Black like who?
When it comes to screen images, expect a discomfort zone
By Lisa Kennedy
Denver Post Film Critic
Could it come down to something as simple as this?
No one ever aspired to be Mammy.
Or Stepin Fetchit. Or Amos and partner-in-laff-crimes Andy. Or Rochester, boss.
And while it may be hard out here for a pimp, young African-American men wouldn't mind walking in the shoes of "Hustle & Flow's" DJay, the hustler aching for hip-hop stardom.
Or so the hype might have us believe.
We know images of people of color aren't neutral - even those made by people of color. Minority communities have reasons for arguing about which images shackle them to the past. And those that free us - and by us I mean all of you reading this.
We can't quite resolve the mystery of what images mean once and for all in relation to our sense of self - to the jobs we hold, the way we raise our chidren, the friends we make, the clothes we wear, the way we bristle at or embrace ideas.
The way we were. The way we are and can be.
If conversations about music videos, movies, TV programs and award shows sound heated, conflicted - like there's something at stake but we don't all agree on what - it's because there is.
Ashara Ekundayo, founder of the Starz Denver Pan African Film Festival, recalls attending the world premiere of "Hustle & Flow" at last year's Sundance Film Festival.
"I didn't want to like it. I didn't like the premise of it," she says. "I read the description and I thought, 'Why are we still making movies about these stereotypical kinds of images and putting them at Sundance of all places?' Oooh, I was mad about that. You're going to show all this stuff to the most influential white people in Hollywood?"
Only a funny thing happened on the way to hating the movie.
"Within 20 minutes, they had me," says Ekundayo. "I was bopping my head. I was following the characters. It didn't matter to me that they were stereotypical, because the story of redemption worked for me. DJay wanted something else. He wanted more."
What a mad, mad, mad, mad world of competing images it has become. One where pleasures - sometimes guilty - are measured against communal needs and dreams.
Just this year, we've seen: Tyler Perry don a house frock, wield a belt and own the box office playing an Atlanta grandma called Madea.
Martin Lawrence do his own box-office jig in a dress, with his "Big Momma" sequel.
Dave Chappelle return with a leap to the big screen with a documentary as complicated as he is, "Dave Chappelle's Block Party."
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office turned down comedian Damon Wayans' request to own a version of the n-word for a line of apparel, but the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp with the smiling visage of Hattie McDaniel, the first black actor to receive an Oscar. She won for her role as Mammy in "Gone With the Wind."
Then there was "Black.White." the skin-color switcheroo stunt produced by Ice Cube. On this surreality show, the white father keeps making the skin-deep claim that he can hardly wait until someone calls him the n-word. It won't hurt, he insists. He might be right, because, well, he would still be white under that impressive makeup. And no one ever called his mama the n-word.
The other day The Denver Post received a news release from a restaurant announcing that its new Sunday brunch will include the "Citrus Fusion with Hangar Kaffir Lime." Do they really not get how "kaffir," a disparaging term for a black African, is similar to branding your beverage with the n-word?
Battles around the use of the n-word will flare for years to come. Rappers and comics will continue to pursue their failed experiment. Proving that while overuse may render the word less potent in the studio, it has yet to lose its toxic power when used as a weapon.
"I'm not going to make a promise that I won't say the word on television," Dave Chappelle told James Lipton on "Inside the Actors Studio." "But for right now, I just feel that people aren't responsible enough. Also, older black women in my family are going to tear me a new ... for saying it."
Hard out here for actors
No one should underestimate the power of certain elders to make us think again about what we put out culturally in the world.
When the song actor Terrence Howard's character DJay creates in "Hustle & Flow" - "It's Hard Out Here for Pimp" - was nominated for an Oscar this year, Denzel Washington, Sidney Poitier and Will Smith reportedly advised Howard not to perform it at the awards show.
Why? Maybe because singing would have allowed the clueless to further confuse Howard (who like Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle is a bolt of theatrical talent) with the growing posse of rappers turned onscreen performers: Ice Cube, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg.
Or did the warning come because that Hollywood troika knows well that longevity as a serious black actor requires constant vigilance?
For example, as much as people were thrilled for Washington to win a best actor Oscar in 2003, they felt aggrieved with the academy. Why, they asked, was it for his portrayal of a foul-mouthed, corrupt detective in "Training Day" and not his stunning depiction of Malcolm X or even boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter?
Instead of Howard, Three 6 Mafia performed "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" at the Kodak Theatre that night. Later they took home the gold.
After the ceremony, niaonline .com, a Web-based community focused on issues of interest to black women, ran a poll asking: How does hip-hop's growing influence over U.S. pop culture affect the image of black people?
Seventy-three percent of respondents in the nonscientific poll voted that it was "damaging our image." Only 3 percent said it was "enhancing."
"We got more responses after the Academy Awards than we ever had," said niaonline.com editor in chief Sheryl Huggins.
"From what I can see from comments from readers, in the case of Tyler Perry's Madea they understand that the whole guy-in-drag thing is comedy. They don't take it seriously as a mocking image of black women," said Huggins.
"They're more disturbed by highly sexualized images. Particularly women over a certain age who grew up at a time when there were so very few images of black women. They are especially sensitive to the ones you see in the videos. Or like you saw at the Academy Awards with the strutting of pimps and ho's."
Unlike movies, says Ekundayo, who also runs a summer bootcamp for girls and young women, "the other images they watch all day, those shorts called videos, that is the most influential stuff out there. It moves them. It tells them this is how I'm supposed to act, react, proact.
"I can't watch BET's videos," she says. "Can't take it. Can't stand it. VH1 Soul, I can leave that on all day long, and I'm never going to see something that makes me feel uncomfortable as a woman. But that's not what teenagers watch all day."
Black women's burden
She's a talented, zaftig black woman whose character dispensed sharp wisdom, rolled her eyes at the boneheaded ways of white folk, and acted as the handmaiden to a white character's emotional growth. Plus, she wound up with an award for her troubles.
Queen Latifah or Hattie McDaniel? Both.
In 1939, the NAACP and its director, Walter White, rightly targeted McDaniel for her role in making a movie sure to denigrate black people. In 2004, the same organization gave Queen Latifah its Image Award for her portrayal in "Bringing Down the House." The movie starred Steve Martin as a lawyer and Queen Latifah as the loud and PG-13 profane ex-con who forces him to help her clear her name.
Sometimes images don't change so much as the consumers around them.
In his upcoming May series "Race & Hollywood: Black Images on Film" for Turner Classic Movies, noted film historian Donald Bogle discusses these push-us/pull-us reactions
"Who's telling us a story? Whose point of view is it coming from?" he said. "The African-American audience often feels very conflicted. It can applaud the performance of Hattie McDaniel in 'Gone With the Wind,' it can applaud the performance of Morgan Freeman in 'Driving Miss Daisy,' but we are not really being given another kind of definition of these characters and the world that they live in, because as we see the characters they are fundamentally accepting the world they live in."
From her time as a sister-power rapper, audiences feel like Latifah has kept faith with them. But as talented as McDaniel was, she was a co-conspirator in our denigration.
No African-American journalist took umbrage at the U.S. Postal Service issuance of the McDaniel stamp during Black History Month.
But when George Clooney mentioned McDaniel in his acceptance speech on Oscar night ("This academy ... gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters"), more than a few columnists took aim.
"Clooney is Looney" was the headline on a Newsday column. While Les Payne cut down the academy to spite what was indeed a deserving performance, he also saved some rancor for Halle Berry.
"Clooney's enlightened Hollywood aroused itself to award its very first Oscar to a black woman for a leading role," he wrote. "Instead of rolling her eyes, this time, the black woman, Halle Berry, earned her faux gold statuette by baring her breasts and feeling up Billy Bob Thornton before flinging herself into his lap like a slut gone wild in 'Monster's Ball."'
It would be grossly unfair to say Payne is alone in disliking Berry's performance. Many black women were dismayed that it was this image that broke through. Why not Angela Bassett years earlier for "What's Love Got to Do With It"?
For me, it was never so much Letitia's desperation that depressed. That's drama. What still rankles is that in order to give Letitia and Hank a love connection, the screenwriter sacrificed both of their sons. What sort of vision of racial reconciliation is it when the characters must live heremetically sealed off from their loved ones?
In the "Boondocks"
"When I was in L.A. last month, driving down Sunset, there were these giant billboards of Huey from Aaron McGruder's 'The Boondocks,"' said Pan African's Ekundayo.
"Look at the machine pushing 'Boondocks,' I thought, pushing these images. Every white person, apparently, in L.A. is watching this little black show on the Cartoon Network.
"You have the satire that's so cutting, so raw, I sometimes turn the TV off and I feel sick."
So is it cutting edge or is it a throwback? Is it righteous or wrong?
"I ... I don't know," she said with a laugh. "The images, they disturb me. The show disturbs me, and I love that."
Black stars of past and present
Images of people of color are loaded with meaning:
Dave Chappelle knows well the dance between life and performance. "White people come up to me and say, 'Oh that show you did about the n-word was great!' " His reaction, he told James Lipton: "Oooo, I want to fight you."
Halle Berry: Many still feel her Oscar high point was a cultural nadir. Berry has yet to find a role to change their hearts.
Denzel Washington: Many consider him the heir and then some to Sidney Poitier's grace and fire.
Queen Latifah: Her lowest point won her an NAACP award. Yet, her choices since suggest she gets the power of image in her audience's lives.
Hattie McDaniel: For an account of the Denver native's actions during "Gone With the Wind," read Jill Watts' biography, "Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood." But consider: When rappers celebrate getting paid over all else, they may have torn a page from her play-the-game book.
Tyler Perry: This cottage industry of one says he has plenty more Madea stories. Is that the only way audiences will come to his tales about love, forgiveness and redemption?
Sidney Poitier: Just watch "A Raisin in the Sun," "The Defiant Ones" or, what the heck, "Uptown Saturday Night" to know that he simmered, he boiled, and owned the screen with a smile and surprising physicality.
Martin Lawrence: Back away from that dress, Maaahtin.
Stepin Fetchit: Lincoln Perry, the black character actor, provides a case study in what happen when a persona takes over a life and doesn't give it back.
Richard Pryor: Late, great, but hardly innocent when it came to confounding us with the hilariously negative.
Angela Bassett: Almost every actress was robbed in 1993 when Holly Hunter won the Academy Award, but Bassett's performance as Tina Turner promised us an actress for the ages.
Eddie "Rochester" Anderson: 20-year radio, TV relationship with Jack Benny showed that broad comedy could react to the times.