Friday, February 22, 2013


This piece was brought on by recent articles/essays/opinions given by folks like Nelson George & Bell Hooks (click the names to go to each article).

With all the criticisms of recent films like; Beasts Of The Southern Wild, Django: Unchained & Flight (all understandable especially in the case of the first two) - I genuinely don’t think people are exploring cinema as much as they could these days. I know that sounds a little pompous & presumptuous (and it is) but it’s also true.
People  have enough time on their hands to write 2,000+ word essays, reviews & articles with a negative or disappointed tone (which I totally understand) yet seem to be unaware of the recent films & performances that are breaking stereotypes and they don’t seem to be putting forth the effort to focus on, write about or promote those few recent positive examples. Some of what Nelson George wrote about is nothing new. Just last year The Help was one of the most popular films in this country and other shit like The Green Mile & The Legend Of Bagger Vance exist. It’s no mystery that many non-black filmmakers don’t know how to portray complex black characters.

I still agree with most of what Nelson is saying. He brings up some amazing points about some recent films many black people are blindly in love with when they should be questioning certain aspects of those films.

Personally, I think a lot of Black movie watchers are too accepting and compliant when it comes to our place in film. All it takes is a prominent black actor winning an academy award or Morgan Freeman cast in a shiny supporting role and everything is fine. Everyone got so amped about Django to realize that the most interesting characters in that film - a film about slavery - were white. Let’s also not forgot that the delivery of a lot of the dialogue between the black characters in Django sounded like a cheap 70’s blaxploitation film instead of a western (just another example of Tarantino's childish facination with people of color).
We need extra critical opinions to counter all the other people out there who just blindly accept the sometimes basic and/or ridiculous representation of black people in film. Sometimes it feels like a losing battle which is why I’ve been trying to distance myself from most things race-related in film in order to enjoy the good cinema out there and not go crazy. But no matter how hard I try to ignore it I can’t resist giving my 2 cents. Again - Hooks & George make great points in their writings. Nelson George even went so far as to acknowledge films like Do The Right Thing & Daughters Of The Dust in his recent article but that was the late 80’s/early 90’s. How about some recognition for recent films? They do exist…kinda,

And on a sidenote, I'm getting a little frustrated with films like Do The Right Thing & Daughters Of The Dust being the only examples of important/great/classic works in the Black film canon. There's decades of films ranging from Story Of A Three Day Pass to Chameleon Street.

Anyway, part of the problem is that one or two films like Django comes out and for whatever reason all the problems concerning race are rested on the shoulders of those one or two films. A lot of energy is spent critiquing them and not much energy is left to focus on the few good films out there. Imagine the number of people that read what Nelson George or Bell Hooks have to say. They have some small power to promote good films. All they needed to do was mention the few good recent films out there that counter what they don't like and I'm certain people would have been inclined to explore more.
Candace Evonofski in George Washington (2000)
At the start of the last decade filmmakers like Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch & David Gordon Green crafted some of the most complex, conflicted & imperfect black characters in recent years with misunderstood masterpieces like Bamboozled, Ghost Dog & George Washington (I'm fully aware George Washington is considered a Terrence Malick knock-off and is also a black story told from the perspective of a young white filmmaker but in my opinion the story was handled with care and didnt fetishize the subjects). Bamboozled was filled with nothing but flawed & intriguing characters who wanted to do good but slipped up along the way. As the movie progressed we saw the dark side of some characters who seemed non-threatening at first. Pierre De La Croix (Damon Wayans) set out to prove how networks executives were wrong in their understanding of black characters on television but eventually turned in to one of them. At the start of the film Sloan (Jada Pinkett) was a pushover secretary who took orders from a bossy De La Croix but by the end of the film she kills him. Womack (Tommy Davidson) was only motivated by money and would essentially do anything to be on television (like performing in black face) but by the end of the film he realized he was wrong and couldn’t do it anymore (Davidson's performance is also one of the greatest supporting roles in the last 20 years). Mos Def's character, who was all afro centric & pro-black, ended up murdering a fellow black man (Savion Glover) at the end of the film.

Jarmusch's Ghost Dog is probably one of the best examples of a complex Black character even if it is starting to become a bit dated. Although he's a peaceful, meditative & almost teddy bear-like "protagonist", he's still a cold blooded assassin who kills without remorse (on some level he’s just as much of a bad guy as the people he kills). One minute he's befriending a young girl on a park bench and the next minute he's murdering a house full of people. Also, for someone who's clearly pro-black and full of racial pride (it’s subtle in the film, but he is), Ghost Dog takes orders from a white person who eventually kills him in the end.
Viola Davis in Solaris (2002)
Viola Davis, whose presence as a black woman in the world of science fiction alone is rare, gave an interesting performance in Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris (2002) as a scientist struggling with her sanity. A few years later Mos Def portrayed an overzealous police officer who crosses the line and essentially stalks a pedophile ex-convict in The Woodsman (2004). His character represents a question of morality & ethics. Sure he's going above and beyond his call of duty by checking in on Kevin Bacon's character because he's convinced he'll molest another child but he's also breaking the law by harassing Bacon's character as he has yet to actually do anything wrong since being released from prison. Mos Def's character is somewhat of a slimy snake but a good guy at the same time. What followed Mos Def's performance in The Woodsman was a bit of a "mini explosion"...

Between 2005 & 2006 we saw quite a few incredibly underrated performances from black actors that countered some of what George Nelson & Bell Hooks have issues with in the form of Forest Whitaker (Mary), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Children Of Men), Danso Gordon (Dear Wendy), Danny Glover & Issach DeBankole (Manderlay) and Anthony Mackie (Half Nelson). All of these actors played characters who were either "bad" but had some kind of charm or good quality or they teetered between being good & bad...
Anthony Mackie in Half Nelson (2006)
While all the actors listed above were excellent complicated, conflicted black characters, Anthony Mackie & Forest Whitaker were a cut above the rest yet were overshadowed by their co-stars (in Mackie's case) or by another film (The Last King Of Scotland came out the same year as Mary). I can’t praise Anthony Mackie's performance as Frank in Half Nelson enough. At the end of the day he was a "bad guy". He was a drug dealer and was responsible for the incarceration of the main character’s brother. He was a bit of a snake. But he was kind of a likeable snake. He had a genuine love for Andrea (Shareeka Epps) and tried to look out for her on some level. He had a charm that made you forget his bad side. Sure on some level he perpetuated the stereotype of the black drug dealer but what was kinda clever was that we never actually saw him dealing drugs or sitting around a bunch of uncut packs of heroine like typical characters found in films like Menace To Society or New Jack City.

As for Forest Whitaker’s performance in Mary, I don’t want to repeat myself too much so you can read about it in the first section of my review from a few months ago.
Charles Parnell in Pariah (2011)
Recent works like Ballast (which I wrote about on here a few months ago as well) gave a more realistic portrayal of depression among African Americans. It also paints characters that are overall good but have some dysfunctional qualities that they need to work on. 
But next Anthony Mackie in Half Nelson, no other recent portrayal of a complex, realistic, imperfect black character comes close to Charles Parnell in Pariah. A lot has been said about Adepero Oduye's breakout role as "Alike" but Charles Parnell's performance as Alike's father deserves just as much praise in my opinion. Here's a guy who's not only in denial about his daughter's sexuality, but is a bit homophobic, kind of an asshole, not around as much as a father should be, and clueless as to what’s going on in his daughter's life. But at the end of the day he is a good person and does care about his Alike. 
Normally it’s the mother character that's supposed to give the unconditional support. Pariah did the opposite. It’s the bible thumping mother who turns her back on Alike and Parnell is the supportive parent in the end. This performance counters all the negative criticism that the father character in Beasts Of The Southern Wild received. Pariah may not have gotten any academy award nominations like Beasts Of The Southern but both films are still on the same plateau (lets be honest). So for all the critics out there who placed everything concerning the portrayal of the "bad dysfunctional black father" on the shoulders of that one performance in Beasts Of The Southern Wild, maybe it would have helped if you mentioned that there was an equally popular film out there with a more realistic father character released less than a year ago.

At the end of the day I'm sick of people who clearly only watch 5-10 movies a year give their generalized opinion on cinema on a large platform.
Manderlay (2005)
Although Von Trier's Manderlay was a bit of a mess and kind of proves George's point about some white filmmakers (European white filmmaker in this case) not being able to understanding certain things concerning black people, Danny Glover's role as the deceptive house slave was far more interesting than Samuel L. Jackson in Django,

I know most of the examples I gave are independent or art house but the accessibility of indie & art house films (like Beasts Of The Southern Wild) is much easier to come by today then they were 20 years ago. Mainstream films & indie films are less segregated so the excuse that some of the films & performances I wrote about aren’t easy to come by doesn’t really fly anymore.

The films & characters that some African Americans act like don’t exist actually DO in fact exist on both an independent & mainstream level (yes, in a very small numbers, but they still exist). Instead of focusing so much on the negative, which does outweigh the positive, maybe we can focus on the few good examples of complex, unique, imperfect & interesting black characters as something to learn from. By only focusing on the negative (which is NEVER gonna go away) we're indirectly insulting & ignoring actors like Anthony Mackie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Glover, Forest Whitaker & more who gave great & unique performances that don’t come around too often. That was my main problem with Nelson George's article. Instead of just complaining, maybe people like George, Hooks and other prominent voices can give solutions along with their criticism. Maybe readers would be more inclined to discover or revisit certain films and possibly some young aspiring filmmakers (of any race) would have good references to build from. I’m not satisfied in any way with the overall portrayal of black people in film (probably never will be fully satisfied). Of course there needs to be better crafted black characters in film but let’s not act like they don’t exist at all.


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