The Scripts of Liberal Post-Racial Hollywood

As I was starting to write this blog post, in which I’ll humbly insert my two cents on the attention that is being brought to the lack of diversity in Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I came across a couple of tweets from the actor Jeffrey Wright, who was responding to comments by white actors unimpressed by the issues raised by people of color:

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OK, the second tweet I just found hilarious. But Wright gets at something important in the first one. When he says “How clear it all seems from there,” he’s pointing out that the structures of race and racism are reinforced and reified by identity and positionality, by what Fredric Jameson might call “the political unconscious,” or what we might call normativity, or just plain culture. What makes the discussion about Hollywood so potent is that the film industry then is both a site of cultural production and one where its effects are made intelligible. Thus understanding race and Hollywood requires moving beyond charges that academy voters are racist. It demands an attempt on our parts to think about form and narrative and history.

Harry Belafonte made it onto the motion picture screen in the early fifties and almost became an immediate star. He joined other black actors such Sidney Poitier and Juano Hernandez and Ruby Dee. There, he found himself repeatedly cast in the same kinds of films: those that celebrated “tolerance” in ways that legitimized legal and societal inequalities. Hollywood had found its “script” when it came to race. So films from Intruder in the Dust to Bright Road to Trial all adopted what Chimanda Adichie might call a “single story.”[1] By hewing to a homogeneity of form and narrative content, industry men were most certainly simply doing what appeared to be least risky from a financial point of view. But at the same time, they were helping to ensure social stasis. When Belafonte began his own film company, HarBel Productions, Belafonte sought to break the mold, not only by featuring more black leads, but also by upending narrative assumptions by deviating from Hollywood’s single script. [2]

I watched Spike Lee’s latest film Chi-Raq last weekend and have been thinking about it ever since. Yes it has a clunky West-Side-Story setup. And yes it veers dangerously close to respectability politics at times. But it’s also formally inventive and masterfully directed. It’s a lot of fun, and has an energy that never lets up. It tackles a serious matter with passion and creativity, and it refuses to offer easy answers or to let anyone off the hook. In short, it deviates from the script. There are number of good acting performances, and at the top, I’d argue, are Angela Bassett in a supporting role and the lead Teyonah Parris who is excellent, and probably deserved an Oscar nomination.

It’s clear to me now that Chi-Raq failed to impress critics and Academy voters because it breaks from the script. It upends every notion about what a prestigious film about civil rights and social justice should be. I haven’t read any analyses recently of Hollywood and race that reconcile The Butler and The Blind Side and Lincoln and whatever-that-Jackie-Robinson-movie-was and the what-looks-to-be-awful-Jesse-Owens-movie, but I think Richard Brody gets the closest in a blog post from last week titled “The Oscar Whiteness Machine.” He writes:

American society is falling into a pathological empathy gap, and I fear that the very notion that black lives matter will remain only a cry of despair until it reaches beyond the judicial system into artistic culture at large. It isn’t with well-meaning films that Hollywood can help; it’s with wide-ranging attention to good, boldly original, and challenging films—including ones that confront the unquestioned and enfeebled assumptions of artistic merit on which Hollywood itself currently runs.

Brody has been a longtime critic of the formal realism that Hollywood churns out. He champions filmmakers like Leos Carax and Wes Anderson, those who seek to challenge and move audiences not by making “prestige” or “message” pictures, which is what I think Brody means by “well-meaning films,” but by discomfiting and engaging them with provocations of form and narrative. And earlier in this very essay he celebrates Chi-Raq, calling it the best movie of 2015.

I don’t want to neglect to mention that access to capital is a real and material problem facing filmmakers of color at present. But I think what my argument comes down to is that we can’t talk about race and Hollywood without talking about the scripts that the film industry — indeed, our culture as a whole — adopt, produce, and circulate, those that reify structures and norms of all kinds, but in particular, those of liberal, bourgeois, and post-racial ways of seeing the world, perspectives such as those cited by Jeffrey Wright.

To recognize the power of normative scripts in terms of their content is to celebrate their disruption in all sorts of ways, for example, in the nihilism and black comedy of the very white (and very Jewish!) Coen Brothers. I will venture to say that this need not be a discussion solely about race. Yet as has always been the case in American history, provocations are most likely to come from the margins. This is true of both politics and culture; minorities and immigrants have led movements for social change at the same time they’ve reinvented and transformed forms in performing and literary arts. This is no coincidence. To say that Hollywood needs more people and perspectives of color is at its heart — at least ideally — a challenge to seek out new aesthetic and narrative forms, those that will challenge us to think outside of liberal and neoliberal epistemologies and assumptions about race and progress. I’m saying it first: that new Jesse Owens movie doesn’t count.

Notes:

[1] I promise this is the only time I will ever link to a TED talk.

[2] Judy Smith wrote the book on Belafonte: Judith E Smith, Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014).