Sunday, July 06, 2008

Keeping the pressure on Hollywood

I suspect that by the time this is posted, actor-director Clint Eastwood probably will have fallen on his knees and begged the pardon of actor-director Spike Lee. If he's true to the code of white men these days, he might also beg forgiveness from all the blacks in the land and, perhaps, even in the world. He just might follow in the tracks of the many others who have bitten the dust after an altercation with a "person of color," for fear of being smeared with the dreaded label "racist."

But could it be that Eastwood will stand his ground and prove to be bigger than Senator Trent Lott, Senator Joe Biden, radio personality Doug Tracht, and the infamous, groveling Don Imus? There probably is not enough bandwidth on the Internet to list all the whites who have fallen on their swords in contrition, after a fearful "race" encounter.

As you know, the Eastwood-Lee fracas began when Lee made what is a customary charge against white film and television producers – that Eastwood had purposely ignored historical "facts," by not including any black faces in his two WWII films about Iwo Jima, "Flags of Our Fathers," and "Letters From Iwo Jima." Eastwood then countered with the angry retort that Lee should "shut his face."

More important than the specifics in this particular acrimony between Eastwood and Lee are the presumptions it raises. The dust-up is a reflection of broader issues that have festered over decades, as black elites strive to acquire greater influence over those responsible for Hollywood's productions – film as well as television.

The demand by blacks to have a say in what comes out of Hollywood began with the production of D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" in 1915. Since then the NAACP has been on the backs of Hollywood studios, threatening companies with boycotts, for the poor images of blacks reflected in film. Over the years, demands for less negative imagery evolved into demands for more positive depictions, and then for more numerous depictions.

By the 1980s, the NAACP was boldly threatening actions against Hollywood producers, if they did not create more places for blacks in front of and behind the camera. The organization literally played the muscle man for a constituency of black entertainers, who hoped to leapfrog over white entertainers who cannot count on the advocacy of a civil rights lobby. Many producers and studio heads were ready to make concessions and came up with "diversity casting committees," the results of which we see daily in films and on television. See here. A little intimidation goes a long way.

The general public, of course, goes along with whatever demands emanate from black elites, without protest, in a desire to keep the peace. Who cares about owners of private businesses and their right to make private choices, especially when those owners are Hollywood fat cats? And, besides, whites seem to enjoy coercing others to make noble gestures when it comes to the coloreds. It never occurs to the typical white that blacks should take financial responsibility for the production of more of that entertainment they spend so much money on consuming, instead of expecting others to comply with their demands.

In the 1960s, in his book, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, Harold Cruse wrote of "the failure of the black bourgeoisie as a class, to play any social role as patron or sponsor of the arts." Instead, these "cultural aspirants" make "vocal and specified demands for integration in cultural fields where the black bourgeoisie has never paid the piper, and therefore can call no tunes." Cruse was partly wrong, as it turned out, since this clique of non-patrons and non-sponsors get to call lots of tunes.

In Spike Lee's favor, it can be said that he puts his money where his mouth is. He is one of the few blacks who goes about raising capital for his productions, while taking risks with his own resources. Apparently, he figured out long ago that this is the way to insure control over the direction and content and of one's enterprises. However, as indicated by this flare-up with Eastwood, Lee cannot break the age-old habit of the victim, who believes he has some inherent right, by dint of his "exceptional history," to place qualifications on the output of others, whether artistic or otherwise.

The NAACP and other "civil rights" monitors have never let up on their attempts to extend their influence into Hollywood's domain. Fortified by the success of open-ended and seemingly limitless affirmative action policies in other spheres of society, these watch keepers have become ever more arrogant in applying their coercive tactics. Hollywood producers have more than complied with a great many unofficial mandates, as we see from the black faces that fill the daily and nightly TV screens. Although blacks are about 12%-13% of the country's population, they are considered a necessary presence in multitudes of dramatizations produced for public consumption. As with most innovations, the first guy starts it, the next guy does him one better, and soon everybody wants to join the bandwagon. One black character will not do; he gets called a "token." So, the numbers of blacks must be increased to show genuine dedication to the cause.

After yet more harassment from black notables, in 1999, the pragmatic president of NBC, Bob Wright, issued a press release with the following statement: "Working with the NAACP and a coalition of other minority organizations, we have come up with a series of aggressive initiatives to widen the pipeline of diverse talent and raise awareness in our community on these issues."

Blacks have long been featured in TV sitcoms, those that star black actors, as well as those whose principal characters are white. They are well represented in variety shows and in commercials. They are regular faces on talk shows, are pseudo "judges," are featured in reality shows, soap operas, and are news anchors.

In various television series, blacks are the friends of choice to numberless white protagonists. In the sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle," for instance, the main character's "best friend" is a wheel chair bound black boy, and the only apparent friends of Malcolm's parents are four black men.

In the sitcom, "The King of Queens," we have a similar situation. The two main characters, a white married couple, have as their "best friends" a black couple. The four are so cozy that, in one episode, the white male "lends" his wife to his black friend.

Several times I had bumped across the program "House," a series about a medical clinic. Each time that I stopped for a few minutes to watch, the central person in the drama was a black doctor, whom I assumed was the lead character of the title. Since the story lines never looked especially unique, in fact, resembled the typical pandering to showcase black characters, I never stuck around for more than a few minutes. After being informed by a friend that a white actor was actually the main character of this show, I became curious enough to watch an entire episode.

In this episode, the black doctor, in some previous segment, apparently, had quit the medical team headed by House. The doctor is now job hunting, and is told by his former colleague, a white woman, how superior he is, and so on. In the next scene, a white male interviewer, after learning of the job-hunting doctor's "courageous diagnosis" of a patient, tells him, "You have bigger stones than I have." Get it? The entire drift was that the black doctor was an indispensable Superman.

A couple of weeks later, I decided to see if I might catch an episode of this show in which the title character played more than just a bit role. In this episode, yet another black doctor had been added to the cast. He was supposedly a Mormon, and comes up with the brilliant diagnosis needed to treat and cure a delusionary patient.

From today's TV programming, it is clear that Stepan Fetchit and Jack Benny's butler Rochester have been transformed into brilliant scientists, computer geeks, math geniuses, military strategists, and intellectual wizards of all kinds. They are four-star Generals, heads of the FBI, police commissioners, chiefs of the Pentagon, and sometimes even saviors of the world.

In addition, popping up almost everywhere are dramatizations which offer heavy-duty propaganda directed to whites – drumming in the theme of obligation to rescue Africans, even from their own black-on-black tribal atrocities. A subtext of this theme is interracial adoption.

I am no longer surprised by this persistent, heavy-handed and often clumsy promotion of black characters, or what my friend Hal calls "the heroizing of blacks for the edification of whites." Several themes seem to prevail in these story lines that are such obvious attempts to alter American sensibilities. There's the "getting even" theme, where black men get to boss white men around and sometimes even humiliate them. There's the theme that depicts black men as sex partners to white women. And there is a theme that might almost be called a crusade, that is, the drive to normalize the black male as an authority figure. In many, if not most of these productions, surly and bitter sermons are delivered about the sufferings experienced due to racism, past cruelties, white "negligence," ad nauseum.

In the 1970s detective series, "Kojak," which starred Telly Savalas, there were two episodes featuring former football player Roosevelt Grier as a bounty hunter. In neither of these episodes was there a sense of an overbred falseness or an effort to meet obligatory affirmative action mandates. Grier's presence fit the story line, as was true of the other black actors in the series, who were regulars or featured in single episodes. The dialogue between Savalas and Grier was witty, natural, and good-natured, instead of surly -- and relevant to the story's theme. There were no digressions to remind viewers of the sufferings of Rosey Grier's black ancestors.

Having intimidated feckless white producers into adapting, even if self-consciously, "positive" images of blacks, the NAACP attempts to rule on the percentage of employed black entertainers, as well as to pass judgment on the very nature of programming, i.e., the story content. In the fall of 1998, the NAACP and its minions protested the television sitcom, "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer," because of its irreverent take on slavery. After the show was canceled by the UPN television network, black columnist Tony Norman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had this to say: "I've had my Negro membership card withdrawn too many times to relish saying the obvious when black folks are in a self-righteous huff over nothing. But last week, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed a motion that condemned a show most of the members admitted they hadn't seen. The Beverly Hills/Hollywood division of the NAACP prevailed in its campaign to demonize a sitcom set in the 1860s Lincoln White House as 'destined to fan the flames of racial discord.' ... Are we so pathetic that we can't turn off a sitcom that insults everyone's intelligence without marching orders from the Beverly Hills office of the NAACP?"

In 2006, the president of the NAACP called the state of TV "unconscionable." Why? Because none of the networks' top sitcoms featured a black actor in a leading role. This echoed charges made several years earlier against the sitcoms "Seinfeld" and "Friends." Change your story line to suit us, or else.

As a matter of course, in the current climate, where everything is monitored, all-white casts in films and on TV are taken to task. Even the children's film "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," re-made in 2005 by director Tim Burton, was excoriated for failing to include an "interracial" cast. Burton's explanations about the integrity of the story line did not satisfy the monitors of multicultural correctness. The point of this harassment, of course, is to send signals to studios and independent producers of what they should keep in mind when preparing future projects. Apparently, producers are getting the message.

It was amusing to learn that the black actor Lawrence Fishburne complained about acting roles that could have gone to him, but were usurped by black "rappers." Thanks to the civil rights race monitors, there's no doubt that Fishburne himself, and other blacks like him, are the real usurpers of roles most certainly written by white authors with white characters in mind. It is the relentless campaign to create roles especially for blacks that has made possible the employment of Fishburne in the first place.

And then there's the indignant black actress (pardon me, "actor") Victoria Rowell, who was upset by choices made by producers to cast well-known white actresses in two films based on true stories about black female characters. Attempts to explain financial realities and star power seem to be of no avail. Would one have to explain why Angelina Jolie would be more marketable at the box office than, say, Thandie Newton, or Rowell herself?

Whoever said that Hollywood is dedicated to making true-life documentaries, or is faithful to an original book or script? What's a more ironic cliché than the line, "Based on a true story . . .?" In "Is Hollywood Whitewashing Ethnic Roles?" (ABC News, 6/4/08), casting director David Vaccari tries to explain why his studio decided to cast white characters instead of Asians for a story about the MIT whiz kid who broke the bank in Las Vegas: "We can make this movie with four unknowns or we can try to take a little license with the script." Hollywood is notorious for taking a lot of license with almost everything it produces. Just ask Theodore Dreiser.

About the fact that there is not an abundance of acting roles for coloreds, Rowell had this to say, "Unless African-American actors, Hispanic actors, Middle Eastern actors and Asian actors say no more, it's going to continue." What exactly is going to continue? The right of studio owners, directors and producers to use their judgment in how best to develop their private properties? "Civil rights" has now come to include the obligation for whites to provide venues in which the coloreds can show off their acting skills.

Throughout Hollywood history, unless he or she was lucky enough to be transformed into a Cary Grant or a John Wayne or a Bette Davis, the cry of every actor has been -- I want more roles! Where is there a more competitive profession? "It's hard for all actors," says Vaccari, "everyone wants more parts."

Guess how actors can have greater access to more roles. By becoming investors in properties of their own creation. It's a hard reality and, for some, an impossible quest. But in a world bereft of the old studio system, even the most prominent white actors can no longer attach themselves to an MGM or Paramount or Warner Brothers, and confidently wait as a battery of writers are set up to create scripts that become roles for them.

In his Guardian interview with Jeff Dawson, Clint Eastwood reflects on his next film, which is set in predominantly white Los Angeles during the 1930s Depression, and asks rhetorically, as if to himself, "What are you going to do ... Make it look like a commercial for an equal opportunity player?" Well, yes, that's exactly what you're expected to do. So, will Eastwood eventually get with the program, as Don Imus has learned to do? Or will this contrary, cantankerous aging white man continue in his routine of disdaining that which he is quoted as calling "politically correct crap?"

Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good Lord! Thank you! For quite a while I had been told that I was very unusual -- a "traitor" to my race. I am happy to confirm that I have just been attempting to be objective while using a little unbiased common sense. Wonderful article.