African-Americans have certainly gone through a lot in the entertainment business, and some believe that they are finally respected. African-Americans have received prestigious awards, and there have been many memorable characters of color, but are things really okay?
I do not think things are as good as they should be. I have noticed an issue regarding proper recognition of African-Americans in the film industry–for a while. I have also noticed a deeply rooted problem in African-American cinema that I would like to discuss. Let me first take you back to when I began to notice these issues.
The Past & My Observations
I love films. One of the films I remember watching as a kid was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead . The film impacted me as much as any good film would. But one particular person stood out, and that was Duane Jones. He is the only black cast-member in Romero’s film, and he has a culturally significant role to play in this film, but I won’t talk about that. I want to talk about his acting. He was supremely good in his role, and I would wager better than his co-stars.
And who can forget Brock Peters in To Kill a Mockingbird ? I surely can’t. I was surprised that none of these actors received the recognition they deserved for their performances–at least not when the films came out.
As I grew, I began to see the importance of recognizing a performance or a film with the help of the Oscars. I respected the awards as I agreed with their decision, but that began to change slowly.
The Oscars: Undeserving & Insulting
I must admit that some of the awards given by the academy today are simply insulting. Most would agree that Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight was simply his best. But, that is the point, he was awarded because his work as the Joker was compared to earlier performances. The same cannot be said about some African-American actors, filmmakers, and films. Take, for example, Jennifer Hudson, who was awarded an Oscar for her debut film, Dreamgirls.
My thoughts on recent African-American films have been developing for some time, but what pushed me over the edge this time was learning that at least two Oscar judges voted on 12 Years a Slave without watching the film. How is that possible?
Here is where my opinion burrows through this piece because art is subjective. Perhaps the film did deserve the win. But I saw it, and in my opinion, it was a weak film. The lines were delivered as if they were part of a play, and scenes played longer than necessary. There is nothing wrong with lingered shots; to see a good example of this, all you have to do is watch a Stanley Kubrick film. But what was Steve McQueen trying to do in this film? If he was trying to evoke weight on the scene, intellectual potency, or whatever else he was trying to do–he failed.
In regards to this particular film, we can also look at Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar nomination, and win. I don’t understand why she was given an award? Just like Jennifer Hudson, she was awarded for a performance on her film debut (sort of, as she did star in a short). Both actresses did not have any work to be compared to, so how can we say that these are their best performances? There are many more examples, such as Gabourey Sidibe. I almost feel like the Academy of Motion Pictures is giving African-American actors, and filmmakers token awards, which is just sad.
Token awards are just one of my troubles with African-American films–the other is the issue of race.
Why is Race Such a Focal Point?
Successful black movies have a certain “blackness” to them–take for example the movies made by Tyler Perry. Is it wrong to explore race in a film? No, but should it be the focal point in numerous black films?
I hate to say this, but with filmmakers like Spike Lee or films like 12 Years a Slave, it seems as though there is a self-imposed/or underhandedly forced segregation of African-American filmmaking . It seems as though the difference between an African-American film, and a “film” is always shown.
There is one film in particular that has crossed that division. There are also African-Americans actors who strive to be remembered as simply artists.
Crossing the Color Line
One actor who has stopped being a “black” actor performing as a “black” character is Samuel L. Jackson. In Unbreakable, for example, he played a tragic and complicated man. In this film, his race did not play a role. He was simply an actor. Samuel L. Jackson’s characterizations have always impressed me. There are distinct differences between Jackson’s character in Unbreakable and his character in Jungle Fever, and let us not forget his character in Eve’s Bayou.
Oh, and don’t worry. I do know that Will Smith has crossed that line a thousand times over. Denzel Washington has crossed that line–at least every now and then because he does return to “black” roles from time to time. Others include Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman, Jeffrey Wright–among others.
I want to end with Eve’s Bayou, a movie that did not appear to be African-American themed–it simply aspired to be a powerful film. This film was severely overlooked. Kasi Lemmons ‘ work as a director is what black films should strive to be, yet they do not.
Successful African-American films seem to be “black” in nature because they talk about racism, slavery, or being black in general. It seems that the industry is bent on reminding black people that they are black. Is that necessary? White people are not making films to remind themselves that they are white, so why should any other race do that? Cinema knows no colors; it is pure cinema–just as African-American people are simply Americans.