Talking about diversity and representations of blackness can be frought terrain, even now when we are seeing so many more black men and women in key roles in front of, and behind, the camera.
I thought about this immediately when I read Michael B. Jordan’s recent GQ article. I knew immediately after reading it that it would cause a stir. And not just because of the ongoing internet outrage phenomenon – though that’s certainly a part of it – but because most of us have insufficient language for describing the desire for fuller representations of blackness in art and entertainment.
Particularly when we fall for the trap that white supremacy presents us:
“I want to be part of that movement that blurs the line between white and black,” and tells me this: “I told my team after I finished Chronicle [the successful low-budget sci-fi movie that first partnered him with Fantastic Four director Josh Trank] that I only want to go out for roles that were written for white characters. Me playing the role will make it what it is.”
…Perhaps a more accurate way of putting it is that he would like the same breadth of opportunities as the white actors he takes as career models. The two he has mentioned most often are Leonardo DiCaprio and Ryan Gosling. “They made smart choices,” he says. “They played people, not being ‘a white actor playing a person,’ them playing a person. When I play a person or profession, it’s black this, black that. It’s obvious that I’m black, but why do I have to be labeled as that?” And the best way to guarantee himself a better path, he says, is to be involved when the material is conceived: “Instead of taking something conceptually written for a black guy, I want the stuff that was written for a guy.” (emphasis added)
The emphasis I’ve added really gets to the central problem with Jordan’s point of view – it is rooted in the false notion that white people get to play “raceless” roles.
It was perhaps inevitable that in promoting his new film, Focus, that Will Smith would have to address the relative failure of his last film, After Earth.
I don’t think anyone who has followed Will Smith’s career or grew up watching his work would be surprised that he conflates commerce with art.
I got reinvigorated after the failure of After Earth. I stopped working for a year and a half. I had to dive into why it was so important for me to have number-one movies. And I never would have looked at myself in that way. I was a guy who, when I was fifteen my girlfriend cheated on me, and I decided that if I was number one, no woman would ever cheat on me. All I have to do is make sure that no one’s ever better than me and I’ll have the love that my heart yearns for. And I never released that and moved into a mature way of looking at the world and my artistry and love until the failure of After Earth, when I had to accept that it’s not a good source of creation.
But I think what is most striking about Will’s newfound perspective on his career is that he fails to acknowledge that he’d sort of already begun the process of complicating his public image and making strange choices before After Earth. Hancock and I Am Legend were blockbusters, but they were also deeply subversive films that complicated (if imperfectly) the “Big Willie” persona. Seven Pounds, also a relative failure, marked the first instance of some of the weird philosophies that Will reportedly appreciates in real life showing up in his films.
After Earth, then, was just the culmination of a series of increasingly odd choices for a movie star that most people enjoyed seeing in limited ways. It was a low-concept family story at odds with its ill-conceived high-concept trappings. It was a Jaden Smith movie with Will in a clear supporting role that arrived at just the moment that the Smiths as public figures were becoming the focus of ridicule, ire, and amusement. The film’s quasi-philosophical subtext only exacerbated this.
I think the film didn’t work totally, but got a raw deal (the central relationship was sensitively and capably etched) as often happens when major movie stars make imperfect films that fail to make the money they were “supposed” to make. But it’s important to state that Will Smith took a chance that Americans would come out to see a major sci-fi motion picture with a Black family at the center. That, to me, is an admirable move for an actor at his level whose appeal was based on the silly notion that he’d transcended race.
So what does that mean for what Will will do next? I think it’s probably likely that his idea of “dangerous” choices going forward could be less dangerous than what he might be suggesting.
Right now, it seems like more of the same: big movies, movie star charisma. Focus is the opening salvo, but the previews suggest the film relies mostly on Will’s charm and Margot Robbie’s baffling “It Girl” status. It’s too soon to tell on that front, but a dangerous choice might have been to push for a black woman to play Robbie’s role. Suicide Squad is a risk only in the sense that fanboys and fangirls are waiting to unleash their claws on Warner Bros’ bizarre handling of DC Comics properties.
I’d like to see him play a bad guy in a way that forces him to go beyond mere charm. Speaking of charm, I’d like to see it put to good use in a black romantic dramedy with someone like Regina Hall, who could match him in dramatic and comedic acting. I’d like to see him do something small like Seven Pounds and The Pursuit of Happyness that wasn’t so consumed with deracinated characterization. I’d like to see him throw his still-considerable weight behind other black filmmakers.
And I’d hope that the relative failure of After Earth doesn’t put him off of black sci-fi films. We still need someone to produce an adaptation of an Octavia Butler or Tananarive Due story.
I wonder if people’s reaction to “The Blacker The Berry” will change once the song’s meaning sinks in.
Because Kendrick Lamar hasn’t created an anthem, at least not a traditional one. He isn’t merely reflecting the moment or the burgeoning #blacklivesmatter movement. He’s asking questions that lie at the root of Blackness in the United States. Questions we often ignore, find too painful, or don’t quite know how to address.
The ways white supremacy gets in our head…
Church me with your fake prophesyzing that I’mma be another slave in my head
…The war between self-determination and self-hatred that every single Black person in America faces…
You fuckin’ evil, I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey.
You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me
…So that when you get to that final verse, you realize that the song is not merely a war cry. It’s actually a direct challenge to all of us – those who are becoming radicalized in the wake of the killings of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown and those of us who think we’re already radicals – to understand the ways in which our efforts to fight racism are incomplete.
So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers
Or tell Georgia State “Marcus Garvey got all the answers”
Or try to celebrate February like it’s my B-Day
Or eat watermelon, chicken, and Kool-Aid on weekdays
Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements
Or watch BET cause urban support is important
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?
That last couplet lands hard because of everything that comes before it. We don’t respond to it as “blame the victim” because the song so effectively explores the ways in which we’ve internalized oppression, which in turn compromises any effort to address white supremacy despite our best efforts. As a result, Kendrick reminds us that before we can truly be free, we must divest of the ways we – daily – hate ourselves.
In this way, “The Blacker The Berry” takes “Self-Destruction” one step further to the root of where that self-destruction comes from. It’s an empathetic challenge to do very difficult work where the earlier song was merely a lecture, if a beautiful one.
Imagine, for a moment, football commentators who refuse to explain formations and plays. Or a TV cooking show that never mentions the ingredients. Or an expert on cars who refuses to look under the hood of an automobile.
These examples may sound implausible, perhaps ridiculous. But something comparable is happening in the field of music journalism. One can read through a stack of music magazines and never find any in-depth discussion of music. Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.
…actually raises two issues that the piece doesn’t really consider: 1) the audience for music and 2) the fact that music journalism has always been largely a niche endeavor.
I, like a lot of people of my generation, am excited that The Boondocks is returning because it remains one of the sharpest examples of satire in modern pop culture. And I’m excited to see what cultural moments from the last four years (since Season Three aired) Aaron McGruder will work into the show.
UPDATE 3/28/14: Apparently, McGruder is no longer involved with the show and was not involved in the creation of the upcoming 4th season. I wrote this before that information was available. I hope he still owns the rights. Read his explanation here.
But the one thing I really want him to do is recognize that there’s a problem at the center of the show: Huey Freeman.
Huey, by virtue of being the show’s most passive, reactive character, has all but receded into the background in favor of the more flamboyant active characters like Riley and Uncle Ruckus. This, despite the fact that he’s ostensibly the lead character (e.g. the trailer above).
In the strips, that was sort of the point since the satire in the strips was always deeply rooted in Huey’s observations about the world around him (particularly his brother and the people in Woodcrest). But The Boondocks TV show is different, as Aaron McGruder has found by building out the world around Riley (with the addition of Ed Wuncler III, Gin Rummy, Gangstalicious, and Thugnificent) and Granddad (Uncle Ruckus and the DuBois family).
But Huey is frequently adrift in episodes where he’s not the protagonist (especially Riley-centric stories) and damn near silent in ones where he’s the driving force (i.e. “It’s a Black President, Huey Freeman”).
If Huey is to regain the power he had in the strips and truly move to the forefront of the show, McGruder has to build out the world around Huey as well.