Black People as Scenery

Hollywood got the message more than two decades ago that it should feature more roles for black people and other minorities, but still hasn't figured out exactly how to do this.

The two possible approaches were: to cast blacks in roles written for whites; or to create roles especially for them and to tell stories about them or which at least take them into account. Obviously, it is easier to do the first than the second, and Hollywood has done much more of it.

In the 1940's and 1950's, black actors had to play dumb for roles as nannies and servants. In the 1960's and 1970's, they were featured mainly as gangsters, pimps and prostitutes in gritty police movies that wanted to establish realism by showing white cops in a Harlem setting.

When Hollywood got the message that this was racist and humiliating, certain roles written for white actors became reserved for blacks. One cop movie after another protrayed a black police chief; there were more black police chiefs in the movies than in all the major cities of America. There were more black mayors and FBI agents than there were in the real world. There was the black friend, the black next door neighbor, the black sidekick (the most recent example is the role played by Samuel Jackson in the third Diehard). These movies give the pleasant impression that there is little or no racism in the world; most notable are the ones set in violent, jingoistic surroundings from the American past, revised to create equal opportunity. In Westerns of recent years, black cowboys walk into the saloon, mingle, and enter gunfighting contests with no-one treating them any differently than anyone else. Now, we know there were more than a few black cowboys in the West, but do these movies teach us anything about the actual circumstances of their lives? It is hard to believe the West was enlightened, that whites welcomed blacks, perhaps, as their partners in wiping out the Indians. Of course, the Indians themselves are equal partners in the general enterprise in some of these movies.

In The Unforgiven, Morgan Freeman, as Clint Eastwood's sidekick, was whipped to death by evil sheriff Gene Hackman--a scene of very strange resonance, as he was murdered in a scene eerily suggestive of a lynching without the whisper of a suggestion that his race had anything to do with it. "Listen," Clint Eastwood, who directed, seemed to be telling us, "the role was written for a white guy, and he was whipped in the original script. What was I supposed to do, change it when I hired Morgan Freeman?"

Of course, there was significant carnage among black sidekicks in the police movies as well, and for the same reasons: the peripheral character intended to be sacrificed to the plot was the role most often given to black actors, so that the kindly black sergeant or next door neighbor always seemed to be the one to take a bullet in the gut. The black scientist in Terminator II was a memorable recent example of this trend.

Since black people were frequently portrayed as victims of violence in the 1970's gangster/pimp/prostitute movies, assigning them to peripheral roles in other stories ironically confirmed their iconic association with violence in the movies. Nevertheless, movie producers have tried to capitalize on such casting choices by proudly announcing that they have hired a black person for a role written for a white (I seem to remember such an announcement about the casting of Morgan Freeman in The Unforgiven). Black actors have sometimes also announced that they are pleased to play race-neutral roles, rather than being pigeonholed. However, the vast majority of these roles have been in action-adventure movies such as Passenger 57, roles which themselves are pigeonholes of a sort.

We are being collectively sold a bill of goods, blacks and whites together. The message at the movies is that there is no racism in America. At first blush, this may seem like a good, rather decent thing for movie makers to show us; if the movies are such powerful influences on our lives, the argument goes, won't we be more tolerant, more likely to make friends with people unlike ourselves, if the movies show us the possibility? Well, movies are powerful, and to the extent they really show us interracial friendship, we may learn something. The problem is, they don't. The black actors and actresses playing mayors, police chiefs and sidekicks in the movies are the victims, not beneficiaries, of the type of affirmative action that gives affirmative action a bad name. White audiences know that the character is not black. The actor is a place-marker, a stand in for the liberal conscience which wants to show progress without doing the work necessary to create progress.

Even more problematic, movies like the Lethal Weapon series which portray a real friendship between a white character and a black character who really is black--family, neighborhood, community concerns--serve as a sort of placebo. Just as Schindler's List falsely reassured us that the Holocaust had been handled, because a rescuer had arisen, many contemporary movies falsely tell us that racism, too, has been handled. Most whites who walked out of the theater after any of the Lethal Weapon series glad that Mel Gibson and Danny Glover are friends, probably still do not have any black friends of their own. Spike Lee called attention to a related phenomenon in a savagely funny scene in Do the Right Thing, when a white racist, played by John Turturro, acknowledged being a fan of Eddie Murphy, Whitney Houston and Michael Jordan. We are in a strange phase in America in which many whites can enjoy watching Eddie Murphy--or for that matter, Spike Lee-- make fun of them, precisely because they are not in the same room and therefore, the anxieties of personal contact can be avoided. Dick Gregory said thirty years ago that "in the South, they don't care how close I get, as long as I don't get too big; in the North, they don't care how big I get, as long as I don't get too close." Nothing much has changed since then, except more of the country has become like the North.

Though there are a number of successful black directors telling stories about black people (Spike Lee, Mario van Peebles, Forest Whitaker, Carl Franklin) Hollywood still has a strong tendency to portray black oppression through the story of a white rescuer, mediator or witness--just the way Schindler's List told the story of the Holocaust through the eyes of a German. Sissy Spacek in The Long Walk Home, Barbara Hershey in A World Apart, Donald Sutherland in A Dry White Season (which was directed by a black woman), Gene Hackman in Mississippi Burning, all hogged the camera, reducing the black people behind them to scenery, even though the movies were supposedly about the plight of blacks in pre-Mandela South Africa and the 1960's American South. Movies dealing with other oppressed people have taken the same tack; Sam Waterston in The Killing Fields and Patricia Arquette in Beyond Rangoon worked out their own needs and destinies against an Asian backdrop, giving the impression that Third World uprisings are great locales for middle class white Americans to clear up their consciences and their complexions at the same time. Of course, these movies, similarly Schindler, stand for the principle that such stories are too alien to appeal to your sympathy if a more familiar rescuer is not placed in the foreground.

In reality, there is no substitute for stories about the lives of black people told through their own eye, and thanks to stars like Denzel Washington (who nonetheless alternates making white action adventure movies) and film-makers like Spike Lee, we are getting more of them. Most whites will avoid seeing a film in a theater where the audience is mainly black, but, if this anxiety can be overcome, seeing these movies with a black audience you will learn a lot more than you would from the movie itself. One thing you will realize, as you see black people realistically portrayed on the screen and, more important, really present in the theater, who are middle class and inherently familiar and who seem like they could be your friends, is that segregation is still universal in America at all levels. The black and white middle classes in this country have little to do with each other in most sectors of the workplace, and even less in private life. A black family buying a house in a white neighborhood in Brooklyn, Queens and Westchester is about as likely to see the house burned down as it was thirty years ago.

Asking leadership from the movies in addressing problems like American racism is a waste of breath. As I said in Movies and the Failure of Courage, opinion polls have more to do with movies than artistic vision does. But, to paraphrase Ross Perot, movies should lead, follow or get out of the way. By presenting us with black characters placed in a false light, as tokens or scenery, and by reassuring us that it is addressing racism when it is doing very little, Hollywood is emphatically in the way.