Hollywood has a weird fascination with telling the same stories over and over again. Outside of the mountains of bloated remakes being made year after year, this also means that the same tired racial tropes are being passed around from film to film. Most people don't realize it, because subtle racism can be pretty damn sneaky. But when a certain kind of narrative gets rehashed enough times, nasty trends are established. Like how ...
Long before I was on the right side of social justice, I was a stupid teenager with a weird obsession with feel-good movies about racism. The Blind Side, The Help, Crash -- pretty much any story that told me "Hey, maybe racism doesn't exist after all!" served as a pacifying drug that lured me into a false sense of how the world works. The worst part was that they were all centered around white people. Despite the fact that the films tackled issues that primarily affect people of color, these issues were still explored through the eyes of white characters. This is a pretty common staple in the steady diet of whiteness that Hollywood has been serving us for the past few decades.
Take this year's Suburbicon, directed by George Clooney. On paper, it sounds great. Matt Damon fucks up an all-white neighborhood like a suburban Rambo, while racists ignore him because they're too busy attacking a perfectly nice black family that just moved in. It makes everyone feel good, because everyone hates racists and soccer moms. It lights up the part of your brain that's proud of eating kale and voting for Obama, and makes you shout "Yeah! Fuck white people!" But before you draw anxious looks from your conservative neighbors, take a step back and think about this narrative. Who is the story really about? Is it about the black family that got maybe five minutes of screen time? Or is it about making Matt Damon look cool as fuck?
Same thing happens in Logan. There's a subplot involving a black family being harassed by a crew of stereotypical Southern rednecks. Good guy Logan steps in and saves the family ... who are then killed and never mentioned again. If I were white, I'd probably feel something between adoration for Hugh Jackman's badassery and tragic sympathy for the dead black people I connected with for 15 minutes. But I'm not, so all I can think about is how little care or attention is given to the portrayal of my skin color, except when it's used to prop up how awesome and cool a white guy is.
I don't feel involved when I watch white people do all the ass-kicking for me. I'd rather watch someone like Django or Chris from Get Out save themselves. These are black characters with agency, who get character depth from taking full control of the narrative. That kind of agency gets drowned out when the most popular movies about race also feature a familiar and comfortable white face to gently guide the viewer. Like in The Green Mile, Gran Torino, and the aforementioned Blind Help Crash, all of which were helmed by white directors with white stars, and made for white people to feel like they're good people just for watching it. Maybe Matt Damon can throw us a bone and beat up some film execs for us.
Most of my friends from my teenage years were racist bastards, and one of the most glaring examples of this was their Kafkaesque view of interracial relationships. I say Kafkaesque because it makes me look well-read, and because they didn't personally want nor like dating outside of their race, but applauded minorities who did. One of my old friends once said "Got yourself a white girl!" to a black acquaintance who was getting married, congratulating him like he had won the race lottery.
Whiteness is still held up as a grand carnival prize you can walk out with, as long as you have enough model minority tokens to exchange. This type of thinking is mirrored in Hollywood, as the most common portrayals of interracial love are black/white. Lakeview Terrace, Rome & Jewel, Save The Last Dance, Everything Everything, Black Or White, Guess Who, The Mountain Between Us, and countless more all had either black man / white woman or white man / black woman relationships.
I'm not saying these movies are in the wrong. On the contrary, I think we should have a lot more interracial dating, because you get the bonus of pissing off neo-Nazis. But I'm pro-all-interracial. Show us more diversity, like Asian/black, Latino/Asian, Middle-Eastern/black, etc. If you don't, you create an underlying assumption that whiteness always has to be present in everything, that it's the crucial dough in a recipe that can have any other race slapped in as flavor.
At its worst, this props up white men and women as the ultimate objects of affection for minorities to win. Take 2017's critical darling The Big Sick, a movie about a Pakistani-American man who falls head over heels for a white American woman. It's been widely praised, but it's also been criticized for stereotyping all its nonwhite women and not giving them any depth. Because who cares about a bunch of undateable South Asian women?
I've learned the hard way about how white skin is generally at the top of the beauty standard hierarchy, and that hierarchy is reinforced in the entertainment we consume. White women are frequently presented as the ultimate goal for men of color to achieve, and I used to think the same way. I held up white women as the most desirable because that's what everyone, including my family, told me. It's like head lice -- you don't know you have it until someone combs through your bad habits in shock and horror. And if a black guy like me can develop shitty attitudes toward interracial relations, then it absolutely happens to your friendly neighbor who swears he loves black people because he likes both LeBron and Kanye.
Back in 2013, Spike Lee ran a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus, which is exactly as crazy as it sounds. The steep asking price of $1.25 million, along with his unconventional choice in funding method, created controversy, with accusations that Lee was greedily taking money from other artists.
At the time, I didn't understand the implications of a prominent black director struggling to fund their project. But years later, I learned that Hollywood isn't exactly fertile ground for black creativity. There aren't a lot of black directors, and they just can't get any money. You might be thinking, "Alright, one black director didn't succeed. Doesn't mean it happens often." Which is how I used to think too. It's difficult to convince some of my white friends that this happens, because they see it as an issue of egalitarianism. Egalitarian in that they believe that white people are equally affected, and also egalitarian in making me equally frustrated. But that's the problem.
I'm not just a writer, I'm a black writer. That means that I inevitably have to come to terms with needing to work twice as hard to get the same amount of attention as a white creator would. My theoretical masterpiece, Count Blacula Destroys The White Patriarchy, probably wouldn't get as much funding as Count Blacula Destroys The White Patriarchy And Learns That Love Is Colorblind: #notallwhitepeople. The system is set up to favor white projects, leaving out black productions that probably would have tackled the same subject better.
So do you stick to your vision, even though there's a high chance that it'll be contentious and hated (if it even gets made at all), or do you sell out and make a feel-good movie that conforms to the status quo? Dee Rees dealt with this while making the award-winning Pariah, a coming-of-age story featuring two black lesbians. As you can expect from that description, it didn't go over too well with executives, as they promptly denied her and fled to the country club as soon as they heard "black lesbians" without also hearing "Jell-O wrestling."
Most arguments concerning racial representation in Hollywood usually involve the other party going, "There are plenty of successful black movies/directors!" Bonus points if they appeal to an argument of meritocracy, which they usually do. What these comments fail to realize is that even successful black projects had to struggle. You're probably a wonderful not-racist person, so I'm gonna assume that you love 12 Years A Slave, Selma, Dear White People, and The Butler. What do they all have in common, besides towering critical acclaim? They all got funded by the skin of their teeth. Each project had to hunt down producer after producer until one of them said yes.
If you think that's just how the industry is, you're partially right. But it's disproportionately more difficult for people of color. I feel a mix of emotions whenever I see a black project do well. It's exciting, because diversity and junk. But it also makes me think, "Wow, this must have had to jump through so many hoops to get made." It's not a pleasant thought to have, but it's automatic. You learn to cope with it and hope to one day help fix it.
On top of having to worry about not getting anything I make published/produced, I have an innate fear of being boxed in. Have you noticed a trend in terms of what black movies get nominated for Oscars? They're usually about slavery or the Civil Rights era. Certain types of black projects have a better chance of getting made; you'll rarely see a black sci-fi/fantasy movie.
This is especially true in television. Despite recent black successes such as Atlanta, How To Get Away With Murder, Empire, and Scandal, these shows remain a minority in a white-dominated industry. It's still difficult for black writers to get into the business. On the flip side, white writers get more leeway with black stories. Don't get me wrong, white people should be able to tell stories featuring people of color! But it rubs me the wrong way when they get preference over black creators, and with more creative freedom to boot. It's an industry wherein white people tell black people that white people are better at telling black stories than black people are, then expect black people to be grateful when they're given the chance to make a project deemed acceptable.
Being typecast in real life is kind of like its film counterpart. It's rough trying to be a weird black person when you're constantly put into narrow little boxes of identity. Growing up, I couldn't so much as listen to indie folk music without getting a few white looks of surprise, to the point where enjoying Fleet Foxes was like having a black superpower.
When typecasting happens in film, it feels like a conscious decision done with the intent of making sure that your characters of color are true to black-on-white crime statistics ... which are actually false as fuck. For black male actors, this means being the gangster thug villain 64 percent of the time, despite only representing 34 percent of all real-life gangs. It's a surprising statistic that mostly goes unnoticed, but once you know about it, you start seeing it everywhere, like a racist Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.
Take Netflix's Daredevil. No matter how hyped up it was, or how good it might be, the whole thing was ruined when I saw that early in the first episode, some black guy kidnaps white women, then gets the stuffing beat out of him by righteous white fury. To me, that screams "Stay away," that my race isn't going to be taken seriously or will only be some fist sandwich for an otherwise-white narrative.
The typecasting of black women is even worse. They're expected to live up to white standards of beauty, and they're often given roles based on how well they conform, to the point where light-skinned actresses are given preference in black movies. There's been some criticism toward Dear White People for making caricatures of its darker-skinned female characters while giving a lighter-skinned black woman the lead. Straight Outta Compton also caught heat for its racist casting call, which created a grading scale based on the attractiveness of certain black women. Lighter-skinned women were graded as A and B, while darker-skinned women "with a weave" were Cs and Ds. I guess D stood for "Daaamn, that's pretty fuckin' racist!"
And it's not like movies are pulling from huge pools of beloved women of color. Every few years we tend to get a Zoe Saldana, like an African American Halley's Comet. A decade ago, it was Halle Berry, then Rosario Dawson, and now Saldana, all rolled out for a limited time only until it's time to swap them out for a fresh face. It's hard to not get disheartened when actors of color are basically the racial equivalent of McRibs and Shamrock Shakes.
You might remember the Zoe Saldana Nina Simone controversy, when some people were outraged that a light-skinned black woman with less prominent African American features was cast as Nina Simone, who was pretty much the complete opposite. I was upset, because I saw myself in Simone, as someone whose blackness is universally underappreciated and passed over in favor of whiteness. Some of my white friends didn't get it. They believe in the job going to the person best suited for it. But if the best people are black, they often don't get the job.
The issue is systemic, to the point where some black people have internalized it. My mother would often try to style my hair straight and less curly, under the guise of making it more "manageable." Given that my hair is a motherfucker to deal with, I didn't see the implications until I was much older. It took me a long time to get comfortable with my black features, especially my hair. I wonder what the Straight Outta Compton people would grade me?
After being black for a while, you start to pick up on how white people respond to racism. Discussions about race tend to go down easier if they're told in a way that doesn't necessarily implicate white people or imply that they have any inherent responsibility. Better yet, if it makes them feel good, then it's probably going to be acknowledged. That's where film comes in.
As I mentioned earlier, the most celebrated black movies usually deal with some troubled part of white history. Your standard Oscar buffet will include slavery, segregation, the Civil Rights movement, or any other racist institution that was phased out through some law getting passed. But a good chunk of movies about historical racism are whitewashed as fuck.
I'm using whitewash to mean "feel-good for whites," because it's hard to get white people to watch a movie that makes them feel like shit. Usually this involves either inserting a white savior into the plot, so as to remind whites that "Whitey ain't always evil, yo," or downplaying the racism to Disney levels of self-awareness. 42, the Jackie Robinson biopic, took on racism through cartoonishly racist side villains. The rival manager serves this function, but is soon thwarted through Jackie's sheer determination. Even Jackie's own racist teammates eventually grow to love him, and the film ends on a happy note. That doesn't challenge racism in any substantial way. White audiences walk away thinking that we've closed a dark chapter of American history forever, except we didn't. Robinson was just one part of a much larger, much uglier story that's not white-audience-friendly.
That's why it's so difficult to explain racism effectively. You have to doll it up, make it look cute and harmless ... or at the very least, give it a happy ending. People who aren't accustomed to talking about new and strange concepts like institutionalized privilege are going to have a much harder time accepting that everything in their life revolves around some kind of oppression, especially when they thought they'd just be shoving popcorn into their mouths for two hours while being told how awesome non-caricature-racist white people helped fix all of society's ills.
Take Hidden Figures. It's supposed to be about three African American women and their triumph in a white-male-dominated world, but it felt the need to make Kevin Costner's character just as vital to that story. I can see why they did that; it's easier to communicate to white people through a character who looks like them. But it softens the blow. Or there's Race, which tried to push an uplifting message about overcoming racism if you work hard enough and are Jesse Owens, but ended up absolving white people of any guilt or responsibility for creating the system that forced Owens to prove himself in the first place. And sometimes if you're a black person on the wrong side of things, like I was, it can weirdly comforting to have these things told to you from the perspective of white people, because white trust is automatic and inherent. But this often comes at the expense of the characters of color.
The movies with black people that get acknowledged are often the ones that deal with history in the safest, most palatable ways. I always treat movies about racism with skepticism, because I never know if white people are praising them for being challenging or if it's just another case of "We used to be racist, but now we're not. Go humans!" That's not inspirational; that's porn for white people.
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