Monday, January 21, 2008

Ultimate Integration


The ever-changing work for actors of color in film and theater has continued to be a diabolical blessing and backlash for the world of storytelling. Though more status has been achieved for people of color within the industry, each new notch demands that another achievement be questioned; even with films like “This Christmas” and “The Great Debaters” the fact remains: white directors and casting directors don't know what to do with actors of color, while writer/directors of color refuse to expand from cliché images of race (Tyler Perry; Spike Lee) and fail at challenging audience of color with contemporary contradictions (Carl Franklin, Charles Burnett, and Wendell B. Harris, Jr have eclipsed this argument, yet have not found their place in cinematic history).

Will Smith has reached mainstream status, along side Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and to some degree, Don Cheadle (though even Cheadle has yet to crack the psyche of white viewers since he is not a man of safe matinee idol status like Washington). Smith and Washington work to charm the audience and let white people know that they are safe in their presence; yet Freeman seems to have broken away for different reasons. Not that Freeman isn’t appreciating his place as one of America’s greatest actors (Spike Lee and Martin Lawrence showed a bitterness towards Freeman for doing “Driving Miss Daisy”, misreading it as a sell out role rather than clear cut representation of Black mental superiority), but rather Freeman has made his choice to be an individual well aware of what is needed from him in Black America. Freeman does not try to be a representative for Black America; but rather a participant in the expansion. Freeman stands as the classic Negro of the early 1900’s, in that intellect and articulation are a clear gap between Black social and economic status.

Smith fits into the modern thinking of Black America. His high point sexuality and image of comfort (mixed with hard work, blood, sweat, and tears) penetrates popular culture and rivets us with a belief that “color blind” thinking is not impossible; though “color blind” is a term rooted outside of reality. Audiences don’t forget that Smith is Black; they simply over look it. Therefore it is impossible for Smith to be a spokesperson for Black America; but rather Smith has proven himself an icon in popular culture with an endless following that roots in his work with Jazzy Jeff. “I Am Legend” stands as a double edge sword; by putting Smith in the role it reminds America, historically, of the Black man being the first man on earth; not to mention the fact that Jesus was of a dark complexion (though, to much controversy) being that it was impossible for him to be of anything else considering the region of Egypt and the complexion of the early Hebrews. “The Pursuit of Happyness” did nothing for the classic “rags to riches” story; but rather played it safe by giving us the idea that “bad things happen to good people.” Yet “Pursuit” is not about bad happening to good; but rather connecting to a childhood gift and being left with no choice but to achieve it, which in itself is a recall of human skepticism towards upward mobility. In “Pursuit” we got the idea that Smith was perfect and it was the world who was evil and dishonest. Virtually no internal conflict was present in “Pursuit” and so created a false image of a man’s struggle in White America and failed in the textbook understanding of “complexity.”

Denzel Washington’s “The Great Debaters” reminds us that black cinema does have a place in history but only by calling attention to itself of being “important.” “Debaters” is not a cinematic achievement; and a far cry from actor turned director spouts done by Clint Eastwood, George Clooney, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Todd Field and Robert DeNeiro. However, Washington did achieve the classic storytelling benchmark that does attempt to socially challenge the audience while finding relatable moments of familiarity to Black audiences. He found it in the story. He found it in the revealing of communism; and most of all he found it in Forest Whitaker. With Whitaker, Washington puts himself against his polar opposite. Whitaker plays against popular culture (much like Freeman) and not only reveals that he is an actor of dedicated craft, but proof of embodiment in Black entertainment (everything that Ralph Ellison challenged us with in “Invisible Man”), making the excuses less reachable when it comes to white casting directors misunderstanding the complexity within actors of color. Jeffery Wright suffers from this misunderstanding, only embraced by few. Wright, much like Orson Wells and Daniel Day-Lewis, is shameless about finding the ugliness in his characters, while Smith and Washington (like Harrison Ford and Robert Redford) cannot stand the idea of their characters ever facing a void of triumph. Whitaker and Wright are not afraid to fail. Wright pulled off what Denzel Washington forbad Will Smith to attempt in “Six Degrees of Separation” when he did “Angels In America.” Washington believed that Black America did not want to see a Black gay man as a pure gay man (much like he believed America did not want to see him kiss a white woman in “Virtuosity”, while it being okayed by Spike Lee for him to do it in the horrific “He Got Game”), saying that it would misguide Black people into an unfamiliar territory; whereas Wright (with the influence of George C. Wolfe, who is not only openly gay but one of the most accomplished black writer/directors in American theater) gave us permission to understand that for one to overlook homosexuality in Black America would be to deny the darkest depth of our complexity; not to mention, it touches on the homophobia that plagues Black America. For Langston Hughes could not come to terms with his homosexuality in the open; while Billy Strayhorn came out at a time when it would be suicidal for a Black man to do so, while never being judged by Duke Ellington for his orientation. Washington’s need for image cheapens the impact Sidney Portier accomplished (Armond White refers to Washington as “the un-Portier”), while fooling audiences into thinking his “danger” is ever present. Yet the “danger” Washington was suppose to display in “Training Day” was buried by his need to be loved, despite the brutal death at the end of the film. Though Ethan Hawke appeared to be the one who triumphs, really it is Washington who still wins simply because of his legacy – “King Kong ain’t got shit on me!” – both Kong and Alonzo die at the end; but their legacy is bigger than all the rest; and Denzel could never stand to have it any other way. Washington’s ugliness was better achieved in Spike Lee’s “Mo Better Blues”, with Washington showing a self-involved jazz musician cluttered by his own mental garbage. Washington’s vulnerability was present and his self-defeat in result of a calling from God (in that to be a generous family man) was a relatable reality and important for the working class viewers in search of reality.

Cuba Gooding Jr’s Oscar win for “Jerry Maguire” confirmed America’s fear of white inferiority. Gooding’s opposition of Tom Cruise (not to mention one of the most honest portrayals of a Black from a White writer next to the character of “William” in Kenneth Lonergan’s brilliant play “Lobby Hero”) was an attempt at facing principals on a level of humanity rather than race. When Gooding won the Oscar the reluctance from the audience was visibly present (especially him beating out William H. Macy’s performance in “Fargo”), yet their acceptance of the reality as a result of Gooding’s appreciation for his win revealed America’s slow burn towards ultimate integration. Gooding’s win appeared to be a win of sympathy (and through the eyes of the skeptics, most likely was). Yet his win was a win of over coming Black stereotypes. Gooding IS NOT a safe actor (“Snow Dogs” and “The Fighting Temptations” aside, though “Snow Dogs” was much more compelling than Ice Cube’s silly plight in “Are We There Yet?”); yet has fooled America into thinking he is. Gooding is more so an actor that represents the inner complexity of Black America. He’s married to a White woman. He resists the instinct to be loved in popular culture; and he plows forward into an area that Black actors refuse to place themselves, which is on the same level as the White actor and gives hope to seeing the actor of color as a “character actor.” In “Syrian” Jeffery Wright’s colorless performance dug an even more dangerous hole (much like Wright’s portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Boycott” where Wright not only gave a clear projection of King’s image, but an insight to King’s inner struggle with maintaining his peaceful disposition; let’s face it. King was ready to explode; and it was Jeffery Wright that showed us this side to King). Wright portrayed a conservative play-by-numbers character on the look out for the truth in a world that embraced corruption and dishonesty; yet in the middle of this, Wright was a figure risking his life despite the potential odds against him. One could fully flush out Wright’s intentions by watching his actions since his inner life was so layered, one waits for Wright to explode with profanity. Wright is the polar opposite of Samuel L. Jackson’s bad-nigger image that has been misunderstood by White people across the nation. Jackson gives the “bad-nigger” gaze; the “bad-nigger” MOTHERFUCKER that Black exploitation lived by, whereas Wright (and Wendell B. Harris Jr in the brilliant “Chameleon Street”) gives the understanding that “Nigger does not live here; but rather your worst fucking nightmare!”

Yet the White casting directors over looks this type of complexity leading them to seek out the Samuel L. Jackson’s and shut out the Jeffery Wright’s and pretend this to be “color blind casting” (perhaps the most useless terms since “multi-cultural” and "diversity."). This is jargon that makes the White casting directors appear “edgy” while allowing the mostly White audience to feel as though they've gotten their culture and can live in the world more rounded than the rest. Neil LaBute did not understand this factor when he wrote his article “The Casting System” in saying that white actors are shut out by the advantage that actors of color seem to have when it comes to “color blind casting.” LaBute’s contribution to theater is that of a little boy (as are his views), while immaturely attempting to stir up shit through opinions that don’t appear to be his own; but rather opions embodied from the unrealized characters in his plays. LaBute has achieved the understanding of the bored White middle class who’s racial, sexists, and social prejudice has overtaken them to a point of corruption; however LaBute fails to realize the danger in writing “The Cast System” in that his “opinion” is that of a High School Nazi with access to his Father’s guns with private plannings of destroying all “outsiders.” What LaBute failed to realize is that few White directors do not understand that actors of color have a sense of depth that reaches beyond skin color (namely LaBute) into a pain and satire that originated American culture. Originated “dark humor”. That led Al Jolsen to success, while giving Elvis Prestly not only his status in Popular Culture, but a pass for his racial outbursts (the very thing that LaBute and Quentin Tranatino get away with since they are inaccurately deemed as being socially relevant).

Ralph Ellison was considered an Uncle Tom after the publication of “Invisible Man” simply based on the fact that his book dealt with black complexity; and according to the standards set by Richard Wright (Black Boy & Native Son) the appropriate point of view for the black novelist is "the protest novel" (just read Irvine Howe’s review on “Invisible Man” -- http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/howe-on-ellison.html -- where he attacks Ellison and claims “Invisible Man's” complexity is inappropriate for what a black writer should be doing). The same applies to the actor of color. The fear of our edge through intellectual complexity is taboo, and so therefore, the obvious "angry black man" character grabs all the attention. Denzel Washington won the Oscar for “Training Day”, yet lost for “Malcolm X” to Al Pacino (who was nominated for both the appalling “Scent of a Woman” and the beautiful “Glengarry Glen Ross” that year). This repeated when Washington lost, again, for “The Hurricaine”, to Russell Crowe in “Gladiator” (who should have won for “The Insider”). For a black actor to portray a complex black character, such as Rubin "Hurricane" Carter or Malcolm X is too much for white people to handle, even with the admiration, interest, and stamp of importance that most White people play close to the vest. It is much more comfortable to grant kudos when actors of color do exploitation rather than tell a sense of truth -- and yes, “Training Day” is black exploitation!

The cause of ultimate integration is the fact that after fighting to integrate, we longed for separation; and as a result of that, White people have mentally separated us from them as well. Granted there are cultural differences within groups; yet to claim integration in film and theater, while so boldly placing actors in their categories is to recall old thinking and never truly progress into newer times.

1 comment:

Anna said...

Just find the term "of colour" somewhat funny. It is as if only black and brown is colours. But white is also a colour (or pink as most whites are, at least in places with not so much sun) and then we have all the shades inbetween and also the shades that moves to bronze or "yellow" (gold is a btter word for many asians colour).

It´s as the crazy debate about if the old Egyptians where white or black. Most of them where neither, they had different shades of brown as their skin colour, so it´s wrong to put those labels black or white on them.
OK, maybe this was somewhat of topic (or not) but it was just some loose thoughts.

Anna

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writer, actor, & producer in training. in 2005, along side my partner in film and best friend since childhood, we produced and executed 3 films. to this day i am still working in "the business" to the best of my abilities and moving forward to the "next level." currently i am producing a film project, co-writing another, awaiting word on a stage play for New York, and pursuing my next one-person show. i'm also in school pursuing my Ph.D in Social Science.