Paul Whitington: New films aspire to an age when the colour of an actor's skin will be irrelevant, but that time is still a ways off
A few weeks back, I was watching the Disney classic Dumbo with my son. He'd never seen it before - I hadn't seen it since I was his age - and we were both hugely impressed with its beautiful colours and animation. One thing about it, though, did trouble me.
When Dumbo and his resourceful rodent pal Timothy Q Mouse are wandering disconsolate after being turfed out of the circus, they're heckled from above by a group of crows. These salty birds speak in the dialect of southern African-Americans, have eccentric grammatical flourishes and do not seem entirely educated. They are in fact caricatures based on white ideas of blackness, and during production, the head bird was referred to as 'Jim Crow', a reference to the notorious segregation codes.
At least, though, these chirruping fowl are not unkind, and ultimately help encourage Dumbo to find his mojo, and fly. While condescending perhaps, the crows were essentially a benign manifestation of a prejudice so ingrained in the American psyche that no one seemed to notice it. It's always been glaringly evident in Hollywood cinema, and is still there today, but is being challenged by a new wave of black US film-makers determined to refract the realities of the African-American experience.
Last year, Barry Jenkins won the Best Picture Oscar with Moonlight, his eerily beautiful drama which skilfully subverted Hollywood's hopelessly clichéd attitude to African-American ghetto life. At this year's Oscars, Jordan Peele won Best Original Screenplay for Get Out, his winning comedy that used a gothic horror plot to explore the awkwardness of even well-intentioned white attitudes to blackness.
And now comes Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley's angry dystopian satire about a young black man who can't get a break - until he pretends to be white. Lakeith Stanfield is Cassius Green, a rather lazy young man who lives in his uncle's garage and moans about not being able to find a job because of his race. When he does find work in a telesales sweatshop, the going is tough until he discovers a hitherto untapped talent for sounding like a white person. This 'white voice' will propel him to the dizzy heights of the company top floor, where he'll make big money and totally lose the run of himself.
Riley's film plays constantly with perceived notions about race, and makes the point that even though you think you're not racist, you might be. It shows how far Hollywood has come.
When the American film industry migrated en masse to the warmer climes of southern California after the Great War, the era of slavery was still within living memory. White-only clubs, bars and restaurants were commonplace across the South, and most African-Americans lived apart as a vast underclass. Though there had been black film-makers among the early pioneers, the odds were always stacked against them, and for African-American actors, bit parts as servants and slaves were the order of the day.
Race relations got off to a bad start in Hollywood with the release of The Birth of a Nation, and never really recovered. DW Griffith's 1915 film is vexing from a critical point of view as it happens to be technically brilliant, even a kind of masterpiece.
It was also, however, reprehensible and retrograde in its treatment of black people, who are portrayed as either lazy buffoons or dangerous, wide-eyed predators.
It told the story of the Civil War and subsequent regeneration through the experiences of two southern families: after the war, African-Americans are shown stuffing ballot boxes to fix elections, and taking over the Carolina legislature, where they sit around in their bare feet eating fried chicken and getting drunk. Then there's Gus, a former slave whose nostrils flare whenever he sees a white woman, and is intent on raping the heroine when she leaps to her death.
The worst thing about old Gus is that he wasn't even played by a black actor, but by a white one (Walter Long) in blackface, a dubious music-hall tradition that would remain prominent for many decades. Al Jolson, a Lithuanian Jew, sang some of his biggest hits disguised in blackface and imitating what he fondly imagined were the intonations of African-American song. Through the 1920s and 1930s, actual black faces were a rare sight on the big screen, and when they did appear, tended to be maids or servants, peripheral appendages to the all-white action.
When Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American person to win an Oscar in 1940, it was a mixed blessing. Her portrayal of Scarlett O'Hara's gruff, no-nonsense maid in Gone with the Wind was terrific, but was essentially a black woman seen entirely from a white point of view, and not all that different from the lady who beat seven bells out of "Thomas" in Tom & Jerry. McDaniel was hopelessly typecast forever after, and you could argue that her performance only enhanced prevailing racial stereotypes.
In the 1950s, though, things finally began to change.
Two charismatic young performers, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, emerged to prove that a black actor could carry a mainstream Hollywood film. Primarily a singer, Belafonte had a big hit opposite Dorothy Dandridge in Otto Preminger's musical Carmen Jones, and subsequently became a mainstream star. In Islands in the Sun (1957), there were hints of an affair between his character and a white woman played by Ava Gardner - an unthinkable scenario for the time.
Poitier went further. In Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958), he took on racism head on, playing an escaped prisoner who goes on the run while shackled to a prejudiced white man (Tony Curtis). As his career blossomed in the 1960s, he was offered all sorts of leading roles, but felt he ought to choose ones that challenged stereotypes. He did just that in the 1967 films Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? and In the Heat of the Night: in the latter film, when he slapped the face of a white landowner, a shiver ran through America's spine.
You'd have thought the countercultural revolution of the 1960s would have helped change things for the better, but it was essentially a white, middle-class phenomenon, and once Poitier's star power began to fade, so too did mainstream opportunities for black actors.
Instead, they were relegated for much of the 1970s to the 'Blaxploitation' films, violent B-pictures aimed solely at black urban audiences. They might have been a cynical exercise in racial marketing, and teeming with pimps, pushers and other fond stereotypes, but at least they made black characters the protagonists, and a few of them (Shaft, Cleopatra Jones) were not that bad, and had crossover popularity.
A seismic shift, though, occurred in the early 1990s, when a group of immensely talented black writers and directors began making films that honestly addressed the African-American experience. They were led by Spike Lee, whose remarkable purple patch around the turn of the 1990s included Do the Right Thing, Mo' Better Blues, Malcolm X and Clockers, but Mario Van Peebles' gangster thriller New Jack City was another important film, as was John Singleton's ghetto drama Boyz n the Hood.
This upsurge also launched the career of a new breed of black actor, like Denzel Washington, who would manage to make their colour almost incidental. But the films' crossover appeal was in part facilitated by the growing popularity of rap music in white teenage America, and the black film-makers' moment in the sun was brief.
Nevertheless, it was that creative upsurge that laid the groundwork for the flowering of critically acclaimed African-American films we're now witnessing. The best of them, Barry Jenkins' Moonlight and his upcoming drama If Beale Street Could Talk, subvert stereotypes and provoke thought but do not allow their stories to be dominated by the fact that their protagonists are black. They aspire to an age when the colour of an actor's skin will be irrelevant, but that time is still a ways off.