Tag Archives: black actors

Anthony Mackie and the Definition of Stardom

I was struck by this exchange between actor Anthony Mackie and Jai Tiggett over at Shadow and Act.

JT: There’s been some talk on our site lately about your career and whether you’ll go on to play the leading man more consistently, in large studio films. Is that your goal, or do you prefer to stay under the radar?

AM: Hollywood’s a business, and until someone puts their finger on you and decides you’re the guy who’s going to carry that movie, it’s not going to happen. So I’m just enjoying the position that I’m in right now and trying to make the most of it.

JT: So would you say that yes, Anthony Mackie wants to be “the guy”?

AM: [Laughs]. Most of the time when you see a movie, the best character in the movie is not “the guy,” it’s the guy next to the guy. So I enjoy playing “the guy next to the guy” because it’s always – in almost every movie last year – the best character in the movie. It’s just fun as an actor to get the opportunity to do something where you can really sink your teeth into it.

What I like about this exchange is that it suggests that Anthony Mackie is incredibly self-aware and very comfortable with the choices he’s making as an actor, regardless of how they might be perceived by the public.

I think it’s somewhat strange to be thinking about “who the next Will Smith will be” partly because Will ain’t goin nowhere and partly because the question suggests that his model is the only model of what it means to be a black movie star.

I think we’re limiting ourselves when we have this conversation. Anthony seems to understand that in a way that I don’t think people appreciate enough. I think he’s quite eloquent in chafing (without chafing, really) at the notion that he’s not “successful” because he’s not a Big Willie. He’s consistently suggested that there are other models for success and that our obsession with Will’s assimilationist model isn’t the only one we should aspire to.

In my mind, the guy that says this:

and this:

isn’t concerned about the Will Smith model. He’s thinking about his own.

We need to start listening to Anthony Mackie, man.

Conflating ‘Gay’ and ‘the DL’: Omari Hardwick on Playing Carl in ‘For Colored Girls’

I’m not entirely sure why folks are so upset at Omari Hardwick’s comments about how he played the role of a confused gay man in For Colored Girls:

Shadow and Act: In Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls,” you played Carl. He was the closeted husband to Janet Jackson’s character. How did you develop that role?

OH: Well, I can’t relate to being gay. It was a challenging role.

Shadow and Act: How was it a challenge?

OH: It was a challenging role for me because I am a black guy. And white guys like Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal can play those types of roles and their audiences will say that the roles are artistic.

Shadow and Act: So you feel that the role was challenging because the black community does not support roles like Carl?

OH: The black culture perceives roles like that one in a negative light.

Shadow and Act: How did you prepare for that role?

OH: I focused on being a deviant person. I focused on doing something wrong. I was lying to my wife. I was lying to these men. I prepared for the role by closing my eyes and thinking of times when I had lied.

Shadow and Act: You did not focus on the sexual orientation of Carl to get into character?

OH: No, because it’s like how could I do that really well? I focused on being deviant.

Shadow and Act: Did you tap into your own sexuality to build the role?

OH: You want me to explain how I used my heterosexuality to build this role?

Shadow and Act: Yes, I do.

OH: Okay, let me know if this is what you mean. There was this one time while we were filming in New York, where I was testing myself. l challenged myself to run through Central Park and behave like Carl. I wanted to see how I would run and live differently as my character.

Shadow and Act: And what did you find out about your character during this run?

OH: I did not get through the run without checking out women. It’s a natural instinct. So, that’s why I solely focused on being deviant. But you know what? Some of the greatest actors have played gay men. Anthony has played a gay man. Jeffrey has played gay. When it’s all said and done, I am secure enough with my manhood to say to the world, “I am a male actor, and its okay for me to play a gay man.”

Rod thinks he doth protest too much, but it seems to me like Hardwick is saying (in an admittedly inarticulate way) that he focused less on his character’s sexuality and more on the fact that he was lying to everyone in his life. That doesn’t strike me as offensive.

Citing Brokeback Mountain I think is telling because it suggests that he’s talking less about sexuality itself and more about the construction of “the DL.” It isn’t just that the black community might respond more negatively to a black man playing gay than the white community does to a white man playing gay. It’s that the reaction Hardwick is talking about is specifically about “the DL” and the reaction of black people in the context of the way that term has been pathologized as a uniquely black problem. Carl is a reviled character because he’s “DL” not because he’s “gay.” Hardwick doesn’t articulate this well because he is likely conflating the two terms (as many people do).

It’s important to remember that it wasn’t Carl’s story being told in For Colored Girls. Carl wasn’t a character, he was an archetype. J.L. King’s DL concoction in full effect. A black woman’s worst nightmare. We weren’t asked to contemplate Carl’s torment, his self-loathing, his struggle, or his humanity. He existed to contribute to Tyler Perry’s weird and virulently inhumane re-working of a masterpiece. Nothing more.

I think we do want actors to put in the best work they can and try to infuse even the flattest and most ridiculous characters with dimension, but I don’t even know what playing Carl more “gay” would have looked like – or what that even means.

It’s easy to get distracted by Hardwick’s inarticulate comments here, rather than sustain a critique of Perry’s bad writing and penchant for anti-homosexual sentiment in his films. But it’s not really the real problem.

Casting Actors of Color

 

The fact that Jason Reitman, a son of privilege (his father is Ivan Reitman), makes the lone comment, "I'm not stepping into that," after Steve McQueen embarrases the fuck out of six white directors with his challenge to explain why directors like them rarely cast Black and Latino actors is just…

In just three minutes, this video perfectly shows how racism operates.

Reviewing Will Smith’s Hancock

Will Smith as Hancock

!!! WARNING – SPOILERS BELOW !!!!

Hancock is a big incoherent mess, anchored beautifully by Will Smith’s brilliant central performance.  But it’s also an intriguing, big incoherent mess.

Hancock continues Will’s recent trend to combine depth and spectacle.  It also, along with I Am Legend, marks a shift in how race complicates and enriches Will’s screen performances.

This is what makes the film so intriguing.

Film Journal International explains:

Since leaving his Fresh Prince persona behind for global movie stardom, Will Smith has established two distinct screen identities. On the one hand, there’s Big Willie: The Most Bankable Actor in the WorldTM, who keeps moviegoers laughing and cheering in blockbusters like Independence Day, Men in Black and Hitch. Between those crowd-pleasers, though, we’re treated to Mr. William Smith*, a hard-working dramatic actor who throws himself into challenging roles like a legendary boxer or a homeless single father and reaps acclaim and awards for his efforts. Recently, the soon-to-be-40-year-old has worked hard to fuse these personas into the same movie. (emphasis added)

The subtext?

This merger of personas means that “Big Willie: The Most Bankable Actor in the World TM” is now becoming increasingly comfortable with bringing a more complex black man, one that he’s crafted beautifully in his dramas, to his big budget films.

To put a fine point on it: Will has only played a black man on screen three times (Where The Day Takes You, Six Degrees of Separation, and Ali ). All three, not coincidentally, diversions from his “big budget” career.  The Pursuit of Happyness and The Legend of Bagger Vance do not count because the films were so aggressively, so doggedly concerned with deracinated blackness (or what other critics call “incidental blackness”).

But in Hancock, there is are clever allusions to life as a black man (not to mention a golden-era hip hop soundtrack) that never quite payoff, but are worth discussing.  Hancock is not unlike Ellison’s protagonist in Invisible Man.  Hancock is underappreciated and alone in the world and that has an effect on his ability to connect or behave appropriately.  His backstory eloquently puts his behavior in some context.  His behavior then has a melancholy nonchalance (played beautifully by Will in those first 50 minutes) that makes him more than the “asshole” he is purported to be.

Interestingly, a couple of reviews actually acknowledge that race colors the film.

Popmatters.com is eloquent when it states:

Ray can say this: he’s never been a scary black man with limitless physical powers and a stockpile of anger. Hancock has other issues, beyond his own psychic health, beyond his daily efforts to support the system that has made him feel so alienated and mad. The film notes these issues in passing, en route to its much more predictable and unenlightening resolution. But Hancock can’t actually consider the pop cultural environment that produces Hancock. It would have to be a different, more coherent movie. (emphasis added)

What they allude to in this passage is that Hancock’s race is completely erased, or discarded, after Mary (Charlize Theron, in a strong performance ) reveals her connection to Hancock.  You can tell most directly by the fact that, from this point on, the hip-hop soundtrack switches to a typical melodrama score. This can somewhat be explained by the fact that the tone of the film switches so drastically at this point.  But the subtext of this switch in tone, music (and Hancock’s behavior) seems to be that Hancock has to be deracinated once it is revealed that he’s Mary’s spouse and because, yea, a big scary black man with limitless power is, well…scary.

This is an imperfect reading of the film because the film becomes a disaster after the big reveal and never pays off what it sets up with respect to race.  In addition, Hancock’s blackness relies a whole helluva lot on Will Smith’s blackness to convey some of the subtext that makes the opening 50 minutes so intriguing.

The film then ultimately only flirts with making Will Smith a full-fledged black man.

But with I Am Legend (where his character is clearly black and even talks about it) and Hancock, we see Hollywood filmmakers, and Will himself, struggling to figure out what it means to have a black actor in a film environment that has historically been a white one.  You can see in I Am Legend that they are unsure what it means for the last man on Earth to be a black man.  His blackness is mentioned in passing (a speech about Bob Marley), but it is so intrinsic to who Robert Neville (Will’s character) is that its worth noting as a shift in Will’s big budget persona.

It’s worth noting that neither film “blackens” Will expertly, or even believably, all the time, but its interesting to watch.

This merger of Will’s persona that FJI discusses then hinges on rendering complex representations of race in film contexts that Hollywood has never done before.  Because what makes Will’s dramatic performances work is that the people he portrays are three-dimensional people, three-dimensional black people.  If you insert that kind of character into a big budget film, things necessarily change.

In an article I wrote a few years ago, I posited that the real arrival of black actors will be when our unique histories and identities are not erased by simply inserting us into roles written for white actors.  This means that any film with black leads is inherently different than one with white leads because our experiences are different.  And it should be written that way.

What does it mean that the last man on Earth is black?  What does a film like that look like?

What does a black superhero look like?  How does that flip comic book convention?

It’s not as simple as inserting a black actor into a role like, oh, just about every role Will has had before.  Robert Neville and Hancock are different kind of protagonists because they are black.

It’s nice to see that acknowledged and grapped with, if imperfectly.

 

*Interestingly, Will is short for Willard, not William.

Oscars 2005 or Yes Massa, I Wanna Work in the Big House

Three years ago, I found myself watching the Oscars and tearing up at Halle Berry’s profoundly radical acceptance speech. For her to link her personal triumph to the struggle for black women in the arts was a daring and historical moment. And her genuine surprise, humility and courage stood as a model for how black celebrities could behave in such instances.

Given the wins of Morgan Freeman (a very deserved Best Supporting for his brilliance in Million Dollar Baby) and Jamie Foxx (a very deserved Best Actor for Ray), one would think that the Academy has woken up to the abundance of talent in the black acting community.

But I do not think that is the case. I think that what wins black people major awards are good parts, good scripts, and great characters. And until there are an abundance of good parts, good scripts, and great characters for black actors, Oscars are going to continue to be a rarity.

More importantly though, the great characters that win awards are great characters that reinforce stereotypes held by the general public and further entrench the status quo of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (a term coined by Ms. bell hooks). Every major acting award won by a black actor fits this mold. Great character that is subservient to the white power structure/stereotype.

And I’m supposed to be happy that, although Monster’s Ball is a terrific film about resisting patriarchy, Leticia (Halle Berry) is merely a tool through which the white man(Billy Bob Thornton) realizes his racist attitudes are unhealthy, are killing him. Again and again, black women’s bodies are the sites where white men play out their fantasies, their lives. Similar to the transvestite character in The Crying Game, Leticia exists solely to bring about the change and radical break from patriarchy’s grip of a white man.

And seriously, after breathtaking work in Mississippi Masala, Malcolm X, Mo Better Blues, Courage Under Fire, The Hurricane, He Got Game, Philadelphia and The Pelican Brief, am I really to believe that the best leading performance Denzel Washington has given is in Training Day? Is that really what I’m supposed to believe? Both he and Freeman won awards based on good will and Hollywood felt most comfortable giving them a “we know you’ve done a lot of good work, accept this as appreciation for it all” Oscar. But it is worth noting how both these characters reinforce systems of domination.

Morgan Freeman is playing, essentially, a eunuch/servant role subservient to Clint Eastwood’s character. He has no agency, no life outside of his relationship to Eastwood. Similarly, the relationship he builds with Hilary Swank’s character calls to mind the relationships depicted in Shirley Temple movies between Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

Worse still, is the falsely “evil” representation of Denzel Washington’s character in Training Day. We are led to believe, through the eyes of Ethan Hawke’s character, that Washington is just a dirty cop, a real evil guy. But in the one moment that is neutral (not seen through Hawke) we see the pressure on Washington from the white capitalist patriarchy embodied by aging white men. This could have been a turning point in the film, where we could see how black men are pressured into illegal and extralegal behavior, or how the system is fucked so we fuck it back. This doesn’t happen. A simplistic moral dichotomy is set up with Hawke (the pure white “good” cop) versus Washington (the evil black “bad” cop). Denzel is shrewd in his performance; he never plays the character as evil. Not for a second. But the racist promotional campaign, led to great receipts, coupled with great reviews that pay no mind to the racist way the character is written and….TA DA!!! Long overdue Oscar, meet Denzel Washington.

Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ray Charles was everything a great performance should be. But the film spent a lot of time on Ray Charles as a sexual predator and nowhere near enough time on his musicianship. However, I do think that, compared to the other performances by black actors recently, this one is the one that is most likely to have been won on merit alone. The fact that Jamie Foxx had a great year in 2004 (the Kanye West collabo, Slow Jams, notwithstanding) made it much easier to see that his performance as Ray Charles wasn’t just a fluke.

I wonder, then, if we as black people put too much stock in white approval. Just this morning I saw an article on Jamie and Morgan in Jet magazine. Now the Ebony/Jet style of writing is clearly bourgeois, “white-is-right” pandering, but this article seemed more overt in its “whitey is finally accepting us” tone.

I don’t think I’m oversensitive because were the integrity of black films important to black people then films like Soul Plane wouldn’t be the only ones opening to big numbers.

Where is the love for Brother to Brother, Eve’s Bayou and The Caveman’s Valentine from the black community? It’s never stated but the black bourgeois loves to laud the films that depict black people as the same as white people (The Best Man and the like). But what they really mean when they say that is that they love that the signifiers and stereotypes that white people respond to are erased or they are played for farce. (For instance, Taye Diggs’ Harper in The Best Man saying to Morris Chestnut’s Lance, “I’m gonna blow her back out!” is funny because Harper is supposed to be the “most bourgeois of the men.” He doesn’t understand why Murch works with troubled kids if he’s not getting paid, for instance. This is statement funny because he spends the film distancing himself from “negative blackness”, looks down upon his own people and their struggle but straddles “crosses back over” when it’s time to “get down” with his boys.)

What is more important is that black people as artists continue to diversify, not just in producing the latest barbershop trendy movie, or the latest ghetto farce (All About the Benjamins, Soul Plane, etc), but in diversifying and supporting a multitude of black films. The Wills and Jadas, Halles and Jamies need to show up at black film festivals and make their celebrity mean more than just which white stars they know. The Nias and Morrises, Angelas and Laurences need to produce more than just films from great black literature that they “whitewash”. The Morgans and Denzels, Wesleys and Sanaas need to create vibrant, radical new images of black people that will not just win them awards, but win them the respect and love of their people for more than just breaking the glass ceiling and sitting in the big house with their nice shiny trophies.