Nine white actresses grace the cover of the March 2010 “New Hollywood” issue of the magazine Vanity Fair, sprawled like anorexic lilies against a spring green field. In a film season where the most talked about performance by a young actress was that of an African American woman–best actress Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe of the film Precious–New Hollywood looks suspiciously like the Old. Although the nation has elected its first African American president and ushered its first African American family into the White House, the American film industry remains among the most segregated in the country. As one of the most powerful mediums of cultural propaganda on the planet, the film industry is still an empire of White corporate control. A 2002 study published by UC Santa Barbara professors Denise and Bill Bielby concluded that rampant cronyism, arbitrary hiring practices and the racial biases of bottom-line oriented foreign investors have kept both the film and TV industries bastions of Whiteness. Further, the absence of studio heads of color exacerbates the exclusion of people of color from the old boy networks that often dictate hiring, promotion and the green lighting of films in the industry. This includes development and apprenticeship programs. According to the online journal Diverse Issues in Higher Education, “Of the 2,057 entertainment companies contracting with Hollywood’s Writers Guild…only 12 offer writing programs targeting people of color.”
It is because of these exclusionary practices that the self-image of African Americans in 21st century film remains a political minefield. For example, the colossal mainstream success of the Tyler Perry franchise has highlighted the cultural politics of image-making. Defying traditional box office projections for so-called Black-themed movies, Perry’s films have consistently ranked in the top five on their opening weekends. Attracted to their heady mix of family melodrama, “soulful” religiosity, sexual soap opera and the ribald antics of Perry’s cross-dressing alter-ego Madea, Black audiences flock to his movies in droves. This despite the critical barbs that have been thrown his way. On the other hand, African American filmmakers who’ve labored to bring more nuanced depictions to the screen remain ambivalent if not hostile to Perry’s Hollywood blockbuster status. In a recent interview with Black Enterprise, veteran filmmaker Spike Lee blasted the “coonery and bufoonery” in Perry’s films, charging that they “hearkened back to Amos and Andy.” Noting the complicity of Black audiences in promoting these images, Lee griped, “When John Singleton [made ‘Boyz in the Hood’], people came out to see it. But when he did ‘Rosewood,’ nobody showed up. So a lot of this is on us!” Lee’s comments were borne out by the dismal box office of his 2008 film Miracle at St. Anna, the story of a Black World War II regiment based on the novel by author Charles McBride. In a 2008 interview with CNN Lee lamented that he had an “easier time obtaining funding for projects including Black stereotypes than for films that tackle more nuanced subject matter.”
The decline of thinking audiences for serious Black film has relegated Lee and such independent Black filmmakers as Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Darnell Martin, Haile Gerima, and Euzhan Palcy to the cinematic margins. For example, in 2009 the Academy passed up Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters and Lee’s St. Anna, for awards consideration. Fast forward to 2010 and critical darling Precious (directed by African American filmmaker Lee Daniels) and audience favorite The Blind Side have both garnered Oscar nods for portrayals that some Black critics and moviegoers have dubbed condescending and stereotypical. The irony is not lost on novelist Ishmael Reed, author of the forthcoming Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media. In a recent article in the New York Times Reed wrote, “The Blacks who are enraged by Precious have probably figured out that this film wasn’t meant for them. It was the enthusiastic response from white audiences and critics that culminated in the film being nominated for six Oscars by the Academy…an outfit whose 43 governors are all white and whose membership in terms of diversity is 40 years behind Mississippi.”
Like the film the Color Purple before it, criticism of Precious has run the gamut of Black self-analysis. Executive-produced by Perry and Oprah Winfrey, the film charts the journey of Precious, a poor illiterate teenaged incest survivor, in her struggle for self-worth. Reed and others have denounced the film’s demeaning portrayal of Precious’ brutal Black father, charging that reinforces the predator rapist stereotype of Black males. Yet some have lauded the film’s raw depictions of emotional trauma and family strife, dismissing viewpoints like Reed’s as an example of Black aversion to “airing dirty laundry.” Still, Black feminist critics such as Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell and journalist Jill Nelson decry the historical context of Black pathology and Black female demonization that the film evokes. Writing for The Nation, Harris-Lacewell wondered why audiences are so “obsessed” with portrayals of bad Black mothers. Pointing to a historical tradition–extending from slavery to Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous 1965 report on dysfunctional Black matriarchies to Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” tirade–that demonizes Black motherhood, Harris-Lacewell notes the irony of having a Michelle Obama “Claire Huxtable” type as the most recognizable Black woman in the world.
The mixed reaction to Precious reflects the overall unease about the dearth of complex film portrayals that don’t play on familiar narratives of urban Black family dysfunction, criminality and hyper-sexuality. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Lee and Singleton inaugurated a “new” era of Black filmmaking, departing from the by-the-numbers plots of the blaxploitation films of the ’60s and ’70s. Lee’s ultra low budget 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It opened a window onto the romantic exploits of a young artsy New York Black middle class. Singleton’s 1991 coming of age tale Boyz in the Hood spotlighted the troubled lives of three young men in South L.A. Released in an era of relative drought, these films were an artistic revelation for many African Americans. Unused to seeing layered portrayals of the Black experience (much less Black-directed movies), many African Americans embraced these films, as did the white critical establishment. With Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever and Malcolm X, Lee quickly established himself as the “critical consciousness” of Hollywood. For the first time in film history, Lee’s films put a decidedly Black masculine identity at the fore of a white Middle American film universe.
The politics of this universe were richly parodied in Robert Townsend’s 1987 film Hollywood Shuffle, a satire of the industry’s pigeonholing of Black actors into modern day minstrel roles. Townsend was inspired to make the film after enduring casting call after casting call in which he was asked to play “slaves, pimps, muggers and rapists.” With its spot-on critique of cartoonish stereotypes like “Attack of the Killer Pimps,” Hollywood Shuffle foreshadowed the return to minstrelsy signalled by the hip hop fueled “urban films” of the late ’90s.
The mainstreaming of hip hop and gangsta rap in the 1990s led to a flurry of so-called urban films featuring gritty/tragicomic characters played by rap stars such as Ice Cube, Ice T and Tupac Shakur. “Ghetto” dramas like Trespass, Juice and New Jack City became the new standard of Black representation. The near institutionalization of the urban hip hop film virtually torpedoed the careers of Black female filmmakers. During this era filmmakers like Julie Dash (the first Black woman to have a full-length film in general theatrical release) made movies that did not conform to the ultra-violent caricatures of the urban film genre. Dash’s groundbreaking 1991 film Daughters of the Dust defied the conventions of plot-driven linear storytelling. Focusing on women from the Gullah community of the South Sea Islands, her poetic evocation of language, family relationships and collective memory influenced a generation of Black female filmmakers. Dash joined directors Euzhan Palcy (A Dry White Season), Leslie Harris (Just Another Girl on the IRT) and Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) as female filmmakers who made their mark in the 1990s. Yet their subsequent projects were marginalized by the racist sexist limitations that Hollywood placed on Black directors in general and female directors of color in particular. The tacit requirement that films appeal to Middle American and foreign audiences (in order to generate high overseas grosses) effectively shut female directors of color out of the industry’s bottom line. And over the past two decades, mainstream film roles for Black women have rarely deviated from that of sex objects, caregivers to hapless White folk, and hard-nosed mother figures. while testosterone-drenched action flicks and earnest White-dominated melodramas have made international stars of Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, Black women continue to oscillate between Jezebel and Aunt Jemima-when they are visible at all. Although Hollywood needed no prompting to promote misogynist images, urban hip hop film popularized portrayals of what author Robyn McGee has called “hypersexual gold diggers” who are “loud, angry and desperate for love.”
McGee’s description aptly sums up Halle Berry’s Academy Award winning role in the 2001 film Monster’s Ball (produced by Precious director Daniels). Notorious for Berry’s graphic sex scene with white co-star Billy Bob Thornton, Berry’s role was publicly criticized by acclaimed actress Angela Basset and others because it exploited “a stereotype about Black women and sexuality.” When it comes to the Academy, accolades have historically been heaped on Black roles (i.e., Hattie McDaniel for Gone With the Wind, Denzel Washington for Training Day, Berry for Monster’s Ball, and Whoopi Goldberg for Ghost) that fit the narrow prescriptions of traditional notions of blackness. And those that don’t conform are relegated to obscurity, as the case of the 2009 film American Violet demonstrates. The real life story of a single Black mother taking on the racist Texas criminal justice system in the post 9/11 era, the white-directed Violet barely scored on the Hollywood radar.
As Precious and The Blind Side rack up their fifteen minutes of Academy Awards season fame, James Cameron’s futuristic mega hit Avatar has also elicited controversy over racial politics. The film depicts the Na’vi, a peaceful race of indigenous peoples living on a planet invaded by an environmentally rapacious white-dominated military complex. All of the indigenous lead roles in the film are played by actors of color, with CCH Pounder and Zoe Saldana featured as a Na’vi mother and daughter. Although some have hailed the film’s affirming portrayal of a pacifist spiritual community fighting to retain its land and culture in the midst of a holocaust-like assault by “Western” invaders, others have criticized it for its shopworn themes of noble savagery and white male heroism. Writing for the online blog The Telegraph, newspaper critic Will Heaven argues that, “the ethnic Na’vi… need the white man to save them because, as a less developed race, they lack the intelligence and fortitude to overcome their adversaries by themselves…’Avatar’ is artistic evidence of the…belief that only the superior Western liberal is fit to lead the world into a better future.” Veteran film historian Donald Bogle, author of the 1973 book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films, agrees that even though the film isn’t racist it is “a movie that hasn’t yet freed itself of old Hollywood traditions, old formulas.”
Nearly forty years later, Bogle’s work on the social history of Black film images still resonates. It is perhaps no coincidence that as Tyler Perry has become the most recognizable brand in contemporary Black film, socioeconomic conditions in African American communities nationwide have worsened. As unemployment, over-incarceration and residential segregation deepen, the success of Perry’s morality play movies may be a symptom of the desperate desire for escapist fare that supposedly “reflects us.” Like Hollywood Shuffle, Spike Lee’s 2000 minstrel tradition parody Bamboozled illustrated that the legacy of Jim Crow image-making has cast long shadows. The film closes with a powerful montage of minstrelsy, trotting out Topsy, Stepin Fetchit and Uncle Remus in all their grotesque “glory;” fading to “White” with the latest caricatures of Hollywood blackness.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and the author of the forthcoming book Mortal Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America.