By Ron Walters
I know, some will think I am shoveling that outdated Black pride, race integrity stuff when I note that Black people have given into the Hollywood racism factory. Think back: Frederick Douglass took his freedom from his slave-master; Sojourner Truth asked, “Ain’t I a woman”; Malcolm X posited freedom “by any means necessary”; and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “We shall over- come.”
Hollywood has been a different story. That’s why I was proud of Sidney Poitier, Will Smith and Denzel Washington who reportedly went to Terrence Howard to ask him not to get on stage at the Academy Awards singing about a pimp, his hit song from the movie Hustle and Flow.
They invoked the long struggle in Hollywood and New York, all too often missing now, to instill a sense of integrity to the image of Black people into cultural presentations in the arts. When this issue was raised before, the comeback from Black actors has been that so few roles are available that they have to take them and make the best of a bad situation. And there has been an attempt to rehabilitate the traitor in the actor (see the new book on Lincoln Perry who played the role of “Step and Fetchit” for example) to make him a closet revolutionary. Really?
There are still apologists for actors who take racially demeaning roles. Recently, watching the documentary produced by Harvard Professor Skip Gates on racism in Hollywood was a revelation. When he interviewed Sam Jackson, the Black actor seemed agitated by the fact that the NAACP often raised the issue of racism in Hollywood by criticizing the paucity of roles and the demeaning nature of the roles offered to Black actors. His view was that this is the structure of the movie industry and that the NAACP should “just leave us alone and let us do our thing.” Sam Jackson, now part of the star system that promoted him to an action hero, is able to say that because he has a wide selection of roles.
Yet, the Gates documentary was also fascinating in portraying how race was configured in Hollywood, by interviewing a producer who talked about the formula used to construct roles. In it, Black actors accounted for little unless they were the Denzel Washingtons or Sam Jacksons of the world, actors that can command a foreign audience, a key factor in determining the box office gross. The formula is really tilted toward the supremacy of White males, who get all the women under all circumstances; Black males make tentative sexual partners, often appear alone, distorting the image of Black male-female relationships.
The bottom line is that since the positioning of racial images is about money, Hollywood thinks it must play to the racial stereotypes, making it the most powerful purveyor of global racism that exists. It educates and reinforces the demeaning racial role that is in the heads of both Americans and foreigners, through the economic power, to commercialize these images through the distribution network of movies and advertising outlets. We should put more of a spotlight on the producers and financiers of these movies who keep alive the negative images of Black people before the world.
But that is hard to do if Black people buy into the system. There is a sickness, a manifestation of the destruction of our image during slavery that makes Black actors accept the roles in the first place, then for everyone else to justify it afterward. The sad thing is that they are probably right; that is, one Black actor refused a demeaning role that another, hungry to make it under any circumstances, would take.
The actors are not all to blame, for a dependable segment of the cash that producers and financiers count on is the support of the Black public, especially young Blacks. I was barely born when “Hi-Hat” Hattie McDaniel, born in my home town of Wichita, Kan., won the first Black Academy Award in February 1940, but her role as “Mammy” in the movie Gone With The Wind did not make all the hometown folks proud. The debate of her acceptance of demeaning roles reverberated long past my adulthood.
That is why, when I came to know about the life of my favorite singer, Billy Eckstine, I was exceedingly proud to discover that one of the reasons his career did not blossom in Hollywood was that he would not accept demeaning roles. That racial integrity thing has always pitted Black artists against those who financed their production, and the pain is that they could count on our support.
When will we break the chain of this form of oppression? We need more collective action by Blacks in Hollywood, not only to reject demeaning roles, but to produce, finance and distribute positive images of Black people and Black moviegoers not to support negative images. Maybe then the Academy will have alternatives to awarding Halle Berry as a slut, Denzel as a corrupt cop and Terrence as a pimp.
(Ron Walters is the director of the African American Leadership Institute and professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland College Park.)