Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Despite Some Progress, Black Is Still Not the New Black in Hollywood

As we reach the denouement of another year in real and reel life (with so many 2013 films left to see in 2014: When, oh when, will my beloved Joaquin Phoenix and Her finally arrive in South Africa?), my increased black consciousness in Cape Town and Hollywood's increasing consciousness of blacks (due, for the most part, to the work of a handful of black directors and a ticket-buying public that's clearly interested in the stories they have to tell) have got me thinking. Here are some of the thoughts running through my mind this New Year's Eve.

***I still remember People magazine's "Hollywood Blackout" cover story as clearly as if I were still working there. The article, which made me proud to call myself a People reporter (though I had nothing to do with the piece) bemoaned a year (1996) without any black Oscar nominees in the acting categories and only one in any of the others. My how things have changed yet haven't.

Though Oscar seems to have recovered somewhat from its blackout since People shined a spotlight on it, I've noticed some intriguing patterns in its increasing inclusiveness? In recent years, there usually have been multiple black Oscar nominees, and this century alone, seven black winners in the acting categories (three Best Actors, one Best Actress, one Best Supporting Actor and two Best Supporting Actresses). Curiously, though, many of the recent black nominees have been newcomers with hard-to-pronounce and/or remember names, like Gabourey Sidibe and Quvenzhané Wallis, who fail to become stars and are unlikely to be nominated again.

Despite being a Best Actress nominee this year for Beasts of the Southern Wild, Wallis's name doesn't even appear on the poster for 12 Years a Slave, in which she has a don't-blink-and-you-might-still-miss-her role as the protagonist's daughter. I still believe Slave's finale would have been more effective had we had even one scene of Northup's family coping with his disappearance and hence a little more Wallis.

Perhaps next year's Jay-Z/Will Smith-produced Annie update will reverse that trend and possibly even get Wallis another invitation to the Golden Globes as a nominee. Will three of this year's seven main black Oscar-nomination contenders with names that don't necessarily roll off English-speaking tongues -- Slave's Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o and Captain Phillips' Barkhad Abdi, all Golden Globe-nominated -- be so lucky in the future? Will Mo'Nique (a Best Supporting Actress winner for Precious whose name practically sings star) finally get another acting gig?

***Djimon Hounsou bucked the one-nomination-wonder trend by going from the star of a Janet Jackson video ("Love Will Never Do [Without You]") to a two-time Oscar nominee (for 2002's In America and 2006's Blood Diamond), but it still feels as if he's waiting for his breakthrough. (Of all the black actors to be nominated more than once since 2000 -- a list that includes Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Will Smith and Jamie Foxx -- only Hounsou and Viola Davis weren't already established stars.) Why did someone with his good looks and considerable talent never quite go mainstream?

***On the flip side is six-time Oscar nominee Denzel Washington, who has been one of Hollywood's biggest stars since the '90s. Why is he the only black thespian who gets nominated for roles that could have been played by an actor of any color? (Incidentally, if Lee Daniels' The Butler's Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey get nominated for their roles in the 2013 film, it will be both of their second times scoring a nod for embodying characters that could have been played only by black actors.) It dawned on me while watching Captain Phillips that Washington would have been great in that movie, but Hollywood would sooner try to make Angelina Jolie pass for multiracial (which she attempted as Marianne Pearl in 2007's A Mighty Heart) before even thinking about casting Washington as a real-life white man.

***Why do most of the big '90s indie auteurs-turned-Oscar-caliber-directors (Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell, Darren Aronofsky), in the grand tradition of the Woody Allens and Robert Altmans of Hollywood past and present, rarely to never cast black actors in their movies? I guess Russell did put Ice Cube in The Three Kings and Chris Tucker in Silver Linings Playbook, but would the latter movie really have suffered without Tucker's character, the only one played by an above-the-title actor that Oscar didn't notice? People criticize Quentin Tarantino for peppering (okay, dousing) his screenplays with the N word, but at least he isn't afraid to put black actors in his movies.

***Speaking of black actors in Quentin Tarantino films (namely last year's Django Unchained), is being the star of one of the hottest shows on TV Kerry Washington's consolation prize for being under-appreciated and underutilized in movies? I've only watched Scandal in passing, but from what I've seen, Olivia Pope could have been played by an actress of any color, which for Washington (no relation to Denzel) might be an even greater accomplishment than scoring an elusive (for her, despite excellent work in Django, Mother and Child, Ray and The Last King of Scotland, the last two opposite Best Actors Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker, respectively) Oscar nomination.

***The fact that most of the recent black Oscar nominees and all of this year's black possibilities (including Fruitvale Station's Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer) were playing real-life characters or characters from literary adaptations underscores a continuing trend. Although there are more opportunities for black actors in quality dramas, Hollywood filmmakers still aren't creating quality black movie characters -- and if they are, they're being played by white actors.

***Male black voices are finally being heard from the other side of the camera, with three of this year's most successful and/or critically hailed films (Lee Daniels' The Butler, 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station) directed by black men (Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen and Ryan Coogler, respectively). Meanwhile, though, where are the black female directors? Halle Berry produces, but there seems to be few black women in positions of power on movie sets. If there were, perhaps Angela Bassett would finally get a post-What's Love Got to Do With It? role worthy of her talent, and Viola Davis, who seemed so destined for stardom after The Help a few years ago, would be getting better and meatier work than always being part of an ensemble or playing second lead to Maggie Gyllenhaal (in 2012's Won't Back Down).

***Since the days when Ally McBeal had a black boyfriend and his skin color wasn't a plot point, prime-time TV and daytime soaps have featured a number of interracial couples for which race isn't an issue or part of the storyline. Often it's not even mentioned at all. (Curiously, though, with the exceptions of Smash, Two and a Half Men and probably a few other shows, gay and lesbian couples remain largely white-on-white.) When will the big-screen play catch up? In big Hollywood movies, black actors get little to no romance. The biggest male stars, the Denzel Washingtons and the Will Smiths, rarely get cast in romances and no black actress has ever been a contender for America's sweetheart. The surprise success of The Best Man Holiday proves that people will pay to see black people in love, but it doesn't have to always be with each other. Despite the gains made by blacks over the last 17 years, they remain largely separate and unequal in Hollywood films. May 2014 and beyond bring greater strides in desegregation.
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