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 is only in a white supremacist culture that the very existence of non-white modifiers is limiting. Playing black characters, in and of themselves, isn’t constricting. Playing black characters written flatly, in stereotype, or in broad strokes to touch on preconceived anti-black notions can be.
Black actors and actresses conflate the two all the time because 1) these kinds of roles are rare and, thus, not easily recognizable and 2) to a great degree, any time black actors play black people white folks (and black people too) bring all kinds of racist assumptions to the consumption of those parts regardless of how they’re written.
Jordan argues for roles that don’t have “black” as a modifier because, in his mind, labeling it “black” means the role’s depth is obscured (if it’s there to begin with) or narrowed. He wants to just be in a role. I get this and I support it. The mistake is thinking that the only way for this to happen is for our particular, rich race, culture and experience to be erased.
You’ll notice the reporter actually helps him by saying what Jordan is unable to say himself – “he would like the same breadth of opportunities as white actors” – but the fact that Jordan himself couldn’t find the language says a lot about how we are trained to see whiteness as expansive and blackness as limiting.
Further, Jordan makes the mistake that so many of us do, which is to assume that because we are taught not to use “white” as a modifier when white people are doing things that whiteness is not at play.
Leo has played men famous (J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes, Arthur Rimbaud) and fictional (Gatsby and Romeo), whose whiteness is a key part of their story even though we don’t think of it as such. Ryan Gosling plays white men. In his breakthrough role in The Believer, he’s a white Jewish man playing a white supremacist. The whole film is about whiteness. In Half-Nelson, his role as a white teacher in the inner city is central to the film. His role in Gangster Squad is just one of a series of white ethnic characters in the center of a story about the organized crime perpetuated by white ethnic men in the 20th century.
Make no mistake, race suffuses both men’s roles.
But this is really how whiteness works. It is everything and yet nothing. I often call for more modifiers and this is why. We need to break down this notion that white people get to be just people. They do not. They are white all the damn day with the same depth with which we are black. The difference is we don’t talk about whiteness. We should.
I don’t think it’s bad to say our show is about Asian people, but if you’re going to do that, then qualify other shows too. It gives creators an awareness of what they’re creating.
Jordan would do well to think about the ways in which his roles as Wallace, Vince Howard, and Oscar Grant complicate our understanding of who young black men are and can be. They are only the same in the broadstrokes.
But one can’t know that if we keep thinking of blackness as something that constricts, rather than something that can illuminate.