An excellent piece in The Economist recently crunched the numbers on the two-year Academy Awards whiteout. It turns out that “even during a 15-year span, the odds of seeing at least one sequence of back-to-back whiteouts are around one in 100,000.”
And yet, here we are. Despite being well represented in the Screen Actors Guild and the immense statistical unlikelihood that no performers of African-American, Latino, Asian, or other non-European ancestry might win a nomination for the second year in a row, it’s exactly what happened. Numbers, however, don’t tell you why, and with the occasional pundits, critics, and laptop opinionisti dismissing the importance of on-screen representation, America needs to be told why. For that, we need James Baldwin.
In his 1976 book of film writing (Vintage International has a nice paperback edition [ISBN 978-0307275950]), Baldwin opens by stating in frank, personal terms that yes, being able to see somebody who resembles you, your family, and your neighbors does, indeed, matter.
First, Baldwin addresses the many films that have no black characters. With images of injustice splashed across the screen–whether in historical dramas, literary adaptations, or films set in the time they were made–and an instructional tone, Hollywood often suggests it has something to teach the audience about poverty, oppression, and occasionally, classism. For a white middle- or upper-class audience, a moralistic dramatization might have a lesson to offer, albeit a limited one, but to a black audience, this is ludicrous. There might be flashes of reality this audience can recognize, but they often do less to instruct and more to throw the ridiculousness of many of the film’s other elements into sharper relief. The total lack of American society’s most oppressed groups in films ostensibly about injustice assumes there are none in the audience who care to learn about real injustice, that there are none in the audience who already understand it, and that the true injustices of the world aren’t worth teaching.
Other films, meanwhile, are not meant to edify but to offer escapism. In these movies, Baldwin says, the lack of black characters points to reality rather than obscures it. When the movie’s stated goal is to project fantasy, the audience is “surrendering to the corroboration of one’s fantasies as they are thrown back from the screen,” and if there are no black characters here, it is because “no one makes his escape personality black.” No one, Hollywood thinks, would want to be black, can imagine being black, or believably project themselves into a black person’s shoes. Is this lack of empathy, lack of imagination, or lack of will? Perhaps all three.
Baldwin also talks about tokenism and stereotype. While American culture can, at least, openly discuss this problem now and seldom acknowledged it when Baldwin began attending films, the issue persists. How many films have you seen where the characters drift into The Wrong Part of Town, and this is signaled by urban blight, perhaps some loud music, and the film’s first appearance of black or latino characters? The problem of Hollywood using non-white characters as mere signifiers in a white person’s story has not disappeared. Stepin Fetchit may be the face Baldwin associated with this problem, and he may have vanished from the screen, but the one-dimensional maid and motiveless criminal have not.
Most relevant to the bulk of contemporary Hollywood films are films about black people but intended for a white audience. He points out that while In The Heat of the Night decries racism, it sets up completely ridiculous situations in order to do so; its assumption that a black detective in 1967 would not know better than to travel alone at night in the racially-divided rural South makes the film if not outright racist, then one that “is breathtaking…in the speed with which it moves from one preposterous position to another.” Similarly, in The Defiant Ones, the black main character suffers from “disastrous sentimentality” and is placed “at the mercy of a lie” for the benefit of “white liberal audiences” and “to reassure white people,” leaving black audiences “exasperated.”
More patronizing still is Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, which manages to contain both a stereotypical maid and a black character willing to put his marriage and future in the hands of a pair of (white) people he’s never met–a situation, Baldwin points out, Hollywood never asks white leading actors to play. In such a film, the audience is asked to both see race and then ignore it even as the characters’ actions are rooted in it, “which means that a man exists only in the brutally limited lexicon of those who think of themselves as white, and imagine, therefore, that they control reality and rule the world.” A film that trumpets, “Look! A black doctor!” and then refuses to acknowledge identity in any meaningful way would now be called post-racial.
Most relevant to Hollywood so far this century are biopics of black figures told through limited, revisionist lenses. Baldwin uses the 1972 Billie Holliday film Lady Sings the Blues as a shining example. She was, and remains, a good candidate for a movie that tells her story because she was an entertainer, a drug addict, and easily reduced to a morality play. “It has,” Baldwin says, “absolutely nothing to do with Billie, or with jazz, or with any other kind of music, or the risks of an artist, or American life, or black life, […] or despair or love.” This is the type of film most likely to net a black actor an award nomination, but it’s also a type that limits performers both black and white, leaving them only able to inject “hints of reality, smuggled like contraband into a maudlin tale,” regardless of their skills and training. In order to make these films palatable, they’re often so thoroughly divorced from reality and their sources that the result is pablum and often also a travesty. Notable recent exceptions, like 2014’s Selma, can only win Oscars for their soundtracks and, while they may be critical darlings, net less than half the box office earnings of a film like 2013’s The Butler (where the black protagonist is, yes, a butler).
In The Devil Finds Work, Baldwin also has much to say about women in film, about how colonialism and war are projected on screen, and many other things, and his points are, shockingly, all still quite relevant. The film industry is capable of films like Tangerine, and even Disney can have a black princess from humble roots tell her story in a film containing black music and relatively honest looks at inequality, but these films and ones like them are exceptions. Too few get made, and those that do are under-nominated, seldom awarded, and under-represented at mainstream awards ceremonies like the Academy Awards. The box office boost for the films, the salary boost for Oscar-winning stars, and the credibility these awards lend directors instead mostly go to films with white stars that are made for mostly white audiences.
Why does this matter? That depends on whether we want movies to pander to audiences or challenge them, whether we want films to entertain at the expense of minorities or include them, whether we want to broaden representation or limit even our fantasies, whether we want to camera to conceal or reveal, and whether we want to let actors rise to the height of their powers or push them down to fit the constraints of a racist ideology. Movies can represent fantasy, dreams, expanded realities, and endless possibility. By literally whitewashing them, we limit the best things about cinema and send an awful message to nonwhite moviegoers, and that, as Baldwin says, leaves us “with no satisfaction on which to rest.”