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Hollywoods Race Relations

by Kali Ferguson

May 9,2010

I love movies so much that I dream of making my own someday. I am involved in a movie-making class for immigrants at Greensboro’s FaithAction International House. It consists of eager students and a wish to tell stories that deepen humanity’s understanding of life. The two-minute films they create will cover any of a number of subjects—from literature students have read, to personal accounts of changing mindsets, to moving across countries and continents for political reasons. Each person is highly invested in sharing, and their stories touch me deeply. Participating in this venture makes me reflect on movies made by mainstream professionals and the impact of their stories on their audiences.

When I was four, my mother took me to see the play Snow White. When the curtain closed, I put my sweater on my head, pretending to be the princess. There were no children’s movies or plays about black girls, so I emulated what I saw. Even now, The Princess and the Frog (directed by Ron Clements and John Musker) perpetuates stereotypes about black folks around New Orleans. They are ugly, dumb, toothless, and crazy according to the storytellers. Why should we tolerate such messages from Disney, who took 86 years to make a movie about the largest minority in the U.S. (it took seventy-two years to make Pocahontas)? It is important to recognize who makes movies and what prejudices they push. Entertainment without underlying messages is as mythical as Cinderella.

Most people reading this are adults, but we rely on stories to guide us throughout our whole lives. Hollywood creates stories that people reference as if they actually happened. In the book Beyond Popcorn, Robert Glatzer reflects, “It’s amazing how closely we identify with fictional characters… [E]ven adults…don’t necessarily distinguish between artifice and reality.” This is my concern: movies are the mythology of our time. We take their messages for granted. Most movie-goers see too much imbalance and misrepresentation of minorities. It seems non-whites exist mainly to support white folks' endeavors. Even stories about minorities usually use a white main character’s point of view—although I appreciated The Soloist (directed by Joe Wright) and The Secret Life of Bees (Gina Prince-Bythewood), I know they could have been told from the black characters' perspective.

In 81 years there were two Oscars given to black people for leading roles. Rather than winning for his compelling performances of black heroes in Malcolm X (Spike Lee) or The Hurricane (Norman Jewison), Denzel Washington won for his performance as a corrupt cop in Training Day, perpetuating the myth of black men being untrustworthy.

Halle Berry recieved her Oscar for Monster’s Ball (Marc Forster). She played an out-of-luck woman dependent on a man for protection. Hollywood’s portrayal of black women suggests that we are desperate, reliant on sex to validate our existence. Similar erroneous depictions misrepresent other women, immigrants, queer communities, and the disabled.

Despite the prevalent under-representation of African-Americans in mainstream movies, it would be better if Washington and Berry had not won at all. This public reception of accolades only highlights performances reinforcing negative black stereotypes. These stereotypes make white people very comfortable with their pity for—and power over—poor black people. Such a pity is evident most recently in Oscar-winner The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock), a film that also reinforces America’s obsession with black athletes.

The good news is that independent movies are abundant and can be found almost anywhere. We have more insight and choice about what we watch than ever. The bad news: even in the independent realm, few American filmmakers are minorities. I envision and hope to work towards a world where the stories I see and tell reflect my fantasies and realities as well as yours.

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