Hollywood: Same As It Ever Was
Even with Oscar buzz and box office success, “Precious” isn’t likely to blow up the careers of its female stars. Black actresses still have a hard row to hoe. Just ask Angela Bassett—and Cicely Tyson.
Even with Oscar buzz and record-breaking box office success, “Precious” isn’t likely to blow up the careers of its female stars. Black actresses still have a hard row to hoe. Just ask Angela Bassett—and Cicely Tyson.
With Precious, Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry are attempting to change both the Oscar game and what audiences have come to expect from black movies.
Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire, is extremely powerful, but I sincerely doubt it will change anything for black actresses in Hollywood. The film is strong, but not that strong.
Even if totally successful on every level—from box office receipts to a cultural shift away from the paralysis of self-pity—Hollywood will continue to go along as it has gone. Too many people are satisfied with the cardboard darkies that supposedly represent black women on film in the past.
When one looks at Byron Hurt’s Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes or his equally important Barack & Curtis, the problems with the media depictions of black women should become clear. Most people, black, white or whatever else, should be disturbed by the reduction of black women into beautiful but lascivious sperm buckets, overweight hams or abrasive bitches “deserving” of beat-downs. This caricature of black womanhood is as far removed from life and human dignity as molasses are from the taste of salt.
There seems to be no appetite for the combination of toughness, intelligence and unpretentious empathy seen in the real-life Michelle Obama. (Especially when she could not hold back tears as she listened to Joe Biden speak of his dead wife at the Democratic Convention. Or as she was moved, voice quavering, by the depth of feeling shown her by those girls of every color in London.)
But that fascination with Mrs. Obama’s humanity doesn’t, and won’t, transfer to black actresses in Hollywood.
Black women need not be angels any more than men need to be, but the greatest power of art is through its summoning or emblazoning of humanity. Yes, I said it: H-U-M-A-N-I-T-Y. It’s hard to believe it now, given the tacky commercialism that so dominates what we presently see in almost anything supposedly “authentic” and black.
It is a wonder that so many black actresses have waded through this stereotypical muck with their dignity intact. Take the beautiful and extremely talented actress Angela Bassett. No one has known what to do with her gifts because there is not interest in the humanity she can bring to a part.
George C. Wolfe and I once discussed what Bassett brought to Lady Macbeth when she delivered each of her monologues in an unprecedented style very close to arias. No one noticed; no one cared. Had they, Bassett would have had the same kind of parts as the few white actresses who are hired for their actual abilities. If the majority of good white actresses are rightfully whining, you know how it is across the color line.
Gabby Sidibe better enjoy her fame while she can because black actresses never have less than a hard row to hoe. Even if the inner life they bring to characters is as beautiful as they are physically, they have little chance.
Kerry Washington was astonishingly human in Our Song. So were Jurnee Smollett and Meagan Good in Eve’s Bayou when they were kids a decade ago, and were superbly contrasted by the adult complexities and magically differentiatedpresences of Lynn Whitfield and Debbi Morgan. The same is true of Tasha Smith, who is one of the finest but rarely mined talents in Hollywood. Smith has the range to convince us that her character is lowerthan a snake in wagon tracks or is as full of veiled sentiment—not sentimentality—as the as wildly obnoxious wife in Why Did I Get Married? Nothing seriously good has happened for any of these women in artistic terms.
Obviously, proven talent does not matter. It is a problem older than Cicely Tyson, who was also once young, beautiful and incredibly talented, but her career, for the most part, was pissed away by the system. Movies by almost anyone other than Kasi Lemmons show no interest in the layers of humanity that we have all seen every year of our lives in the black, brown, beige and bone-colored women we have known up closer than almost any close-up isever given the intention of showing.
That is the problem, and it is everyone’s fault until enough Americans make it possible for Hollywood to believe there can be commercial success in truly human roles for black women. When and if that happens, the culture of the entire world will benefit.
Stanley Crouch is a New York Writer and author of numerous books, including The Artificial White ManConsidering Genius andDon't The Moon Look Lonesome. He was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.