I just finished reading The New York Times article, Black Characters Are Still Too Good, Too Bad or Too Invisible, by film maker and author, Nelson George. The piece takes a look at four 2012 films containing leading black characters that are directed by white directors. The films are Lincoln, Django Unchained, Flight, and Beasts of the Southern Wild.
George tells of earlier Hollywood times when black film-goers could discern more concretely and simplistically, whether portrayals of black characters in film were “good/ positive,” think Sidney Poitier in To Sir With Love, or “bad,negative” think Denzel Washington in Training Day, or stereotyped, think Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind.
George says that with race, race relations, and leading and supporting black characters at the center of several of this year’s Oscar contenders, perhaps black film-goers and makers should be taking a closer look and asking some questions as to the development and point-of-view of the black character in these white film makers’ films. One of the questions George boldly asks, is:
In the age of Obama, when a black man is the protagonist in our national narrative, are Hollywood’s fictional characters allowed the same agency in the stories built around them?
I did see Django and Beasts of the Southern Wild, but not Lincoln or Flight. I went to Django very conscious I was seeing a film directed by a white director with a lead black character . There were many film critics who had all kinds of things to say–good and bad about Django, about Quentin Tarantino’s excessive use of the “n” word, of the unrealistic portrayal of slavery and the South, and the spaghetti westernizing of it all.
One of the things I noted was the scene with the hooded cowboys, supposed Klansmen or precursors of Klansmen because the Klan didn’t exist yet then, who had set out to kill off Django and the white bounty hunter who had freed him so Django could help him hunt.
The scene was a Mel Brooks style farce, with the hooded men arguing they couldn’t see because the eye holes weren’t lined up right, and blaming one of the men’s wives for sewing them so poorly. The audience laughed, and all I could think was, hmmm, that’s a little too flip to laugh at…and…hmmmm, if this mostly white audience was much more integrated with black film-goers, would the white people be laughing so freely….and, finally, would black people laugh at this, find it funny?
I also agreed with George’s point-of-view that while the Django character played by Jamie Foxx has his strengths and gets his sweet revenge, I couldn’t help but feel that his character was subservient to his white bounty hunter trainer, Dr. King Schultz, played by Christopher Waltz. I also agreed with other critics who said Django’s wife, played by Kerry Washington, was a cardboard character with no depth or substance to flesh her out for the audience. I wanted to hear Django speak of her, of why he loved her, what he loved about her, so that I could become even more invested in his rescue, and her as the woman he cared so dearly for that he risked everything to free her. I didn’t want to care just because of social justice, and the obvious wish to see her as a faceless symbol of a woman being freed from slavery. I wanted their love story.
As for Beasts of the Southern Wild, a blend of the surreal and harsh reality, I couldn’t help but feel the grace of the performances of both Hushpuppie, played by Quvenzhane Wallis, and her father, Wink, played by Dwight Henry. Both were non-actors–the entire film was made with non-actors.
I did feel there was a complexity to these two characters, and though it wasn’t always pretty, there was depth, there was motivation, and I couldn’t help but feel and care for Hushpuppie, and for Wink, even though he appeared deeply hard or flawed at times, and for the people of the Bathtub.
I am white, and during this film I didn’t have the same uncomfortable, race conscious thoughts that I had during Tarantino’s Django. I don’t know how black film-goers feel about the film. And, of course, I am just one white person with my one white person opinion. So, I might ask fifty different black people how they felt about the film and get fifty different answers. I will have to ask and see. Nelson George seems to favor Beasts of the Southern Wild as a film that gives agency to its characters. Read the Times article here and let me know if you agree.
What I am glad about, is that these films exploring race and race relations and featuring main black characters are being made, and that that creates a dialogue between the races, one that asks questions and measures how we are doing. I’d like to see more films by black directors telling stories with leading black characters in Hollywood, for Hollywood to provide the opportunities for that to happen. Yet I am also pleased that white directors are giving more attention to black characters in film, and dealing with sensitive topics in the best way that they can, and opening themselves up to the criticism that will most likely come for doing so.
Have you seen any of these films? What are your takes on the black characters in these films? Any comments after reading Nelson George’s article? Please post in the comments below, and start a dialog here.
The New York Times, Black Characters Are Too Good, Too Bad Or Too Invisible by Nelson George, February 17, 2013