Director Lee Daniels thinks that acknowledging race would invite racism and exclusion. He is very mistaken. The idea that racism only materialises because we confront it actually goes against the definition of racism. Racism rests on relations of power. What people say and do about race, including their inaction, all contributes to racist relations.
Daniels went on CNN to respond to recent claims by actress Mo’Nique that she was “blackballed” by Hollywood. Mo’Nique says Daniels explained that acting opportunities were being denied to her because she refused to go along with studio requests to join the press junket to the Cannes Film Festival for the film Precious, which he directed and she starred in 2010.
When asked whether Mo’Nique’s situation in Hollywood can improve, Daniels explains:
Daniels: I mean if she plays ball. You got to play ball. This is not just show. It’s show business. And you’ve got to play ball, and you can’t scream — I don’t like calling the race card. I don’t believe in it. I don’t believe in it. Because if I buy into it, then it becomes real.
CNN host Don Lemon: Some people call that selling-out…
Daniels: Selling-out? I guess I’m a sell-out then. Call it what it is. But I’m not going to not work, and I’m not going to not tell my truth. And I’m not going to call people out on their bull. So whatever that means; sell out, okay! [Laughs] I’ll see you in the theatres! [Laughs]
He goes on to share a touching background story about a storyline in his TV show Empire, based on his father’s violent reaction to his early queer identity. Speaking with Out, Daniels links his coming out experience to the ongoing violence faced by queer Black youth today. So while he can see a connection between race and homophobia, he seems unwilling to address race as having an impact on his career.
Daniels admits that he may be seen to be “selling out” for refusing to see racism as a problem, but selling out is not the issue here. What is Daniels really saying? He suggests that in order to succeed in Hollywood, an industry dominated by Whiteness, Black artists and professionals need to simply “disbelieve” in racism (in his case), or stay quiet about what they perceive to be unfair (in Mo’Nique’s case). Daniels defines the path to success as being about silence on inequality. He won’t cause waves by thinking about or discussing race (“I’m not going to call people out on their bull”). This frees him so he can literally laugh away the impact of race on his way into the nearest multiplex (“I’ll see you in the theatres!”).
By refusing to discuss how race relations may affect him or others, Daniels is in fact being complicit in racism, even as his various projects deal with Black American experiences.
Daniels argues Mo’Nique should have been more appreciative towards producers and other big players during media duties for Precious. This is not only problematic in terms of racist gender policing, by telling a Black woman to be more thankful in a situation that she finds unfair (lest she appear to be ungrateful, or otherwise evoke “the angry Black woman” trope). Additionally, Daniels implies that part of the problem is that Mo’Nique is not being grateful by talking about racism and sexism openly. This is something he wishes to distance himself from; that would be “playing the race card,” a disparaging term that demeans discussions of racism as being inappropriate or undeserving of attention. Racism is just another game to play in Daniels’ explanation — one which he refuses to play, but conversely, a game he suggests Mo’Nique is playing, by daring to raise the topic.
Black feminists have long pointed out that mainstream Black activism marginalises Black women’s agency in fighting issues of intersectionality. Intersectionality addresses the simultaneous experiences of of inequality amongst women of colour and other minorities, including sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism. Professor Brittney Cooper notes that Black male intellectuals only hold up Black women as examples of leadership when they support Black men, with Ida B. Wells being the idealised example. Yet Black feminists who take another path, by centrally tackling the connections between sexism and racism, are marginalised or punished. Daniels is perpetuating this pattern in his critique of Mo’Nique.
Daniels suggests that not confronting race has helped his career. bell hooks has criticised The Butler, another Daniels film (as well as other Black male directors) for presenting racism through a masculine vision of “sentimentality and melodrama.” hooks argues that these types of films produce a safe fantasy of racism that does not challenge present-day racism.
Back to Daniels, who suggests Mo’Nique somehow played into “reverse racism” (which is not a real concept), by refusing to conform to the studio’s demands. Daniels describes so-called reverse racism as not thanking the studios. In his eyes Mo’Nique refused to “play ball.” He links the idea of racism together with being grateful for being allowed in the game in the first place. What playing ball means to Daniels, a Black male director, is very different than what’s expected of Mo’Nique, a Black actress.
Mo’Nique explains her decision to “respectfully decline” the studio invite to attend Cannes as being primarily a family decision, and secondarily a professional choice. She says that at the time, she had a short break in between other paid work. As a working mother, she prioritised spending time with her family, particularly given she was not paid highly for her appearance in the film. After the third studio request to attend Cannes, she asked if she would be paid to attend and was told that studios don’t pay for appearances (though they were offering to upgrade her hotel). Mo’Nique says she respectfully declined yet again and did not make further demands, as Daniels suggests.
As a working mother and professional, Mo’Nique has a right to labour under the conditions that best suit her and her family. Plenty of Hollywood players have made different social and political choices that go against Hollywood convention. A handful of actors and directors have refused to play along with the Oscar game. Notably, they are overwhelmingly White. Marlon Brando’s decison to decline his Oscar in 1973 was controversial at the time, but is now written about as “one of the most powerful moments in Oscar history.” Despite criticism, the decision not to go along with Oscar duties does not hurt White nominees and winners.
Racist and sexist ideals of studio heads does, however, hurt the chances of big-name White actresses and successful Black actors, even those who have already proved their success for decades in studio pictures. So when a Black woman Oscar-winner refuses to play ball, she is denied meaningful scripts, negatively impacting her career.
Regardless of Mo’Nique’s studio obligations, Daniels wraps up the duties of work in Hollywood (playing ball), with refusing to call attention to race. Mo’Nique has expressly tied her experiences to both race and gender.
Mo’Nique has been clear that she was getting offers for scripts that were unacceptable (“they didn't make sense”). If she plays along with sub-standard offers as an Oscar winner, she worries about the message this sends about her worth, and what this means for other Black actresses.
Because if I accept that, and I won the award, what are my sisters being offered that didn't win the award, or wasn't nominated. Or what does this say to the little girl who’s not here yet, that if we continue to accept these low offers however do we make a difference and make a change?
The idea that Black women should “play ball” is not so simple when you consider what the game involves:
- Sacrificing time with family, even when not being remunerated adequately. The social costs for women are higher than for men in general as women still do the bulk of childcare and yet have less leisure time, and women are not paid as much as men.
- Being punished by studios, directly by being revoked offers, or indirectly, by only being offered sub-standard roles.
- Staying quiet about the consequences of racism and sexism. The film industry already marginalises women, though minority women fare especially poorly. If they’re not reduced into exotic fetishes, they are sexualised or otherwise absent from the screen.
Deliberately or not, Daniels suggests that playing ball means playing by the racist rules set that benefit White people, especially men. By claiming Mo’Nique produced “reverse racism” by not playing ball, Daniels suggests racism can be subverted by individual actions. That’s not the case.
Racism is a system of oppression and as such requires collection action. Racism is based upon the idea that some groups, White people specifically in countries like the USA, are more deserving of basic rights, respect and recognition. Racism includes the ongoing effects of history and oppression. Racism describes the fact that Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of colour are born with disadvantages and face significant obstacles throughout their lives. Racism is the sum total of institutional discrimination, whether it be through education, the media, the economy and so on. One Black woman refusing to “play ball” is not tantamount to reverse racism. Reverse racism, a nonsense term, would actually be the absence or reversal of racism.
Society cannot address, let alone reverse, the impact of racism without talking about racism and power. Daniels has gotten to a stage in his career where he can afford to pick and choose when he talks about race. Race matters to the stories he tells, as backdrop for exploring (often dysfunctional) families. Race matters to his own story of coming out because it’s tough to be gay as a Black man. Still, he plays no mind to racism, unless it is a sanitised version of the civil rights movement, where White people rise above the tyranny of Big Bad Racism.
Choosing not to see race is a privilege to some. Daniels has the luxury of not dealing with the personal costs of speaking out on racism and sexism. Daniels is not alone in his denials. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva shows that more and more people perceive that there is racism without racists. Racism no longer looks like it did in the lead up to the civil rights movements in the 1960s. Today, racism operates under the radar; it is not (just) the Klu Klux Klan or uneducated people who say awful things. “New racism” includes the decision not to act on inequality. In popular imagination, racism has become the property of some deviant individuals, leaving people to reject race and ignore its consequences, or to fight inequality alone.
Not owning up to racism in Hollywood (and broader society) alleviates the stigma and responsibility of acting on racism. People can convince themselves that racism doesn't touch them; and if one chooses to believe it, “not playing the race card” means racism and its associated inequalities is the laughable stuff of theatre. It’s easier to laugh and play the game, when racism here and now, in 2015, is someone else’s problem.
Credits: Top photo Zadi Diaz, CC 2.0 via Flickr, Adapted by Zuleyka Zevallos.