A lot of ink has been spilled—or gigabytes used up—over the Academy of Motion Pictures’ recent failure to nominate a single minority actor for an Oscar. The papers were full of it for what seemed like months, with editorialists pontificating and angry moviegoers taking to hashtag activism through the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. The antics of the Academy itself were peculiarly unedifying. In January, after an emergency meeting of the Board of Governors, the Academy’s president Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced that they were about to take what they were pleased to call “historic action,” a series of measures designed to double the number of woman and minority Academy members by 2020. Minority actors were assiduously courted to attend the award ceremony. Once there, they were targeted for special camera attention and disproportionate interview time, presumably to keep viewers from noticing just how white the vast majority of celebrants actually happened to be. The caustic Chris Rock was bagged as the evening’s host—yes, the same Chris Rock who was deemed just a little too sharp and irreverent when he hosted the Oscars eleven years previously and had never been asked to do so again. This year, he seemed the perfect choice. Rock himself has claimed that he only got the gig because Ellen DeGeneres turned it down, and this may be true, but what a sigh of relief the Board of Governors must have let out when, with the hysteria over the all-white nominations, they realized that the decks were clear and they could pursue a black host without having to dump a white one. Rock, as ever, provided a masterful balance of cold cynicism and genuine, irrepressible good humor, and his teasing approach to the Oscars as a cultural institution was refreshing. Still, the tenor of the evening was enough to make the United States an international laughingstock, if we are not one already in this Age of Trump. The spectacle of the nation’s white cultural elite, clad in grotesquely expensive eveningwear, groveling—mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!—in ritual expiation, must have been hilarious to countless unsympathetic viewers.
A special low point in the discourse was reached when the Coen brothers were targeted for not having included any minorities in their showbiz epic Hail, Caesar! There was something peculiarly mind-boggling about this accusation. Hail, Caesar!, after all, is a satire on movie stereotypes of Hollywood’s golden age. There is George Clooney as the Kirk Douglasesque Roman centurion in a Biblical epic; Scarlett Johanssen as a swimming beauty closely modeled on Esther Williams; Channing Tatum as a tap dancer in the style of Gene Kelly, or perhaps Gower Champion; Alden Ehrenreich as the singing cowboy, a surprisingly common trope in mid-twentieth-century movies. Had there been a black actor in this mix, what would he or she have played? A Stepin Fetchit type, rolling his eyes in terror? A Hattie McDaniel or Butterfly McQueen type, branded into the cultural memory by the stupendous success of Gone with the Wind? Lawsy, Miss Scahlett, I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ babies! Or what about a Latino Hollywood stereotype—Aaaaaaaay Señor—Mañana! I had actually thought that the Coens exercised good taste and restraint in keeping minorities out of this film.
Nevertheless, they were enthusiastically attacked by cultural watchdogs. In Salon, Peter Birkenhead took a self-righteous stance:
I’m sure that, if asked, the Coens would say they cast Josh Brolin as ’50s Hollywood executive Eddie Mannix in Hail, Caesar! because he was right for the part. I also assume that had he not been available there were other actors of necessarily varying heights, weights, ages, accents and skill, whom they would have considered—Brolin’s character was based on a real Hollywood fixer of the same name, but Brolin could hardly be mistaken for the real Mannix’s twin. Yet apparently they would have drawn the line at a fixer with dark skin. Because that would be . . . idiotic?
No, but it would be historically inaccurate: one simply wouldn’t have seen a black studio executive in 1950. This might not be a problem in some movies, but the charm and the point of Hail, Caesar! is the accuracy of the clichés it deals in, and the appearance of a black actor in a historically improbable role would have broken the spell. In any case, George Clooney himself, in an interview in Variety, expressed the very reasonable opinion that the problem was not with the Oscars so much as with the industry as a whole. “I don’t think it’s a problem of who you’re picking as much as it is: how many options are available to minorities in film, particularly in quality films? . . . There should be 20 or 30 or 40 films of the quality that people would consider for the Oscars. By the way, we’re talking about African Americans. For Hispanics, it’s even worse.”
This conversation has been going on since long before the announcement of the 2016 Oscar nominees, of course, and the plight of the black actor has never been nailed more perfectly than in Robert Townsend’s 1987 indie comedy Hollywood Shuffle. In fact, it’s high time that people involved in the #OscarsSoWhite discussion were reminded of this brilliant film. Townsend famously financed the very low-budget movie on his credit cards; he wrote and directed it himself and also starred as a sort of buffoonish version of himself, a “Robert Taylor” who is trying to break into the Los Angeles acting game and discovers that the only roles available are those of butlers, slaves, and street hoods.
Townsend must have been amused, but hardly surprised, at the mainstream success of The Butler and Twelve Years A Slave in 2013, nearly thirty years after he made this film. In Hollywood Shuffle’s Black Acting School, for which the character Robert Taylor narrates a TV commercial, middle-class, college-educated black actors are taught (by white instructors, natch) how to “walk black” and master the linguistic complexities of street jive. The ad tempts potential students: “Learn to play TV pimps, movie muggers, street punks! Classes include Jive Talk 101, Shuffling 200, Epic Slaves 400. Dial 1-800-555-COON.” A satisfied former student gives the school a glowing testimonial: “I’ve played nine crooks, two gang leaders, four dope dealers. I’ve played a rapist twice—that was fun! Currently, I’m filming a prison movie. I play this tough con that tries to fuck a new inmate.”
All this is still true, but it wouldn’t be fair not to admit that job possibilities for African American actors have expanded, at least to some degree. As well as playing pimps, slaves, and butlers (not to mention maids and other domestics), black actors might also be cast as rap artists or elite athletes—in the latter category, there have been three plum roles in major movies this year alone: Creed, Concussion, and Race, a picture about Olympic runner Jesse Owens. About.com has issued an amusing list of common black stereotypes in TV and film that includes some others, not yet current when Hollywood Shuffle was made. There is the “Magical Negro,” a term popularized by Spike Lee: African-American men with special powers who show up to provide aid, supernatural or at least potentially so, to white people in trouble. Think Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile, Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption. As Lee pointedly asks, “How is it that black people have these powers but they use them for the benefit of white people?” Bagger Vance takes place in Depression-era Georgia, Lee reminds us; “Blacks are getting lynched left and right, and [Bagger Vance is] more concerned about improving Matt Damon’s golf swing!” Then there is the “Black Best Friend.” The male of the species, often featured in action flicks, is macho but not quite as macho as the lead; the female, according to Los Angeles Times critic Greg Braxton, generally functions “to support the heroine, often with sass, attitude, and a keen insight into relationships and life.” Closely related to the Female Black Best Friend is the Brash Woman; as About.com points out, black women “are routinely portrayed as sassy, neck-rolling individuals with attitude.”
Traditionally, these movies are made by whites, a fact that is indicated in Hollywood Shuffle: every time Robert Taylor goes to an audition, the faces at the casting table are a whiter shade of pale. A particularly egregious recent example of a white-made movie full of black characters is The Help (2011), one of those films that seem virtuous at the time they appear but will, one suspects, be revealed as outrageously condescending with a few years’ distance. Its group of black maids in the Jim Crow-era deep South are presented with sympathy and portrayed by spectacular actresses, including Octavia Spencer, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and Viola Davis. But they’re not really what the movie is about; it’s really about the cute little white girl (the very white Emma Stone) who acts as their savior by giving them a voice, interviewing them and publishing their stories in a popular book. Nauseatingly spunky and spirited, Skeeter Phelan (Stone’s character) is far less interesting than the maids of whose lives we get brief glimpses. But this is a Hollywood movie, and so inevitably we go with the blonde. To see Stone framed by the camera with Davis or Spencer is viscerally jarring; I was reminded of that disturbing juxtaposition from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Topsy and Eva—the child of darkness and the child of light. Our cultural myths are more persistent than we care to admit.
In the last few years more black directors have risen to the top, a welcome change. But one of the results is unexpected: it turns out that even black directors, at least the A-list ones who are making big studio movies, make movies about slaves and butlers. Twelve Years a Slave was the work of director Steve McQueen, a Briton of Trinidadian and Grenadian descent, and screenwriter John Ridley. It was a fine piece of work—undoubtedly better than it would have been if it had been made by whites—and won three Oscars including Best Picture in that year; but still, it was about slaves. The Butler, also an excellent piece of work, was written and directed by Lee Daniels—but still, it was about a butler.
And what about this year’s crop—those movies whose black performers were shunned by the Academy? First, Creed. Created by a black team, screenwriter Aaron Covington and director Ryan Coogler, Creed continues the Rocky saga, even as Rocky Balboa himself has aged. Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of Rocky’s greatest rival, Apollo Creed, has fighting in his blood; he leaves his excellent job at an investment bank and begins the punishing life of a boxer. He asks Rocky, now close to seventy and a popular Philadelphia restaurateur, to coach him.
The results, and the plot of the film itself, can be exactly predicted from this lead-in. Creed is workmanlike, tasteful, and occasionally moving, with an attractive and skillful young star, Michael B. Jordan, and a mellow old one, Sylvester Stallone. It did well both with critics and at the box office, and it undeniably makes for a pleasant evening at the movies. But it never deviates from formula for a single moment, and its popularity serves as proof, if proof is needed, that the closer any film sticks to the standard plot elements of the Hero’s Journey, as explained by Joseph Campbell, the more enthusiasm it will inspire in audiences. Here, we get plenty of such elements: the Ordinary World (the investment banking job); the Call to Adventure (something deep in Adonis’ psyche—his father’s genes, presumably—makes him have to fight); the Meeting with the Mentor (Rocky); the Crossing of the Threshold (entering the gym for the first time); etc., etc. It’s as if it’s all pre-scripted, and it certainly pushes the buttons that seem to be hardwired in the human psyche.
Of course, Michael B. Jordan didn’t win an Oscar or even get nominated; Stallone, the white actor, nabbed it instead. But this is perhaps not so much a case of subliminal racial bias on the part of the Academy as evidence that the Mentor role—the aged magus, one might call him—carries considerable emotional resonance, and even pathos when his mortality is stressed, as Rocky’s is in this film (he is suffering from lymphoma). One might remember that Alec Guinness was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (“You must learn the ways of the Force, if you’re to come with me!”), as was Pat Morita in The Karate Kid and, no doubt, countless other older actors in Mentor roles. Stallone, a nostalgia candidate playing a Mentor with a life-threatening illness, was a shoo-in for the Oscar. The fact that he was the only person associated with Creed to be nominated is simply unfortunate.
Concussion, another movie about top athletes, was written and directed by a white man, Peter Landesman. Race, too, had white creators: director Stephen Hopkins and writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. So much for the elite athlete films.
Straight Outta Compton, on the other hand, had a black director, F. Gary Gray, though the screenwriters, Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, are white, as are the two writers on whose story the screenplay was based—S. Leigh Savidge and Alan Wenkus. With a very strong ensemble cast of young black actors including the outstanding O’Shea Jackson, Jr., as Ice Cube, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, and Neil Brown, Jr., Straight Outta Compton should have garnered at least a couple of nominations in the Best Supporting Actor category; in fact, the entire cast was nominated, as an ensemble, by the Screen Actors Guild Awards and won in this category in the Black Film Critics Circle Awards. The film was also named Movie of the Year by the AFI. So what went wrong at the Oscars, where the film’s only nominees were the white writers? And how could white people write all that street jive anyway? Had they enrolled in Street Jive 101 at the Black Acting School? And didn’t my discovery that the writers were white give me just the tiniest doubts about the authenticity of the dialogue? And what about all those scenes in dope houses, police roundups, etc., etc.—is this still a white version of black life, or is it “real”? I give up!
Again, the failure of the film among Academy voters might have less to do with racism than with the nature of the voters themselves. Most middle-aged, well-off white people who have no love for rap (I know this, because I am one myself) will simply have a hard time sitting through Straight Outta Compton, with its loud and penetrating rap score punctuated by police sirens, barking pit bulls, and shouted fights. Yes, the movie is good, but is it enjoyable?
In any case, as many people have pointed out, it probably isn’t the Oscars we should be focusing on. The Oscars have never been much good at defining quality. They are the cheering section for the big studio pictures as opposed to the quirky independents, and even within that restriction they have not had a distinguished record. Cary Grant, probably the greatest male Hollywood star of all time, never won an Oscar. Neither did Alfred Hitchcock, arguably the greatest director. Neither did Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles, Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet, Howard Hawks, Charlie Chaplin (except one for best score!), Ernst Lubitsch, Cecil B. DeMille, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, Barbara Stanwyck, Marilyn Monroe, Carole Lombard, Fred Astaire, Richard Burton, William Powell, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. or Sr., James Earl Jones, Errol Flynn, John Barrymore, James Mason, Peter O’Toole, Peter Sellers—and the list goes on. Looking back, it seems almost a mark of honor not to have won the award.
Clooney had a point when he said that things would only change when there were thirty or forty black films of the quality people would consider for the Oscars. Alternatively, one might say that things will only change when black actors stop being cast as butlers, slaves, and pimps (and even as athletes and rap stars) and start being cast as schoolteachers, bankers, politicians, shopkeepers, housewives, and accountants—in other words, when they stop playing black stereotypes and start playing the ordinary people that the vast majority of black people in this country actually are. (Of course the same goes for Latinos and every other minority.) It should be pointed out that there is quite a vigorous American black film industry that turns out quantities of romances, comedies and dramas featuring mostly or all black actors. Some of these are very good. The comedies have been particularly successful. Spike Lee has dismissed Tyler Perry’s Madea franchise, enormously popular in the African-American community, as “coonery buffoonery” that capitalizes on tired if not offensive black stereotypes. One might argue that drag buffoonery enters into it too, and that drag buffoonery, whatever its political implications, has proved enduringly—well, funny: the number one and two spots on AFI’s list of the hundred funniest American films of all time are held by Some Like It Hot and Tootsie. Personally, I found Big Momma’s House a terrifically amusing movie, but I am the only white person I know who’s seen it—the same goes for White Chicks—and I don’t have any white friends who go to Madea movies either. The trailer for Fifty Shades of Black looked hilarious, but I couldn’t find anyone willing to go to it with me, so I will now have to wait until it is available on Amazon. And how many white moviegoers have even heard of recent popular rom-coms like The Perfect Match or White Wedding, or dramas like From the Rough, Middle of Nowhere, Beyond the Lights, Brotherly Love? Comedies like Ride Along 2 and Barbershop 3 probably worked their way into most people’s consciousness by virtue of the heavy ad campaigns, but how many white people went to see them? And what about other popular comedies, like Baggage Claim and Peeples? The fact is that there is almost no crossover audience for black movies, and perhaps this is the real problem. Desegregation may be the law of the land, but it has not happened in the movie theaters.
The #OscarsSoWhite debate generated so much heat that even heavy-hitting public intellectuals have weighed in, including Stanley Fish. Fish, writing in the Los Angeles Times, took the commonsense line, hard to argue with, that Hollywood is in the business of making money, not peddling virtue, and its ultimate arbiter is the bottom line. “Like the manufacturers of any product, studios must determine what their target consumers want—what features are likely to get people to part with their money. And if they believe that moviegoers will be either turned off or unexcited by minority themed and populated films, it would be irrational to offer that product, just as it would be irrational for automobile makers to offer small, gas-efficient cars when the market demand is for SUVs.” The population of the U.S. is 63% white (even now, at an all-time low, still the majority), 16.3% Latino, 12.6% black. With those numbers, and with black audiences willing to go to white movies but not vice versa, why would a commercial industry like the movie business put its money on black and Latino projects?
The solution, if there is one, is for more white moviegoers to make the big leap and go see a few black movies—not just big attractions like Straight Outta Compton, but the more modest comedies and dramas that feature all-black casts. The rewards are substantial—and where’s the risk? There are whole new worlds out there, waiting for us right at our local multiplex.