It’s 2011, and there’s still a Negro* problem in publishing and Hollywood

I hated to use the word “Negro” but really, I didn’t have much choice.

Because during the decades when “Colored” and “Negro” were used to identify African Americans, we were shut out, ignored, and patronized when concerns and issues arose regarding how we were treated. And also publicly perceived. However African Americans or “Negroes” weren’t boxed in by a term. Non-violent marches continued, and churches not only served as places for worship but to plan rights strategies.

I recall a recording done by President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, where Johnson discussed the “Negro” problem in America. It put me in mind of the frustration and closed doors that exist to this day.

While there are pockets of hope regarding the in-roads African Americans have made, there’s still an issue with the ways and means of those who make the decisions.  It concerns once again how we’re viewed and how we’re being treated.

In this post I’m concentrating on publishing and the film industry.

Whether in the development and casting of  a movie or television show, resistance is still in play when considering African Americans and other minorities for roles.

During segregation “negroes” had to band together and march for equality, to demand that we be seen and heard. This is a tactic that may have to be used today.

Because just like Kathryn Stockett’s ode to the south was celebrated without much critical analysis, “Negroes” are being ignored, shut out and patronized once again. We’re being told that because a majority of white reviewers and readers love the book and Stockett’s blackface impersonation, so should we, because “I read it, and didn’t find anything wrong it, in fact it’s quite authentic because that’s how blacks sound.”

I’ve combined a number of comments in that sentence. It’s interesting that some believe it’s only the dialect that’s at issue, when there’s much more wrong in the novel. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

This critical essay will have several parts. I also plan on making it more interactive. To that end, here’s a poll I’d appreciate readers of this post think about taking. In this poll “minority” is not solely used for African Americans, but other minority groups. And please, while white women are considered a minority, they’re represented well enough in Hollywood (though not as prominent as white males). I’ve also enabled the comments feature but it will be moderated to catch any spam:

 

For myself I can say the last time I went to the theater to see a movie with a minority in the lead was in 201o. I saw three, but far more where the lead and most of the cast were white. The films were Takers starring Idris Elba, T.I., Paul Walker, Hayden Christensen, and Chris Brown. I also went with my family to see The Karate Kid starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith, and The Book of Eli with Denzel Washington, Gary Olman and  Mila Kunis. And no, I wasn’t just seeking out films with minorities in the lead. I went because the subject matter was one I cared to pay to see. Films I took a pass on were The Losers and The Last Airbender (boycott). Though I do wish I’d gone to see Denzel Washington and Chris Pine in Unstoppable because I’m finding like everything else, there’s a quick turnover in films premiering and leaving theaters.

There aren’t enough roles that either have a minority in the lead, or a supporting character(s) coming out of Hollywood these days, that much is true. But even when minorities are prominent in a film it’s a rare movie that has substance or gives a minority actor a role that stretches boundaries.

After the Lena Horne tribute at this year’s Oscar ceremony, racebending.com reported that Comedian Sinbad cynically tweeted: “Funny whenever there are no current black actors being nominated they go deep in the vault and do a tribute to a black actor/actress.”

So true. I enjoyed Sinbad’s spot on comment so much, I believe it also applies to Hollywood’s rush to film a movie of Kathryn Stockett’s polarizing novel, The Help.

Aibileen gets to laugh

 

 

Funny since there’s barely any current roles for black actors they’re now going deep in the vault to get domestic roles for black actors/actresses.

When all Hollywood can offer are demeaning roles 

The Help is like taking a step back in time, in more ways than one.

Unfortunately it’s not a walk of remembrance that can be looked upon fondly.

 

 

 

The "From Revolution to Reconciliation" memorial walk in Birmingham, Alabama, a depiction of the dogs used against rights marchers

 

 

The dogs of war released on American citizens during segregation

More photos during segregation and the 60s rights marches can be found here:

http://acriticalreviewofthehelp.wordpress.com/wall-of-shame-and-courage/

 

 

With the release of the movie in August, aside from Tyler Perry’s Madea sequel and Jumping the Broom, The Help will have more African Americans in the cast than many of the other films released this year.

Jumping the Broom movie poster

 

 

 

Only those black actors will be playing domestics, harkening back to the only roles Hollywood once allowed blacks to play.

The Help Movie Poster - attempting to tie into the civil rights movement with "change" being more of the same (black actresses as domestics)

Instead of moving forward, Hollywood was chomping at the bit to go backwards, yet claim a tagline that bears comparison with Obama’s “Change” mantra during his 2008 presidential campaign. Quick to revise where Stockett erred in the novel by not jumping on the civil rights bandwagon, the movie has instead embraced it.

Skeeter clearly states in the novel “We’re not out to change any laws” when she convinces the maids to share their tales with her.

In addition, Skeeter decides to go it alone, not seeking out any assistance from civil rights organizations that populated in and around Mississippi such as the NAACP, SNCC and CORE.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So for the African American actors in The Help, they carry the burden of not just starring in a role that could define their career, but one that could also mark them as a “sell out”, no matter how much altering Dreamworks does to the screenplay.

There will be those who’ll say they don’t see the problem. Or even wonder why African Americans could be so narrow minded as to treat black actors this way. Many of the individuals using these excuses simply don’t care to review or even understand the sad history of African Americans in film and entertainment.

Drawing of Stepin Fetchit, ironically from the Disney movie "Mother Goose from Hollywood"

Stepin Fetchit (as in Step and Fetch it) immortalized in caricature, ironically enough in the Disney film Mother Goose from Hollywood. Disney is also distributing The Help

There will be those who’ll say that for the blacks actors in The Help, this was just another job. Or that by doing the role they’d hoped to improve the character apart from the version in the novel, or they even enjoyed the novel and condoned the depiction of the black characters (actress Octavia Spencer validated Stockett’s novel in several posts she left on the internet, as well as assisting Stockett on her book tour in early 2009)

And really, these are valid answers. Especially when being a minority with a career choice of acting carries much more responsibility than many would imagine.

Hollywood, as well as television have not lived up to their prior committments to be more inclusive. Because today, while diversity is still an elusive dream, African Americans complete against other minority groups to be that one coveted “Best friend” or “side kick” on a TV series or in a movie.

I’m not sure who started the “one minority a show rule” but it seems that while there can be, say,  five white actors and then one gay friend, or five white actors and one minority who’s either asian, hispanic or black,  there’s rarely vice versa.

There seems to be a not so invisible quota in place.

And as stated earlier in this post, quite often when a minority does land a role in a film, there haven’t been many that allows that actor to crack the almost lily white Oscar nominee list each year.

It should be no surprise then, that this is something that’s been a source of frustration for decades on end. Case in point is the depressing real life tale of actress Amy May Wong:

Yale University has a site up celebrating the photographs of writer Carl Van Vetchten’s Extravagant Crowd:Portraits of Women

Items in bold are my doing:

Anna May Wong - what she went through in the 1920s and 30s still applies today

“Anna May Wong played an exotically beautiful slave girl in The Thief of Baghdad with Douglas Fairbanks. After the success of this film, Wong began to appear regularly in popular films. In spite of her increasing fame and her versatility as an actress, Wong’s career was severely limited by the noxious roles she was offered—slave girls, evil dragon ladies, mysterious and exotic mistresses—all of which misrepresented Asian women. She was frustrated further by the tendency in Hollywood to cast white actresses in Asian roles. Later in her career, Wong was sometimes hired by studios not to play Asian roles, but to coach white actresses in an effort to help them play more believable Asian women.”

http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/cvvpw/

 

Jumping back to today’s cinema, racebending.com has an excellent article comparing the different career trajectories of two young actresses who were nominated for Oscars in their first film roles. Gabourey Sidibe, of Precious fame and Jennifer Lawrence, of Winter’s Bone acclaim. The post is called “But She’s a Talented Actress!”

“Why the discrepancy in OPPORTUNITIES being offered to these wonderfully talented and hard-working actresses?

1) Because the number of roles written for white women far outstrip those written for women of color. (The cases of Jennifer Lawrence and Gabourey Sidibe are further exacerbated by the size difference.)
2) Because roles that are written for women of color or ethnically ambiguous women (like Katniss) often come with a “She should be Caucasian” note on the casting call, regardless. Because white women will be considered for roles written for women of color, but women of color are much more rarely considered for white roles.”

http://www.racebending.com/v4/history/but-shes-a-talented-actress-a-case-study-2/

 

 

 

Minorities don’t have the luxury of being cavalier as some readers and  moviegoers who easily ignore the lack of diversity on screen and in literature by stating something to the effect, when “I read a book, or watch a movie I don’t look at the race of the individual” or “If it bothers you so much, why not write a book or make a movie?”

Easy things to say when most protagonists,  heroes and heroines in movies both today and in past years are overwhelmingly white.

Yet even knowing this, there are more than a few dissenters when a minority is cast in a role traditionally reserved for white actors:

Thor

 

A controversy arose when British actor Idris Elba was cast as the god  Heimdall, in the movie Thor.

Heimdall from Thor, the big budget movie

 

 

 

Some fans, forgetting that while the comic book was written at a time when most characters were lily white, stuck to the argument that since the original comic was based on Norse mythology, then the gods should have been all played by white actors.

On several sites around the internet, many of the comments against the casting of Elba were either of the “tired of this PC crap” variety or “I’m not prejudiced, but Heimdall shouldn’t be played by a black guy”. Thankfully, there were also fans of the comic who had no problem with diversity in the casting. After the film was released Elba’s performance won over most of the nay-sayers.

Heimdall

 

But this example shows how the default image in most movies, regardless of genre reverts to white, with some moviegoers vehemently against any change in a standard they’re used to.

With roles being so scarce for actors of color one would think The Help would be a welcome relief. Its subject matter is meaty enough for those who enjoy plot before the marquee name at the top, and the cast is relatively diverse, though limited by simply African Americans and whites (there were other ethnicities in the south besides these two groups, even in the 1960s). Women are prominently featured, when films having a primary female cast generally aren’t bankrolled, especially not without a “name” actress in the leading role.

I’m not looking forward to the movie. In truth, I found the book insulting and offensive in many parts. Though I do believe the premise was a good one. It’s the execution that was highly flawed.

And while the movie may be called The Help, I suspect its been changed to eliminate sections that were odious in the book, and characters altered so that modern moviegoers can relate to them. You see, while Kathryn Stockett may have forgotten that while her book was set in the early 60s, that didn’t mean it should have been written it as if she were living in that time period, thus playing ominpresent narrator and injecting negative, stereotypical ideology and slurs about blacks into the maids dialogue (insults conveniently inserted in the mouths and the scenes of the African American characters). No, the movie won’t make most of the mistakes Stockett did.

Though I did catch a few lifted from the novel in the U.S. trailer currently playing in theaters.

The film tries to play up the “friendship” and sisterhood angle on the movie, but there’s no escaping that the screenplay sprang from the novel of the same name, and that this film isn’t about The Help. Constantine, Aibileen and Minny are just props to tell the tale of perky Skeeter, played by Emma Stone.

The irony of all this isn’t lost on me and won’t be lost on some viewers of the film.

No matter how much Kathryn Stockett protests, the book was no “homage” to Demetrie or her culture. The film can only reflect the best selling novel, warts and all.

Because much like her main protagonist, Stockett appeared detached from her subject matter in early interviews.

When the author earnestly recites that Medgar Evers was “bludgeoned” to death in three audio interviews while promoting the novel, it begs the question whether Stockett took to heart what the activist was subjected to during the 60s. It’s also worth noting that on Page 277 of the novel Skeeter mentions Evers being “bludgeoned” also. Seems an earlier draft of the novel somehow got mixed into the final published version.

Error on Evers in the Paperback version of The Help

But that still doesn’t explain Stockett’s embarrassing lapse on how a central figure in the history of the Civil Rights movement and Jackson, Mississippi died. Especially since Medgar Evers shooting death is referenced in her novel by Aibileen and Minny. 

For more on this blunder, see this post titled The Medgar Evers Error in the Help.

Stockett discusses Skeeter's "bravery" and voices Minny talking "spoilt cootchies"

My guess is the original manuscript was quite raw and blunt on first read, startling not just in the direct way it talked of the black race, but how Stockett casually read passages from her book.  Especially the “spoilt cootchie” scene, which shows the author was unaware of how offensive the connotation was. To review, Aibileen actually believes God has given her the ability to cast down a venereal disease on another woman (Pg 23-24).

A link to the video of Stockett reading the part of Minny can be found here:

Kathryn Stockett’s Magical Minstrel Tour: Stockett voices Minny

To Stockett it was an amusing anecdote, something “funny” she may have either overheard or been taught about African Americans, never realizing it was simply segregationist ideology repeated in conversation and even in the local newspapers during and prior to the 60s.

And the same character that Stockett claimed in her short rebuttal statement to the lawsuit, Aibileen, who was  deemed “intelligent, a loyal servant of the lord and a devoted mother” is revealed as quite backwards and superstitious when she asks Minny:

“You saying people think I got the black magic?” (Pg 24)

Stockett then heaps on more  insult, by having these two women believe that somehow God and black magic can co-exist in prayer.

Minny answers Aibileen’s question like this:

“I knew it worry you if I told you. They just think you got a better connection than most. We all on a party line to God. but you, you setting right on his ear.” (Pg 24)

Readers are supposed to laugh at this, much like radio listeners and then television audiences howled in laughter at how Amos n’ Andy were so dim-witted.

Like The Help, Amos n’ Andy had fans believing they were privy to how African Americans really behaved, thought, and lived.

There’s  probably an educator out there who loves the book, assigning it not only as a reading but having students recite lines from the text. Perhaps the kids are taking on a southern accent to play one of the maids (I’m still debating on whether to post the screen grab of someone who claimed this was done).

Behold the true “gift” that Kathryn Stockett has given America.

A return to the past where jokes and slurs were made at the expense of an already oppressed culture. A return to when African Americans were forced to look at numerous ads for products that had their likeness as domestics, which used the default image of the large in girth, dark in color to hawk products with a humorous persona, the same doppelganger populating Stockett’s novel, which is no different than this one: 

Click image for a larger view:

Electrolux Ad from 1941

And this one:

Sanka Coffee Ad, featuring the sassy maid caricature

And still another:

Everybody's favorite "Aunt", Aunt Jemima, still "large and in charge" even today

 This post is still in development . . .
3 Responses “It’s 2011, and there’s still a Negro* problem in publishing and Hollywood” →
  1. I am curious what you might think of the film Red Tails? First of all, I know there were some flaws to the film, cliches. My husband and I have in queue at Netflix the HBO film on the Tuskegee Airmen, and perhaps this will be a higher quality film than Red Tails. But I wish everyone would see Red Tails to support the effort of George Lukas to get it distributed–it took him years. It was turned down in Hollywood because it was thought that the public would not go see a film in which most of the characters were African Americans.

    Reply
  2. Hi Mij,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m working a a post that will be up later this week on what I call “Good Intentions.” Like yourself, I saw the HBO film the Tuskegee Airmen. I’d like to refer you to this site called Indie Wire (please check out the posts by their affliliated site Shadow and Act):

    http://blogs.indiewire.com/search?search=Red+Tails

    SHADOW AND ACT ARTICLES

    http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/red-tails-review-what-we-thought-what-you-thought-lets-go

    http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/why-did-red-tails-fail-to-soar-at-the-box-office

    Very interesting opinions going on. Red Tails should break even once DVD sales come into play. Like I said, I hope to have the post up this week and will copy part of it onto this blog post. Honestly, I’m conflicted about Red Tails. I commend George Lucas for all that he put into getting the film into theaters, but I’m a bit disappointed with the result, for a number of reasons.

    Reply
  3. Oh my gosh, thank you so much for these links. Just visited them briefly to see what I have in store to read, and I can hardly wait. Am grateful, on a personal level, for a couple or reasons. I was unaware of Indie Wire, and Shadow and Act. I am a movie buff, and one of my sons is into filmmaking, so these sites will help educate me. Also, this coming Sunday I will be with friends for our annual Academy party. I purposely avoided reading The Help, but did see the movie. I found it condescending and patronizing and minimizing of what likely went on during those times, though since I grew up in the North, I cannot speak from firsthand experience. (As an aside, was glad to see elsewhere on your site a treatment of The Long Walk Home, which I loved.)

    Anyway, to prepare myself for conversations about The Help, since I am often in the minority view of both the book and the movie, I googled and found your wonderful site here. You have given me much to think about.

    And now, from glancing at the Indie Wire and Shadow & Act sites, I guess I need a more balanced view about how we “should” all see RedTails. Thanks so much for your response.

    Reply

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