Chris Rock was tasked with voicing the concerns of lack of minority representation at the 88th Academy Awards Ceremony. His opening monologue was even handed, funny, and honest, but not really groundbreaking. I don’t say this disrespectfully, but only to point out that he said things that black people have known for years, and which he has been very candid about in the recent past: Hollywood is not openly racist but it is cliquish – or as he put it, “sorority racist.”
To drive this point home he tells of his night at a fundraiser for President Obama. During a photo shoot he had a chance to lean over and say, “Mr. President, you see all these writers and producers and actors? They don’t hire black people, and they’re the nicest white people on earth! They’re liberals!”
In a less jokey and very straightforward section of his monologue, Mr. Rock expanded on this point clearly so that there would be no confusion, “… it’s not about boycotting anything,” he started, “It’s just, we want opportunity. We want black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors. That’s it. Not just once. Leo gets a great part every year and, you know, everybody, all you guys, get great parts all the time. But what about the black actors?”
What Chris Rock brought up was what we can call the tip of the iceberg. A ten minute opening monologue at The Academy Awards certainly doesn’t afford one the time, nor the right venue, to expound on every delicate aspect of the issue. But to continue with his line of thought about opportunity, I would add that one must consider that when opportunity is given in Hollywood, there is a disproportionate amount of typecasting of blacks in “black roles.” What do I mean by that?
“Black roles” are those that can only be exclusively played by blacks, unless you are white and it involves Egypt, Ancient Biblical History, or Michael Jackson. Examples of exclusively “black roles” (by Hollywood and media standards) are those of civil rights leaders, gangsters, slaves, welfare cases, athletes, singers, and recent historical figures – so nobody can deny that they were black. Not surprisingly, many of the roles and films which have been recognized by the Oscars are ones that fall into these categories.
These “black roles” are not devious in their own right. I think Malcolm X is one of the greatest films of the 20th Century, and Selma was beautiful and heartbreaking to watch. Both of these films could only have been executed by a mainly black cast. The deviousness of “black roles,” and how Hollywood manipulates them, comes in their power to limit black actors. To understand the importance of not limiting black actors, let’s take a look at Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek.
Ms Nichols wanted to leave Star Trek after the first season but was urged to stay by Gene Roddenberry. Soon after, she was practically ordered to do so by none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Why would Dr. King make such a demand to a television actor? Because, as he explained to Ms. Nichols, she was not playing a “black role.” If she had left the show they could have replaced her with an alien if they wanted to. Lt. Uhura was on the Enterprise due to her intelligence and abilities, not for her gender or the color of her skin. Yes, she could sing, and she was beautiful and entertaining, but her primary skill was that of being a communications officer. In Mr. King’s view, she, on that show, had the power of allowing black people to “be seen as they should be seen everyday” as a competent people who can even go into space, as opposed to the limits and stereotypes put upon them by white society. (You can watch Ms Nichols tell the complete story here.)
Reaching the point where roles become as diverse as the actors takes time. We are at a point where white run studios eventually realize that black-centric movies do make money – Straight Outta Compton proved that in 2015, as did Waiting to Exhale and Soul Food in the 90s. But for every success there is a large gap before the next, because “black cinema” is still seen as a niche market. The only sensible way to change this mindset is by having more black people behind the camera, in the boardrooms, and in the writer’s meetings. With increased visibility comes more versatility, and eventually it allows for black actors to play characters which are, like Nichelle Nichols’ Lt. Uhura, not “exclusively black.” And that should be the ultimate goal.
Given their domination behind the scenes, white directors, writers, and producers don’t have the weight of showcasing what it means to be “white” to their audience, so they can put their characters in any type of story imaginable – from ultra-realistic to fantasy. Black directors, writers, and producers, on the other hand, are still such a minority that when they do get their shot they almost feel obliged to tell a story “that matters.” People unfairly expect every Spike Lee movie to be Do The Right Thing and not Inside Man.
This expectation is clearly wrong, and I may even be guilty of it at times. But I also don’t watch movies based on the color of an actor’s skin, but rather, the stories that they tell. So I expect that a variety of black actors not named Will Smith can also play the leads in goofy romantic comedies like Sleepless in Seattle or Jerry Maguire, or be the stars in stuck in space adventures like The Martian or Gravity.
There is nothing holding black actors back from those roles other than white writers and directors who are producing those films from their own perspective. That is not racist on their part, it is honest. I wouldn’t expect Christopher Nolan or Woody Allen to instinctively create black lead characters any more than I would expect Ava DuVernay or John Singleton to instinctively conjure up their main characters as white.
I believe Chris Rock understands this lack of presence behind the scenes, and that is why he hit the Oscar protesters as hard as the industry. It’s about time that prominent blacks in Hollywood spent less time crying about less visibility at award shows, while receiving fat checks, and more of their resources making sure black people get to be behind the scenes green-lighting each others projects.
There needs to be more people like Tyler Perry and Ice Cube who put their money where their mouth is. They may not be making Oscar caliber cinema, yet both have production companies. They give their own people a voice. These men are part of the solution. Complaining about not getting into Hollywood’s version of “Kappa” will only do so much for so long, and in about ten or twenty years another comedian will be making the same speech at the Academy Awards that Mr. Rock just gave. You don’t believe me? Below are some throwback clips of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy to refresh our collective memories.
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