Saturday, February 4, 2017

Hollywood's shuffle

If you remember Robert Townsend's 1987 satirical movie, Hollywood Shuffle, you'll understand why just about every black actor in Hollywood leaped for joy when Viola Davis won the 2015 "Best Actress in a TV Drama Series" Emmy award for How to Get Away with Murder.

Davis' history making Emmy win (first black actor to win), only served to confirm how limited the opportunities are for actors of color in Hollywood. Like a broken record, lack of opportunity has been a constant theme playing in the background of every black actor's Hollywood hopes and dreams.
Davis' win elevated the status of just about every black actor in Hollywood, at least temporarily. In her acceptance speech, as other black award winners have done, Davis bemoaned the lack of meaningful starring roles for black actors to give them a shot at even being considered for acting's top prizes.

Hollywood has never been a welcoming place for black actors. Look at the history. During Hollywood's darkest days (no pun intended), blacks weren't even allowed to play themselves on screen. White filmmakers used white actors in blackface to play black characters. When blacks weren't being left off the silver screen entirely, they were paraded in front of the cameras as objects of derision and ridicule thus perpetuating negative images and reinforcing racist attitudes toward blacks.

Who can forget the infamous 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, with its blatantly racist images and black stereotypes. It's no surprise that Hollywood has never pulled this controversial film out of circulation despite black protests and calls for its censorship. At one time, it was the highest grossing film in Hollywood. The Birth of a Nation is still available today. It's been reformatted for DVD on Netflix.

During Hollywood's Golden Age, in the late 20's to early 60's when movie-making was at its peak, black actors were cast as slaves, mammys, cooks, coons, and lazy, slow-witted, jive-talkin' niggas, which was consistent at the time with white society's view of blacks, Hattie McDaniel was the first black actor to win an Oscar in 1940 from the Motion Picture Academy for playing [a] Mammy in the movie, Gone With the Wind. McDaniel, and another black actor, Stepin Fetchit (not his real name), faced much criticism from black leaders for portraying dim-witted or subservient black characters. Even today, calling a black person a stepin fetchit, is still viewed as a racial slur.
Walter White, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1931 to 1955, pleaded with African-American actors to stop accepting such stereotypical parts, as he believed they degraded their community. White urged movie studios to start creating roles that portrayed blacks as capable of achieving far more than cooking and cleaning for white people.— the Hattie McDaniel story
Even now, Hollywood continues to attract criticism for how it portrays black life in movies and on television. Far from putting its darkie past behind it, Hollywood has merely rewritten and updated the script for a 21st century audience. The stereotyping and typecasting of roles for black actors has not stopped. The slaves, mammys, coons, jiggaboos and jive talkin' niggas have simply been recast as bitches, whores, drug addicts, dope dealers, thugs, gangstas, and criminals for a new generation of black and white audiences whose understanding of their society is shaped largely by these Hollywood stereotypes.
Stereotypical roles in society have been excessively exaggerated by television programs, keeping racism alive and breathing in America. The careful selections of ethnicities in role casting have had an exceptionally large impact on American society. Young television viewers are learning at an early age about race and discrimination and are witnessing the ugly impacts of these issues.—Racism in Television
If anybody thinks Hollywood has changed its ways, think again. Money is what drives the equation in Hollywood. As long as the movie studios continue to make a profit from movies that depict white racial superiority, reinforce white values, while maintaining the status quo as it relates to blacks, Hollywood has little reason to change its ways. Furthermore, unless Hollywood is convinced that it can still make money by embracing diversity in all its facets, and that audiences will pay to see this level of diversity on film, there's no reason for the motion picture industry to change the formula that's worked for it some 100 years or more.

Also, the fact that a few black actors and producers have recently made breakthroughs with such popular shows as ScandalEmpire and How to Get Away with Murder should not be seen as progress. Neither Cookie nor the Lyon clan, Olivia Pope nor Annalise Keating are the kind of character role models anyone should want the next generation of little black kids to aspire to be like. Real progress will come when black characters are routinely included as part of the human landscape of every show on television and in every movie made. Until then, the Tyler Perrys, Shonda Rhimes and Lee Daniels in Hollywood should take their cue from black filmmakers like the late Oscar Micheaux and tell our stories in their entirety the way they should be told. I'm believing that there are enough talent resources and collective wealth within the black community to get it done.
 For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.—1 Timothy 6:9-10