worthy, it wasn't even worth seeing, while the studios, the reviewers and the advertisers all seemed to collude in creating the big lie. And it is so easy to be ripped off by movies; how do you ask for your money back from a movie you've just seen? Unlike choosing to avoid a restaurant after a bad meal, movies change every week, allowing us to be tricked by Hollywood advertising and Oscar "buzz" over and over again.
I was told to run, not walk, to Silver Linings Playbook years ago. A story about mental illness, family and forgiveness which featured a brave, startling performance by Jennifer Lawrence turned into a feel-good movie ( in cinematic terms "feel-good" is often code for "white" ) about a dance contest. I left the movie furious that the father's own compulsion, control and sickness hadn't been explored at all, and everyone got their sham happy ending. Hollywood has always reinforced "whiteness" on some level, but it seems, at this particular point in Hollywood history, to wallow in it. At a time when there is such a need for truth and acknowledgement of authentic pain, the temptation by movie-makers to lie to us about ourselves seems irresistible.
I like Amy Schumer, and find her sexually subversive humor inspiring, but I stopped watching her halfway through the recent Trainwreck. The movie demanded that her wild-woman character, whom I was thoroughly enjoying, become girly and white, as the movie took the usual conventional, heterosexist turns and suddenly became a Julia Roberts movie. Perhaps I missed something by walking out, but I just couldn't bear watching her "sexually promiscuous" character humiliated and, finally, domesticated as she "got the guy".
Great art enlivens, some art just leaves you cold, and then there is another kind of "art" that drains; it takes more from an audience than it gives, and leaves our entire culture bereft. Robert DeNiro's "Bad Grandpa" seems the latest installment of movies intended, I suppose, for adolescent white boys. The assumption is that they only enjoy racist, sexist and homophobic jokes. Young white men should feel insulted. Blacks and women, meanwhile, pay the industry handsomely in ticket sales for the opportunity to be degraded.
Movies influence us greatly, and we watch them from an early age, sometimes before we have a filter even to know what we are seeing. And it is an age-old discussion that I won't belabor here whether the industry bears any responsibility towards the consumer other than to entertain. Hollywood would argue that it makes the movies people want to see. But things have become so cynical, and there is such a lust for profit, that we are creatively bankrupt, affirming the prejudices, sexual stereotypes and racial jokes that reflect the worst in the culture. We are taught through movies which lives have value, which stories are worth being told. And the absence of a story told can be just as powerfully felt as the rendering of one.
I am tired of being offended at the movies because of sexual orientation, violence towards women, or race: the disproportionate number of men of color killed by the Joker in The Dark Knight, including one black man whose head is brutally jammed down the length of a pencil. The young boy behind me who was audibly wincing throughout the movie was finally lead out of the theater during this scene by his father. Or maybe it is Tarantino's "Dead Nigger Storage" in Pulp Fiction which I've never gotten over, despite a great performance in that film by Sam Jackson. A friend of mine on Facebook was watching television when the trailer for the recent Hollywood film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi came on. A government official herself, she wrote that she was so shocked and horrified by the exploitative tone of the film that when the trailer ended, she burst into tears.
I want to be careful here; I'm not arguing that Hollywood should be free of violence or that we can't show racism or violence against people of color or women; but what does it mean when Hollywood continues to create and promote films that don't have any emotional or dramatic consequences for the brutality or cruelty we are watching, films that seem to put us on the side of the violator and encourage a contempt for any kind of "difference"? What are the implications for the woman walking home alone at night, for the transgender man waiting outside the bar, or for the voter standing at the booth and choosing a presidential candidate?
Chris Rock is hosting the Oscars this year. Rock, a black comedian known for his subversive racial humor, has decided not to pull out of the show, and asks people not to boycott but to tune in and support him. Rock appears on the promotional material and his wry, devilish smile suggests he may have something up his sleeve. But I can't help feeling that I fall into Oscar's trap if I watch to see what he will do on that night, thus sabotaging the boycott.
Oscar's president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, also black, issued a statement on behalf of the Academy when #OscarSoWhite reached a crisis point and threatened seriously to damage the show's ratings. "I'd like to acknowledge the wonderful work of this year's nominees. While we celebrate their extraordinary achievements, I am both heartbroken and frustrated about the lack of inclusion." Isaacs promises systemic changes, and the tone of her announcement sounds as if she picked the nominees herself, and the weight of change is on her shoulders. I have nothing personal against Isaacs, but I am cynical about her position as Oscar "president". As usual, a black face answers the Big House door, telling the angry mob the master's not at home.
I personally hope that Chris Rock does the entire Oscar broadcast in "whiteface." ( Isaacs may join him. ) Blonde hair, blue eyes. No joke he tells could be more powerful than the visual of a black man who transforms himself into a white one in order to be recognized as worthy, no statement could as deeply invoke what it means to be black in corporate America, the monsters we must sometimes become in order to thrive in the business world, and what we end up annihilating in ourselves to "win".
#OscarsSoWhite matters because the conversation it inspires isn't just about blacks in movies, or our creative contributions to acting and film; it's about racial greed, artistic homogenization. This is particularly appalling in America because there is so much cultural richness to mine, so many fascinating stories to tell. It might make sense if Hollywood were in Montana or Vermont, but you have to work pretty damn hard in New York and California to be this white. ( Woody Allen has been a pioneer filmmaker in the promotion of cultural whiteness on the two coasts. ) Michael Caine tells black actors to be patient, change will come; but it has been this way for quite some time. We tell the "deeply committed to diversity and change" lie to soothe ourselves, it is the national bedtime story that keeps us from facing the underlying, ugly truth: racism is a societal addiction, and most of us are addicts who are simply too greedy to share.
And finally, a classic example of recent "Hollywood": It has been reported that the actor Joseph Fiennes has agreed to play the role of Michael Jackson in a British television movie. The film is about an alleged road trip taken by Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando as they attempted to flee New York after 9/11. The announcement of Fiennes as Jackson was met with outrage, because Fiennes is English and white, and Michael Jackson was black and American. Fiennes' response in the press was unapologetic, sassy. "He was probably closer to my color than his original color," he said.
The final film may be little more than a trifle, about an event that may or may not have taken placebut that's not the point. The point is that it is 2016, Joseph Fiennes belongs to a generation of white people who should know better, and, while the stakes may seem considerably lower, he exudes the same cultural smugness and entitlement that must have motivated the early traffickers of African fleshas he tours the black cultural marketplace, fingering this bauble and that, with the ennui of a man who knows that he can buy whatever he likes, and whatever he can't buy, he'll just take. It's only a TV movie and yet Fiennes' attitude ( and the Fienneses of the world are legion ), his arrogance at this stage of the game and the arrogance of others like him, have the power to finish us all.
And whether you believe that Michael Jackson actually had a disease called vitiligo that caused some of his skin to turn white, or whether he bleached his skin as a result of a pathological need to appear white, Michael Jackson was black. ( When asked to clarify the rumor that he wanted a white child to play him in a Pepsi commercial, Jackson told Oprah Winfrey: "I am proud to be a black American. I am proud of my race." ) Michael Jackson grew up on the "wrong" side of Gary, Indiana, if there was a right side in the Sixtiesand I say this respectfully because if one is looking for a perfect example of the American dream, and the poor or middle-class black American dream, the Jackson family is it. And for all that went wrong in that family - and a lot went wrong - they gave us arguably two of the most successful American pop stars that ever lived, and one of the most successful pop groups in history. Michael Jackson's story is a black story, from Gary, to Detroit, to Motown, to meeting Berry Gordy and emulating James Brown, to Motown 25, "Billie Jean", Thriller, and the funky, black, Jerri-curl grease that he sweated out every night as he performed his music around the world. I know that grease, and the black Midwest, I know black fathers, and I also know that whatever accusations were leveled against Michael and whatever horrors came later, Michael was a black artist, and, as Dr. Nesha Z. Haniff at the University of Michigan has argued in her African-American studies' class on the subjectan American genius. But perhaps because of Justin Timberlake's pioneering efforts in the white-cultural-theft-of-Michael's-work-disguised-as hommage department, Fiennes feels entitled to his version, regardless of the outcry against him.
Perhaps if there were a fair turn-about, if there hadn't been such a campaign to discourage Idris Elba, a man who exudes a fabulous masculinity and sexual charm, from playing James Bond, or, as someone pointed out on social media, if Viola Davis were to play Elizabeth Taylor in the same Jackson movie ( and given her great talent as an actress, Davis could probably pull it off ) then maybe the conversation about Fiennes' playing Jackson would be different. But in the end, black actors can't have "white" roles and, it would seem, we can't even have our own roles.
Fiennes' entitlement may be the last straw for many of us tired of dealing with white imperialism on a creative level, on any level. It clearly doesn't matter to him what the impact of his playing Michael will have on the black spirit, or that there is a historical precedent for his cultural appropriation of black creativity and talent. I'm sure that for him, it's a part, he's an actor, it was offered to him and he's going to play it. Blacks sit in front of a screen once again as our cultural contributions are repackaged as whiteness and served back to us for consumption. It has become the plus ca change of Hollywood to cast a "historical" film about Egypt, for example, without a single actor of color. As a black, gay man I was doubly offended by last year's Stonewall. Under Hollywood, a film about the New York City rebellion in 1969 led by transgender activists of color became instead a movie about a white gay man who, by throwing a brick through the window of a gay bar, singlehandedly begins a revolution.
It's this "whiteness" that some people around the world want to smash, that endangers us all, because the message that it sends to everyone is that white people, not all, but far too many, in the end have to have everything and refuse to share the world's wealth, refuse to share education, top positions in business and academia, creative opportunities, healthy food, and, finally, in Flint, Michigan, even water. Water. And I know there are white people who read these words who are just as angry about the circumstances we have created as I am, but their goodwill and mine hasn't seemed to stop producing men and women like Governor Rick Snyder, who still appears dissociated from the full barbarity of what he has perpetrated on Flint. It is hard to tell if the constantly bewildered look on his face is the dismay of someone who is shocked by his own negligence, or by the fact that the world finally gave a shit about poor, black lives and that he got caught.
Gov. Rick Snyder and Joseph Fiennes come from a paradigm that just can't exist if we are to move forward, if we are going to thrive in a global community, and heal as a country. This level of greed and corruption can't be supported anymore. And there are those men and women, to be sure, who are equally outraged at the shift in power that is coming, the changing tide, furious that someone is taking that to which they feel they are entitled, and they are resisting more than ever. Governor Rick Snyder is hopefully finished, but for those who are white and disaffected, they have found their greatest inspiration in a Republican presidential candidate.
Max S. Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos ( University of Michigan Press, 1991 ), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction ( Henry Holt, 1996 ). His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally. His published essays include, "Bill Cosby, Himself: Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence" and "Maybe Yesterday, But Not Tonight: A Black Homosexual Speaks to Governor Mike Pence." This column originally ran on February 7, 2016 at www.thenewcivilrightsmovement.com/ .
First part at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Cult-of-Whiteness-OscarsSoWhite-Donald-Trump-and-the-End-of-America-/54315.html .