Sunday 24 September 2017

Film: Black America's long war with Hollywood

A new documentary that explores the links between civil rights, racism and American film is a timely reminder of Tinseltown's troubled relationship with blackness

Powerful: I Am Your Negro uses Baldwin’s life to explore American race relations over the past 60 years
Powerful: I Am Your Negro uses Baldwin’s life to explore American race relations over the past 60 years

Paul Whitington

A few weeks back, when I interviewed Get Out's director Jordan Peele, he talked about that heady moment back in 2008 when America elected Barack Obama and assumed that its most intractable problem had finally been solved. "There was this suppression of all racial conversation," he told me, "and this desire for us all to be past it because, you know, we'd just elected a black man president so everything must be okay."

Everything wasn't okay, and during Obama's two terms, the Ferguson unrest, Black Lives Matter and many incidences of racially motivated killings and miscarriages of justice suggested that, if anything, relations between black and white Americans were getting worse. Donald Trump's arrival in the White House hasn't exactly calmed nerves, with many interpreting his "make America great again" slogan as code for "make America white again".

Depressing evidence of how little has changed in this regard over the past 50 years can be found in I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck's sweeping and powerful Oscar-nominated documentary, which opened at Dublin's IFI yesterday. Part biopic, part socio-historical treatise, Peck's film uses the life of writer and activist James Baldwin as a prism through which to explore the trajectory of American race relations over the past 60 years.

Baldwin, who died in 1987 (see panel), was one of the foremost American novelists of his age. A brilliant debater and essayist, he helped frame the intellectual arguments that drove the Civil Rights Movement, and was friendly with three of black America's most iconic leaders - Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. All three would be murdered, and I Am Not Your Negro is based on a manuscript Baldwin began but never finished that aimed to encapsulate their lives and deaths and the broader struggle for equality.

Peck's film brilliantly interweaves some of Baldwin's best TV interviews with footage of civil rights marches and the racial battles that have erupted since, from the uproar in Ferguson to the Rodney King police beating that inspired the LA riots of 1992. At the heart of it all is Baldwin himself, a razor-sharp intellect posthumously wondering why white America cannot get beyond its deep-seated fear and loathing of blacks.

"You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettoes," he declares to camera at one point, "without becoming monstrous yourselves", later elaborating that "the future of the negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country".

"I am not the nigger here," he declares finally, "you invented him, and you have got to figure out why." And it's not just news footage that illustrates his remarks: Peck also looks to Hollywood for echoes of persistent prejudice. Time and again we're confronted with images from silent and early sound films that either demonise black people, or more often sentimentalise them as grinning, dancing half-wits.

For many decades, Hollywood sold us the lie that slavery, while mildly regrettable, had essentially been benevolent. I Am Not Your Negro includes a scene from the 1927 film Uncle Tom's Cabin in which white southern gentry smile benevolently at their happy, healthy slaves, while a slogan tells us that such "gentle rule of the slaves was typical of the South". In reality, beatings, rape, punishment amputations and murder were more typical of southern plantation life.

Even after the studios began to catch up with the drive for civil rights, Hollywood insisted on sentimentalising black protagonists. When Sidney Poitier (the first real black movie star) jumped off a speeding train to save his racist chain gang buddy Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones, white liberal viewers may have cheered, but in I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin recalls black cinema audiences shouting to Sidney that he should have stayed on the train.

Inevitably, Hattie McDaniel also features. In 1940, she became the first African-American performer to win an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress) for her memorable turn in Gone with the Wind. But the role she played was deeply problematic: Scarlett O'Hara's long-suffering black maid, Mammie, bustled around cleaning and organising, spoke wildly ungrammatical English and constantly rolled her exasperated eyes to heaven.

She was a caricature of the biddable underling, the jolly "darkie" (a word used frequently in the film) and perhaps that's why the good folk at the Academy were so charmed by Hattie's performance. Her character perfectly encapsulated the white illusion of the grateful, happy, unthreatening 'negro', and while McDaniel's Oscar win might have seemed significant, it was meaningless. She was typecast forever more as a scolding maid, like the lady in Tom & Jerry, and earned the ire of 1940s black activists, who dismissed her as an Uncle Tom.

There have been many such false dawns, moments where it seemed that black performers, writers and directors would finally be given equal space on the Hollywood stage, only for the status quo to resume.

And while things did begin to change in the 1960s, as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum, Poitier and Harry Belafonte were hardly ever filmed in intimate scenes with white women, nor were they ever really allowed to move beyond roles in which their colour was an issue. And so it has remained, for the most part, though Denzel Washington has eventually managed to remove his colour from the casting equation.

To begin with, Denzel's blackness was inextricably linked to virtually all of his roles - as Malcolm X, anti-apartheid campaigner Steve Biko, or the boxer wrongly accused of murder, Rubin Carter. But Washington displayed great resolve in refusing to pander to racial stereotypes by playing swaggering black street criminals. And when he eventually did play a black gangster, in the 2001 thriller Training Day, it's surely no coincidence that his character was also a corrupt cop.

The only other major criminal role he has played, in Ridley Scott's American Gangster (2007), was the Harlem drug king Frank Lucas, who insisted he was a businessman and constantly drew parallels between himself and legitimate American businessmen, who prided themselves on their ruthlessness.

And over the last decade or so, Washington has completely overcome the limitations of his ethnicity by landing roles (Unstoppable, Safe House, The Equalizer, Magnificent Seven) that could have been played by a star of any hue. But it took him several decades to reach this point, and he happens to be one of the finest screen actors who's ever drawn breath. For those less gifted, nothing much has changed.

An entire sub-industry of black-orientated movies exists in the US, offering proof that many black and white Americans still live culturally separate lives. And the fact that an event as anodyne as the Oscars has become a racial battleground in recent years is surely evidence that all is not well.

In 2015, an #OscarSoWhite hash tag campaign was launched when it emerged that all 20 Academy Award acting nominees were of Caucasian descent. The absence of Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo, director and star of excellent historical drama Selma, particularly annoyed African-American observers, and the Reverend Al Sharpton and others intended to demonstrate outside the ceremony until DuVernay dissuaded them.

At this remove, all the #OscarSoWhite stuff might have seemed like an overreaction, but one cannot discount the skin-thinning effects of decades and centuries of prejudice and exclusion. Things were just as bad in 2016, when all the acting nominees were once again white, and this time Al Sharpton did lead a modest protest, declaiming that "this will be the last night of an all-white Oscars".

When the 2017 Academy nominations came in, Sharpton must have been happy. Six black actors were included in the acting categories, while Barry Jenkins became only the fourth black director to receive a nomination. Viola Davis won Best Supporting Actress for Fences, Mahershala Ali was awarded Best Supporting Actor for Moonlight, which stole the show in spectacular fashion by winning Best Picture from under the nose of popular favourite La La Land.

There was much to celebrate in other categories, too: four of the five nominated documentaries were the work of African-American directors, and I Am Not Your Negro lost out to OJ: Made in America, an eight-hour examination of the OJ Simpson affair.

But were the 89th Oscars a genuine sea change, or just a happy chance, even a knee-jerk reaction to the #OscarSoWhite campaign?

Things seem unlikely to improve so suddenly: Raoul Peck spent 10 years making I Am Not Your Negro, raising money pay cheque to pay cheque and getting no backing from anyone. And black directors and actors - indeed ordinary black people - still do not enjoy a level playing field in America, and continue to face career obstacles their white counterparts do not.

LIfe of a civil rights hero

 

Born in New York City in 1924, James Baldwin would overcome an unhappy childhood to become one of the most important literary figures of the late 20th century. Bullied by his father, James excelled at school but was subjected to constant racial abuse. He drifted into writing after moving to Greenwich Village in the 1940s, where he befriended artists and actors including Marlon Brando.

But he grew tired of America’s obsession with race, and would write most of his best books in Paris. Go Tell It On The Mountain (1953) brilliantly recounted his Harlem childhood in the rhythms of the King James Bible. Baldwin was gay, and daringly explored that subject in his 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room. His work became even more experimental in the 1960s and 70s as he struggled to make sense of the triumphs and tragedy of the Civil Rights Movement. He died in France in 1987, at the age of 63.

Life of a civil rights hero

Born in New York City in 1924, James Baldwin would overcome an unhappy childhood to become one of the most important literary figures of the late 20th century. Bullied by his father, James excelled at school but was subjected to constant racial abuse. He drifted into writing after moving to Greenwich Village in the 1940s, where he befriended artists and actors including Marlon Brando.

But he grew tired of America’s obsession with race, and would write most of his best books in Paris. Go Tell It On The Mountain (1953) brilliantly recounted his Harlem childhood in the rhythms of the King James Bible. Baldwin was gay, and daringly explored that subject in his 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room. His work became even more experimental in the 1960s and 70s as he struggled to make sense of the triumphs and tragedy of the Civil Rights Movement. He died in France in 1987, at the age of 63.

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