Leonard Quart: Hollywood's complicated black history

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NEW YORK >> In early Hollywood films, from Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" (1915) until the 1930s, African-Americans were usually depicted either as brutal, savage bucks, or as good, obedient toms and mammies who never questioned white authority. In the '30s, two new black stereotypes began to appear, sympathetic victims who were symbols of general rather than racial oppression (the black janitor who is brutally questioned by the police in "They Won't Forget," 1937), and "tragic mulattoes" ("Imitation of Life," 1934) whose skin color allowed them to pass into white society.

However, until the 1940s social problem films like 1947's "Gentleman's Agreement," blacks were mainly confined to minor roles and racism was never explored as an issue. Hollywood decided then to take on the issue, and a number of films dealing with race prejudice were released.

In one of these, Stanley Kramer's "Home of the Brave" (1949), an educated, emotionally disturbed black soldier, Peter Moss, (James Edwards), is cured of psychosomatic paralysis by a white psychiatrist. Moss's character is in the tradition of the noble martyr. He is a self-effacing figure who is a war hero and a successful professional. White liberal audiences could treat him as someone whose character and lifestyle were not different from any white man's, and, for the moment, feel absolved of being prejudiced.

"Home of the Brave" was a modest improvement over the generally contemptuous and condescending treatment of blacks in Hollywood films in earlier decades. But the substance of the black experience remained basically absent from the screens.

In the 1950s and '60s, it was the dignity and transcendent humanness of the characters played by Sidney Poitier that embodied the black experience for the movie-going public. Poitier usually played charismatic, successful, morally superior figures that were embraced by white audiences ("Lilies of the Field" 1963, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" 1967. Poitier never bowed or scraped to whites, but he was so reasonable and humane that the white audience knew that his anger would always remain within bounds acceptable to them.

In the early 1970s, "Blaxploitation" films like "Shaft" (1971) and "Superfly" (1972) appeared and the genre had a brief commercial success. However, by the late 1980s, black directors were producing serious black films like Spike Lee's most complex and imaginative work, "Do the Right Thing" (1989) and John Singleton's "Boyz N the Hood" (1991). By the beginning of the 21st century there were a number of black box office stars like Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Will Smith and Halle Barry.

In the year 2013 a half dozen films depicting the African-American experience were released. They included "Lee Daniels' The Butler," Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station," and Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave." But a year later, when the lead actor of "Selma" was bypassed by the Oscars and no other non-white actor was nominated, there were rumblings about the award ceremony's racism and lack of diversity. The fact that this year the 20 actors nominated for an Oscar were again all white moved some black actors and directors like Will Smith and Spike Lee to boycott the ceremony, and saw the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite appear all over the social media.

Quotas aren't answer

There were films in 2015 featuring black actors, like "Creed" and "Beasts of No Nation" that could have been nominated. But it's impossible to make a simple, definitive statement that it was racism that caused their neglect. There are many reasons that may motivate the Academy voters, including an aesthetic obtuseness that failed to nominate both Hitchcock's "Vertigo" for best film in 1959 and Tod Haynes' "Safe" in 1995.

Still, creating implicit racial and ethnic quotas for Oscar nominees as a counter would be crudely compensatory, just as you don't want to create quotas for the kind of subjects and characters that films would have to deal with. Art, even at its most commercial, should not be prescribed.

Nevertheless, the fact is that the Academy's membership is 94 percent white and 70 percent male. More importantly, film studio heads are 94 percent white and 100 percent male. Power in Hollywood lies in the hands of white males, and blacks, who are 12.6 percent of the American population and have received 10 percent of Oscar nominations since 2000, actually suffer less than Hispanics (16 percent of the population) who have gotten only 3 percent of nominations.

Still, some progress has occurred over the years with regard to the number of films made by black directors and the nature and variety of the roles offered black actors. Also, the governing board of the Academy unanimously voted to double female and minority members by 2020. This is all for the good, but there is still a long way to go — and the anger is justified,

Chris Rock was the apt host for this year's Oscars, and as expected his opening monologue pointedly and wittily took on Hollywood's lack of diversity. Rock opened the ceremony speaking of the Academy Awards — "otherwise known as the White People's Awards" — but he didn't follow with a simple, angry screed, but a shrewd, balanced one.

Some of his targets: a pampered, boycotting Will Smith receiving $20 million for a bad film; the absence of protests in the 1960s over Oscar snubs because there were real things like lynchings to care about; and Hollywood's racism being liberal "sorority racist" in style. One of his sharpest lines: "The 'In Memoriam' package this year, is just going to be black people that were shot by the cops on their way to the movies."

Rock was edgy, honest, unpredictable, and funny — the perfect host for the occasion.

Leonard Quart can be reached at Cinwrit@aol.com


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