On Jan. 24 President Obama, our first African-American president, delivered his third State of the Union address. On that same day, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated two gifted African-American actresses, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, for Oscars for playing maids in The Help. This is 73 years after the first African American to win an Oscar, Hattie McDaniel, garnered the award for the same role — as a maid, and a slave maid at that — winning the Oscar in the best supporting actress category on Feb. 29, 1940.
And here we are, in 2012. Maybe I'm getting old, but the irony of this is too much. Or perhaps I've heard this song before. In the 1970s, when I was a freshman at Oberlin College, my white friends and I used to sit up and talk about racism and solving society's problems all through the night, until the sun rose. Not much good came from these talks — the least of which was I hoped to get laid, which rarely happened.
But on those cold nights, I was convinced that when I walked out of college, racism would be just about finished. Instead, it smashed me across the face like a bottle when I walked into the real world. Now, 33 years later, I find myself talking about the same thing I talked about when I was a college freshman.
I have no take with Ms. Davis and Ms. Spencer. They're outstanding actresses. But the nomination of these two women by the Hollywood community 73 years after Hattie McDaniel won for the same role speaks for itself.
As co-writer and co-producer of Spike Lee's newest film, Red Hook Summer, and his previous feature film, Miracle at St. Anna, I have a clear-eyed view of what the cultural display of African-American life means to hearts in Hollywood, a land of feints and double meanings and as tricky to navigate as anything inside the Beltway. I wish someone had told me this when I was a freshman at Oberlin.
America is a superpower not because we make the biggest guns. We're a superpower because our culture has saturated the planet: Levi's, Apple, Nike, Disney, Coke, Pepsi, McDonald's, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll and hip-hop. Our culture dominates the world far more than any nuclear bomb could.
When you can make a person think a certain way, you don't have to bomb them. Just give them some credit cards, a wide-screen 3-D TV and some potato chips, and watch what happens. This kind of cultural war, a war of propaganda and words — elements that both Hollywood and Washington know a lot about — makes America powerful beyond measure. The hard metal of this cultural weaponry, much of it, emanates from the soul of blacks, the African-American experience in music, dance, art and literature.
But this kind of cultural war puts minority storytellers — blacks, Asians, Latinos and other people of color — at a distinct disadvantage. My friend Spike Lee is a clear example. At the premiere of Red Hook Summer at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, Spike, usually a cool and widely accepting soul whose professional life is as racially diverse as that of any American I know, lost his cool for 30 seconds.
When prompted by a question from Chris Rock, who was seated in the audience, he blurted out a small, clear truth: He said one reason we did Red Hook Summer independently was that he could not get Hollywood to green-light the follow-up to Inside Man — which cost only $45 million to make and grossed a whopping $184,376,240 million domestically and worldwide, plus another $37 million domestically on DVD sales.
Within minutes, the Internet lit up with burning personal criticism of him stitched into negative reviews of Red Hook Summer by so-called film critics and tweeters. I don't mind negative reviews. That's life in the big leagues. But it's the same old double standard.
The recent success of Red Tails, which depicts the story of the all-black Tuskegee Airmen, is a clear example. Our last film, Miracle at St. Anna, which paid homage to the all-black 92nd Division, which fought on the ground in Italy, was blasted before it even got out of the gate. Maybe it's a terrible film. Maybe it deserved to bomb. The difference is this: When George Lucas complained publicly about the fact that he had to finance his own film because Hollywood executives told him they didn't know how to market a black film, no one called him a fanatic. But when Spike Lee says it, he's a racist militant and a malcontent.
Spike's been saying the same thing for 25 years. And he had to go to Italy to raise money for a film that honors American soldiers, because unlike Lucas, he's not a billionaire. He couldn't reach in his pocket to create, produce, market and promote his film the way Lucas did with Red Tails.
But there's a deeper, even more critical element here, because it's the same old story: Nothing in this world happens unless white folks say it happens. And therein lies the problem of being a professional black storyteller — writer, musician, filmmaker.
Being black is like serving as Hoke, the driver in Driving Miss Daisy, except it's a kind of TV series that lasts the rest of your life: You get to drive the well-meaning boss to and fro — you love that boss, your lives are stitched together — but only when the boss decides that your story intersects with his or her life is your story valid. Because you're a kind of cultural maid.
You serve up the music, the life, the pain, the spirituality. You clean house. Take the kids to school. You serve the eggs and pour the coffee. And for your efforts, the white folks thank you. They pay you a little. They ask about your kids. Then they jump into the swimming pool and you go home to your life on the outside, whatever it is.
And if you're lucky, you get to be the wise old black sage that drops pearls of wisdom, the wise old poet or bluesman who says "I been 'buked and scorned," and you heal the white folks, when in fact you can't heal anybody.
In fact, you're actually as dumb as they are — dumber, maybe — because you played into the whole business. Robbing a character of their full dimension, be it in fiction or nonfiction, hurts everyone the world over. Need proof? Ask any Native American, Asian, Latino, gay American or so-called white hillbilly. As if hillbillies don't read books, and Asians don't rap, and Muslims don't argue about the cost of a brake job.
There's nothing wrong with being white. I'm half white myself and proud of it. There isn't a day that passes that I don't think about my late white Jewish mother and the lessons she taught me about humanity. But bearing witness to this kind of cultural war over the course of a lifetime will grind a man or woman down in horrible ways, and that's my fear.
I remember, as a young saxophonist, just out of Oberlin, standing at a tiny jazz club in West Philadelphia watching the great jazz tenor man Hank Mobley in his last days, sick, broke. It was a jam session, and he strode onstage to reach for the magic one more time, to conjure up the power of his younger years, when his mighty tenor powered Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis when those guys were the toast of Europe. Drink destroyed him.
He was helped onstage by the kind musicians around him, and he stood there swaying, barely able to hold up his horn in that rancid little joint. When he put his mouth to his horn to play, it broke my heart. I felt like I was being strangled. His ability to play had vanished, and I saw my future.
It was a terrible lesson for a young man fresh out of college, and I did my best to forget it. But I understand it then and I understand it now: This is what happens when you walk through a supermarket and hear Muzak playing ninth chords borrowed from your history; when you see instruction books made from the very harmonic innovations you created; and, in my case, when you spend a lifetime watching films that spoof your community. Your entire culture is boiled down to greasy gutbucket jokester films, pornographic bling-rap or poverty porn.
I used to think that if only there were a peaceful way, we could make Hollywood listen to the sound of America's true drumbeat: the voices of working-class poor, blacks, Asians, Latinos, Native Americans and the so-called rednecks of this country; the people who walk the land, work in the Kmarts, run the fast-food joints, drive the trucks, stand in line at 4 a.m. for the iPhones, go to church for redemption and sell the knockoffs on eBay.
But the new breed of Republicans have taken that high ground. They've gotten rich off it. That leaves me with nothing but the notion that Washington and Hollywood may just be alike. They're engaged in a cultural war. They take your gun and use it on you, and it makes you sorry you drew your gun in the first place. It makes you wish you were a maid.
This article was originally published at 40Acres.com. It is reprinted with permission.
James McBride co-wrote and co-produced the Spike Lee films Miracle at St. Anna and the upcoming Red Hook Summer.