Black is the new white — but only in token Hollywood representation; reality in the US remains a far cry

Often, critics writing about instances of black representation miss the paramount importance of the fact that it is not who you see on screen but also how you see them and who gets to control that narrative.

Niyati Dave February 19, 2019 09:23:21 IST
Black is the new white — but only in token Hollywood representation; reality in the US remains a far cry

Has there ever been a time when it has been great to be black in the United States of America?

The 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were not so hot, to put it very mildly, thanks to slavery. Until 1868, an African American was not considered a citizen of the US, and even after slavery was abolished, segregation made sure that black Americans were denied access to housing, education and livelihoods while also being subjected to lynchings and other forms of violence.

African-Americans have literally been free for a fewer number of years than they have been enslaved.

But surely things are better now?

After all, a black man was president for eight years, Beyonce rules the airwaves, Childish Gambino’s 'This is America' became the first rap song to win best song and record at the Grammys.  According to one Vinayak Chakravorty, whose article, Black is the New White, I am writing in response to, even “Hollywood is regarding African-Americans with newfound seriousness.”

Looking at movies such as Green Book, Black Panther and Set it Up as examples that new-age Hollywood is beginning to engage with black characters and themes, Vinayak argues that Hollywood is beginning to depict reversals of traditional race relations by showing black men bossing around white subordinates; that inclusion and diversity means more stories about black people are being produced; and that white directors are also creating nuanced black characters.

Black is the new white  but only in token Hollywood representation reality in the US remains a far cry

A still from Green Book. YouTube

The biggest flaw of Vinayak’s arguments is that they are absolutely devoid of context. By context, I mean that there is no sense of the historical or contemporary realities of racial relations in America, neither is there an understanding of the vocabulary of visual references that these films speak to or of the distinctions between different sorts of depictions of blackness on screen.

In positing this influx of movies starring black actors as a trend towards inclusion, he does not distinguish how, while the movies he mentions all have black characters, not all of them actually delve into black themes. Set It Up, for example, might portray a black man being a boss, but does his blackness feature in the film in any meaningful way?

Moreover, while Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs may have been the non-white (side note to Vinayak: the phrase “coloured people” sounds like a relic from Jim Crow — best to leave it back in the 1950s) bosses “lording” over their white underlings, the movie itself was focused on the love story of a lily-white couple.

Netflix, realising that the need for a Hollywood that is not all-white is high on the priorities of non-white viewers, might even have used this inclusivity-focused marketing to its advantage by featuring Lucy Lie and Taye Diggs  as the main protagonists in targeted advertisements to entice black Netflix users, when they were in reality minor secondary characters, at best.

This lack of context is also evident in how Chakravorty does not take into view how African-Americans have historically been featured in not just Hollywood but American visual culture and entertainment in general.

This is not the place to delve into them in great detail, but to cut a long story short, racial caricatures abound, the sexual and physical subjugation of black people is often fetishised for the consumptive pleasure of white audiences, such as in older movies like Mandingo. The simplistic black characters serve as a plot device to guide the white protagonist in his redemptive journey towards becoming less white-racist and more white-saviour, as in The Help and, to an extent, in Green Book.

Each of the movies he mentions, with the exception of BlacKKKlansman and Black Panther, fits neatly into these series of Hollywood tropes for narratives about black people.

Black is the new white  but only in token Hollywood representation reality in the US remains a far cry

A still from Black Panther. Marvel Studios

Last year, Black Panther became the first mainstream superhero movie with a black protagonist. It was a momentous chapter in cinematic history: the first time that global audiences came out in hordes to watch a movie with a mostly all-black cast. Before this, apart from films from heavyweight directors such as Quentin Tarantino, movies with black protagonists had very little currency on a global stage.

Perhaps, this is why the vocabulary of how to talk about these works and the context from which they come seems to be lacking. Often, critics writing about these instances of representation miss the paramount importance of the fact that it is not who you see on screen but also how you see them and who gets to control that narrative.

These dynamics of  who has the power (in Hollywood, I imagine this mostly involves access to money) to assume authorship of black characters, are flattened out in a way that does not interrogate how power structures within Hollywood mean that fewer black filmmakers get a chance to tell their stories, while the Tarantinos of the world do.

Within that context, it is suspect for Chakravorty to write, in “an interesting aside” that “the black protagonist of interest can also be the brainchild of a white filmmaker” and that “Tarantino or Farrelly trying to understand Hollywood’s renewed racial equation points at the notion that the industry is looking at African Americans with newfound seriousness... and marks a move from the time when African-American themes were largely the domain of black filmmakers.”

As Jelani Cobb wrote, even if a black filmmaker wanted to attempt a movie at the scale of Django Unchained, chances of their procuring a budget to do so are incredibly unlikely. The recent waves of movies such as Get Out and BlacKKKlansman are also made possible by more black producers, such as Jordan Peele, entering the game. To gloss over this fact and attribute more diversity in the movies to new-age (mostly white) Hollywood’s commitment to telling more diverse stories is just plain wrong.

In Vinayak’s piece, the vocabulary, quite literally the choice of shifting words, including the lite-racist term “coloured people,” he uses to describe black people also point to his lack of engagement with the broader contexts surrounding these movies. By glossing over how these movies fit into the larger landscape of how Hollywood depicts blackness, he misses the point that some of these movies go beyond being simple means of entertainment.

By rewriting the sloppy and stereotypical narratives about black people in the US,  they have also become cultural expressions of resistance. To be a film critic and miss that some of the movies he is talking about propagate racial clichés, while others are radical expressions of what being black in America feels like, means that his assessment, that Hollywood is making strides towards tackling race relations, remains hollow.

Vinayak’s piece is headlined by the question: Is black the new white?

That is a rhetorical question that should be irrelevant in the face of what we know about American history or for that matter, the Trumpian nightmare of contemporary America, where a woman was killed at a white supremacist rally.

The truth is, it still sucks to be black in America. Wealth inequality because of years of being unable to access, mass incarceration, the possibility of the police arresting you for trespassing while you wait for some overly saccharine concoction at Starbucks, because you look out of place there, all point to the fact, that no matter what token representation we see on screen, black is most certainly not the new white.

To be the new white, it would need a lot more than Mahershala Ali employing Viggo Mortenson as his subordinate driver in Green Book. It would need the dismantling of all much of the financial, social and governmental institutions that make up the fabric of America today. Not to mention, possibly, reparations.

In India, we routinely consume black culture, especially music, without fully understanding the fraught histories behind words such as the N-word. A small example of this is how most of all the internet slang urban millennials use — woke, on fleek,  bae — has origins in African American slang. If we are appreciating and appropriating black culture all the time, then I think that those of us who write about these films, songs and phenomena, should, at the very least take the trouble to understand where they are coming from, what they are speaking to and whether they are perpetuating or subverting weary clichés from that context.

In the words of Solange Knowles, if you “don’t want to do the dishes, but still want to eat the food,” then perhaps you should stick to writing what you know instead of bungling what you do not.

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