So here’s the $64,000 question: Isn’t performance, rather than race, the true representation? When a talented actor delivers a masterful performance and creates an indelible character, does it matter if the role was “negative” or saccharine sweet? Should Washington and other actors of color be forced to play some variation of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life throughout their careers? Do they not “represent” by showing that we can be good, bad and everything in between while neither confirming hard stereotypes or slipping into caricature (see The Wire)? Does bad always mean bad, and does it reflect on our race as much as some believe?
I’ve grown as weary as I think most black people have of the burden of representation. I’m not interested in holding actors to a standard of bettering the race or not embarrassing black people in front of white audiences.
I am, however, concerned about whether or not black actors get the opportunity to play characters that illuminate the full humanity of black people, good and bad. I want to see black actors get the opportunity to play rich black characters that aren’t one-dimensional, stereotypical, heroic, long-suffering, or a historical figure. In short, a regular ass black person* in all the ways that means. My critiques always start and end there.
So The Wire works for me because all the black characters on that show are so much more than the archetypes that one could easily use to describe them. And I can appreciate Denzel in Flight because that character is three-dimensional and flawed in a really recognizably human way far more than I can appreciate Alonzo Harris in Training Day – a one-dimensional character in a film that ordinarily wouldn’t be in the Oscar conversation were it not for Washington being in the role and the desire by the Academy to finally award this brilliant actor they’d unjustly snubbed for more than a decade.
For me, I think Thompson is asking the wrong question. I don’t think the question should be directed at the black actors at all, but at the system that is responding to, and providing, the work.
The real critique is that I am bothered by the kinds of portrayals and characters Black people play that white folks respond to and how that limits both black actors’ choices and the perception of who black people are and can be. I have to wonder if there is an element of “I more readily believe Denzel as a bad cop than I believe him as Malcolm X or Bleek Gilliam” at play.
How can you not? The trend is so clear.
Viola Davis is great all the time but white folks really responded to the horribly flat character of Abilene, a black maid, in The Help. Halle Berry is a relatively limited actress who gave a great performance in Monster’s Ball, but did she win because she got naked and had sex with Billy Bob Thornton and not for those really great, keenly observed small moments like where she first meets Thornton’s father and when she realizes at the end the role Thornton played in her husband’s execution and decides to continue the relationship anyway? Whoopi wins for Ghost, even though she’s utterly heartbreaking and magnificent in Boys on the Side, a film no one ever mentions when discussing what she’s capable of. Taraji P. Henson has shown tremendous range in a relatively short career, but garners a nomination for playing (essentially) the Mammy in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a role that was incredibly underwritten.
Can we just be?
I am not so much mad at the actors for taking the roles so much as I’m frustrated with the way the industry constantly responds with such fervor to what are almost all uniformly lesser performances by great actors in roles that are generally stereotypes that aren’t terribly well-etched on the page**, which then suggests this is all that white folks want to see and all that is worthy of recognition (and in turn continues to affect how black humanity is viewed by society).
We have to begin to challenge white folks to see our full humanity, rather than beat up on black actors who have so few choices to begin with. Not because we care about how they see us, but because their limited view affects the choices we have and perpetuates this vicious cycle of constantly trying to expand who it is we can be.
*Interestingly, I think Jamie Foxx’s nomination for playing Max in Collateral remains the only time a Black actor has garnered almost universal acclaim for playing a role that is just about a regular ass black dude. It’s such a weird exception to the rule that you must play bad, stereotypical, heroic, or essay an historical figure to get attention that it feels like a fluke.
**I’m aware that most actors are nominated and win Academy Awards for lesser performances regardless of race, but the impact of narrow representations of Black people on society and Black folks is different quite obviously.