Friday, January 20, 2012

A Problem With Black and White

Is it overly optimistic to think that Octavia Spencer's Golden Globe win for her performance in The Help was because she really did give the best performance of the bunch? Or maybe it's overly cynical to think that her win just may have had something to do with proud, back patting, privileged white people showing just how culturally accepting they are? Maybe a bit of both?

That's certainly the vibe I got from the standing ovation Spencer's win generated from the audience as Chris Tucker (he's still around?) stood, beaming, clapping extra hard from the back while looking on with head-held-high pride. The problem with Hollywood is that hindsight isn't 20/20, and as proud as I'm sure some were to see Spencer mount that stage followed by Morgan Freeman receiving a lifetime achievement award from Sidney Poitier who also got audience members up off their feet, I can't help but feel we still haven't made many strides toward racial equity in the movies.

The purpose is not to take away from Spencer who, like her The Help co-star Viola Davis, is a talented actresses who finally found a footing in the spotlight. The problem is that The Help (directed by a white man, based on a book by a white woman) represents just about everything wrong with Hollywood's treatment of African Americans throughout history: they don't trust black people to tell their own stories.

Even good movies are guilty of this: Edward Zwick's Glory was not about the black soldier's in the Civil War but about the white man who led them into the history books and The Blind Side, one of the most shameful offenders to all discussion of race relations in the U.S., wasn't about a black man getting an opportunity to succeed, but the white woman who gave it to him. Sure Coach Carter was about a black man telling his own story but replace the bankable Samuel L. Jackson with Charles S. Dutton or Danny Glover and see how fast that version gets green lit.

My sentiments of why people related to The Blind Side are ugly but I fear true. The Blind Side succeeded because it pandered to the absolute lowest common denominator while also aiming to touch the privileged white people who like to pat themselves on the back for doing nothing at all. But the sentiments were all wrong. Instead of looking at our condition and seeing the optimism of a society becoming more tolerant the sentiment was: God bless that saintly woman, who has so much, for letting that big dumb nigger into her home and giving him a chance.

By the end of The Blind Side, when the Sandra Bullock character reads about a teen being murdered in the hood and deems that that very well could have been her boy, that's the very problem with our society. We don't need another movie about the kid who was fortunate enough to run into a wealthy white family. We need a movie about the infinite number of anonymous black youth getting senselessly killed every day just based on the sociology of their situation.

But of course white people are quick to pat themselves on the back for the one case of goodness that they allow to shadow the innumerable injustices and societal division that still exist in America today. Let me ask you this: do you feel good that the U.S. elected a black president or do you feel better about, as a white person, having found it in your heart to vote him in? White people always need to be reminded of and congratulated for how open and accepting of those who exist below them in society they are. Ironically have we ever had a movie where a rich white family takes in a drug addicted, white trash hobo? Not enough glory to be had from that kind of endeavour.

That's why, last year, when Monique won the Oscar for Precious it seemed more honest and genuine. When Monique, in her speech, thanked Hattie McDaniel for going through what she went through so that Monique herself wouldn't have to, it felt, for better or worse, like genuine progress. That's the truth of true racial equity: it works because it factors race completely out of the equation.

Monique, I'd like to think, won, not because she was black, but because, in a category where both blacks and whites were nominated, the best person won. Just like Katheryn Bigelow was not celebrated for being the first woman to win Best Director but because she actually directed the best movie. To be equal is to see each other as humans, nothing more and nothing less. Until Hollywood realizes and embraces this, nothing will ever change.


  1. I can't pin it down, but something about the final point you make just doesn't sit right me. I, like you, think that it's very possible that Octavia might sail through the season winning because of her race, but I don't think it has anything specifically to do with THE HELP. This will sound a bit unfounded, but I tend to think that because of the dearth of good roles for minority players when a good one DOESN'T come along those in the minority are afraid to NOT fete it.

    The same, I think, applies to Bigelow. Each time I heard someone say that, for eg, Avatar was the best film of 09 (or in the same vein, someone other than Mo'Nique gave the best supporting female performance of that year) the criticism lodged often was you're either anti-women or anti-black, and with THE HELP being a high-profile contender specifically about racism I think Spencer benefits from that.

    I mentioned only yesterday that Jessica Chastain might have no chance at winning not because people don't like her performance, but I can just imagine the press voters would get if a civil rights' film wins the acting award for the white person over the black one. People are already up in arms about the fact that the whites are given too much time in THE HELP, and that it's written by a white person, but I think if only blacks should tell black stories we've gone a far way in losing the point of art.

    Excuse the outrageously long comment, just so much to chew on. Provocative post, surely.

    1. Andrew,

      I think the Jessica Chastain problem would have been less of a problem if she had just been nominated for her best work of the year, in Take Shelter. That film should have also yielded a best actor nomination for Michael Shannon, but too few people saw it.

      Good discussion here. Mike, did you change something about your comments? It looks like I only have the ability to reply to a specific comment, rather than just leave a general comment. Oh, and yeah, I'm all for that 50/50 split. I agree that The Help did not achieve it.

  2. Thank you for writing this. I love open and honest discussions of race in the movies. I've tried to get a couple of them going on my own blog, but have not succeeded. In fact, I started a piece about The Help last week but ultimately didn't finish it. Not because I was worried I was going to say something controversial, but because as I was writing it I was becoming less and less convinced of my own position.

    However, I'll bring it to this space so it can still be "out there" in the world. The piece was going to be called "Are white saviors damned if they do?", and it was essentially a response to the backlash against The Help. I thought The Help was pretty good -- a lot better than The Blind Side, anyway. And I wanted to wrestle with why I was not as bothered by the racial dynamics in the movie as a lot of people were. My conclusion was this: Especially in civil rights movies, the big attitude changes, the ones that give us such a feeling of satisfaction, must by their very nature be in white characters, not black characters. Black characters are kind of shit out of luck in civil rights movies, because duh, of course they want equal treatment. They may need to expose themselves to physical harm by the actions they take, but they don't have to take a leap of faith -- they don't have to change their essential view of the world. It's the white characters who have to do that, which is why most civil rights movies have in some way involved a white character learning how to be more accepting. I kind of think that may be an inevitable component of civil rights movies. Does that mean we shouldn't make movies about the civil rights movement?

    But your point about how it is not black filmmakers making these movies is extremely valuable. And it kind of gets at what I said. It doesn't seem like an act of self-improvement for a black person to make a civil rights movie -- they clearly have the moral high ground, and the civil rights movement is essentially acting in their own historical racial interests. It's only for the white person -- or in this case, the white filmmaker -- that "reaching out" to this subject seems to be an act of bettering him/herself. Of course as I write this, I realize how wrong it is and I agree wholeheartedly with what you've said.

    Troublingly, the moment in The Help that affected me most did in fact involve Emma Stone, not either Davis or Spencer. It's the scene where Skeeter learns that her lifelong nanny, whom the family turned away, has died. Her face crumbles into grief in one of the most authentic performances of getting sad news I have seen in a long time. But I have to ask myself: Did it affect me because Stone's acting was so good, or because as a white person, I can relate to her more easily? And can I only have the level of affection I have for The Help because it helps me address my own white guilt?

  3. Andrew- I this posts like this should inspire outragously long comments.

    You say: "This will sound a bit unfounded, but I tend to think that because of the dearth of good roles for minority players when a good one DOESN'T come along those in the minority are afraid to NOT fete it." Which I think is somewhat similar to what the entire post was trying to say which is that, in 2012 it shouldn't be so rare not only for a black person to get a good role but to win something for it that it still requires a standing ovation. I don't really have a huge problem with white's telling black stories and don't think only blacks should tell their own stories. What I think the problem is is that 1) when blacks tell their own stories it is usually only in indie films and not high scale Hollywood films that actually have a chance of connecting, probably because white people would be turned off by the harsh reality of films like Menace II Society for example. And 2)It may be less offensive for The Help or The Blindside to win praise and recognition if they wern't, in the first case, middle of the road melodrama and in the case of the second just outright horrible in every sense. Take films like Glory for example, a very good film regardless of the fact that it has the wrong focus.

    Vance - I think the thing about these civil rights movies is that they specifically depict the white character as the hero and the black characters as the lucky recipients of that person's goodness. Why not a film with an equal 50/50 split in focus between the white person and their circumstances and the black person and theirs? That I think would be a much more powerful and enlightening look than simply making white people happy to know that not all of them are racist monsters.