Tag Archives: race

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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Race, Ethnicity, and ‘The Vampire Diaries’

In a fairly inoffensive, if silly, roundtable discussion post on AfterElton about The CW’s brilliant, The Vampire Diaries, this jumped out at me:

There’s yet to be much of a gay presence on the show. (Sorry folks, Caroline’s deceased Dad doesn’t cut it). Do you think a gay vamp making all sorts of snappy one-liners about the pretty boys in Mystic Falls would be a good thing?

Robyn Ross: I love that the show often blissfully ignores race, ethnicity, etc. because these kids have a lot more to worry about than those kinds of social issues. But sexual orientation (and sex in general) is such a huge part of the show that I think taking on a handsome gay vampire could add a lot to the mix. And let’s be honest, the banter between him and Damon would be priceless.

Because race and ethnicity are “social issues” one has to “worry about?” Wait…what?

Race and ethnicity should be central to creating character, particularly if you’re going to have a diverse cast, as The Vampire Diaries does. And so this is the one area of the show that drives me fucking crazy.

bonnie-bennett-profile

Bonnie, one of the all-powerful Bennett witches

I mean, this is a show that is set in Virginia, with frequent flashbacks to antebellum South and constant celebrations of antebellum Southern culture that conspicuously sidesteps the fact that that period was defined by American chattel slavery. This is a show that nearly always casts black actors to play witches but provides no mythological reason for this even though it’s clear that the producers are consciously deciding to always. every. single. time. cast a black actor as a witch.

Not even for the Bennett witches, who are central to the show’s mythology.

But here’s the thing? The vampire Katherine Pierce, who is also central to the show’s mythology played by lead actress Nina Dobrev, is Bulgarian because Dobrev is Bulgarian and speaks the language fluently.

The show’s producers are aware enough of Dobrev’s ethnicity to not only reference it in the show, but also make use of it (via Dobrev speaking the language in flashbacks), but there can be no indication in the show at all that the black actors are playing black characters with history, ethnicity and perspective.

In other words, race and ethnicity aren’t ignored, blissfully or otherwise. Just blackness.

Grappling with the Challenges of Race and Sexuality: ‘Skin Deep the Series’

I certainly hope this show, Skin Deep The Series, gets produced…

…because there could be real power in a show that forthrightly addresses issues of race, sexuality, and masculinity in a way that forces us to rethink our assumptions and become aware of the contexts in which we live in the United States.

But this promotional video does give me pause because so much of the interaction between the characters is provocative in a way that doesn’t seem to reveal anything beyond the superficial. Obviously, it’s hard to tell anything from a 10-minute promotional video, but with dialogue like “take it” and “wrong color” and (apparently) cliche situations like bashings and thug fetishes this could be terribly exploitative, rather than progressive. There’s an illusion of depth here that suggests that the producers haven’t seriously considered who each of these men are.

Similarly, the additional promotional materials suggest that this show will be set in Atlanta, GA, but this presentation lacks a sense of place. This could be Any Diverse Coastal Town USA. The key then would be for the makers of this show to open up the world of these characters so we can understand where they come from and who they are. Right now – these are just archetypes.

For Skin Deep The Series to truly do what it seems to be setting out to do, it will have to really take seriously the realities and unique circumstances that produced each of these individuals. And that means being really honest rather than just provocative.

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.

Some Thoughts on the ‘Greek’ Series Finale

Greek cast

Greek cast

Greek was, without question, the finest college-set television show I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. It had a tremendously rich sense of place, a strong, clear voice, great stories, and instantly definable three-dimensional characters played by one of the finest ensembles on television.

Tonight’s finale was perhaps a bit too pat for my personal tastes, but I can’t say that moments didn’t hit me exactly the way they were designed to. When Rebecca (standout Dilshad Vadsaria, who is a fuckin star) hugs Casey. Evan’s reaction to Cappie and Casey’s plans. Rusty’s speech to Cappie. The way Rusty says “I love you” to his sister Casey.

I’ve written about the show’s aspirational colorblind casting before. It was a glaringly obvious problem with the show. It was a choice that I understand given our country’s racial fatigue, but it sometimes resulted in bizarre casting and sort of forced the writers to not give the characters portrayed by actors of color histories or backstory to avoid dealing with or acknowledging race. Ashleigh and Calvin suffered a bit as a result, though Calvin as a gay character got a little more to do*. In this way, Greek becomes a fascinating study of just how limited colorblind casting truly is.

That said, I still really enjoyed the show. And I’ll miss it.

 

*This AfterElton article with writer and creator Patrick Sean Smith shows that Smith knew exactly what the colorblind choice meant and he acknowledges the challenges of writing for some of the characters. His thoughts on Ashleigh in particular (“I was trying to imagine even for Ashleigh what the black sorority sister experience would be and the only things that came to mind were things I’d seen a million times.”) are very interesting and track very much with my frustration with the character at times. And his views on race and the millennial generation (“I never felt race, for the millennial audience, was that important to them for their reality. Dealing with sexual orientation and race is less of a thing for them than it has been even for my generation.”) are understandable, but completely absurd.