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Racism in movies - seeing and seeing beyond Black & White

Richard Widmark confronts Sidney Poitier in No Way Out (1950)

In a February 2022 conversation on films about racism, an influential commentator, Michael Harriot, inadvertently refers to Black director Steve McQueen as White; McQueen directed the superb 12 Years A Slave (2013).

Predictably, the error, typical of even the best of us, was garrulously called out. Less predictably, it was graciously conceded.

But, beneath the obvious error was a less obvious one. He’d applied the same, myopic critique of ‘White-made’ movies on racism to ‘Black-made’ 12 Years A Slave, charging it too of characterizing Whites, while merely caricaturing Blacks - a tragic misreading of a powerful, complex script.

We all get it wrong, regularly.

What should worry us more? Not our exactitude or lack of it, but our attitude, our way of ‘seeing’ as it were, especially if we apply that ‘lens’ to pretty much ANYTHING.

Harriot demonstrates that, hoovering a bewildering range of films into his simple and simplistic box, “slave movies”.

Never mind that his hoover is set to max.

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.” ― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Therefore, with shades firmly in place over his eyes, Harriot goes on to paint the same stark differences that others have painted, for years: ‘Black-made’ movies present multi-dimensional, nuanced Black and White characters, yet they're underrated. ‘White-made’ movies do this for White characters, but flounder with Black, yet they're overrated.

His verdict: In White Hollywood, Black characters are just ‘black characters’.

Almost as if White-made movies portray Blacks as cardboard cutouts rather than real PEOPLE.

What a disturbing misrepresentation of the work of dozens of filmmakers who've made purposeful - and yes imperfect - but striving films. Some, even brave. Almost always, in partnership with Blacks.

To be fair, this is now such a widely held view, propounded by many Black influencers - and propagated by politically-correct White influencers - that to even hint otherwise is heretical. Naturally, everyone gets a freekick at the Oscars - the alleged hole in Hollywood’s ozone layer of equity.

The implication being that Black actors aren't rewarded unless they play trauma on screen. Really?!

First, it's incredibly hard to see how these three qualifiers (playing or excelling as a historical or real-life character, a character in pain or tragedy or the friend of one in pain or tragedy) are demeaning to any actor, let alone a Black actor. They're the stuff of drama, for heaven's sake.

White actors play trauma too, without the glow of an Oscar for their acting.

Ask Matt Damon, Tom Cruise, Glenn Close, Johnny Depp, Amy Adams, Willem Dafoe, Ed Harris, Robert Downey Jr, Edward Norton, Jake Glyenhaal, Naomi Watts, Woody Harrelson, Annette Bening and many others. But don't ask Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Don Cheadle.

Second, Academy Award politics aside, it's unclear how some of the Black awardees in Harriot's list (Louis Gossett, Jr. or Cuba Gooding, Jr. or Sidney Poitier or Regina King or Whoopi Goldberg) sufficiently tick any of Harriot's three boxes, let alone in a way that's diminished or demeaning. Unless we're dumbing down the meaning of "pain" and "tragedy" or widening the meaning of "real-life" figures.

Experiencing (or sharing) pain or tragedy doesn't render you a "person" of pain or tragedy, it isn't a state that defines your character, unless the plot insists it does. For most of these characters it's a part of, not the entire character. Especially if these characters experience and share a lot else in the same movie!

Finally, by this token, are the several White actors who played the same or similar roles being diminished and demeaned too, unworthy of supposedly loftier roles? Their Oscar wins, mere sleight of hand to hide casting decisions that, in reality, undermine them as PEOPLE?!

Allowing for exceptions, haven’t many White Oscar winners also played someone who actually lived, or is suffering pain and tragedy or is the WHITE FRIEND of a Black person who is suffering pain and tragedy?

If you have the doggedness for it, you can match (almost) every other White winner's character in Oscar history with one or some of these qualifiers.

The issues are broader, aren't they?

The Defiant Ones (1958) won Oscars for Cinematography, Original Screenplay and was nominated for seven other Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor for both Black and White leads.

In To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) Atticus Finch, failed to save the innocent Black he was defending - so much for celebrating a White savior! Finch ended up an outcast among fellow Whites, yet Gregory Peck won Best Actor and Horton Foote for Screenplay. Not as a salute to saving but as a salute to trying, even against impossible odds.

Given that Blacks are 12-13% of the US population, a 2021 McKinsey report confirmed that they are represented well onscreen: Blacks represent 11% of all lead actors, 14% of all supporting cast.
Even if it has some way to go offscreen, that level of Black onscreen representation is an extraordinary tribute to Hollywood, giving Blacks profile and visibility.

In 2022, Samuel L Jackson and Danny Glover received Honorary Oscars, not for playing certain characters but for playing them well. Will Smith and Denzel Washington were two out of five nominees for Best Actor; Smith won.

In 2021 Chadwick Boseman was nominated for Best Actor. Leslie Odom Jr. and Daniel Kaluuya were two out of five nominees for Best Actor; Kaluuya won.

Two out of five is 40% Black nominees for Best Actor, two years on the trot.

Look at this map (below).

Imagine you’re a filmmaker in the West or Midwest or Northeast. And 10-17 out of a 100 people in your region are Black. How many of your films would center Blacks, even in your films about Blacks? Exactly!

That said, filmmakers in the South may have more answering to do: Why haven't we made enough films about Blacks? Why aren't they better, truer, more balanced than before? They have more questioning to do too: Do we make films about historical or fictional Blacks? About thriving or suffering Blacks? Why not both?

Fact is, White filmmakers have consistently discarded the 'minority' demographics excuse, to ignore the minority, cater only to the majority. Instead of using it as an excuse to shy away from racist themes, they've sought out landmark stories and steered landmark films; writing or (where they’re not writers themselves) producing or directing. Or acting in racist and anti-racist roles.

Screenplays - from White writers - have been wide-ranging, anything but formulaic.

No Way Out (1950) is one of the most rousing movies on Black-White racism.

Note: spoilers ahead.

Screenwriter Lesser Samuels, rightly, won an Oscar nomination for his screenplay with director Joseph L Mankiewicz, his co-writer - both White.

Sidney Poitier in his screen debut (as Dr Luther Brooks) condemns himself to a vocation of healing even as every bone in his body cries for justice. Richard Widmark, perfectly cast as his prejudiced patient (Ray Biddle), condemns himself to a life of hatred.

No Way Out is one of Hollywood’s first articulate rebuttals to critics who complain about ‘White savior’ three-fourths of the time and about ‘Black savior’ the other three-fourths of the time. Thankfully, it wasn’t the last.

Dr Brooks isn't just 'Black'. He's the first Black doctor at his hospital. Good looking, charismatic, admired by his White colleagues, loved and part-envied by his Black family. Knowledgeable, skilled, he sports a sense of justice underneath his cloak of correctness. When Ray accuses Brooks of murdering (rather than mis-diagnosing) his kid brother Johnny, Brooks is set on proving his innocence. He rejects the quick-win temptation of retaliatory victimhood - I'm being targeted because I'm Black - and stays loyal to the longer, harder road of his vocation.

In a fleeting but fascinating scene, Brooks is treating a wounded patient (a young racist injured in a race riot) when the boy’s mother spits racism (take your Black hands off my son). Eventually it's a wounded doctor who strides out of the sick room, spittle streaming down his face. As the camera closes in on Brooks, ‘alone’ in that busy corridor you see rage in every sinew, murder in his eyes.

The other Black characters aren’t just 'Black'. Brooks's wife (played by Mildred Joanne Smith) longs for intimacy with her madly busy husband, the space to enjoy ‘life’ beyond the drudgery of 'work'. Some working-class Blacks enraged at the impunity of White racists spare no effort in rustling up a riot while others are reaching out to those who are hurt and hurting, Black or White.

Neither are the White characters just 'White'.

Brooks's White supervisor Dr Dan Wharton is kind, but makes clear that he respects expertise and skill no matter what color it's clothed in. In an extraordinary Whites-only exchange for its time, hospital chief Dr Sam Moreland confers with Dr Wharton, over the delicate matter - now public - of a named patient’s untimely death. Given Moreland’s obvious reputational and funding concerns, Wharton sympathizes, but struggles to balance Moreland’s pragmatism with his own principles of propriety.

Wharton: Fortunately, there was no mention of Brooks's name or the fact that he was a Negro.

Moreland: And what if there were? Don't be childish.

Wharton: Does the fact that Luther Brooks is a Negro...affect his responsibility toward this hospital? Or our responsibility toward him?

Moreland: Now wait a minute. Don't go reading any anti-Negro implications into what I say. I accepted Brooks here as an intern, and I'm all for him. Next year I'd like another Negro intern. Maybe two. Why, if anything, I'm pro-Negro.

Wharton: I'm not. I'm pro-good-doctor; black, white or polka dot.

Moreland: As chief resident, I have no more right to wax sentimental...over a bad doctor because he happens to be a Negro...than I have to discriminate against a good doctor...because he's White, Protestant and independently wealthy.

Another White character, Johnny's wife, Edie (played by Linda Darnell), doesn't mourn his death and plays a cynical game of brinkmanship when Wharton seeks her help to exonerate Brooks - she betrays both by aiding Ray’s gang of racists. Later, when she recognizes the irrevocability of Ray's racism, she steps in to save Brooks, even goading him to let a wounded Ray die. Brooks refuses to succumb to spite. He and Edie, together, save Ray's life even if they can't quite cure his hatred, his blindness. Sadly, the shades that Ray wore, allowed him to see only Black and White.

Ray is not too different from some of today's Blacks who never tire of the prefix "Dear White People".

Difference - that's (pretty much) all they want to see.
Eventually, it's all they can see.

Justin Simien's eponymous 2014 movie would've been quite all right even if it wasn't a satirical dark-comedy because it reflects, pretty accurately, how some Blacks still think: "Dear White People".

More importantly, it reflects how some are trained to think by public figures such as Harriot, who themselves can't think beyond nurturing (if not profiting from) a constituency of grievance, can't think beyond reinforcing shared victimhood.

In merely aping the binary blinkers of rabble-rousing White folk who, like Ray, see nothing but "Black People" and "White People", these rabble-rousing Black public figures - false prophets - have learned nothing from Black History or the great Black activists before them. Great men and women who honored a sad history, not just by breaking chains but also by building connections, by destroying some bridges and designing new ones, by refusing to blindly adopt the old, tired vocabulary and re-creating themselves, not always in the image of their fathers.

Precisely why No Way Out is a morality tale, of 'seeing' and 'seeing beyond'.
It drops a gentle hint about today's false prophets: can we trust the ones claiming to want to erase a divide, if all they do is keep accentuating it?

Merely seeing (in this case, nothing except a person's color) is proof of our vision - about the same as a cat's, give or take. It can inspire defiance of injustice, but can also fuel a bleeding resentment. The latter, left rampant, can provoke the opposite of vision - blindness. Whoever came up with the phrase 'blind rage' was on to something. Sometimes the middle ground's worse - a permanent sense of grievance.

However, seeing beyond (beyond a person's color, that is, to his or her humanity) is proof of our sight, our unique capacity - as humans - to be and become better persons, not merely better professionals. Proof of our capacity to act, not simply react.

We need both, but surely in more reasonable proportion than some commentators allow?!

Seeing what's real (Whites, Blacks, racism) is factual; faithful to racism's sadist past, a warning to its surviving present.

Seeing beyond, to the possible or the not-yet-real (people can change, some do, others can, still others may not) is the equivalent of seeing through, to the 'good and beautiful and true'. It inhales the 'is' all right. But as it exhales, it prepares to inhale its own 'can be', thriving on an oxygen all its own.

Ray's deaf-mute older brother, George, a prophetic prop, fittingly, ends up a pawn in the racism game. Prophetic because, through him, the screenwriters are telling us that unlike dim-witted racists whose senses seem numbed, we - all of us, influencers or not - have a choice. Do we choose to play 'victim of circumstance' and merely 'see' our colors as the false prophets want us to? Or do we resolutely assert our humanity, re-assert the humanity of others, to 'see beyond' our colors?

Sidney Poitier was born, in February, nearly a hundred years ago, but even today his voice resonates - brimming with conviction. True, he speaks to Whites - loud and clear. But, his voice echoes for Blacks too - no less loudly, no less clearly.

Remember that confrontation in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)? Prentice Sr. (played by Roy Glenn) is trying to talk his son John Prentice (a young Poitier) out of the idea of marrying a White woman. Prentice Sr. alludes to vastly different racial cultures, deep scars from one race lording it over the other and the sad fact of a public that'll be blind to everything else, even their love for each other.

Prentice fires back at his father for being a false prophet, claiming a legacy of the bravest, wisest Blacks but trying to cuff his son to Blackness while he's at it. In the end, merely pretending to protect.

It should be the name of the movie character below, but here, it seems more respectful to have Poitier's name as he delivered those immortal lines.

Poitier: You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of a man.

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer writing on pop culture.

Twitter: @RudolphFernandz

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