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.
I know I'm supposed to be excited about the revenge fantasy aspect of Django Unchained…
…but I'm not.
I get that the anachronistic characterization of Django and use of music is supposed to be "cool." Just like The Bride killing Bill is supposed to be "cool." Just like Sam Jackson quoting the Bible is supposed to be "cool."
Because cool is all about being reduced to the "fuck whitey/fuck men" aspect of being black or a woman. Because that flattening is supposed to be empowering.
Except that it's not. In fact, it it all feels incredibly juvenile to me. Tarantino is essentially a 13-year old white boy who creates films for other white men who wanna relive their own adolescence for 2 or 3 hours in the movie theatre. There are no human beings in his films, just one-dimensional fantasy characters who say "fuck you" to everything and strut around. I find it insulting and tedious beyond measure.
I don't think it's impossible to make a revenge fantasy film about slavery, but I do think that characterization that is about something more – something deeper and more human – than "cool" is the only way that works.
I actually don't understand Hollywood's penchant for casting movie stars as real people in biopics. The hardest job of a film actor is to make you forget that you've seen them in other things. That is even harder for movie stars – assuming they care that deeply, which I don't think most actually do – because they have cultivated a persona that threatens to supercede everything else in the performance.
When you add to that playing a real person who may or may not have notoriety or with whom an audience will have some familiarity, casting movie stars just seems unwise. I mean, did anyone really see anything other than Leo in The Aviator or Reese Witherspoon in Walk The Line?
The Tupac biopic will likely be a standard biopic. It's unlikely that it will tell us anything new or interesting or revelatory about Tupac, especially given the fact that his mother is executive producing.
But in spite of that, Tupac himself could be the role of a lifetime for some young actor who can capture his great humanity without playing him as some weird contradiction the way he was characterized for so much of his career.
And the right performance can make even a bad film at least watchable.