Tag Archives: Hollywood

10 Things White Privilege Has Done for Me in 10 Days

WhitePrivilege

Some of the things I write most about are racism, sexism, misogynoir, and inequality in American media and pop culture, specifically the underrepresentation of women of color in the aforementioned. The reasons why are many and complicated. Almost all of my closest friendships throughout my life have been and continue to be with black and brown women, and I have been a sounding board for their pain and disenfranchisement since I was very young. I went to Columbia College Chicago, my friends struggled to find art (literature and film) where they were not only represented, but represented in nuanced and thoughtful ways that went deeper than tokenism. As a white woman, I often stood by feeling helpless, attempting to educate white people (family, classmates, Facebook) about white privilege and the consequences of underrepresentation, both for the self-esteem of children of color and for the perpetuation of white supremacist ideologies. I’m a writer, so awhile back I took to blogging as a means of communicating some of these ideas, hoping to use my white privilege to reach people and change some minds.

But something has been bugging me lately, and I haven’t been quite sure what it is, until last week when a blog I wrote about the movie Lucy reached something like 230k people and the emails started pouring in. Not all of it was “hate mail” (although some of it certainly was): a lot of it was people of color writing to say, “Cool blog. I’ve been saying this for years and no one listens.”

That’s when it hit me, and it should have hit me a lot sooner, but this white privilege shit can really make you an idiot sometimes: by talking about these issues and finding an audience, I am exercising white privilege, and while I do believe that writing about the lack of representation of people of color in Hollywood and media can have a positive effect, it occurred to me that I spend a lot of time talking about the problems with the white supremacist system we live in, but not as much time talking about the ways in which I operate in that system. I try to keep my privilege in check—I’m not always successful—but since last week, I have been actively monitoring my daily life and watching the ways in which that privilege has benefited me when it comes to the blogging and writing that I do. So here it is, 10 ways in 10 days. (Note: There are definitely more than 10, and they obviously extend beyond my writing. See Peggy MctIntosh’s work for a better and more extensive list.)

1. People read my blog about Lucy.

Re-stating this one for all the folks who skipped the intro. I wrote a blog about being tired of seeing white faces on the big screen, dissecting the movie Lucy, and (white) people actually read it. I am not saying anything new in this blog that people of color haven’t already said a thousand times, since before I was born. And this is not to say that white people never read work by non-white people. But the emails I received from white folks saying “Wow, you really opened my eyes!” is telling.

2. Even though I take issue with the underrepresentation of people of color, representation of myself is not a problem.

Despite my anger about Hollywood, media, and popular fiction (including young adult fiction) erasing black and brown protagonists, it doesn’t mean that I am not still represented everywhere. This is one I have found I need to be really careful with, as being a guest in a community isn’t the same as being part of that community. The fact that I write about underrepresentation of people of color doesn’t mean that I am underrepresented: I turn on the TV and I see white women with skin and hair like mine. I go the movie theater and I am bombarded with men and women who look like me, not relegated to the role of servant, slave, or token. (I’m looking at you, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and well, pretty much every movie ever. See this great infographic by Lee and Low Publishers about the diversity gap in sci-fi and fantasy films.)

3. Some white people think I’m brave and cool.

I have gotten emails from white folks telling me that they admire me, etc. and that what I’m doing is important. Although I appreciate these emails, I can’t help but wonder if they are sending the same emails to women like @TheTrudz and @FeministaJones, black women who daily do far more important work than I and receive 100x as much hate mail. They are brave and brilliant. And so, so cool.

4. White people don’t see me as an outsider.

Granted, I’ve gotten quite a bit of nasty email and I have not even bothered to read the comments on the last several blogs I’ve written. (Sorry, folks: self-care.) But my criticism of Hollywood (and white people) does not hurt me on a grand scale, nor does anyone assume I speak for the entire white race. No one is reading my blogs and saying, “She’s just angry because she’s a [insert marginalized group here]. That’s how they all think.” I’m given the benefit of validity because I’m white.

5. No one thinks I’m selfish.

When people of color write about issues (in whatever arena or industry) that affect people of color, they are often labeled as self-seeking or only interested in causes that affect them, rather than being seen as valid providers of lived experience. So while people may read my blogs and say I’m a dick or that I’m missing major aspects of the way racism operates—both of which might be true—it generally doesn’t include the idea that I’m only in it for myself.

6. I can make punctuation and grammatical mistakes without people chalking it up to my race.

Hey, I make typos. We all do. But when people who are reading work by people of color and looking for a reason to discredit them, punctuation and grammar are often attacked as a way of undermining the argument. I can spell “platypus” like “plattapuss,” and people will say, “She can’t spell platypus. She’s dumb.” Not, “She can’t spell platypus. She’s dumb because she’s [insert marginalized group here].”

7. I can reply angrily to nasty comments without people chalking it up to my race.

This is an extension of #6 but it deserves its own, because it’s something that I see women of color struggle with a lot, both in life and online/in social media. A troll leaves a nasty comment or sends a viciously racist tweet, and the woman in question will respond with something snappy, and the troll will then go on to say, “See, angry black woman. What do you expect?” I, on the other hand, can reply with all the nastiness in the world, and while my womanhood will likely be attacked (“bitch,” “cunt,” etc.), my race will not.

8. People buy my book.

I wrote a sci-fi novel for my two best friends (Hi Hope! Hi Tasha!) and so the heroine is a woman of color kicking ass in the apocalypse. People are buying it, excited about the prospect of a non-white character in this scenario. But many of them have never heard of Octavia Butler. Many of them have never heard of Nnedi Okorafor. My white privilege has made me and my work visible, and some folks wrongly think I am the first to do what I’ve done. I am not. I am not. Don’t get me wrong, I want people to buy my book. But what I cannot let happen is the erasure of women of color who have done what I’m doing first. (Note: this is not to say that I have sold even close to as many books as Nnedi Okorafor, and especially not Octavia Butler. But when we’re talking about literary traditions, the fact that some of my white readers have read my book but not theirs is telling and problematic.)

9. My writing isn’t limited by the market to tales of slavery and servitude.

Although a lot of my subject matter confronts issues of race, my white privilege is a bubble around me when it comes to my future in writing and publishing. Too many of my author and poet friends have expressed frustration about approaching agents and publishers with their books, only to be told, “Well, maybe if you centered the story around slavery or racism.” My writing isn’t required to focus on aspects of my race and cultural experience, where people of color are often asked to act as a spokesperson or historian with their work. I pitched a young adult fantasy series, and all I was told is “Cool.”

10. I can stop writing/thinking about racism and my life will not change much.

One of the things about white privilege is that it’s like a steam bath. If you get tired of fighting or exhausted from battling against racist institutions, you can sink down into the bath, relax, and let the steam cloud your vision. I can sit down and watch a movie with a whitewashed cast, turn off my brain, and enjoy images of myself reflected back to me. If I stopped thinking and writing about racism, my life wouldn’t change, aside from a few less emails in my inbox calling me a “race traitor bitch,” my life would continue unaffected. Such is white privilege. The ability to not think, to not be constantly aware of your race, its presence and absence.

This article itself is a manifestation of white privilege. I will post it online and people will probably read it, and this list will start all over again. But I think I need to keep talking about this stuff, because writing a blog about whiteness in Hollywood is not enough. Writing 100 blogs about whiteness in Hollywood is not enough. I hope this time that the emails I get from white readers are more than “You’re right, there is an overrepresentation of white people in Hollywood!” and venture into “You’re right, our own whiteness is at work in intricate ways.” Change starts at home, and the real place I live is in my body.

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Chicago Filmmakers Choose Substance Over Stereotypes

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When it comes to documenting the lives and stories of people of color, Hollywood is notorious for being more interested in the perpetuation of stereotypes than meaningful portrayals of marginalized communities with value and humanity. And often when those films are made and manage to find a spot in the mainstream, there exists another problem, this time on the audience’s end: studies show that Caucasians have what is called a racial empathy gap—they struggle to relate to the experiences (specifically pain) of people of color—and that extends into the way they respond to films featuring people of color. One example is last year’s Best Man Holiday, a film featuring an almost entirely black cast and exploring topics such as friendship, cancer, love, and faith. Despite the fact that its plot was based upon these universal themes, the film was referred to as “race-themed” by major media outlets such as USA Today, causing moviegoers of all colors to question whether mainstream media can only view non-white experiences as defined by their race, rather than by their humanity and the universal experiences that make us human.

Filmmakers who choose to focus on the stories of marginalized communities face unique challenges in finding funding and mainstream attention for their projects. Chicago filmmakers Cy Weisman and Josh MacNeal have certainly faced their share of those challenges. While discussing mainstream audiences’ reluctance to connect with plotlines that deviate from white, hetero-male perspectives, the brother and sister duo agree that the problem has multiple layers, including 1) mainstream audiences are unfamiliar with stories about black, brown or gay characters because they feel those narratives are specific to those communities; the only real exceptions are stories that have a white, male, or heterosexual character present in the lead i.e. The Kids Are Alright and Freedom Writers. And 2) films featuring black, brown, or gay characters that get mainstream attention pigeonhole those lives and experiences in a way that makes black, brown, and LGBT experience “niche,” as opposed to one part of a broad spectrum of humanity.

“Living in the inner city is only one aspect of the black experience,” says MacNeal. “And unfortunately audiences, especially youth, have become conditioned to the idea that these experiences shown on BET, for example, define black lives. The experiences being shown, however, are limited.”

MacNeal, who grew up in a suburb outside of Chicago, didn’t become conscious of racism and the way he was perceived as a black man until he was older, he says, and as a filmmaker has focused heavily on illustrating other aspects of black experience and identity than just the narrow version mainstream media chooses to portray. “It’s troubling,” says MacNeal, “that films that happen to feature black characters are automatically described as ‘black movies,’” rather than universal tales of friendship, adversity, love, etc.

“Movies about white people are never called ‘white stories,’” he says, and laments the fact that when “black stories” are told, they focus on drugs, violence, or thug life, usually without exploring the systems behind those realities.

On his part, his goal is to create work that reaches beyond the pigeonholed perspective and digs into the experiences that are universal, experienced by a variety of characters: black and white, straight and gay.

Weisman, on the other hand, who does the writing for the duo’s films, grew up on the South Side of Chicago and says her consciousness of racism—and also sexism—emerged at an early age, and recalls music as being one of the first mediums in which she really noticed negative messages by and about black and brown communities being perpetuated—usually by black and brown artists.

“White kids bought into ‘ratchet’ culture before it was ever called ratchet culture,” she says, “and the business of art and film has been built on those tropes ever since.” Interesting, she notes, that trends within black music have largely been dictated by the appropriative tastes of white suburban youth, and expresses disappointment in rap artists who no longer rap about lived experiences and life narratives, instead choosing to create music about wealth, possessions, and name brands—experiences that not even white suburban youth can relate to. “Most people aren’t rich,” she adds.

“It’s so rarely about art anymore,” she continues, “or being an artist. So many songs these rappers and singers perform are written by somebody else, and many movies being produced are remakes or drawn out sequels. The process of creating has been watered down.”

Not so with Weisman and MacNeal, who write and direct all of their films, and are currently seeking funding for their next major project, Urbs in Horto, a crime thriller set in Chicago. Urbs in Horto is focused around exactly the sort of exploration of identity that MacNeal and Weisman agree need fixing in filmmaking: three different stories about diverse characters of different backgrounds, and juxtaposing those characters’ lives—moving beyond the drug violence and white collar crime—in order to reveal the universal experiences.

Weisman criticizes the superficiality she sees in music and film today, which she insists are inextricably connected. That is why she uses them almost interchangeably in her critique of both mediums, and which is why their plans for Urbs in Horto involve working extensively with indie musicians and artists to create the soundtrack that they imagine for the film.

“Music is an integral part of any movie,” Weisman says, and expresses her excitement about the prospect of working with indie artists.

“That’s the great thing about film,” MacNeal says, echoing his sister’s excitement. “We’re tapping into Chicago’s creative community for actors and artists, but we’re also creating jobs in the city we grew up in for legal, real estate, food services, etc.”

“Anything we can do for Chicago is awesome,” Weisman adds.

And Chicago needs this discourse, they both agree: segregation, violence, and poverty are just a few of the challenges faced by Chicagoans, and that’s why the brother and sister team declare that audiences need stories that speak deeply to the community now more than ever.

The purpose of Urbs in Horto, MacNeal says, is to spark that conversation while still offering the action and exhilaration that comes from crime thrillers.

“Film is an art form, but primarily a form of entertainment,” says Weisman. “We need to encourage people to seek and expect more substance in what they consume.”

She insists that a film can be a thriller with action and excitement—and even violence—while still offering a depth of human experience. The task is changing audience’s standards for the films (and music) they consume. But how?

“Give other options,” MacNeal says simply.

He believes that audiences’ preference for stereotyped narratives is really just a case of consuming what’s available: eating junk food because it’s what’s in the fridge. His sister agrees, adding:

“If you give audiences other options—show them more multi-layered stories that feature marginalized peoples—then they will respond.” She describes what she perceived as a shift from positive to negative representations of minorities in the media—The Cosbys and The Martin Lawrence Show transitioned into countless scripted reality TV shows & uninspired sitcoms. She says emphatically,

“If we transitioned into this cultural low, then we can transition out of it.”

Her brother agrees. The key, he notes, is for directors and producers with a foot in the game already to support the next generation and have a dialogue about the importance of these depth-driven stories.

“That’s why I applaud the fashion industry, especially the CFDA, for how they mentor and propel their young designers. In film, Spike Lee is a great example of someone who’s doing it right,” MacNeal says. “He focuses on the issues and helps out who he can. He does a good job uplifting younger filmmakers.”

And the pair of them are young indeed. Weisman is 26 and MacNeal is a mere 20, one of the youngest filmmakers in the industry and already earning attention for his latest film, The 4th Meeting. The way they see it, making a difference is a matter of making the right film and making it reach a broad audience. And they might be right.

“There are people that need to hear these stories,” Weisman says, “and people who want better content. We’re not the only ones who feel this way.”

No, Ms. Weisman, you are not.

To contact or see their work, visit here: http://www.joshmacneal.com/urbsinhorto

Image credit: Rudy Lorejo Photography

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Single Moms Club: Tyler Perry Still Has A Problem with (Black) Women

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Firstly: there are spoilers below. I won’t apologize for them. I’m trying to save you from seeing this film, after all, so yes, there are spoilers.

Secondly: I wish Tyler Perry would stop making movies about women.

This morning I saw Perry’s newest mark-misser, Single Moms Club, in which five single mothers from different walks of life coincidentally cross paths and become friends. You can tell that Perry thinks he put a lot of thought into the “walks of life” aspect, as the women are ethnically and socioeconomically diverse. But their lives and personalities are straight out of the one-dimensional Woman Playbook that Perry has become known for: we have the sexified Latina knockout whose cleavage is displayed prominently in every scene of the film; we have the ambitious career woman who, because she’s an ambitious career woman, is sexless and bitter; the helpless, dainty white housewife who is so innocent that she doesn’t hear innuendo when her outdoorsy male neighbor hints at “erect wood;” the sassy black woman whose husband and older sons are in jail and slaps a lot of people throughout the film; and, finally, the pure, good black woman whose only fault is being too good of a mother.

The movie is tiresome for a number of reasons, which I will discuss here. Perry claims to have made this movie to support single moms and highlight their challenges, but the majority of the film is spent punishing them and highlighting their failures. Their children hate them—sometimes inexplicably—and blame them for everything. Before all the parents (including my mom) jump up and exclaim over the reality of kids blaming everything on their parents, let me say, “Sure.” Sure, kids blame their parents for stuff. But the blame that the women in this film receive isn’t the kind of blame that kids realistically level at their parents: “I didn’t get invited to a party because you won’t buy me cooler clothes!” or “You won’t let me have a cell phone! I hate you!” No, it’s adult-level blame, which merely happens to be delivered by children. In these blamey lines, I hear the societal judgment popularly aimed at single mothers, which Perry works in clumsily not because he wants to challenge these assertions, but because he agrees with them.

For example, Wendi McLendon-Covey’s character, Jan, the successful career woman, is told by her twelve-year old daughter: “I’m never going to be like you. I’m going to grow up and marry a man and have a family so I don’t have to do everything myself like you!” The daughter then proceeds to tell her mother that she’s ruining her child’s life because she chooses to continue to dedicate a lot of her time to the publishing company where she’s worked for seventeen years. Cocoa Brown’s character, Lytia, is told by her youngest son (after he shames her for her lack of education when she doesn’t know the answers to his homework) that he “isn’t his brothers or his dad” and she has to let him grow up and be a man. He’s also twelve-ish. Amy Smart’s character, Hillary, is told by her daughter to “Stop making everyone leave us.” Esperanza, played by Zulay Henao, is still being supported financially by her ex-husband but he dictates her life, and her daughter’s lack of respect—and disdain—for her is evident throughout the film. These are some of the things Perry charges single mothers with—being overprotective/smothering, having careers, being uneducated—and it is the children in the film who communicate most of these accusations, which is both annoying and disturbing.

Another thing I noticed was the number of “I’m sorry’s” that the single moms in the film delivered. I wish I had been keeping a tally. The women are always apologizing to their children, their lovers, and their bosses. Meanwhile, no one is apologizing to them: not for harm, disrespect, insult, or anything else. Especially the children. When the kids of these moms are caught spray-painting and smoking at school—the intersection of their lives that brings all the single moms together in the principal’s office—they don’t apologize. Each of the children are petulant, dismissive, rude, and bored by their mothers’ attempts to discipline/reason with them. Perry makes a point, I would say, of illustrating that the women are shoddy disciplinarians. That’s a man’s role, I think Perry would declare, which is evident in the way that all of these women’s lives are “fixed” by the end of the film.

What’s the fix? You guessed it. Men.

Each of the women gets a man, and by the end of the film they are miraculously happier, more stable, confident, and in healthier relationships with their children. Just like that. The magic is in men, Perry seems to think, as healthy single-parent families do not exist in this film. And of course Perry just had to cast himself as the cool, calm, collected, well-dressed man with car engine expertise who appears early in the movie just in the nick of time to save Nia Long’s character from car trouble. All of the single moms have some kind of drama with the fathers of their children: drug addict, jail, nasty divorce, controlling jerk, sperm donor. But Tyler Perry’s character? He’s a single dad, but he’s normal! “We’re two good people, just not good for each other” was the gist of the line. He sees his kids every weekend. Takes them fishing. What a great guy! Perry’s insistence on painting himself as the savior in his films is distracting and irritating. But that’s taking me away from my central problem with this film, and that’s Tyler Perry’s problem with black women.

It’s been said a thousand times, but I’m going to say it again because it’s still true: Tyler Perry has a problem with black women. It’s evident in Single Moms Club, in which we have two black women, different in age, appearance, and socioeconomic status. Perry displays them as two archetypal poles of black womanhood: the good woman, and the sassy Mammy.

Nia Long’s character May is a writer. She lives in a nice house. She has one child. She is educated. She has no bad habits. She is polite and funny and her language is precise and her clothes look like she shops at Macys. In a conversation with the other single moms about sex, she reveals that she has been celibate for a long time. Unlike the other women in the movie, she has no flaws: she is kind to everyone and loves her son so much that it makes her flighty and, once, when her son runs away, angry. But only because she was being such a good mom.

Then there is Cocoa Brown’s character, Lytia. She waits tables for a living. She lives in a ratty apartment complex. She has “more children than the Harlem Globetrotters,” according to McLendon-Covey’s character. She is “sassy.” She is loud. She is inappropriate. She is often angry/annoyed/confrontational. She is gruff. The white single moms tell her how “strong” she is. (Sigh.) She slaps people and says “girl” a lot. She wears leopard print pants and other bright colors. She talks freely about sex in the conversations with the other single moms.

In these two women, Perry reveals to us his feelings about black women. There are Mays, classy, sexually pure women with no bad habits, who Tyler Perry’s character, TK, obviously wins by the end of the movie, and who exist to remind us of the virtuous woman we should all strive to be. And then there are Lytias, who Perry casts as the comical foil to May’s perfection: the brunt of all jokes, the classless train-wreck no one wants to be. In fact, much of the movie is spend mocking Lytia. And when I say much, I mean it. Barely a scene passed where some joke at Lytia’s expense wasn’t being flung into the dialogue.

The scene where Lytia’s son shames her for her lack of education was not a poignant moment meant to shed light on the plight of women who have children at sixteen, as was the case with Lytia. It was a jab, written not as a “deep moment” but as a deliberate gag. The line about “more children than the Harlem Globetrotters” was delivered by McLendon-Covey’s character. In fact, most of the racist, misogynoirist lines were: “Why did you name your child after a Jewish holiday?” McLendon-Covey asks. Lytia’s daughter’s name was Rashawna. Ha ha. Single black moms can’t help their twelve-year old sons with their homework because they had to drop out of school! Tee hee. Black single moms have a bunch of kids! Kee kee. Black single moms name their kids the darndest things! Often, it seems that Perry is hiding his own disdain of Lytia behind McLendon-Covey’s character. She delivers all of the black-mom-disparaging jokes, but I’m not fooled: those are Perry’s jokes. They’re in the film, after all—his film—so he must think they’re funny. Black single mothers are a joke to him, it seems, worthy of little respect and standing in their own way. Unless you’re a black single mom like Nia Long, Perry’s logic goes: the ideal woman. Celibate. Sweet. Sophisticated. There is little room for humanity or flaws on Perry’s scale of black womanhood.

But there’s more. The most telling scene is when Lytia is the first to arrive at Hillary’s home for a single moms meeting. Hillary, the helpless white housewife who has had a maid for as long as she’s been married, is now, after the divorce, “without help.” Help with a capital H. She is completely clueless about how to care for her own children: her infant sits crying in the highchair and her young son spins aimlessly in the kitchen—I’m not really sure what he was doing, actually. But have no fear—Lytia is here! Perry’s casting incarnation of the sassy black Mammy character reveals itself in full force as Lytia swoops in, scoops up the baby, stops its crying, and tames the other boy with a whisk of her hand. “Let me ask you something,” Hillary says to Lytia: “How do you be a single mom?”

Because what do white women know about being a single mom? She asks Lytia because as a black woman, she must be the expert, right? Hillary is a divorcee, and the other white woman in the film is single by choice with her decision to go with a sperm donor. Only black women end up as single moms that are unwed and unsupported, Perry seems to say. “You better not ask me to be your maid!” Lytia quips, and it’s supposed to be funny. But it’s not. It’s too late for her character to reject the role of Mammy with this line: Tyler Perry already prescribed it to her.

One of the most disturbing scenes is one with Lytia and Terry Crews’s character. Crews is his typical clownish self, courting Lytia at the diner where she works as a waitress. The very first words she says to him are, “I don’t like you!” And she doesn’t. Never is there flirtation in her meanness to him. She rejects and dismisses him regularly. Once, she missed the bus and was late getting her children to school, so she accepted a ride from him, but made it clear that it did not mean she was interested. Eventually, at the urging of the single moms, she allows him to accompany her to the movies in a group outing, making it clear that it’s not a date, and even flirting with another man in Crews’s presence. However, at the end of the evening, Crews forcefully kisses her. When I say forcefully, I mean he grabs her, and smashes his face into her face. She shoves him off, slamming him into his truck. She says, “I am a woman, okay!” meaning that she won’t be treated that way. Crews’s character then grabs her, slams her against his truck, and kisses her again. (And when I say “slam,” I mean slam. The violence is intended to be comical—Lytia is “so strong”—but it’s disturbing.) Crews comes up from the kiss and Lytia looks dazed, still pushing him off. He says, “And I’m a man, okay!” Meaning…what? That when a man wants to kiss a woman, he will? Even when she shoves him off? That when a man wants to kiss a woman, he will, because she doesn’t know what she wants until he shows her? Eventually Lytia gives in and kisses him back, forcefully, and they take turns slamming each other against the truck while making out. When they finish, Crews says, “When I see you tomorrow, you better be nice to me!” and Lytia says in a soft voice, “Okay baby.” In other words…she submits: Tyler Perry uses the violence of Crews’s character to “tame” Lytia. Tyler Perry’s interpretation of a woman like Lytia is that she not only doesn’t want tenderness, but isn’t capable of understanding it either. Affection and violence go hand in hand for Lytia, and in a film that is supposedly about self-growth and soul-searching, Lytia isn’t allowed to grow beyond that prescription.

Tyler Perry’s vision of black women is not only woefully narrow, but abusive. In a film he claims celebrates the single mother, I see nothing but judgment, blame, and shallow misogyny. The only way a single mom can be happy, Perry tells us, is by ceasing to be a single mom: he creates “the single mom’s club,” and by the end of the movie, destroys it. There is no single mom’s club. There is only a club, he thinks, for bitter, lonely, angry women—and occasionally the perfect princess who just hasn’t met the right man (himself) yet—and that’s not a club at all. My mother told me once “If someone keeps showing you who they are, eventually you need to just believe them.” Today I sat in a theater of black women and throughout the film, the audience was mostly silent, even as everyone filed out of the room. Mr. Perry, you keep showing us who you are. Are you surprised that we believe you?

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Hollywood and the Shaping of Perceptions of Racism

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It is a known fact that the media we consume shapes our perception of the world: after all, media has economic, political, social and aesthetic purposes. Martin Gilens wrote a book some time ago, for example: Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty, which explores the role of media in the shaping of myth and misconception of welfare policy. And what about the shaping of misconception of racism? We all know Fox News has a nice handle on that, as far as “news” media goes. But what about pop culture? Hollywood? How do the films we flock to theaters to see shape our world? I can think of more than a few examples, as I’m sure any thinking person can. But one in particular comes to mind: films about slavery and the way they shape perceptions of racism in white audiences. Namely the idea that racism is a thing of the past and only existed on Southern plantations a long, long time ago.

Since the release of 12 Years a Slave I’ve had many conversations about films that are about slavery. The conversations that stand out to me the most are the ones where the consensus is, “Why do all the films in Hollywood that feature black people have to be about slavery?” and my own undying question about the underrepresentation of black people in Hollywood, “Why does a film need to be about the subjugation of black people in order for it to have more than a one solitary black character?” And also, “Why did so many more white people go to see 12 Years than Best Man Holiday?”

While films like 12 Years a Slave are extremely important in understanding the past and the effect it has on the present, they have an interesting effect on white audiences whose ideas of racism are of the “post-racial” or “colorblind” variety: the effect is almost one of relief. When I left the theater of 12 Years a Slave, the kind of words I heard from the lips of the other white people leaving were things like, “God, it was just so bad back then.” And even things like, “Those people were horrible. Fuck those slave owners.” So, in a sense, relief. “It was so bad back then” translates as “Things are so much better now,” and “Those people were horrible” translates as “We don’t do that anymore.”

And they’re right. Things are better now. White people don’t own slaves in the United States. But this cousin of relief presents, to me, a sort of cognitive dissonance about the reality of racism in America. When white audiences see movies like The Help and The Butler and 12 Years a Slave—and indeed, when the vast majority of mainstream films featuring black people are movies like The Help and The Butler and 12 Years a Slave—and not films like Best Man Holiday, their perception of racism (and even blackness) is shaped in a way that lacks a wider context and an awareness of present-day racism. This is what racism looks like, white audiences come to believe: chains and lynchings and the American South. And while they’re not wrong, that understanding is stunted.

In a way, films like 12 Years a Slave, even with its horror and brutality, serve as a comfort to white people seeking to feel a distance between the monster that is racism and the life they lead in 2013. “Progress!” we congratulate ourselves, proud that America has overcome its brutishly violent history. “We used to be horrible people that owned other human beings and now we don’t! We’re a post-racial society now! Go America!” But if we’re talking about reality, the reality of racism in 2013, a reality that generally doesn’t make it to the silver screen, we have to talk about things like environmental racism and structural racism in our systems of education, employment, criminal justice, and more. We have to talk about Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander and we have to talk about Oscar Grant and Renisha McBride. We have to talk about what racism looks like now and not let ourselves off the hook with the tired mantra of “But we’ve come so far!”

12 Years a Slave was an incredible film. I think everyone should see it. But I encourage people with skin like mine to not watch it with the idea that the work is done. The fact that white people no longer legally own, rape, and murder black bodies is not a sign of progress we should congratulate ourselves on: our standards should be higher. Widen your scope. Racism looks like this. And this. And this. And this. Don’t allow Hollywood’s narrow line of vision to trick you into believing that violent racism is just something that happened in the 1800’s and looks like the horrific lava of lashes on a black human being’s back while everyone stands around wearing corsets and smoking pipes. It looks like Charlotte police shooting Jonathan Ferrell to death after he was in a car accident and asked for help. It looks like Riley Incognito calling Warring Sapp the N-word. It looks like Trayon Christian being arrested for buying a belt at Barney’s because the NYPD didn’t think he could afford it on his own. It looks like celebrities and well-known magazines showcasing blackface in 2013 and every year before that.

In a nation where so many white people have their “one black friend” and little personal contact with people who don’t look like them—yes, segregation is still “a thing:” New York City had the same level of racial segregation in 2012 as it did in 1910.—it is easy for these audiences to consume movies like The Help and 12 Years (especially given the fact that there are so few alternatives when it comes to mainstream movies featuring black people and their lives) and think “This was racism. I don’t know any black people here in 2013, but I do know that slavery isn’t around anymore. So that’s that!” And—slam—close the book. But that’s not all. That’s not the end, fellow white folks. Why did you watch The Help but not Do the Right Thing? Why 12 Years a Slave and not Boyz in the Hood? Is it because one talks about racism in the past where you’re comfortable with it, and the other talks about issues affecting black people right here and right now? Spoiler alert: they’re the same thing. The racism you see in 12 Years has mutated and transformed and grown tentacles and developed camouflage, but it’s right here with us. Right here with you. We’d be foolish to ignore it; foolish to watch the story of Solomon Northup and think that his suffering was not inherited, that the ugliness of the system that enslaved him doesn’t still linger.

I wonder if white America as a whole will ever be able to empathize with present-day struggle. Looking back with sympathy and indignation is easier than looking around, isn’t it? I just wonder what are we looking toward.

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Catching Fire and the Limits of White Imagination

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After watching Hunger Games: Catching Fire this weekend, I was pleased to see that Beetee, the brilliant inventor and electric genius from District 3, was played by none other than Jeffrey Wright. I was also pleased that I didn’t hear any muttering in the theater about the fact that Beetee was black. We all remember the disgusting racist backlash when the first installment of the film cast Amandla Stenberg, a young black actress, as Rue (despite the fact that Rue was indeed black in the book). But my pleasure didn’t last long. The next day on the bus, I overheard a young woman and her friends—who had just come from the film, apparently—exchanging their thoughts about what they had just seen, and the young woman said, “I thought it was awesome. Well, except for Beetee. Why the f*ck did they make him black? Beetee wasn’t black.”

Folks. Let me tell you something. You might want to sit down, because this could be a shocker for you. Here it is. Are you ready?

The Hunger Games is not real. (gasp) I know. Stunning. This dystopian world in which children are sent into an arena to fight to the death is, in fact, fictional, imaginary, fantastical. And you know what that means. That means that the appearances of the characters therein are also not real. That is, they are subject to the imagination of the reader. Katniss is described as “olive-skinned,” which can be interpreted semi-loosely, but Beetee? He was merely described as having “ashen skin” and black hair. Lots to play with there. Right? It’s a book. He looks different to all of us in our heads.

But that’s not what this is really about, is it? After hearing this young woman’s comment, I jumped on Twitter and searched mentions of Beetee’s name. I came across the usual racist vitriol, but there was the occasional tweet that looked like this:

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I saw more of the same in comment sections on various articles around the web—Never read the comment sections, guys. Really.—and it has led me to believe that the problem isn’t that Hunger Games purists who believe that Beetee looked a certain way were disappointed that the film strayed from that representation, it’s that white audiences in America are afflicted with a certain limitation of the imagination when it comes to the representation of characters they are fond of. Something that struck me as very interesting was the following tweet:

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It is difficult to imagine benevolent geniuses as black, it seems, but quite easy to imagine villains as black. This is telling, isn’t it? Telling that the white imagination, when provided in a book with descriptions of a “good guy”—intelligent, valuable, kind, even gentle—imagines that character as white (like themselves) but when provided with descriptions of a villain, a killer, a dangerous maniac…imagines that character as a black man. Morgan Freeman. Who has overwhelmingly portrayed “good” characters in his career as an actor. He even played God once, if memory serves. What is it, then, that causes the white imagination to provide his face as a stand-in for what they imagine as a ruthless child killer in a fictional world?

His blackness. And only that.

As white people, we are used to representations of ourselves crowding the covers of magazines, crowning the posters of newly released films. The good guys are white, we have learned, after eons of our faces being plastered under cowboy hats and in impeccable Bond suits. White men are Superman, we have learned. White men are Ethan Hunt and Neo and white men are hobbits. Bad men, we have learned, are black. They’re gang bangers and thugs and talk loud and sometimes deliver funny lines where we laugh at their Otherness. Black men aren’t heroes, we learn. Our imagination and subconscious are so saturated with white supremacist notions of goodness, beauty, and heroism, that when confronted head-on with an image of a black man who is brilliant and kind and normal and who saves the day, we transform into robotic versions of ourselves: Does…not…compute. Hero…must be…white. It’s this line of thinking that turned Disney’s Princess Tiana into an animal for 95% of the movie. The collective white imagination had difficulty imagining a black girl as a princess…and so she became a frog.

This isn’t about staying true to the book. Suzanne Collins was vague (I believe purposefully so) with the descriptions of her characters, so when we say “I didn’t picture Rue as black,” or “No, Beetee was white,” it is not the text that is leading us. We’re following a different illogical path of logic, one in which everything we believe about ourselves as white heroes and heroines is being contradicted. The notions taught by patriarchy and white supremacy do not only effect our day-to-day encounters in reality; they shape our imaginations and our expectations, our intangible realities.

But unlike the tributes who enter the arena in The Hunger Games, we have a choice. We can choose. We can choose to step aside on what we’ve been taught is our pedestal of greatness and acknowledge that there is room for more. We can choose to transform our ideas of heroes and who can be good, and kind, and brave. The alternative is bleak. If even our imaginations are irrevocably bound to what patriarchal and white supremacist doctrines prescribe, then we’re in trouble. The moment we kill the thing in us that imagines change and difference and growth is the moment we kill any hope of a better world. The world in The Hunger Games may not be “better,” but how much worse is it really when it can imagine a genius hero who is black…and we can’t?

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Why The Best Man Holiday Isn’t “Race-Themed”

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I wasn’t even going to blog about The Best Man Holiday. I was going to go in and watch the glorious reunion of Nia Long, Taye Diggs and company and just enjoy it. But after what USAToday tweeted about the film’s success at the box office, I realized I had to. Here’s the tweet in case you missed it:

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Race-themed. When I think of race as a theme in film, I think of it as the way theme is defined. Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines it.

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“The main subject that is being discussed in a piece of writing, a movie, etc.” Themes are what a film is about. If a film is race-themed, then it is about race. So imagine my surprise when I saw USAToday describe The Best Man Holiday as race-themed. Forget “race-themed”: I struggle to see how the film is about race at all.

Like its predecessor, Holiday focuses on the intertwining lives of  a group of men and women: authors, football players, mothers, fathers. It’s about the bond of friendship and the tests of its strength. Financial worry. Parenthood. Marriage. Grief. Forgiveness. But what exactly does race have to do with grief aside from the fact that, in this instance, the people struggling with grief are black?

Well, nothing.

What USAToday’s tweet reveals is that white audiences are unable to see black people as beings separate from their blackness. A movie featuring a black cast surely can’t be about universal themes that any audience can relate to, this line of thinking goes: the subject matter must be about mysterious black things that only black viewers can comprehend; it must be black inside-jokes; black references; black experiences. Black movies are for black people—not for everyone. Black people are defined by their blackness and so are their films, and USAToday’s tweet tells us that explicitly.

Every day we are bombarded with movies and television shows in which white faces, white families, white marriages are plugged as the “default” experience…and no one would say that these films are about race. No one would say, “Oh, that’s an all-white cast. It must be about what it means to be white in America.” No one. Black audiences go see these films, despite their almost entirely white casts, because if black audiences only went to see films in which the cast looked like them, they’d see maybe five movies a year in mainstream theaters. Tops. Why not the same for white folks? Why was I the only white person in the theater for Best Man Holiday today? What is it about a black cast that is off-putting to white audiences? Do we really need to see ourselves reflected endlessly back at us to enjoy a film? Why did white audiences flock to see Django and 12 Years but not Holiday? Why can you relate more to a film about chattel slavery than you can about nine affluent people and their families? These are questions that need answers.

This is not to say that films with black casts are never race-themed. Of course they are. If a film is about race, then it’s about race. But Best Man Holiday is not. A film’s themes do not become about race simply because its cast is not white. Not only does this notion bind black actors to their blackness, it Others non-white experiences, casting white films as default, and everything else as “everything else.” Films with white casts are then provided with the benefit of universality: free to be any genre, take on any subject matter or theme. A film with a black cast, no matter its story, is “race-themed,” tied to the race of its actors simply by virtue of their blackness.

If we describe Best Man Holiday as “race-themed” we must ask ourselves the following questions.

Is football race-themed?

Is pregnancy race-themed?

Is marriage race-themed?

Is trust?

Is cancer?

Is friendship?

Is God?

Because these are the things that Holiday is truly about. Universal lessons of brotherhood and faith, the tests of love and the frailty of the human heart: these things are no more about race than love itself. To say this film is about race tells black actors—and black audiences—that no matter their experiences, their heartbreaks, their vows, their tribulations…at the end of the day, before they are human, they are black. This violent oversimplification of black roles not only dehumanizes black lives, but it perpetuates in white people the idea of their Defaultness and the lie that all experiences are relatable through whiteness.

We’ve all had our hearts broken. We’ve all been in love. We’ve all had a best friend at some point in their lives. How stunted is your imagination, how crippled is your notion of life, if the people on screen with broken hearts, the people in love, the people mending their friendships, have to look like you in order for you to feel a connection with their humanity?

Oh, and by the way…in case you didn’t know…

This blog actually is race-themed.

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Brainless Bits of Misogynist Flotsam in Star Trek: Into Darkness

ImageSaw Star Trek: Into Darkness this weekend. Great movie except two little bitty scenes, which I will discuss here.

Scene 1: The first came early in the movie. Chris Pine (Captain Kirk) is in bed with a ridiculously beautiful woman. His phone rings, and he sits up. So does the beautiful woman. There’s a lump in the bed. When he reaches for the phone, the other lump turns out to be—surprise surprise!—another beautiful woman in bed with him.

Scene 2: Later, Alice Eve (Carol Marcus) is explaining something to Captain Kirk in weapons jargon. She says, “Turn around,” and he does, while she goes on explaining.  He’s listening (barely) but turns around to peek anyway, giving us a look of what we knew we’d see: Carol in her sexy lingerie in a sort of bizarrely posed position.

My beef? You know what it is.

How did either of these scenes add anything—anything at all—to the film?

Both scenes occupied mere seconds of the film. Kirk sitting up in bed alone would have changed nothing. Alice Eve being fully clothed during the second scene would have changed nothing. The film gained nothing by adding these things, and thus would have lost nothing by removing them.

The predictable argument that Star Trek is a “guy’s movie” and that guys expect to see some T&A when they go to the theater is an outdated one, I’d say. Most of the self-proclaimed “geeks” that I’ve spoken to regard this kind of random sexual insertion as distracting and taking away from the film. Also, the idea that a male protagonist has to be a womanizing rebel is played out. Yawn. Snoozeville. “Oh, the second lump is…another chick! Threesome?! Score! I’ve never seen that in a movie before!” …..said no one ever in their life.

To me it seems that directors like J.J. Abrams—and Hollywood itself—are a little behind in the times. Apparently no one told them that “chicks dig” nerd stuff too and that they are alienating a huge audience when they choose to include brainless bits of misogynist flotsam in their otherwise decent movies.

Hollywood, you need to do three things.

1) Stop alienating your female audience. We exist, we like space and aliens…and we have money.

2) Give your male audience a little credit. They don’t need boobs! boobs! boobs! boobs! to enjoy your film.

3) Be good filmmakers. If a scene contributes nothing, cut it. Period. Stop pandering to imaginary penises.

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Black Children and After Earth

ImageI saw After Earth yesterday. In an interview, Will Smith acknowledged that it was very much a metaphor for the way he felt about raising a son in Hollywood, sending him out into a vicious world to fend for himself. After seeing the film, I couldn’t help but also see it as a metaphor for raising a black child in America.

In the movie, Will Smith’s character warns his son as he sends him on a mission that will risk his child’s life: “Everything on Earth has evolved to kill human beings.” Yes, and the same could be said about institutions in America that more and more are revealed to be designed to destroy black children. The Ursa—the alien weapon-creature that the humans dread most in After Earth—was bred to destroy humans. The prison pipeline and the War on Drugs were designed with a similar goal when it comes to black humans. As George Zimmerman’s trial looms near, we are reminded—did we ever forget?—that being black in America is a risk. Like Jaden Smith on the terrifying future planet, black children are in constant danger in a hostile world.

As I left the theater for the film, my boyfriend and I witnessed a man roll his eyes and say to his friend, “Will Smith only made that movie for his son.”

To that I say, “So?” There is a startling lack of black faces in American film—it seems one must be a black father for a movie to be made in which black sons (and daughters) can see themselves represented onscreen…especially if the roles are to reflect something other than stereotypical caricatures about blackness and its meaning. And more so…what is so wrong about a man with the ability and resources to do so making a film that will uplift his own child? White folks do it all the time. If a black father wants to use his clout to make a movie that represents the tragically unrepresented–especially in a film as fresh as After Earth–why the hell not?

So I say bring it on, Will Smith. Bring us After Earth. Bring us Annie. I am so here for that.

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