Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Where Are All The Black People At?
I was editing my Facebook profile one day by deleting or “unliking” musicians, television shows, etc. that I didn’t actually like in real life anymore. When I got to my “Movies” section, I wanted to delete Will Smith because I hadn’t seen him in anything recent, but then I realized I had to keep him because if I unliked him, then I would have no black people whatsoever under that section. I immediately ran off the list of movies I had recently seen, and none of them featured black actors. I didn’t want to come off as racist, but it wasn’t my fault (Disclaimer: I’ve watched films with black actors in them thanks to my Racial Borders and American Cinema class, but hardly any outside of the class). Shawshank Redemption was on my list, but that movie was made in 1994. Ultimately, this lead to my question, “WHERE ARE ALL THE BLACK PEOPLE AT?” Black people represent 13% of the U.S. population according to the 2010 census. Thirteen percent seems like a small percentage, but 13% of over 300 million people is a lot. Yet, African Americans and the American public and even the world are still seeing representations of life through the lens of the white majority.

Since that unliking spree, I have watched 12 Years a Slave, a movie with a predominately black cast and director. 12 Years was popular with the black and white moviegoers, winning three Academy Awards, but while it is a good thing that these slave narratives are reaching the masses without the so-called “Blaxploitation” and that slavery is finally portrayed accurately on the silver screen as opposed to films like Birth of a Nation (1915), contemporary black films still have to rely on old themes like plantation narratives in order to be wildly successful [1].  

Tyler Perry has become a star with his Madea films in recent decades, yet his predecessors, including Spike Lee, have criticized his portrayals of the title character, Madea. In movies that follow a modern day black family, Perry plays the elderly Madea in drag. These movies have given blacks much screen time and a creative outlet, but it has been done through comedy and cross-dressing, bringing up remnants of overtly racist caricatures of blacks in the past.

These examples of recent contemporary black films, where blacks and whites do not coexist shows that we haven’t gotten “there,” the post-racial state imagined by some after the election of the first black president. While the likes of Will Smith, Morgan Freeman, and Denzel Washington have been successful, these people are getting older. The YZ generation (think Emma Stone) is absent. The only person I can come up with at the top of my head is Michael B. Jordon, who’s latest film, That Awkward Moment with white costars, Zac Efron and Miles Teller garnered negative reviews.

Jordon plays a doctor in the film, which frankly I’ve never seen portrayed by a young black male before. Well, Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a doctor, but he was never explicitly shown as one (Jordon’s first appears in the movie in scrubs). Jordon is playing a successful black male, but in large part to the lack of success of the movie, no one has or will see that image. Birth of a Nation, the birth referring to the birth of the Ku Klux Klan nation, was the first time that many Americans saw an African American, thus providing them their first impression of them, illustrating the power of film to provide knowledge and images of supposed normalcy.

Thankfully, the failure of That Awkward Moment did not disrupt Jordon’s movie career as he is set to star as The Human Torch, replacing Chris Evans, a white actor, in the reboot of The Fantastic Four series. Blacks have come a long way in society, but have not done the same in Hollywood, leaving black and other minority audiences without an influence on the big screen or a feeling of inclusiveness. Hopefully, casting decisions like the one in The Fantastic Four will provide a new normalcy for black Americans and other minorities and provide someone on the big screen for younger African Americans to look up to and emulate, so the lens of the movies won’t always be through that of a white person.

[1] Professor Shilpa Davé