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.