TV shows featuring African-Americans are doing well and since I’m African-American I figured it made sense for me to go on TV to talk about it. “Empire,” “Blackish” and all those shows Shonda Rhimes puts out like “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” are scoring high ratings. The big question is whether this will be the flavor of the month–African American Swirl!–or something lasting. It’s important to have open discussions about race and pop culture, but it’s crucial to not just talk about race when it comes to black shows. I’d like to see more folks have race-based discussions about programs that don’t feature ethnic minorities. How does “Girls”–a show partially set in Brooklyn–get away without having a single minority in its core cast? Certainly creator Lena Dunham has every right to write what she wants–she’s super-talented, and I watch the show every week–but viewers have every right to think she should get out more.
It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and “American Sniper” is topping “Selma” to be the No.1 movie in America. Yes, there’s irony there, but it’s also a good time to talk a bit about pop culture and the philosophy of nonviolence.
Gawker has a great article reprinting a long 1965 interview King once gave to Playboy and Alex Haley (who would go on to write “Roots” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”). King’s comments on music leaped out at me. I’m gearing up to read from my novel “Game World” at various schools for African American history month, so King’s words about the power of culture have fresh resonance.
“In a sense, songs are the soul of a movement,” King says in the article. He adds “Since slavery, the Negro has sung throughout his struggle in America. Steal Away and Go Down, Moses were the songs of faith and inspiration which were sung on the plantations. For the same reasons the slaves sang, Negroes today sing freedom songs, for we, too, are in bondage. We sing out our determination that ‘We shall overcome, black and white together, we shall overcome someday.'”
“Selma,” which tells the story of King and the 1965 march he led from Selma to Montgomery, was mostly shut out at this year’s Oscar nominations. All twenty of this year’s Oscar acting nominees are white, and there are no women nominated for writing or directing (“Selma” director Ava DuVernay, who had been widely expected to become the first African-American woman to be in the running for best director, was shut out). “Selma” notched just two Oscar nominations, one for best picture–and another for best song.
This weekend, “American Sniper” pulled in an estimated $89.5 million, while “Selma” took in $8.8 million according to the tracking website Box Office Mojo. Perhaps the best way for people to celebrate the rest of MLK day would be to actually go see “Selma.”
Here I am talking about the “Selma” snub on MSNBC:
[Originally published in TIME magazine Monday, Nov. 27, 2000]
By Christopher John Farley
One person’s fantasy is another’s stereotype. Especially when that one person is running a Hollywood studio and the other is an African American sitting in the audience fuming. In real life Tiger Woods just wrapped up one of the greatest seasons in the history of golf, a season in which he won so often and by so much that he nearly picked up a couple of electoral votes in Florida. In The Legend of Bagger Vance, one of the more embarrassing movies in recent history, Will Smith plays a magical black caddie who helps Matt Damon win a golf tournament and the heart of Charlize Theron. In 1930s Georgia, no less. You’d think Smith would have used his powers to, oh, I don’t know, stop a lynching or two. Or maybe, at the very least, used them to bag Theron for himself. It’s a sad day when the PGA is showcasing minority role models that are more inspirational than Hollywood’s.
The movies have always had a problem with race. The first talking film, The Jazz Singer, was, of course, about a white guy in blackface. And don’t get me started on Driving Miss Daisy, or the fact that the black guy who played the fourth Ghostbuster didn’t get to do much of anything. But recently, Hollywood has been working especially hard to establish two onscreen stereotypes. The first is the Magical African-American Friend. Along with Bagger Vance, MAAFs appear in such films as What Dreams May Come (1998), the upcoming Family Man (co-starring Don Cheadle) and last year’s prison drama The Green Mile. In that film, Michael Clarke Duncan plays a superstrong, superdumb MAAF on death row who cures one of his jailers (Tom Hanks) of a urinary-tract infection by laying a magical hand on his crotch. It’s probably the only time Duncan will make it to third base on the big screen.
Which brings us to another Hollywood favorite, the Bigot with a Heart of Gold. In Remember the Titans (a formulaic film that soars on the strength of its performances) Will Patton plays a white football coach who at first resists integration, and then befriends head coach Denzel Washington. And in Men of Honor (another formulaic film enjoyable for its performances) Robert De Niro plays a BHG who at first tries to run Cuba Gooding Jr. out of the Navy diver program, and then champions his cause. Gooding’s character is a real person. De Niro’s is a fictional composite.
MAAFs exist because most Hollywood screenwriters don’t know much about black people other than what they hear on records by white hip-hop star Eminem. So instead of getting life histories or love interests, black characters get magical powers. It doesn’t even make financial sense. Smith saved the world in Men in Black and Independence Day, and those movies were huge hits; he carries Damon’s clubs in Bagger Vance, and that movie, so far, has been a box-office flop. Smith is a bigger star than Damon, and yet it’s Damon who wins the tournament and gets the girl, and it’s Smith who needs to get a new agent. BHGs, on the other hand, exist to soften the punch of racially charged movies, to embody the notion that not all racists are bad people. They offer the possibility of grace to all the bigots in the audience. That last group might include a few movie executives.
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