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Hollywood, the Oscars and Race

It really isn’t fair that every film involving any ethnic group besides white people is controversial at the outset. Even before the film is seen it’s controversial — just for including Black or Asian or Hispanic characters, or independent strong-willed women, it’s controversial. Our need to redefine identity through American film is vital to progress — but it can also choke the life out of artistic expression, particularly when the complaints are overblown. Kneejerk misplaced PC concerns about films like Cloud Atlas, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and now, Lincoln, will do more harm than good as they continue to foster the notion that no film can ever be “right” enough. The pressure of hypersensitive scrutiny has all but shut out serious treatment of these groups from mainstream Hollywood films and, thus, the Oscars, leaving only films by and about the white community to flourish because they are unassailable.

The early attacks (trivial, for the most part) on Cloud Atlas for its decision to have some white actors play Asian characters — black actors played white characters, and Asian actors played Latino characters too. All kinds of gloppy makeup was applied to change the surface appearance of various characters throughout the film to drive home the film’s theme — that “all boundaries are conventions.” It’s a beautiful, important film that is rough around the edges, large and lumbering but it says more about the universal human condition than any other film this year. It also features the only Korean actress in a strong leading role, Doona Bae, in any Hollywood movie this year, perhaps in the last ten (taking a wild guess, not researched) [Note: Lee Byung-hun played Storm Shadow in G.I. Joe.]

Cloud Atlas’ diversity is liberating, something I’ve never seen in a mainstream Hollywood film. And yet… it was criticized for having a white actor put on Asian makeup because of the uncomfortable history of more cruder incidents in the past — notably Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But is it really so hard to break free from those stiff-neck notions to allow for something wonderfully inventive like this?

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film told in poetic verse, with a young black actress in the lead. A beautiful, deeply moving exceptional work of art — made on a shoestring budget with performers discovered outside the actors union, so it’s ineligible for SAG nominations — and yet, even still, despite taking the major artistic risk of making a film with two strong black actors in the leading roles, Benh Zeitlan and Luci Alibar are smacked down first by the liberal journalists and bloggers on the left saying it’s a “republican fantasy,” and then by some critics saying it’s “poverty porn” and exploitative. Really? It’s a work of art. But since a few people somehow confuse it with public policy, stamp it out, get rid of it, because it’s not “right” enough?

In the op-ed published in the Times on November 12, 2012, Kate Masur, writes passionately about “passive” black characters in Lincoln. I was taken aback by this criticism, given how many times Spielberg has been criticized by the black community for even attempting to tell stories about stronger black characters. When Spielberg made The Color Purple he created a firestorm, one that continues to smoulder today: the idea that white directors should not be telling the stories of black people. In the thirteen years I’ve been covering the Oscar race I have paid close attention and observed the evolution of this criticism.

The Color Purple was nominated for 11 Oscars. The only Oscar it wasn’t nominated for? Best Director. Was this to do with lingering resentments that a white director would dare to tell this beloved story? Out of Africa, a more traditional white-centric narrative ended up winning instead. Despite the many acting nominations for the Color Purple not a single actor won. Instead, only white actors won the acting Oscars that year. Did it make the Hollywood community of black actors feel better that the film suffered so many losses? Did it make white people feel better because their guilt could be put off for a few more decades?

In 1986, one black actor was nominated for Round Midnight, Dexter Gordon. No films by or about African Americans entered the Oscar race that year.

In 1987, Denzel Washington was nominated for Cry Freedom but he lost to Sean Connery for The Untouchables.

In 1988, another film by a white director would enter the Best Picture race – Mississippi Burning. It is a wonderful movie, but criticized, once again, as Masur is doing here, with its portrayal of passive black characters. There are a variety of characters in Mississippi Burning, just as there are in Lincoln. The screenplay can’t or won’t rewrite our shameful past in a way that makes us feel better, however. Nor does the black community particularly want to be saddled with that history forever. Many would rather us to get over it and start telling more modern stories.

In 1989, Spike Lee emerged as a prominent black filmmaker. Do the Right Thing was a critical and box office success. Lee himself was a bit of a quirky upstart but there is no question that his film had an impact. Everyone was talking about Do the Right Thing except the Motion Picture Academy. Do the Right Thing received two Oscar nominations, one for one of the few prominent white actors, Danny Aiello, and one for Screenplay for Lee.  That same year Glory entered the race with five nominations, won three, including one for Supporting Actor for Denzel Washington but not Best Picture. Sure, white director, but it tells a great and true story about the Massachusetts 54th regiment. Powerful and strong performances by the predominantly black cast, and it deals with racism head on.   To add insult to injury, one of the worst films about a passive black character in the history of American film, Driving Miss Daisy, won Best Picture. It remains the only film to win Best Picture without its director having been nominated.   It was told by a white filmmaker from a white character’s point of view.

The controversy over Spike Lee caused a big enough earthquake that Kim Basinger made a point of humiliating the voters when she came on stage to present an award. Onstage she told the world, “The best film of the year is not even nominated, and it’s Do the Right Thing.” But that didn’t change things for black filmmakers. Spike Lee was eventually labeled the “angry black man” and critics and the Academy have largely turned away from him. He even made a return with Inside Man, a box office and critical success. It was ignored by the Academy. Whether Lee’s irritation at the white-dominated film industry came first, or whether his mere presence was such a threat that it caused liberal white Hollywood to back away slowly — move along, nothing to see here — the end result was a divorce between mainstream white Hollywood, the Oscars and Spike Lee.

The following year. Whoopi Goldberg would win the Oscar for Supporting Actress in Ghost, a film mostly about white characters. In 1993 Steven Spielberg would finally win big at the Oscars, but for Schindler’s List. Being a Jew, no one could accuse him of making a film about a culture to which he didn’t belong.

In 1994, another white director who feels comfortable telling black stories burst onto the scene. Quentin Tarantino featured a black actor, Samuel Jackson, in a co-lead, though he would be relegated to a supporting nomination.

No other film about black characters would land in the Best Picture race until Taylor Hackford, another white director, made Ray, about Ray Charles. Jamie Foxx ended up winning Best Actor, though Best Picture went to Million Dollar Baby instead.

During those years, Hollywood films that the Academy ignored for Best Picture included: What’s Love Got to Do with It (Brian Gibson), Ghosts of Mississippi (Rob Reiner), The Hurricane (Norman Jewison), Ali (Michael Man), Monster’s Ball (Marc Forster), Hustle & Flow (Craig Brewer), and Dreamgirls (Bill Condon).

Of the three films that have since been nominated for Best Picture, The Help and The Blind Side were both roundly criticized for their treatment of black characters. One deservedly, the other not so deservedly. Only one film since 1993 featuring all black characters has been nominated, and that was Precious, by Lee Daniels in 2010. It was the first time any film directed by a black director had been nominated for Best Picture, and only the second time a black director was nominated. When its writer, Geoffrey Fletcher won he became the first African American screenwriter to win. John Singleton was the first black director to get a nomination but no corresponding Best Picture nomination.

Spike Lee made Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X, Crooklyn, He Got Game, and Jungle Fever — all vital and interesting films, if sometimes a bit misogynistic, about the black community AND the white community from a black storyteller’s perspective. But he would only receive his second Oscar nomination in the documentary category for 4 Little Girls. Spike Lee, arguably the most influential and important African American filmmaker has received a total of two Oscar nominations.

John Singleton would never earn another Oscar nomination after Boyz in the Hood in 1992, and no film he made since would ever garner any acclaim from either the critics or the Academy, including Poetic Justice, Rosewood, or Baby Boy.

Denzel Washington would venture out into directing with Antwone Fisher and The Great Debaters. Both the kind of film Oscar voters ordinarily go for; both shut out of the Oscars. The black community continually criticizes the Oscars for making films about black characters suspected to be stereotypes or portrayed in a negative light — the claim has made that black characters made trashy tend to win: Denzel Washington in Training Day, Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, Mo’Nique in Precious. The Help got nothing but criticism from the black and white communities — but all the same, the only film heading into last year’s race with any major black actors in it at all was nominated for 4 Oscars and won the Oscar for best supporting actress. The film’s lead, the brilliant Viola Davis, despite winning the SAG award, lost to Meryl Streep. White characters are unassailable.

It’s worth noting that when Denzel Washington made The Great Debaters and Antwone Fisher he gave us films that, by all rights, should have appealed to Oscar voters AND the black community: positive role models and smart black characters. But of course, not in keeping with how the white community accepts black storytellers, which is to say, they don’t accept them at all.

It is distressing when, despite the difficulties in getting mainstream Hollywood to cast actors from different ethnic backgrounds at all and the steep uphill climb for black storytellers to break through, political correctness must then add insult to injury, thereby choking the life out of diversity in cinema. It has given black filmmakers nowhere to go, so when a few finally do break through, almost no one pays any attention. — or all the attention is spent looking for flaws. Precious is “too unflattering,” “Do the Right Thing” is too angry. Antwone Fisher is too “syrupy.” The porridge is never just right, thus progress is stopped whenever it gets going.

Does this mean people should shut up about it? I don’t think so. But I do think we all need to exhale a little, loosen our belts a little, and all the storytellers a little more freedom.  How about we give artists the flexibility to explore varying characters?  As long as they aren’t deliberately racist, sexist, homophobic or hateful why would anyone complain about a great film like Lincoln arriving in theaters? Can the white-dominated film critics try to broaden their own definition of what makes a great film by perhaps questioning their own perceptions of culture-based narratives?

As far as Masur’s complaints, well, wouldn’t it be nice if we could sprinkle fairy dust on our history and change how things were in 1865? Like wouldn’t it be fantastic if a self-freed slave burst through the doors of Congress and made a powerful speech too?  I’m sure we might have liked it if a butler stepped out of line back then, or the silent servants in the background suddenly interrupted the white conversations and started chatting along, unfettered in outspoken participation. If Steven Spielberg would only have painted a more palatable portrait of the black people in Lincoln, it would help us sleep better at night knowing that despite centuries of whipping them into submission, selling off their babies, raping them and fathering children with them that we didn’t subsequently acknowledge.  I’m sure that would make a lot of us feel a lot better.

It is absolutely true that there are always passive black characters in films about the Civil War and the South. But in Lincoln, Spielberg singles out three pivotal moments that turn not on the white characters but on the black characters. One is the film’s opener, which Masur points out. But she says it’s all downhill from there. It is absolutely not.

When Lincoln’s son Tad asks the character played by Gloria Reuben if she was whipped, LIncoln tells him it’s not an appropriate question to ask, yet Reuben’s character defies him and answers the boy anyway, “I was whipped when I was younger than you,” she answers back. Reuben has a more important scene with the president later in the film when she tells him that her son died wearing the Union blue. They have a conversation that stretches through history and time and drops them right back on our doorstep. How does Masur miss acknowledging a scene like that?

The third scene is a spoiler and I won’t ruin it for you except to say that the film quite pointedly notes that what we see on the surface maybe wasn’t the whole story of what was going on. Again, complex thought frees up the artist’s ability to express many different ideas about our culture.

If we unshackle our storytellers, we will start to see more diversity in Hollywood. Movies won’t only be about white characters and someday maybe even the Academy will recognize black filmmakers.

Now entering the Oscar race against all odds is Ava DuVernay, who quite unexpectedly won Best Director at Sundance in February — the first female African American storyteller ever to do so. DuVernay is passionately involved in community outreach to get black audiences to see her film Middle of Nowhere. It is a movie that dares to treat its heroine as a thinking person, a working woman who is trying to figure out the rest of her life. She has one foot in the black stereotypical expectaions of who she should be: the girlfriend of a jailed man just waiting for him to get out, and one foot in the reality of DuVernay’s world — one not dictated by white filmmakers or by cultural stereotypes — a thoughtful woman undefined by anyone except herself. It is a film full of great acting and brilliant writing. The critics did not rave the way they did for Beasts of the Southern Wild, or even for Precious. Roger Ebert gave Precious four stars yet only gave Middle of Nowhere three. Ava DuVernay might have kicked down the door but the new wave of myth-making has yet to begin. A few critics really did seem to connect and time will likely sort out the rest.

White directors are harshly condemned for making films about any other ethnic group but themselves. Black filmmakers are ignored. We are complex human beings capable of complex thought — this way around the dilemma doesn’t have to be so black and white, does it? When you win Oscars you gain industry cred. Maybe you go nowhere with that cred. Maybe Hollywood still isn’t open to you. Maybe things will never change — but circumtstances sure as hell will never change if we keep putting restrictions on art that don’t need to be there. Save your fights for the fights that matter.

Most Oscar watchers are tired of having this discussion already.   It would be nice if we didn’t have to have it every year but alas, we do because so little has changed despite the many Oscars handed out for actors and actresses in recent years.  The films in the Oscar race for 2012 that feature diverse casting include Lincoln, Flight, Cloud Atlas, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Middle of Nowhere. We don’t yet know how the Best Picture race will play out, whether it will be an all-white affair as it usually is or whether it won’t be.  But I’ll leave you with this: only two Oscar nominations for Spike Lee. Think about that one and get back to me.

61 Comments on this Post

  1. other mike

    damn, looks like we are in the “race” portion of the oscar race. happens every year.

  2. “To add insult to injury, one of the worst films about a passive black character in the history of American film, Driving Miss Daisy, won Best Picture.”

    Oh yes. So much yes. Seriously yes.
    I always did feel like that film was rather bad and even a bit insulting. I want to agree with everything that you said but can’t fully go with the Blind Side and The Help part. The Help was decent but it was rightfully criticized IMO (As for Blind Side, it was just one level above Disaster Movie in my book).

  3. “But I’ll leave you with this: only two Oscar nominations for Spike Lee. Think about that one and get back to me.”

    Brilliant.

  4. damn, looks like we are in the “race” portion of the oscar race. happens every year.

    I wish more Oscar bloggers would go there – none of them ever do so, as Bob Dylan would say, I guess it must be up to me.

  5. filmboymichael

    not to take anything away from this very compelling argument – but Grand Hotel was the first film to win best picture without its director being nominated. In fact Best Picture was its only nomination!

  6. If they weren’t gonna acknowledge Spike Lee for his towering epic MALCOLM X, he should have at least made his way back onto the Academy’s radar with 25TH HOUR, a movie that was timely and featured plenty of pasty faces for these old white guys to root for. It really is a shame that Lee has been so roundly ignored, but as time goes on he appears to care less and less about what anyone thinks and follows whatever impulse he wants. Good for him.

    Side note: BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD is still my absolute favorite movie of the year.

  7. Matt O'Callaghan

    I would say Spike Lee should be up to a 5th or 6th nomination.

    Both Get on the Bus and Summer of Sam are criminally underrated, and two of my absolute favourites.

  8. Awesome Michael! I totally never count Grand Hotel, lol. It just seems like the invisible year to me.

  9. I wish more Oscar bloggers would go there – none of them ever do so, as Bob Dylan would say, I guess it must be up to me.

    Your complete inability to see the POV of Cloud Atlas critics in favour of this “all boundaries are conventions” pseudo-new age tripe makes you really not the person for this. If you want to talk about race in the future, feel free to just skip any mention of Cloud Atlas since your handle of the issues faced by Asian-Americans and the East-Asian diaspora in Hollywood today is cringeworthy.

  10. That said, I enjoy any articles calling Hwood out on its bullshit and it’s nice to see that you’re interested in addressing racial inequality in Oscar history.

  11. appleeatingdog

    I just wanna thank Sasha for that photo of Hanks with my girlfriend Zhou Xun.

  12. I hate the race argument most days. But since we’re talking about it, I’m going to have to write a sonnet later when I have a couple hours. lol So wait for me.

  13. other mike

    sasha said:

    “I wish more Oscar bloggers would go there – none of them ever do so, as Bob Dylan would say, I guess it must be up to me.”

    gotta be honest, i think actors of color not receiving oscars has been answered somewhat, and the idea that millionaires are not being rewarded is not exactly up there with apartheid.

    i just think the discussion becomes overwrought and heavy-handed, and takes the fun outta the oscars.

    i mean, 14% of black people are unemployed. more black people live in poverty now than ever before. worrying about don cheadle or spike lee not winning oscars seems in bad taste. your heart is in the right place though sasha. i’m just saying, some self awareness at this point not from you per se, but the people on the perennial “why haven’t minorities won more oscars” bandwagon. i mean, really, who cares, apart from overly pampered actors and actresses.

  14. other mike, to take your lead into condescension, your failure to see the connection between diversity in storytelling and opportunity in life is, well, let’s say short-sighted. There are other colorful metaphors I could use but I will abstain.

    Sasha, great piece.

  15. Just for the record I was contaced by one of the publicists at Fox that Qu’venzahne Wallis has indeed joined SAG.

    But that unfortunately, did not lift the SAG disqualifcation. That had to do with the way the film was shot and under what SAG(nor SAG contract. But the damage has already been done.

    Unless I’m missing something, Denzel And Qu’venzhane are the only African Americans being campaigned for by major studios and their subsidiaries like Fox Searchlight.

    It again comes down to campaigns. How much money is a film company going to spend? They have to get screeners out to every single member of every single branch they want to be considered by for starters.

    I HOPE Fox Searchlight sent BOTSW screeners out in a timely fashion. It’s totally amazing how far that beautiful little film has gotten, but it wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if Fox Searchlight hadn’t picked it up at Sundance.

    But then hedging their bets FS moved Hitchock’s release to right in the middle of awards season, which is NOW and is campaigning vigourously and effectively for Dame Helen Mirren as Best Actress for playing Alma Hitchcock’s unsung, brilliant wife. But also effectively knocking Qu’venzhane out of that race.

  16. Terometer

    The Help and The Blind Side are the whitest films I’ve ever seen. They are made for white women.

  17. Thank you, a very interesting read.
    I admire the American “political correctness”, the way you say “the n-word” instead of spelling it out. The way you are constantly reflecting over race issues. Europe has a lot to learn from you in that regard.
    But of course art suffers when there are too many hidden mines and taboos. That is absolutely a problem. At the same time: as long as Hollywood is a white fortress, it´s only right that its white members feel uncomfortable, and are scrutinized, when they make films about black people. No matter how good their intentions or artistic achievements are. It´s the price they have to pay for being members of an exclusive club.
    If Hollywood was less white, everyone would presumably be less neurotic about race issues in film. But, as you point out, because Hollywood is so neurotic about race, black people have problems getting in.
    It´s a Catch 22, then.

  18. Kevin Klawitter

    I also remember similar controversies erupting when “The Princess and the Frog” was released, circling particularly around the character of Prince Naveen: what was race he, why wasn’t he black, etc. I can’t help but wonder if those controversies might have been avoided had Disney not made such a big deal about Tiana being “the first African American Disney Princess”.

    When Idris Elba was interviewed by NPR about a year ago about the possibility of being the next James Bond he said he’d love to play the part, but he didn’t want to be “the black James Bond” any more than Sean Connery was “the Scottish James Bond” or Daniel Craig was “the blonde James Bond”.

    I think that’s a good way to go about it. Even if you’re breaking ground with your casting or filmmaking, be humble about it. Don’t treat it like it’s something important… I think that turns people off. Just look at “Red Tails”. The quality of that film notwithstanding (I haven’t seen it), more or less all George Lucas said about the film during the marketing campaign was how long it took him to get this movie made and how reluctant Mainstream Hollywood was to made a film with an all-black cast. It might have been an important thing to say, but it distracted from the film itself.

    Race isn’t something I feel comfortable talking about much of the time. After all, what does a middle-class white kid from rural Minnesota really know about it? But in terms of movies, I do feel I can talk about it, because I believe art can redeem and enhance any subject matter. That’s why I don’t have any trouble with the makeup in “Cloud Atlas” right now (having not had the opportunity to see the movie)… there’s a true and nonprejudicial artistic vision behind it, and I don’t believe artist should have to compromise their vision due to social pressures, as long as said vision doesn’t do any harm.

  19. Thanks for writing this!
    I’ve been appalled at some of the reactions to race in the movies this year. I’d also like to note the firestorm that erupted on Twitter after Brian Johnson from Maclean’s criticized Midnight’s Children for not being ‘visibly Canadian’ and cited the story, location, and actors as proof. Needless to say, Salman Rushdie was quick to chirp back, as were some of the Indian-Canadian actors who didn’t fit the white washed assessment of the review. (Interestingly enough, the review is paired with a review of Flight, and Johnson doesn’t mention the fact that Kelly Reilly is British…)

    To Johnson’s credit, he added a note to review and changed ‘visibly’ to ‘tangibly’, but that’s still not okay. I’m glad that people reacted (and still are) so that we can note the need for diversity on our screens. What I found most disappoint about the reaction to Midnight’s Children is the fact that such criticism came after Deepa Mehta said that it was after shooting Midnight’s Children that she felt that she could call finally Canada her home. Not ‘tangibly Canadian’ my ass.

  20. “It remains the only film to win Best Picture without its director having been nominated”

    Modern day Best Pic winner, for sure.

    But historically:

    Wings (1927)
    Sunrise: A Song for Two Humans (1927)
    Grand Hotel (1932)

    Best Pic winners with no corresponding Directing nomination.

  21. Great piece. Sometimes when I feel like the culture is moving backwards, I go to YouTube and run the clip from 1973, when Diana Ross and Cicely Tyson were both nominated for Best Actress. In those days, it really seemed like society was on the verge of big changes … then something went off the rails. Maybe it was the blockbuster era that changed things.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFstpIKW7A4&feature=related

  22. rufussondheim

    I don’t agree with everything you say, but I am glad you are saying it. Keep it up.

    This is where I repeat my oft-repeated mantra, though. Hollywood is a business and, as such, responds to the marketplace. If more white people paid to see films about blacks and Hispanics and Asians (well non-martial arts Asians) more films would be made and distributed to our local theaters.

    Being constantly criticized by the uninformed is part of the process. Everyone has a comment and everyone wants to share it. I welcome such commentary as it always allows discourse and this is how education occurs, hopefully. Never shy away from a controversial topic, it’s the only way controversies get settled. Break taboos and everyone benefits.

  23. But I’ll leave you with this: only two Oscar nominations for Spike Lee. Think about that one and get back to me.

    Here is the problem with Spike Lee. When I was a kid growing up, everyone got along. No one talked about race, no one cared. Then toward the end of my high school years Spike Lee and groups like Public Enemy showed up. And they talked about all this racism. And they started getting people riled up and angry at white people, while most of us had been getting along just fine. Most of us did not grow up in racist strongholds like Brooklyn or LA. So Mr. Lee took his limited perspective and made the world re-guilty for stuff that was ancient history to most of us. It was a new day for racism but this time it was going to other way. Or maybe even folding back in on itself. I remember seeing an interview with him at the time where he said he thought we should be “separate but equal”. I always wondered where us halfies were supposed to go but I think I can guess what his answer would have been.

    If you watch DO THE RIGHT THING now without the culture of the time and all the bruhaha you’d think it was a good film. Did it deserve a nomination? I don’t remember what the competition but on it’s own I probably would have said no. I prefer his later works, which makes sense as people grow as artists in time. I thought JUNGLE FEVER was a much better film about race and more realistic but he probably pissed people off so much at that point that they wouldn’t give him the time of day let alone an Oscar. MALCOLM X, as I said earlier, had the stigma of being “too long”. Movies get that all the time. I don’t agree with that being a valid criticism but I felt the film did drag on a bit. If I’m critiquing it I’d call it JFK’s movie cousin just without the pulsing rhythm driving it forward.

    IMO, Spike’s best movies are the ones away from NYC because it gets him away from his racial issues. Sorry but it’s true. I think it’s the same with Scorsese too. When they get out of their NYC neighborhood baggage they just make good movies for the sake of being entertained. In Spike Lee’s case, my favorite of his is SUMMER OF SAM, which is still New York but it’s largely centered on an Italian community during that whole crisis, with the main Italian character being played by latino actor John Leguizamo. FTR, my favorite Scorsese film is THE DEPARTED which was mainly about Boston Irish. They’re better when they get out of their own heads.

    INSIDE MAN was a great movie, but I wouldn’t have nominated it. 25th HOUR was definitely Oscar caliber and I don’t remember what happened that year but I do remember it being in the race. I don’t recall why it didn’t make it. Another of his that I think is definitely Oscar caliber is THE MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA. It got so roundly criticized by everyone that I didn’t even see it until months after Oscar. I thought it was a shame that it didn’t have any buzz, which is the reason it took me so long to get around to it. It had a LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL vibe about it but it was much better, imo.

    Spike Lee probably would have been nominated more often if he didn’t have such a chip on his shoulder. Speaking of QT, a fine black filmmaker, now this could have just been rumors I had read, but there were stories out there that he had had a massive falling out with Samuel L. Jackson, who had his best performance in JUNGLE FEVER, because SLJ was friends with and collaborator of Quentin Tarantino. It was reported that he had issue with the way black people were portrayed in QT’s movies and the use of the N-word in them. Well why didn’t Spike make DJANGO UNCHAINED, or a movie like JACKIE BROWN with strong leads for black actors to play? Are those movies detrimental to black people’s view of themselves? He’s a great director, but he’s much better at being pissed off.

    He needs to make more movies and get them in the race if he wants in. There are plenty of film makers out there who are waiting to get recognized. He’s not the only one. But we all know that everyone, black white or purple, has to play the game. Has he ever? When he makes a great film that cannot be denied he’ll win. If he wants to win one before that, he’ll make an Oscar caliber one and do the promotion that everyone else does.

    My favorite moment in the history of me knowing Spike Lee’s business came when he was on one of the best TV shows, that’s sadly been canceled, called “Who Do You Think You Are?” On this show celebrities trace their ancestry traveling state to state and sometimes to different countries hunting down their family history. Anyway to make a long story short he found out that he’s white and met with some old white lady who’s his distant cousin. I did a little dance in my living room the day Spike Lee found out that he’s white. lol

    btw, Lionel Ritchie did that show too and found that he had this really awesome ancestor with a super story that should be made into a film. It’s all the stuff people who’d want positive historical portrayals of black Americans would like to see.

    I got like 800 more things to say on this topic. But I’m gonna rest for now.

  24. Robert A.

    “Spike Lee probably would have been nominated more often if he didn’t have such a chip on his shoulder.”

    Oliver Stone had a pretty big “chip on his shoulder” during the same time period–late 80s, early 90s. That didn’t seem to stop him from getting several Oscar nominations for best director, and even a couple of wins.

  25. ChrisFlick

    The success of Flight would seem to fly in the face of the pattern you are assessing. Granted, one film. Strong characters – yes more than one – who happen to be black, and to which attention is never drawn, nor need it be. Is that the ideal, or would it have been any better with a black director?

  26. I’m sorry, my limit I’m sure, but I don’t get your argument; not today, not last year not ever. I call it the Viola Argument in my head… I don’t get it, sorry!

    Let me make a Freeman Argument for a moment, just to rest my mind for a minute:

    “one of the worst films about a passive black character in the history of American film, Driving Miss Daisy, won Best Picture.”

    To me and to a lot of people it’s very questionable that Driving Miss Daisy is a bad film let alone an insult. Certainly it is not a film about a passive black character: Morgan Freeman’s character is the most complex and the strongest in the film, and one of the best male characters portraited in American cinema during the 80s.

    (after Pulp Fiction) … “No other film about black characters would land in the Best Picture race until Taylor Hackford, another white director, made Ray, about Ray Charles. Jamie Foxx ended up winning Best Actor, though Best Picture went to Million Dollar Baby instead.”

    SAME YEAR: The Shawshank Redemption has two leading men: one black & one white. Morgan Freeman got the nom for best leading actor and the movie was in the best Picture race. Freeman, by the way, took home the Oscar for Million Dollar Baby the year that the film won best picture. Ray was nominated for best picture even being a bad movie, the weakest of the five.

    By the way AFTER PULP FICTION AND BEFORE RAY SOME BEST PICTURE WERE:

    Secrets and Lies. At its core has a young black woman (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Oscar nom for supporting actress).

    Jerry Maguire. It would not have been nominated for best picture without the only great performance in the movie (Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr).

    The Green Mile. It has its reason to be in a great male character (Micheal Clarke Duncan, nom for best supporting actor).

    Traffic. The most rememberable characters in the movie are latinos and blacks (Don Cheadle is the most positive character in that movie!).

    Well, I cannot even begin doing the fact check that I already feel stupid, I could write volumes about the Academy not considering films with short or curly hair characters in them… the same for tall characters with ginger hair… and what about gay Italians?! Not a single one Best Picture nom is about a gay man from Italy, no one. What is the point??

    This argument just feels preposterous to me.

  27. rufussondheim

    Race, if I recall correctly, was never mentioned in Flight. Whether you consider that a glaring oversight or a long-awaited welcome is up to you.

  28. Invisible in that you always forget it or dislike it? I think there were 3 very good movies in that pool: “Grand Hotel”, “The Smiling Lieutenant” and “Five Star Final.”

  29. Sasha,

    I certainly think race needs to be talked about in relation to movies, and especially in relation to the Oscars, and I applaud you for stepping up. However…

    All due respect – I haven’t seen LINCOLN yet, so I can’t comment on the portrayal of black characters there, but what made MISSISSIPPI BURNING so offensive wasn’t just the fact the black characters were “passive”. It was also because the movie tried to turn the FBI into the heroes, when the FBI at the time under Hoover thought the civil rights workers who were murdered were Communists. And that’s not mentioning the fact every character in the movie – with the exception of Gene Hackman and Frances McDormand’s characters, is portrayed in one-dimensional terms, so the racism comes off as cartoonish, rather than how dangerous and vile it really was.

    Antoinette:

    And speaking of offensive and vile, would you also say blacks were “happy” under slavery until the abolitionists “stirred things up”?!? That black people should have just kept their heads down and not complained about, oh, I don’t know, Jim Crow laws, the murders of Medgar Evans, Malcolm X, four little girls in a church, Martin Luther King Jr. and countless others, the castigation of Muhammad Ali for daring to speak against the Vietnam War, and the “southern strategy” of the Republican party starting with Nixon (a fact people seem to conveniently forget when they claim he would be a “liberal” today) and continuing through the Reagan (who once claimed, among other things, there was no longer any apartheid in South Africa, long before that was true) and George H.W. Bush years (the Willie Horton campaign ads were under his watch), among other things? And that’s not even mentioning how lower-class black women were often portrayed as “welfare queens”, or how the drug war has been a systematic war on the black lower class, or how long “driving while black” has been a crime.

    You can say Spike Lee is an overwrought director – I would disagree with you in some cases, agree with you in others, though certainly not in the case of DO THE RIGHT THING, which, for me, remains his masterpiece – but to say he was “re-guilting” us for something that has continued in this country since long before both of us were even born is ludicrous at best and absolutely vile and offensive at worst.

  30. My comment didn’t post so trying again. I wrote that that I found this article great. That Ava Duvernay is speaking truth to power about race in a way that I haven’t seen anyone do since Spike Lee in each and every one of her interviews, her general demeanor and in her filmmaking. When Spike did it he had an angry tinge but Duvernay does it in a thoughtful way looking at and building solutions and I find that powerful.

    One exception I have to your article though is that her film wasn’t soft peddled by critics as you suggest but was in fact raved about by Dargis and Turan and many other still important critics. The real issue with this film is that all that critical acclaim still hasn’t shifted the prospects for it. That’s the issue. The industry’ll celebrate Beasts of The Southern Wild and other white man visions of black people but will not – will not – will not celebrate black directors own vision themselves.

    Would Beasts have broken through if the director wasn’t an Ivy League white guy from a privileged background is a question no one wants to answer. But we know the answer.

    Anyway, good post on what few seem to care about. I’m glad you seem to. Wish there were more.

  31. unlikely hood

    Trivia question that you can’t answer by googling:

    What is the highest-grossing film ever with an all-black cast?

    (It made more than $200 million domestically, and another $100 mil + overseas.)

    I’ll answer this downthread.

  32. Sean K Gallagher, my point was that Spike Lee was living in a world that was like the distant past for most of us back in the late 80s/early 90s. I don’t live in the past, and I’m not going to do it so that people won’t find me “offensive”. I don’t waste my time getting offended. I live in 2012. In 2012 race is an issue for people who want to focus on it. Of course, there are pockets of racism and there always will be. If that’s what you choose to spend your time on then you’ll probably see it everywhere and perpetuate it. I don’t and I didn’t.

  33. Great article, Sasha (and some damn good posts follow). Just some scattered thoughts:

    Spike Lee should have been nominated for DTRT, Summer of Sam (A. Brody was also terrific in that), and Malcolm X. If he can’t pull off a BP calibre pic, he deserves a special award for pushing the boundaries for so many years (with regards to filmmaking, he’s more deserving than Oprah). This “chip on his shoulder” thing is a pretty weak excuse considering the number of divas and divos on both sides of the camera in the movie business.

    There was a rash of films in the 80s/90s that insisted on telling black stories through white characters’ eyes, which became terribly annoying. Cry Freedom was one, but it seemed like every Hollywood film with a non-white theme had a white character to shepherd the viewer through the story. It’s a device that’s not only preachy, but demeaning to both the subject and the audience.

    On the other side, the criticism leveled at Spielberg, Zeitlan and other white directors is terribly unfair as they are describing a specific vision of a particular story. It has gotten to be that you are not allowed to stray from your own hood for fear of being attacked. This attitude results in further isolation.

    Ignored by Oscar: Carl Franklin (One False Move)
    Ignored by Hollywood in general when talking movie pioneers: Oscar Micheaux (look him up – fascinating – and you hear nothing about him)

    And a quick note on the very misguided PC criticism of Cloud Atlas – please see the movie before you throw rocks because you are missing the entire point. The makeup “disappears” after a few seconds if you just go with it. Besides, Jim Sturgess as Hae Joo Chang is one of the most magnetic characters onscreen right now.

  34. No I agree that in the anti slavery fight and civil rights fight blacks were not as important as whites in getting slavery abolished or passing the civil rights laws because whites had the power to do that stuff not blacks and blacks were the inspiration for a lot of action but blacks did not abolish slavery or pass the civil rights laws it was whites but in both these cases whites were preventing whites from legally doing bad things not actually giving blacks freedom or civil rights because those things were being stolen by whites but whites did pass the laws and amendments

  35. This “chip on his shoulder” thing is a pretty weak excuse considering the number of divas and divos on both sides of the camera in the movie business.

    Clearly I have a different definition of what someone having a “chip on their shoulder” means. I thought it meant that you were always itching for a fight. So there is a chip on your shoulder and you are waiting for someone to knock it off, so you can have the fight you wanted all along. That is not the same thing as a diva. A diva throws random temper tantrums because their ice was made with tap water or some other nonsense. And I said he probably would have been nominated more if he didn’t have said chip. And Oliver Stone may have had a bigger chip, I don’t remember.

    So it’s Spike Lee’s argumentative nature that I was citing as something that might stop people from running to their ballots to nominate him or award him Oscars. Meaning… they just don’t like him. Not because of race, but because he is or was quarrelsome. You know how Hollywood is. You get a reputation and that’s it.

  36. unlikely hood

    “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on?”

    With those words, and the 5000 that followed, Pauline Kael changed the course of movie history. Well, sort of. She came to an unparalleled defense of Bonnie and Clyde, won herself a job at the New Yorker, and godmothered the Altman-Coppola-Scorsese generation, to the point where Warren Beatty eventually flew her in as a consultant. We’re still living in her art-as-commerce world – and we aren’t. (I liked the point upthread about Diana Ross and Cicely Tyson.)

    But no doubt, we’re still living with that opening sentiment. That’s what Sasha is really talking about, not Spike Lee or black actors getting recent Oscars or anything else.

    Anyone remember A League of Their Own (1992)? Sure you do. Remember the one scene where Geena Davis and her sister come upon a couple of black lady baseball players, and one of them really throws her the heat? That’s their only scene; they don’t even have any lines, just a regal proud bearing. It’s sort of a “we got next” moment, and I recall that it received mild cheers (perhaps a ‘woo’) from the (West Coast mushy liberal) audience that I saw the film with.

    In many ways, that scene symbolizes the quandary for sincere filmmakers. Could Penny Marshall have made the film without it? Of course. Might she have opened herself up to the Kate Masurs of the world if she hadn’t? Perhaps. After deciding to leave the scene there, does Marshall have an obligation to include more about the Negro Leagues and the female roles played during WW2? Well, not really.

    Every filmmaker wants a scene like that, and everyone wonders if it’s too much, not enough, or just right. The thing is, every generation gets a little more inclusive even as it looks a little less inclusive to later generations. I like that; it’s progress. “Little Big Man” was roundly praised in 1970 as Hollywood turned upside down, the Old West from the Indians’ perspective. Years later, people talked about how it only privileged Dustin Hoffman. And so it goes. As William Hurt said as Tom Grunick (I shamelessly quote one of Sasha’s favorite films), “They just keep moving that sucker back don’t they?” They do, Blanche, they do. But it changes for different groups. It depends on who we’ve heard from, and who we haven’t.

    We had plenty of great Vietnam films before anyone in the American media complained that we weren’t hearing from Vietnamese. Then Oliver Stone went out of his way to include that perspective – in Heaven and Earth (1992) – and the movie bombed. Like Sasha says, you can’t win.

    I don’t see people dissing Ben Affleck for not including more Persian revolutionaries in Argo. I didn’t see anyone clamoring for Oscar Micheaux’s story (1920s black film) during the praise for last year’s Artist.

    On the other hand, I sorta see Masur’s point. It’s like the blacks are being *given* emancipation, instead of actively fighting for it. But…I kinda agree that Spielberg covered the base. He got his League of Their Own scene(s). In Masur’s world, we can’t tell stories about political battles that shaped the republic because it’s all a bunch of white men. I mean – I don’t see how you endorse that in good conscience. You make your own (or ask Spielberg to endorse) movies about the Underground Railroad and Wounded Knee, like you guilted Clint Eastwood into making Flags of Our Fathers from the Japanese side. But if Clint had never done that, he still would have been right to make the Ryan Phillipe picture. Ultimately, you can’t fault Lincoln – or if you do, you should be linking us to your 10-year-old critique of Goodwin’s uninclusive book.

    …these films of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth…

    P.S. answer to my trivia question: Coming to America (1988). And a white Jew sued over it, saying he wrote it. Can’t win!

  37. This is a very thorough and compelling argument. I will echo with a couple of other readers that I thought The Help was deserving of the criticism it received. Besides the good performance from Davis, the whole film was a huge scam, using black characters as functions for the emotional and physical journey of its lead white character portrayed by Emma Stone. Not only that it was clumsy, badly edited, and heavily trivialized a serious time in American history. Ugh, was not a fan.

  38. rufussondheim

    I have no idea what’s depicted in Lincoln, I haven’t seen it. But several people upthread make the point that whites had to pass the laws to end slavery. And, yes, that is true.

    But don’t think that blacks stood idly by twiddling their thumbs waiting for whites to see the bigger picture.

    Black revolts in the south, the underground railroad taking freed slaves to the north and to Canada. Long-freed blacks working towards abolition in the north. All of these factors slowly changed enough white people’s minds as whites learned to see blacks as people rather than possessions.

    So, please, disabuse yourself of the notion that whites freed the blacks. Blacks freed the slaves, they just needed the cooperation of enough whites to get it done.

  39. Oscar Micheaux mentioned twice in the same day!!

    Now there’s a biopic worth making (and it’s about a filmmaker, so instant Oscar attention). Maybe somebody’s listening out there.

  40. For the life of me, I don’t see why The Color Purple was given such a hard time. It’s a great film, not one of the all time bests, but solid on many levels. There are some low points in the movie, but overall it holds up very well.

    And look at the bland Out of Africa and how well that holds up. That kind of movie is a dime a dozen and it was rewarded handily.

    I’m greatful that you (Sasha) bring up race in Hollywood, and where the criticism leaves minority filmmaking and participation. With the current make up of the Academy, I feel it will be more of the same for a very long time.

  41. Sacheen Littlefeather

    Having this discussion is better than not having it at all. That means films about non-whites are made. Film about whites have their complainers too, more often than not. There are always people complaining about something. The important thing is there is continuous effort of making films about a broad tapestry of humanity.

  42. Brenda Frazier-Ross

    It is interesting to me that Lincoln, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Django Unchained are all directed by white guys and the film by the black woman that is beautiful and true to my life most as an African-American is the one that no one is talking about as much as they should be. It makes me feel that white people want to see us the way they want to see us and that’s all that matters to them.

  43. I said whites didn’t free the slaves so much as preventing other whites from robbing black people of their freedom and it was persuasion of blacks that was important o whites but whites cast the votes and it’s like the whole giving lbj credit for passing the laws and MLK helping the cause but lbj signed the bills.

  44. “It makes me feel that white people want to see us the way they want to see us and that’s all that matters to them.”

    But Middle of Nowhere is a very small-scale, personal story without a defined hook to make it an indie hit. It’s in the same ballpark as Fish Tank, about a white teenager, which didn’t do any business, either. I doubt Starlet, starring Dree Hemingway, will exceed Middle of Nowhere’s gross. It’s probably better to wonder why so few directors making Denzel/Will/Jamie blockbusters are black. Or why there are so few bankable black actresses.

    When the Vanity Fair Ladies in Hollywood cover came out, some commenters here and elsewhere blamed the magazine for putting all white actresses on the front cover. But all the actresses were bigger than minority up-and-comers. Vanity Fair was just mirroring studio’s casting choices.

  45. Skyfall is the first Bond film without an obviously white major Bond girl. (The one with scary fingers was French and Cambodian). These are the true wins because nobody trumpets it.

    Halle’s the first black Best Actress winner!!! Satisfied, we move on. After Mr. Poitier, how long did we stay satisfied? Disney’s first black princess!!! From America! Whatever. Satisfied, we move on. Finally made up for Song of the South and those crows…

    Denzel in Flight and even Training Day excites me more than Denzel as any character that you must put his race in front of. Because he’s a character. Oh, and the character’s black.

    Loretta Devine, Jurnee Smollett, Alfre Woodard, all should have been multi

  46. Skyfall is the first Bond film without an obviously white major Bond girl. (The one with scary fingers was French and Cambodian). These are the true wins because nobody trumpets it.

    Halle’s the first black Best Actress winner!!! Satisfied, we move on. After Mr. Poitier, how long did we stay satisfied? Disney’s first black princess!!! From America! Whatever. Satisfied, we move on. Finally made up for Song of the South and those crows…

    Denzel in Flight and even Training Day excites me more than Denzel as any character that you must put his race in front of. Because he’s a character. Oh, and the character’s black.

    Spike Lee, Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine, Alfre Woodard, all should have been multiple nominees by now. I think the problem is they create films and character that are precursed by “BLACK” in such bold letters, we say, “No we’re satisfied. We’ve done that.” When Keke Palmer plays Channing Tatum’s girlfriend and it just IS… That’s a win. A Costner/Houston-sized win. (Of course he got away with being an American Robin Hood in a very EUROPEAN cast.)

  47. Oops. Sorry about the half then whole post ^

  48. Korean Sandra Oh in Sideways!

  49. Great piece, it almost feels like a kind of covert racism the way challenging films dealing with race are repeatedly attacked, it’s as if we’ve moved on from overt race hate and search instead for other strained reasons for venting displeasure. It means we’re actually in a period of censorship when films exploring racial issues are suffocated by the mob and more usually not made at all. I’d add that the idea of only projecting positive ethnic messages thru. characters is ridiculous and anti drama, I agree with the writer Zadie Smith who said something along the lines of that a black character on the page or screen is always political whether we choose to deal with that or not, anyone with even a passing interest in news will surely have to agree.

  50. Can someone tell me what the problem was with “Eve’s Bayou”? I thought it was an extremely complex look at an African-American family that was very well educated with a fascinating history. In having discussions with family and others, we are still puzzled why this film didn’t garner more attention, especially for Debbi Morgan, Diahann Carroll and Jurnee Smollett.

  51. Can someone tell me what the problem was with “Eve’s Bayou”?

    Incest.

    You know you guys want to constantly pigeonhole the Academy as a bunch of fuddy-duddies and then conveniently forget that when you’re trying to make your point. Either they’re stodgy and set in their ways or they’re not. Besides that I did see it in the theater but I don’t remember EVE’S BAYOU being a major hit at the time. Maybe people saw it later on video or TV.

    And before anyone screams CHINATOWN, she only told you. You didn’t see anything. And 1974 was a more liberal time than 1997, sadly.

  52. Trucker2012

    Akumax, you ooze wisdom. I wish to hear more from you. Start your own blog, please.

  53. joeyhegele

    Very interesting article Sasha.

    I predict that the next black director to be nominated and the next female director to be nominated (not counting Bigelow’s second nomination for Zero Dark Thirty) is Kasi Lemmons. She has directed only three films, but each one has shown off her skills as an accomplished director. Her first was Eve’s Bayou, which has a great ensemble cast and is both fun and emotionally powerful. Her second film The Caveman’s Valentine is quite unpleasant, but she really shows off her strong visual skills.

    Her third film is the one I recommend everyone watching. Talk To Me is about a real life radio/TV personality who becomes a strong community activist in DC during the 60s. It features a phenomenal performance from Don Cheadle, as well as a terrific ensemble cast. The screenplay is hilarious and thought-provoking, and Lemmons’ directing skills are firing on all cylinders here.

    Her next film is titled Agaat and is about Apartheid told from the point-of-view of a black maid who basically runs the white-owned farm she works on. No cast has been announced, but it sounds amazing. We should all be keeping an eye on this film for its Oscar chances next year.

  54. One of the best articles I’ve ever read about race and Hollywood! Great job. Don’t ever stop having this discussion. It’s an important issue. But I still think “Lincoln” is a severely flawed movie. It’s a good movie but way over-praised.

  55. “In 2012 race is an issue for people who want to focus on it.”

    Ha!

    Must be great to live in your little dream world, Antoinette.

  56. Proud to post this “fantastic” story on the iloveblackmovies.com Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/#!/iloveblackmovies?fref=ts. Terrific insight and superb research. Bravo!

  57. @Jeremy

    Must be more fun living in your segregated world, Jer.

  58. @Antoinette

    Please, lady. Just because schools are integrated and there’s a black man it’s in office hasn’t changed a damn thing about how low black people are on the totem pole of society. We’re talking about a world where Anglo-Saxon names generate 50% more callbacks for job interviews. 45% of Black children live below the poverty line, compared with 16% of White youngsters. Blacks and Latinos are far more likely to be arrested and prosecuted and given long sentences for drug offenses, despite white people being the majority of drug dealers in this country. On average, black men make 67% what white men make. Institutionalized racism is alive and well here in America, and feigning ignorance and falling back on white privilege does nothing in quest for equality among the races that make up this country.

  59. WheatiesGood

    Interesting article, but I have to disagree with the inclusion of Cloud Atlas in regards to diversity. I applaud them for casting the Korean actress. But isn’t the film actually being less diverse than it could be, with white actors portraying people of color?

    I accept the decision artistically, which is why I’m not as offended by it as others, but I don’t buy the argument that this somehow helps diversity in film.

    Is the film attempting to blur the racial divide? OK, I can buy that argument. But, to be honest, I don’t think there’s enough in Cloud Alas to claim a diverse cast, especially when it isn’t nearly as diverse as it could have been.

    And I don’t understand how that promotes a serious treatment of Asians or Asian-Americans in mainstream Hollywood. Wouldn’t it do the opposite, with white actors playing Asian parts only contributing to the false image perpetuated by Hollywood?

    Again, I thought the article was a good read. I just felt that Cloud Atlas didn’t really fit with your other examples and actually diminished the point you were making.

  60. Jesus Alonso

    Oh, think the african-american treatment by AMPAS is bad? We can talk about Spanish/Latin americans, too… Some actors have won (Quinn, Bardem, Moreno, Cruz, Benicio) and some others been nominated… No director has won (out of the top of my head, only Almodovar and Iñarritu has been nom’d), and on Screenplay, I can only remember Almodovar winning. And on picture… Babel and – oddly enough – Midnight in Paris (spanish co-production) have achieved a nom, I don’t remember any other film, even Frida failed at BP. Of course, it’s the added handicap of the language barrier.

  61. Johnny C

    Sasha, thank you for this article. I loved Cloud Atlas and am a writer for some Asian blogs, am a globetrotting Asian American myself, and it’s almost impossible to convince people (mostly Americans) to look beyond race as they decry it as bigotry without realizing that culture and diversity isn’t the color of a person’s face, but the difference of ideas, interpretations, and willingness to challenge conventions and shift paradigms–which is precisely what art is. My prediction is when people learn to stop looking at race and thinking with artistic minds instead of sticking to social conventions, future generations will hail this and other works listed as classics–which is also the same message in the movie as you have written about, that change isn’t overnight, but by daring to challenge the order, it’s a step towards our evolution as a species. Those who dismiss it as “pseudo-new age” simply do not want to go beyond current paradigms, which historically never works precisely because those who are unable to adapt and change with the times are going to be left behind.

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