Race central in many Oscar films
Denzel Washington is nominated for his role as an alcoholic pilot in 'Flight'
In the year America gave its first black president a second term, some of Hollywood’s most celebrated films, all by white directors, dealt with black-white race relations or revolved around black characters, which is rare. For the first time in recent memory race is central to several Oscar conversations. But the black characters’ humanity is hit or miss. These films raise the age-old question of whether white filmmakers are ready to grant black characters agency in their own screen lives.
A black slave is torn apart by dogs as a crowd of white overseers savours the sight and a black bounty hunter watches passively behind shades.A black father makes his little girl crack open a crab with her bare hands then flex her tiny muscles like a pint-size NFL linebacker. A black pilot snorts a line of cocaine after a night of debauchery and, just a few minutes before liftoff, knocks back several miniature bottles of alcohol. A black woman tells President Lincoln that God will guide him as he pushes legislation that will end slavery but not dent notions of white supremacy.
The four films noted here are contenders for a slew of major Oscars: ‘Django Unchained,’ ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild,’ ‘Flight’ and ‘Lincoln.’
Looking at these Oscar-nominated films, we should ask: Are black characters given a real back story and real-world motivations? Are they agents of their own destiny or just foils for white characters? Are they too noble to be real? Are they too ghetto to be flesh and blood? Do any of these characters point to a way forward?
First a bit of context: Throughout the early decades of the post-civil-rights era black people tended to view their image in media, particularly in movies, through a prism of “positive” or “negative.” These simplistic terms served a kind of Rorschach test of images that could make black folks comfortable or uncomfortable.
Denzel Washington as a strong-willed, heroic Union soldier in ‘Glory’(1989) was considered positive. Denzel Washington as a crooked Los Angeles cop in ‘Training Day’ (2001) was negative. He won Oscars for both, but his corrupt cop was polarizing, since it implicated black treachery, with white indifference, in urban crime.
This dualistic language endured, in part, for generational reasons. People who remembered the racism and paternalism of classic Hollywood movies remained vigilant. Class played a role as well. College-educated audiences, perhaps more sensitive to cinematic subtleties, were more likely to accuse filmmakers, black and white, of negative stereotypes than were working-class viewers.
The positive-negative terminology left little room for ambiguity, but since mainstream American cinema rarely afforded black characters complexity, this schematic vision stuck around, especially among older blacks.
A more sophisticated standard for judging a character’s merits has emerged as the most obvious stereotypes have, for the most part, faded and as filmmakers, for better and sometimes worse, have attempted to normalize the black image.
In the age of Obama, when a black man is the protagonist in our national narrative, are Hollywood’s fictional characters allowed the same agency in the stories built around them? That’s a fair question to ask of these Oscar contenders.
As Spike Lee, the Hughes Brothers, Julie Dash and John Singleton demonstrated during the brief, resonant black-film boom of the late 1980s and early ‘90s, depicting black characters not as racial symbols but as accessible human beings required creating male and female roles of moral breadth and depth.
The legacy of ‘Do the Right Thing,’ ‘Menace II Society,’ ‘Daughters of the Dust’ and others is that audiences can’t respect any thematically ambitious film that delves into race but relies on stick-figure characterizations.
Though all these movies are at least 20 years old, they linger in our cinematic culture as standard-bearers for filmmakers. This is particularly true for white directors, writers and producers who venture into this contentious space. (In colorblind roles — think of Will Smith in one of his futuristic ventures — agency is less of an issue. People tend to be more forgiving of the motivations of an actor battling space invaders and rebellious robots.)
Let’s look at Steven Spielberg’s much-lauded ‘Lincoln.’ Despite the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time, the very first scenes define the role of its black characters. Initially we see black soldiers battling Confederates in muddy, brutal conditions. Dissolve to a railroad station platform with Lincoln sitting on a bench, looking as magnanimous as his statue at the National Mall. Standing below him, looking up, are two black soldiers, a mise en scène that establishes the supporting role blacks play in a film essentially about their path to freedom.