Tag Archives: black film

Portrait of a (Black) Man: Reviewing ‘Fruitvale Station’

Fruitvale poster

“Seen as animals, brutes, natural born rapists, and murderers, Black men have had no real dramatic say when it comes to the way they are represented. They have made few interventions on the stereotype…Black males who refuse categorization are rare, for the price of visibility in the contemporary world of White supremacy is that Black male identity be defined in relation to the stereotype whether by embodying it or seeking to be other than it.”
–bell hooks

There’s a scene late in Fruitvale Station that is about as astute and subtle a depiction of the disparities between white men and black men in America as I’ve ever seen in a major motion picture.

Oscar (played magnificently by the phenomenally talented Michael B. Jordan) is standing outside a store waiting for his girlfriend, Sophina (beautifully portrayed by Melonie Diaz), and her friend to come out of the bathroom. He had just sufficiently charmed the owner into letting the two women go in when a white couple appears. The wife is pregnant and needs to use the bathroom too. The owner lets her in as well, begrudgingly, leaving Oscar standing outside with the husband. The two have a casual conversation that serves three purposes: one, to let the audience know that Oscar has been seriously considering asking Sophina to marry him; two, to remind us again how charming and at ease Oscar is with all kinds of people (remember – he also charmed the young white woman who didn’t know what fish to fry), and three – and most notably – to underline just how much harder it is for black people, black men in particular, to get their lives together than it is for white folks.

And yet, this is what the film really leaves us with, what it’s really about: A young brother who is just trying to get it together. We have spent the bulk of the movie watching Oscar fumble about trying to sort out his life. We watch him trying, by turns, begging and threatening, to get his job at a grocery store back. We watch him contemplate going back to dealing drugs. We watch him argue and seduce Sophina, charm and spoil his mother for her birthday, bail his sister out of her own money troubles, and perhaps most poignantly, dote on the one thing in his life that makes total and complete sense to him – his daughter. The struggle is real, specific. We care.

After a trying day, Oscar then gets to listen to this white man talk so casually about marrying his wife when they had “nothing” and then starting a business that is apparently doing well enough that he hands Oscar a card. Jordan’s reaction – a remarkable combination of respect, admiration and, just a touch of jealousy – says all we need to know. For this white man, things come so easily. In Jordan’s performance in that moment, we are reminded again that it’s just not as easy for a brothers like Oscar to get their lives together.

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On J. August Richards’ Webseries, ‘The Hypnotist’: Black People and Science Fiction

I’m struck by the fact that the great J. August Richards is developing a sci-fi webseries, The Hypnotist, featuring black people that seems to center blackness.

“…African hypnosis. It was essentially lost during the slave trade, but goes back thousands of years.”

I’ve had many a conversation about why it is so uncommon for Black folks who have money to explore science fiction; and how this limits the kinds of stories that black people have access to and how it limits black people’s ability to see themselves as expansively as they could. There has yet to be an adaptation of an Octavia Butler or Tananarive Due novel and yet we make a fair number of romantic comedies, comedies centered around a black comedian, hood tales, and Black American historical epics.

The Hypnotist posterSo good on J. that The Hypnotist seems to not only be a science fiction story but one that plays with blackness and Africanness. This is a teaser so one can’t know how deeply these themes will be explored, but I’m struck by the fact that this 50-second trailer so forthrightly names blackness, Africanness, and slavery. That. is. just. dope.

The question then is: how will this all work?

I’m wondering if The Hypnotist will be a play on Egyptian doctor Imhotep’s “temple sleep” and if part of what is explored is this notion of reconnecting to that subconscious Africanness that was erased by white supremacy and centuries in North America. There is a lot of subtextual room to play here that I think could give the show some deeper resonance that is specific to the Black American experience and psyche.

These are big questions, to be sure. We shall see just what J. has in store.

What Exactly Is ‘The Best Man’ Sequel Trailer Saying?

In a piece I wrote two years ago for the homie Alyssa at ThinkProgress in which I discuss what I think The Best Man sequel, The Best Man Holiday, should address, I said that Malcolm Lee should center the film around Nia Long’s character, Jordan Armstrong.

Looks like that is going to happen.

However I also said:

…the [original] film hinges on the fact that a total slut like Lance Sullivan is such a chauvinist that the very idea of his bride having a sexual past sends him into a blind rage and makes him question whether or not she’s worthy of him. It’s a film that continues to suggest that driven career black women are unworthy of love. Career woman Jordan Armstrong (played by Long), is the only woman to end the film alone, even as the stripper with the heart of gold and the emasculating shrew each end up with a man.

So the question this trailer raises for me is whether Jordan’s choice to date a white man is an outgrowth of the fact that in Lee’s mind careerist black women are unworthy of love from black men specifically or something less troublesome. In other words, did she have no other choice but to date a white man or not?

I don’t want Jordan’s choice to be a reaction to black men’s inability to appreciate everything that she represents – an independent, career-obsessed woman. I think that lets black men off the hook for their anti-woman retrogressive beliefs about what a “good black woman” is supposed to be.

As much as I love the original film, I still believe it was a terribly unfair and dangerous subtext to suggest that Jordan couldn’t have a career and love. To suggest in the sequel that the only way she could have both is to date a white man would just continue to reinforce the belief that black men’s sexist assumptions about black women are entrenched and intractable. If the film goes that route it would be incredibly dangerous, irresponsible and unfortunate.

There’s a way to tell this story in a way that doesn’t do this. I just am not sure that Lee will do that.

Burden of Representation or a Structural Problem in Hollywood?

Adam Thompson of the great Shadow and Act asks:

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. Continue reading

Reacting to the Debate between Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer & Tavis Smiley

Viola Davis is remarkably eloquent on the complexities of the issues surrounding The Help:

 

Watch Actresses Viola Davis & Octavia Spencer on PBS. See more from Tavis Smiley.

 

That final point she makes about the psychic damage in black folks that is keeping us from doing our own shit and, if we do, causes us to create images that reinscribe racist beliefs about who we are is just beautiful stuff.

I also appreciate that Davis acknowledges that there really wasn't much to Aibileen after the book became a screenplay and that she will accept a critique of that. I think for an actress with so few options, that's incredibly generous. She would have every right to be as unconcerned with criticism as Octavia Spencer seems to be, but it's clear from this conversation that she's looked at this film, and the role she was asked to play, very deeply and from a variety of perspectives. 

And it's likely why her performance is so good.