Sandwiched between the Golden Globes and the Oscars, folks are starting to ask the age old question: "Sal, how come you ain't got no brothers up on the wall here?" (Our own Curt Holman noted the awards season "Whiteout" in early December.
While Morgan Freeman was honored at the Globes with the prestigious Cecil B. DeMille Award (for "outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment"), a look at the montage surveying his career underscores the challenges unique to a black actor in Hollywood:
Freeman's career spans the gamut from pimps, hustlers, servants, and side-kicks to a handful of strong leading man alpha leads (and a strong character roles as the President of the U.S.) He is also the archtype for the "magical negro."
Spike Lee is at Sundance in Park City, UT with a sort-of follow-up to Do the Right Thing called Redhook Summer. The new film, whose plot sounds like an inversion of Lee's Crooklyn, revisits the Bed-Stuy neighborhood from Do the Right Thing, and includes cameos by some of the characters, including Lee's pizza-delivering Mookie (who still works at Sal's...which suggests that Sal (and Son's) possessed a hearty insurance policy, and they rebuilt.)
At the Q&A for the film, which was cooly received, Lee reportedly " went on a rant about Hollywood and black films after being prompted with a question from comedian Chris Rock."
A day after Lee's (self proclaimed) " motherf**king tirade", Redhook Summer co-writer James McBride posted the following open letter on the 40 Acres and a Mule Web site called "Being a Maid," taking aim at Hollywood's problem with black stories:
BEING A MAID
Wednesday, 25 January 2012 17:33
By James McBride
Last night, President Obama, our first African American President, delivered his third State of the Union address. On that same day, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated two gifted African American actresses, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, for Oscars for playing maids in The Help. This is 73 years after the first African American to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel, garnered the award for the same role — as a maid, and a slave maid at that, winning the Oscar in the Best Supporting Actress category on Feb. 29, 1940.
And here we are, in the year of our Lord, Jan 25, 2012. Maybe I’m getting old, but the irony of this is too much. Or perhaps I’ve heard this song before. In the 1970’s, when I was a freshman at Oberlin College, my white friends and I used to sit up and talk about racism and solving society’s problems all through the night until the sun rose. Not much good came from these talks, the least of which is I hoped to get laid, which rarely happened. But on those cold nights, I was convinced that when I walked out of college, racism would be just about finished. Instead, it smashed me across the face like a bottle when I walked into the real world. Now, 33 years later, I find myself talking about the same thing I talked about when I was a college freshman.
I have no take with Ms. Davis and Ms. Spencer. They’re outstanding actresses. But the nomination of these two women by the Hollywood community 73 years after Hattie McDaniel won for the same role speaks for itself. As co-writer and co-producer of Spike Lee’s newest film “Red Hook Summer,” and his previous feature film “Miracle At St. Anna,” I have a clear eyed view of what the cultural display of African American life means to hearts in Hollywood, a land of feints and double meanings and as tricky to navigate as anything inside the Beltway. I wish someone had told me this when I was a freshman at Oberlin.
America is a super power not because we make the biggest guns. We’re a superpower because our culture has saturated the planet: Levis, Apple, Nike, Disney, Coke, Pepsi, McDonald’s, Jazz, Rhythm n Blues, Rock ‘n Roll, and Hip Hop. Our culture dominates the world far more than any nuclear bomb can. When you can make a person think a certain way, you don’t have to bomb them. Just give them some credit cards, a wide screen 3D TV, some potato chips, and watch what happens. This kind of cultural war, a war of propaganda and words, elements that both Hollywood and Washington know a lot about, makes America powerful beyond measure. The hard metal of this cultural weaponry, much of it, emanates from the soul of Blacks, the African American experience in music, dance, art and literature.
But this kind of cultural war puts minority storytellers — Blacks, Asians, Latinos and people of color — at a distinct disadvantage. My friend Spike Lee is a clear example. Three days ago, at the premiere of Red Hook Summer at The Sundance Film Festival, Spike, usually a cool and widely accepting soul whose professional life is as racially diverse as any American I know— lost his cool for 30 seconds. When prompted by a question from Chris Rock who was seated in the audience, he blurted out a small, clear truth: He said one reason we did Red Hook Summer independently was because he could not get Hollywood to green light the follow-up to “Inside Man” — which cost only $45 million to make and grossed a whopping $184,376,240 million domestically and worldwide — plus another $37 million domestically on DVD sales. Within minutes, the internet lit up with burning personal criticism of him stitched into negative reviews of “Red Hook Summer” by so-called film critics and tweeters. I don’t mind negative reviews. That’s life in the big leagues. But it’s the same old double standard. The recent success of “Red Tails” which depicts the story of the all black Tuskegee Airmen, is a clear example. Our last film, “Miracle At St. Anna,” which paid homage to the all-black 92nd Division, which fought on the ground in Italy, was blasted before it even got out the gate. Maybe it’s a terrible film. Maybe it deserved to bomb. The difference is this: When George Lucas complained publicly about the fact that he had to finance his own film because Hollywood executives told him they didn’t know how to market a black film, no one called him a fanatic. But when Spike Lee says it, he’s a racist militant and a malcontent. Spike’s been saying the same thing for 25 years. And he had to go to Italy to raise money for a film that honors American soldiers, because unlike Lucas, he’s not a billionaire. He couldn’t reach in his pocket to create, produce, market, and promote his film like Lucas did with “Red Tails.”
But there’s a deeper, even more critical element here , because it’s the same old story: Nothing in this world happens unless white folks says it happens. And therein lies the problem of being a professional black storyteller— writer, musician, filmmaker. Being black is like serving as Hoke, the driver in “Driving Miss Daisy,” except it’s a kind of TV series lasts the rest of your life: You get to drive the well-meaning boss to and fro, you love that boss, your lives are stitched together, but only when the boss decides your story intersects with his or her life is your story valid. Because you’re a kind of cultural maid. You serve up the music, the life, the pain, the spirituality. You clean house. Take the kids to school. You serve the eggs and pour the coffee. And for your efforts the white folks thank you. They pay you a little. They ask about your kids. Then they jump into the swimming pool and you go home to your life on the outside, whatever it is. And if lucky you get to be the wise old black sage that drops pearls of wisdom, the wise old poet or bluesman who says ‘I been buked and scorned,’ and you heal the white folks, when in fact you can’t heal anybody. In fact, you’re actually as dumb as they are, dumber maybe, because you played into the whole business. Robbing a character of their full dimension, be it in fiction or non fiction, hurts everyone the world over. Need proof? Ask any Native American, Asian, Latino, Gay American, or so called white “hillbilly.” As if hillbillies don’t read books, and Asians don’t rap, and Muslims don’t argue about the cost of a brake job.
There’s nothing wrong with being white. I’m half white myself and proud of it. There isn’t a day passes that I don’t think about my late white Jewish mother and the lessons she taught me about humanity. But bearing witness to this kind of cultural war over the course of a lifetime will grind a man or woman down in horrible ways, and that’s my fear. I remember as a young saxophonist, just out of Oberlin, standing at a tiny jazz club in West Philadelphia watching the great jazz tenorman Hank Mobley in his last days, sick, broke. It was a jam session, and he strode onstage to reach for the magic one more time, to conjure up the power of his younger years when his mighty tenor powered Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis when those guys were the toast of Europe. Drink destroyed him. He was helped onstage by the kind musicians around him, and he stood there swaying, barely able to hold up his horn in that rancid little joint. When he put his mouth to his horn to play, it broke my heart. I felt like I was being strangled. His ability to play had vanished, and I saw my future.
It was terrible lesson for a young man fresh out of college and I did my best to forget it. But I understand it then and I understand it now: This is what happens when you walk through a supermarket and hear muzak playing ninth chords borrowed from your history; when you see instructions books made from the very harmonic innovations you created, and in my case, when you spend a lifetime watching films that spoof your community. Your entire culture is boiled down to greasy gut bucket jokester films, pornographic bling-rap, or poverty porn.
I used to think that if only there were a peaceful way, we could make Hollywood listen to the sound of America’s true drumbeat: the voices of working class poor, blacks, Asians, Latinos, Native Americans, and the so-called rednecks of this country; the people that walk the land, work in the K-Marts, run the fast food joints, drive the trucks, stand in line at 4 a.m. for the i-phones, go to church for redemption, and sell the knockoff s on ebay. But the new breed of Republicans have taken that high ground. They’ve gotten rich off it. That leaves me with nothing but the notion that Washington and Hollywood may be just alike. They’re engaged in a cultural war. They take your gun and use it on you, and it makes you sorry you drew your gun in the first place. It makes you wish you were a maid.
Thought provoking stuff. The commentary the difference between Lucas' challenge to Hollywood regarding Red Tails, and Lee's similar complaint when seeking financing for Miracle at St. Anna's boils down to the final quip, "Nothing in this world happens unless white folks say it happens."
Bringing it all together is an email from Atlanta's Tyler Perry in which our auteur claims that "African American cast(s) are on the verge of becoming extinct," but his take on the entire problem is a little different (see bold below):
Unfortunately, movies starring an all African American cast are on the verge of becoming extinct. THAT’S RIGHT, EXTINCT! Ask any executive at a Hollywood Studio why, and most of them will tell you one of two things. The first thing they’ll say is that DVD sales have become very soft, so it’s hard for a movie with an all black cast to break-even. Secondly they’ll say, most movies are now dependent on foreign sales to be successful and most “black” movies don’t sell well in foreign markets. So what that means is you will begin to see less and less films that star an all black cast. Isn’t that sad in a 2012 America? Somewhere along the way we still haven’t realized that we are more alike then not.
I must tell you that I have been very fortunate to work with a studio that sees the value in my type of storytelling and filmmaking. As well as having you, an audience of all races of people, who have stood by me arm and arm. It has helped me navigate through some pretty rough waters.
I thought that as black people in Hollywood, this is just our reality, but I quickly realized that this is not racism. What made me realize this is I had a conversation with Mr. Star Wars himself, George Lucas, and he was telling me that he was having the same problem with Red Tails. I was blown away! Red Tails is an important story about, not just black history, but American history about the Tuskegee Airmen. It has an all-star African American cast, including Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard, which opens this Friday. He went on to say that he brought the movie idea of Red Tails to several studios and no one wanted to make this film…. AND THIS IS GEORGE LUCAS! Not to be deterred, he put up his own money, shot the movie then took it back to those same studios, and they wanted nothing to do with it. One of them even refused to see the film, citing the above mentioned problems. So George decided to take a huge risk by entirely funding the movie and releasing it himself. What a guy! For him to believe so strongly in this story is amazing. I think we should pull together and get behind this movie. I really do! Not just African Americans, but all of us. I have seen the movie and screened it here in Atlanta. I loved it and I think you will too. The Tuskegee Airmen, who were at the screening, were so happy that somebody is telling a small part of their story....
George, I just want to say, thank you for having the courage to do this.
Bottom line: money talks, and bullshit walks. Both Lee/McBride and Tyler Perry agree that a film like Red Tails could change the game.
Hollywood is a copy cat industry.
IF a film Red Tails succeeds despite Hollywood's insistence that it will fail, you'll see more films like it.
If not, you'll see Lee continue pushing buttons on a smaller budget, and Perry continuing to hone his financially succinct formula to perfection.
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