Hollywood’s Tea Party

American hustle
doll test updated

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Ah the splendor of black music.  What would white supremacist civilization do without it?  Homegrown, soulful, it is the forbidden spice in a thousand scenes of white folk romancing, cutting loose, getting it on and minding the empire’s business. Black dynamism has always been a wellspring for white theft.  For many people of color, going to 21st century movies is a soul-sucking exercise in being trained to see power through white eyes, often with the strategic pomp of a black soundtrack.  Death by trailer, it is the masochistic pleasure of being bludgeoned into mental submission by the narrative of white heroism (in the form of Mark Wahlberg, Matt Damon and George Clooney), white hetero-normative romance (in the form of faceless anorexic white girls and boys slobbering over and devouring each other) and white domesticity in white picket fence communities.

Generations after psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s 1947 doll test experiment on racial identification (which has been updated several times over the past decade), children’s images of whiteness remain rigidly framed through the lens of humanity, civilization, ingenuity, genius, beauty and morality. When children of color see themselves at all in American film it is as ethnic exotica, sidekicks for the enterprising white boy/girl protagonist or fly-in-the-buttermilk diversity mascots fleshing out a classroom scene. According to a 2012 study by the USC Annenberg School, 76.3% of all speaking characters in American film were white while whites comprise 56% of U.S. ticket buyers. By contrast, Latinos comprise 26% of ticket buyers and 17% of the U.S. population, yet account for only 4.3% of speaking roles in film.

In 2013, the American film industry raked in over 10 billion in profits, plowing over people of color who now comprise the majority of California’s population.  In the new film American Hustle blacks, Latinos and Arabs are the colorful backdrop to the ribald shenanigans of a cunning yet endearing white couple cruising toward redemption and nuclear family-hood in New Jersey. Based on the so-called “Abscam” sting of 1982, which brought down several East Coast politicos, the film is studded with people of color props while white lady privilege—in the form of actress Amy Adams’ ingenious temptress schemer—wins the day. The film’s straight white protagonists plot and cavort to R&B music by African American artists; they court and lust to classy-white-people staple Duke Ellington and sneer when a Mexican American FBI agent posing as an Arab sheik meekly protests that the term Abscam (a mangled combination of Arab and scam) is racist. With its blast from a comfortable past twist on illicit white suburbia Hustle has racked up accolades and even been hailed as “filmmaking at its best.” Safely scrubbed of black and brown voices in speaking roles Hustle approximates the pending orgy of awards shows which will toss a little red meat to a few black tokens (e.g., 12 Years a Slave and the Nelson Mandela biopic) then bask in the congratulatory glow of whiteness.

Last year, the L.A. Times published an in-depth analysis of the race and gender demographics of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s members.  The Academy Awards generate millions of dollars for an industry that remains one of the most stubbornly Jim Crow corporate bastions in the world.  Not surprisingly 94% of Academy members are older, white and male.  The majority of Southern California members live in some of the most segregated enclaves in Los Angeles, safely tucked away from the black and Latino hordes in their super elite lily white Beverly Hills, West L.A. and Santa Monica neighborhoods. Even though the array of generous tax incentives offered in other states have displaced Los Angeles as the center of American film production the city still profits hugely from the industry and cheap non-living wage labor.  In July, African American marketing executive Cheryl Boone Isaacs was elected Academy president.  Despite this nod to “diversity”, the Academy’s Tea Party demographics speak to the greater issue of film representation in front of and behind the camera.  According to Annenberg only 8% of directors, 13.6% of writers and 19.1% of producers were female, while the numbers were even more abysmal for people of color. Commenting on this regime acclaimed writer-director Ava DuVernay (the first black woman to win a Sundance Film festival Best Director award) quipped that “I pretty much know us all personally.”

Seeking to redress these disparities, DuVernay spearheaded the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) in 2011.  But the gross disparities in film industry hiring, casting, promotion and “greenlighting” are also buttressed by the complicity of print media.  Despite their waning status as media leaders, the executive and editorial staff of the L.A. Times, New York Times and Wall Street Journal play an important role in upholding the film industry’s corporate pigmentocracy. Thus, while there have been numerous articles in these corporate newspapers hailing the increase of strong complex roles for white women in TV and film there has been no recognition of the continuing dearth of artistic opportunities for women of color.

The global implications of this corporate media white-out are reflected in my students. In classroom discussions many of them cannot name a role model of color (aside from rappers, singers, Oprah and MLK) or identify substantive portrayals of women of color in film and TV.  Even though alternative filmmaking mediums on the Internet and elsewhere have exploded over the past decade few if any express the desire to be writers, directors, cinematographers or producers. Despite the reign of digital media, streaming and You Tube, youth of color are big moviegoers.  Yet, targeted by the barrage of demonizing portrayals of their communities, they dismiss filmmaking as an impractical white medium that’s only accessible to an elite few.  But the crafting of screen images is a major aspect of cultural propaganda, identity formation and nation building.  And the battle for the psyches of children of color continues to occur in the dark, at the multiplex, where segregated Middle America still sees itself validated as the center of the universe.    


Hollywood’s Tea Party

18 thoughts on “Hollywood’s Tea Party

  1. 1

    Built right into the American sub-conscious, racism and sexism (among others) are de-facto systems for denying resource to a segment of the population. Once that resource is isolated it is easier to to sift through the smaller pool and get to the resource. Less competition… That’s why the “Joe the Plumber” incident wherein President Obama said the words “spread the wealth” evoked such a strong reaction. A black man trying to side with a white “under-privileged” guy. I got to hand it to the President, he really stuck his finger in privileges eye that time.

  2. 3

    Learning about the Magical Negro trope has spoilt (appropriately!) a lot of movies for me.

    I try to always remember the thoughts of James Earl Jones, when I hear people wondering why a Black actor would take some of these appalling roles, and I know there are very different streams of thought on this in the Black community – Mr. Jones said that he had always taken and always would take any job people offered him, basically, as long as they were going to pay him the going rate for an actor. Because as a Black actor, he’d long since learned that refusing jobs could quickly lead to being known as a “difficult” actor (read “uppity”), which would mean his career would end quickly.

    Now whether that accommodationist view is the best one for the community, I’m not qualified to speak on, but it put a sharp line for me around Black actors when I see them only offered roles as gangsters or basketball players or whatever other stereotype, and realizing, people have got to eat.

    What I’d like to see a lot more of from movie and TV makers is shows with actors of colour in the majority of roles, that are themselves genre pictures. Like Red Tails, a terrific war flick, which also was about a group of Black aviators. Of course, even if the film gets made, the distribution channels, and award biases, and everything else working against anything with casts primarily of actors of colour, will make it harder for it to get out.

    I wonder if a Netflix-type organization might be more inclined to make a show like that…maybe a social media campaign to get people to watch lots of movies with lots of actors of colour in them on Netflix, so their data spikes and says, “Hey, people want to watch these, let’s get it made!”

    I need to watch fewer musicals, don’t I?

    Great article, as always, ma’am, thank you.

    1. 3.1

      Thanks for the response CC. Jones was right to a limited extent — if actors of color sat around and waited for “respectable” roles they’d starve/fade into oblivion. Still having taught blazingly talented young actors of color at one of the leading arts institutes in the country I was always outraged by their stories of grinding rejection while being reduced to demeaning caregiver/criminal roles. DuVernay and company have provided meaningful platforms for budding independent filmmakers of color. Hopefully their efforts will thrive and blossom into a movement.

  3. 5

    Yeah, you’ve got five perfectly good role models there. Plus the Obamas, and they’ve got kids too, that’s almost TEN whole role models! What, you want role models UNDER the age of 45 too?

    What do you people want, anyway, the whole world? Yeesh. Give them a quarter of an inch, and the next thing you know, they’ll be demanding a HALF an inch!

    /raging torrents of snark

    1. 5.1

      Okay why the snark? I don’t see the reason for it, sorry.

      Also I’d have thought Denzel Washington and Halle Berry were aged under 45 no?

      I’m certainly NOT meaning to suggest these are the only African American role models just some prominent examples that I’m surprised people couldn’t name immediately in any classroom discussion.

      Does it help to mention astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson as another scientific example that would also likely be raised in any classroom discussion? Or the fictional Geordi LaForge, Lt Uhura, Lt Torres and Lt Tuvok (though def. NOT the erstwhile commenter who goes / went by that nym!) from the Trek ‘verse as showing there are plenty of other prominent examples out there – and I think that’s a good thing and not a problem of course. I’m all for them and more of them too.

      I’m not seeing this as a problem or anything just noting my surprise that such well-known examples aren’t being listed in classroom discussions assuming that’s the case and wondering why that might be.

      Not sure what or why what I’ve said has apparently got you so angry.

        1. @ dysomniak, darwinian socialist :

          “Phil Ochs — Love me, I’m a liberal”

          Well to be honest I’ve either never or only vaguely heard most of the names there and I’m an Aussie not an American so this hardly applies.

          BTW. ‘Liberal’ in Oz means kinda the opposite of what it does in the USA so yeah, nah. Doesn’t really work for me.

          Also if you think I’;m not genuine about saying I want more African American role models and wish them the best – well, you’d be wrong ’bout that..

          1. No worries, Stevie. I fully expected that to go over your head. Seems like at least one other person got a chuckle out of it. As for the definition of liberal being different down under, that’s horseshit. Just because we don’t have a left wing party here doesn’t make our centrists magically lefist.

      1. They are both over 45, and, as CC noted, once you get past the usual black (primarily male & cis) suspects trotted out ad nauseum as lone wolf exceptions in Hollywood film it’s neo-Jim Crow.

        In my entire 10 plus years of teaching in high schools that are 100% Afr-Am and Latino I have never heard Denzel W or Halle Berry cited as role models. Though a great actor, the former was only granted an Academy Award for playing a murderous renegade “gangsta” cop and the latter got hers playing a Jezebel stereotype. In K-12 youth of color are simply not given exposure to a range of complex, substantive historical/literary/artistic/political figures of color in mainstream K-12 curricula. Contemporary scientists of color like Tyson are virtually unknown to children of color due both to the narrowing of said curricula and mainstream/academic depictions of science as the province of elite white male “geniuses”.

        1. Also, for the record: Ms. Berry is just younger than I am (like, days), and I’m nearer 50 than 45. She’s by far the youngest of the five mentioned. Mr. Freeman is nearly 80, Mr. Glover is in his late 60s, and Mr. Washington and Ms. Goldberg are both nearer 60 than 55.

          But Black people are some 13% of the US, and half a dozen – even outstanding, as some of these folk are – actors are hardly a counterevidence to “there are virtually no role models”, especially since even if all of them genuinely were perceived as such (and see above, re: the difficulties of getting majority-PoC casts any award recognition from voting lists made up of 95% old white men), there aren’t anywhere near the prevalence in the population.

          So my “anger” – snark, actually, but I think there’s stuff here to be worth being angry over, so I’m not going to argue the characterization much – comes from the casual suggestion that “Oh, but there’s these few Exceptional People over here, what do you mean you don’t get any role models?”, which has been used to dismiss concerns over wildly out-of-balance role preference for a particular, clearly identifiable segment of the population many times. I’ve heard it about queer role models (“But there’s Ellen! And Elton John! And that guy from Bronski Beat, he was important to you people, wasn’t he?” – “Possibly, for a few minutes, in the early 80s…”), I’ve heard it about Asians (“But Fez! and Lucy Liu! And Jackie Chan, he’s really funny, that’s kind of a role model! And that cute little Japanese guy in Heroes, he was nonthreatening! Plus Ling Yao and Jeremy Lin, how many do you need, anyway?” “We’d settle for 1/50th of what you get, would that be an okay start?”), I’ve heard it about women (“But Lena Dunham! Leni Riefenstahl! Twilight! Why can’t you be happy with those?” “Because they suck and/or are Nazis?”), et c., et c..

          So seeng you deploy it again, opposite a thoughtful and carefully-reasoned and evidenced post laying out a clear and cogent case for the issue at hand, is, I believe, eminently snark-worthy.

          I hope that helps to explain. If calling it angry makes you happier, then sure, I’m angry, racism makesme angry. Doesn’t it make you angry? Shouldn’t it?

          1. Yes. Racism makes me angry and sad.

            Just checked on wiki and , yes, you’re right.

            I am, once again, surprised. Clearly I’m a lousy judge of age – would not have guessed they were as old as they are. I dunno. I really don’t.

            I’m not disagreeing, didn’t mean to, just surprised and yeah, okay as a priviledged white guy maybe I’ll never get it. I try to understand and I do think I now get what you are saying so, well, fair enough. You win.

  4. 6

    Speaking of asians, how about that fucking bullshit in the 90s when a handful of chinese stars were making movies in the US after HK reverted to the PRC, and they’d always be cast opposite an american woman, but never allowed to have a romantic kiss or actually get with them? Examples: Replacement Killers, Romeo Must Die, Kiss of the Dragon, Anna and the King…

    I contend Jet Li and Chow Yun-fat were at least as sexy as similarly aged american actors at the time, but no, asian guys apparently are eunuchs. Who knew? It’s like those california laws against whites marrying the chinese were still in effect.

  5. 7

    A subtle, but I think important comment on this topic. I’m watching Ken Burns’ excellent The Civil War, and enjoying the voice acting very much.

    But I’m struck by how many different white actors are used, and white academics consulted. It seems like every accent has its own actor, and there are old Maine men and young Maine men, and old Alabamans and young Alabamans…but only for whites. For Blacks there is…Morgan Freeman. He is Frederick Douglass, an educated orator and writer, as well as illiterate young privates from New Orleans, and former Virginia and Georgia slaves talking about returning to the plantation to kill their former overseers, and a middle-class pharmacist or something from Boston.

    Morgan Freeman – who is absolutely wonderful in this! – renders his usual excellent work, providing the voices for pretty much every single Black man in the series. Historian Barbara Fields is the only academic of colour consulted. About the US Civil War, one of the most central major events in the history of Black people in the US. One man doing all the voices, and one academic speaking for all Black points-of-view on the war.

    There are a couple of other voices of people of colour heard; the granddaughter of a freed man who’d become a cavalry sergeant in the Union, and a couple of bits of music that are clearly voices of PoC.

    It’s an excellent show, but it very clearly illustrates the point I think is being made in the OP: that “Black” is considered a genre and a token, and “call Morgan Freeman, wouldja?” is considered “looking after that diversity stuff”.

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