Insisting a certain group of people receive awards just so that group of people gets awards is one of the stupidest ideas Americans have right now. I touched on this in a piece I wrote in 2016 when the “Oscars So White” hashtag was gaining steam, but I now think the topic deserves more attention.
Before I go on I’d like to share some stats you may not know. Black people make up 12% of the population. So you might expect them to make up 12% of actors and 12% of Oscar winners. This means you would expect a black person to win one of the four Oscars for acting every 8.3 people. So presumably, two Oscar shows could go by without a single black person winning an acting award and it wouldn’t be anything to worry about. Since two black people won last year, statistically, you wouldn’t expect another black person to win until four or five Oscars from now given the population of America, all other things equal.
I enjoy seeing minorities and women succeed but the obsession with representation for representation’s sake depresses me. The demand for affirmative action in Hollywood or “inclusion riders” as Frances McDormand called for delegitimizes any actual success had by minorities or women. Now I’m going to wonder if I got the award because I’m good at what I do or because I’m a black female. Whatever happened to judging things by their merit alone? The number of blacks or gays or women in a film should have little to do with the grading of said film. Alas, criticism is now linked directly to diversity quotas, not actual talent.
Representation for Representation’s Sake
I feel like a broken record but Martin Luther King said it best, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” And that’s really all we can ask for, but instead, what is being asked is that a certain quota of demographics be met when casting a movie, writing a paper or producing any sort of art.
Earlier this month, Huffington Post editor Chloe Angyal bragged about meeting gender and racial quotas in the opinion page. My question is, so what? Are the opinion columns any good? Are they informative? Do they express a wide variety of opinions so readers can better understand the world around them? Of course she doesn’t mention quality, all that matters is the skin color and gender of those writing. Pretty racist I’d say.
Lately there has been a steady stream of movies directed by and starring black people that have received the highest honors and praises. I’m talking Moonlight, Get Out and Black Panther. While art is subjective I have seen all these movies and none of them have struck me as extraordinary. Before you freak out, let me tell you why.
This movie has an exclusively black cast and was written and directed by a black man. In 2017 Moonlight won Best Adapted Screenplay, Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor and it won Best Picture over La La Land, Hacksaw Ridge and Arrival.
Moonlight is beautifully shot, and the acting is good. But the story itself, the meat of the movie, is empty. It’s 110 minutes when it could’ve been 30. If I were writing the description for the back of this movie it would say, “Kid in the inner city grows up with no father and a drug addicted mother to become a drug dealer himself. He’s also gay.” Read that description and you don’t need to watch the movie. We all know this story. The lead role being gay adds a wrinkle but it really doesn’t change the story much. You could replace the word gay with awkward, dorky or any other trait kids like to pick on and get the same movie. I am not trying to make little of what it’s like to be a gay black kid but I know of kids who took similar bullying for seemingly no reason at all. Bullies gonna bully, that’s just the way it is. There is no plot twist, the main character doesn’t overcome anything, you don’t finish the movie with a changed perspective on anything.
Moonlight is a nice movie aesthetically but is it spectacular? Absolutely not.
I really like this movie. I was on the edge of my seat, I squirmed a bit, I yelled “Noooo!” It made me feel the things horror movies are supposed to make you feel. But it wasn’t unique. Jordan Peele is a smart guy but Get Out is just Stepford Wives but with black people instead of women. It’s not an exact copy but it’s very similar. And I’m fine with that, it’s ok to take good ideas and tweak them into even better ideas but let’s not pretend Jordan Peele rocked the world with this crazy new idea. I need not write about all the similarities between Get Out and Stepford Wives because other people have done it for me.
Get Out is a good movie, but it’s not a unique new idea.
Like the two movies above, this one is well done aesthetically and the acting is good but it’s not a unique story. My brother wrote about this in a comparison of Black Panther to Thor: Ragnarok. Furthermore, Black Panther is the battle between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X with T’Challa as MLK and Killmonger as Malcolm. This is the same battle of ideas the entire X-Men series is built around with Professor X as MLK and Magneto as Malcolm. There is no depth to the Black Panther plot, (spoiler alert) you know he will come back when he falls off the cliff, you know he will beat Killmonger in their final battle. Towards the end of the movie when T’Challa’s general was losing I whispered to my boyfriend, “here comes the Ape King with his people” and sure enough, they showed up and saved the day. Again, it’s a story that’s been told a million times and just because it’s with an all black cast this time it’s not better.
I was particularly blown away by people claiming Black Panther changed their life or made them proud to be black for once, or after watching it, now they know what they can achieve. This type of thinking is silly for so many reasons.
First of all, if you need to watch a pretend movie to feel proud of who you are I would suggest you have some psychological issues you should probably address. What someone else does, even if they look exactly like you has nothing to do with how you should feel about yourself. If you do need a little outside inspiration, I can point you in the direction of hundreds of papers and books about black people who have been doing awesome shit as far back as time has been recorded. And I mean real stuff. Not pretending to be a superhero.
But let us think critically about what black people are so proud of when it comes to Black Panther, Wakanda (the made up country in the movie) specifically. The people of Wakanda have great power by chance alone. A meteorite happened to hit their country and bring a magical metal that can literally do anything including power stuff, make armor and bring people back to life. Black people in the movie didn’t invent it, they didn’t earn it, they didn’t even win a war to get it. Pure chance. Is that something to really be proud of? Of course they live in a fantastic utopia. Any group of people would be if they had that magical element. And honestly, for having magic powers they really aren’t that far ahead of the rest of the world technology wise.
Furthermore, Wakanda is isolationist, they have strong borders, they don’t trade with anyone, (which would never create more prosperity in the real world, just ask Japan) they place high value on tradition, they have a huge, well trained army and they’re extremely spiritual…Does any of this sound familiar? According to how black people have voted in America for the past 50 years, they aren’t too keen on that philosophy, yet when it’s Wakanda it’s wonderful? I’m a little confused. No one’s bothered that Wakanda isn’t a democracy? The people don’t elect their leader and the only way the leader changes is if you can beat him in a fight? That seems pretty unfair.
I actually don’t care about any of that stuff though. You know why? It’s a SUPERHERO MOVIE. I don’t attend to have my mind blown, I attend to watch stuff get blown up. I don’t want the heroes to die. I want a fun movie that has some cool effects, maybe some funny lines and I don’t mind if a couple people fall in love in the process. I wouldn’t politicize this movie except that everyone else chose to so I feel the need to respond.
None of these movies are bad but at the same time none of them are particularly unique. One thing they all touch on, the issue amongst the black community that I have been screaming about for a long time. Fathers. The importance of them, especially for men.
In Moonlight the kid yearns for a father figure so bad he finds a nice drug dealer to fill the void. Because this kid has no father he doesn’t know how to fight or stand up for himself. Even at the end of the movie he still doesn’t know who he is.
In Get Out the main character doesn’t have a father and the loss of his mother scars him forever. Additionally, his girlfriend and her brother are messed up because of the sickening way the were raised in a home lead by the father.
We all know Killmonger would have turned out very different had his father been a different man. Killmonger didn’t have the example of what manhood looks like and losing his father at a young age rocked his world. On the flip side we see the result of a father instilling values and principles in a boy starting at a young age with T’Challa. Notice that T’Challa doesn’t turn to his mother for advice on how to be a man.
Claiming America is racist when it comes to black actors is just pure nonsense. America loves watching black people on the big screen. You know what actor has made the most money at the box office? Samuel L. Jackson at $5.149 Billion. Morgan Freeman is 4th on the list, Eddie Murphy is 7th, and Will Smith is 19th. 20% of the top 20 highest all time box office earners are black guys. An overrepresentation compared to the black population. When it comes to stand alone action/adventure movies (so not movies like Suicide Squad, Star Wars, Saw etc) three out of the top five grossing ones star black leads. Number one being American Sniper, followed by Independence Day (starring Will Smith), Get Out (starring Daniel Kuluuya), Twister, and Beverly Hills Cop (starring Eddie Murphy). If you don’t count Independence Day because they just made a sequel no big deal, that would move Hancock (starring Will Smith) into the 5th spot.
Most Americans don’t care who is entertaining them, they just want to be entertained. Black Panther was fun, Get Out was scary and Moonlight was nice to look at, but none of them were groundbreaking. Replace the black people with white people (or women in the case of Get Out) and see what I mean.