28 February 2011

Shhh! Don't Tell Anyone (Especially in Hollywood) This Has Been Black History Month

Today marks the end of another Black History Month in the United States. It's again been time to recognize the contributions of African Americans in the building, defending and maintaining the country. It is also a time to reflect on the historic victories against repression and oppression earned by Black Americans during their long struggles for freedom and equality.

Among the areas where positive strides have been made is film. African Americans have come to enjoy greater participation and more positive portrayals in movies over the past 50 years. For far too long Blacks were shut out of the film industry except to play minor roles as maids, porters and all too often buffoons.

Now Hollywood's A List of stars includes important Black performers such as Denzel Washington, Halle Berry and Will Smith. Oscars for acting in both lead and supporting roles have gone to a number of African Americans over the past dozen years.

The times they have changed.

But hardly enough.

Quick, name some films this past year that dealt with issues particular to the Black experience. How many of the nominees for this year's Academy Awards, in acting categories, were black? Answer: none.

This mirrors what is happening within the country as a whole. The US has its first African American president, many of our greatest athletes and entertainers are black and society frowns on anything hinting at racism in public speech or deed. On the surface, all seems well. But as I noted in a recent post, the lot African Americans in general, those not endowed with natural athletic or perfroming talents, is at its lowest point in decades. Progress has ground to a halt. In the US today a Black male of college age is statistically more likely to be in prison than in a dorm.

Most troubling is the fact that this phenomenon is not part of our national discourse.

It is sometimes difficult to tell whether Hollywood is reflecting our culture or influencing it. In either case there has been virtually no serious films about the Black experience since Do the Right Thing (1989) and Boyz n the Hood (1991). Last year's Precious did receive widespread critical acclaim but it was also mocked by many white critics who evidently prefer minstrel shows to dramas featuring lower class African Americans.

I began pondering all this the other day when I saw the trailer for a documentary examining Hollywood's depiction of the Holocaust. In it Steven Spielberg actually had the cheek to say that Hollywood has veritably ignored the Holocaust.

Come again?

How about his own Schindler's List (1993)? The Pianist (2002)? The Pawnbroker (1964)? Sophie's Choice (1982)? The Boy in Striped Pajamas (2008)? Life is Beautiful? To name a few.

Now let's look at the long list of films that show slavery in America.....

All right, how about Reconstruction?

Okay, how about films dealing with the Jim Crow Era in the South?

And let's not leave out the countless films on the Civil Rights movement.....

Sadly there is virtually nothing in these categories. To his credit Spielberg directed Amistad (1997) which deals with the slave revolt of the same name. But it principally focuses on their court trials. Then there's the excellent Glory (1989) which looked at the all black 54th massachusetts regiment during the Civil War.

There are no recent films examining the Nat Turner Rebellion, the Underground Railroad or Frederick Douglass. WEB Dubois, Roy Wilkins or the Little Rock Nine all have stories that could easily be adopted to the screen. (To their credit HBO has recently presented a film on Thurgood Marshall, Thurgood.) In more recent times the works of community activits and organizers who have not gone on to the presidency could make for dramatic film stories. Instead I imagine we'll be seeing more Tyler Perry comedies replete with flatulating big mamas who remind some of the Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima characters of old.

America and Hollywood have come a long way since the dark days of segregation. But the difference between a long way and job finished are great indeed.

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