Stagnant Blackness and the Modern Race Drama

by Chris Prioleau

the help

My skepticism of race movies goes back to the 1997 Academy Awards. I was ten years old, perhaps prematurely interested in cinema, and I believed in the infallibility of the Oscars the way that children of a certain age usually believe in the infallibility of their parents. Because I was too young to remember Denzel in the eighties, and knew Sidney Poitier only from the hushed, reverential tone that my father spoke the words “in the heat of the night,” when Cuba Gooding Jr took home Best Supporting Actor for his role in Jerry Maguire, I thought I was witnessing the first ever Oscar win by a black actor; it felt like watching a live telecast of the Emancipation, hosted by Billy Crystal. All these years later, I still can’t click the YouTube video without catching some feelings: Cuba and Tom Cruise hugging, ecstatic, like the awesome interracial best friends I imagined them to be; George Foreman and the Fresh Prince sitting in the crowd, beaming with this Mandela-like benevolence, while Angela Bassett stood up and cried “yasss, boy, yaasss, yaaasss!”; and Cuba dancing to the stage, declaring his love for his wife, the camera panning to find her and hot damn she’s white. I decided then, sitting in my room, eyes sobby and star-filled, that America was the greatest country on earth. When Cuba hoisted his statue and shouted, “We made it!” I just knew he was talking about me.

I obviously took it all a bit literally, thinking we’d been ushered into some sort of post-Cuba world where black people were now wholly integrated into arts and therefore society. This was important to me then, as I frequently looked to media not just for entertainment but for socialization. Films and television showed how society viewed certain types of people, and I used that barometer as a way of imagining my future — what type of person I would become, what type of person I was allowed to be. So in that sense, it wasn’t just that Cuba had won, but that he’d won for being a cool black guy, a funny guy in a lighthearted movie who no one made feel different because of the color of his skin. So when Cuba said we made it, I thought that he was talking to all the funny, cool, slightly dorky black guys; that was the way I wanted to see myself. I thought Cuba’s win was the Academy admitting that guys like me were the future of cinema.

Later, I would learn that Cuba’s “We Made It” speech was at the latest in a line of similar proclamations dating back to 1939. That was the year that Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award, for her infamous turn as Mammy the house slave in Gone With The Wind. Before presenting her with the Oscar, actress Fay Bainter said that McDaniel’s win“opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls, and enables us to embrace the whole of America.” McDaniel then approached the podium, stood in front of the banquet hall filled with her white compatriots, and very earnestly recited her acceptance speech. “Your kindness has made me very, very humble,” she said. “I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race.” This speech was reportedly written not by McDaniel, but by executives at MGM, and after reading it, McDaniel burst immediately into tears as the audience applauded.

This speech, as well as Bantier’s, are ancestral to Cuba Gooding’s “We Made It” speech. They’re united chiefly by the theme of racial progress — working toward, then arriving, at it. But in terms of film and the racial representation therein, how do we measure that progress? Where exactly have we arrived? If we simply take into account the number of films about black lives — films that prominently and/or predominantly feature three-dimensional black characters and use race as a central theme — then, on the surface, we’re doing relatively well. Over the past decade, we’ve seen the release of several race-related films so similar in tone and topic that they can be read as their own genre: the modern race drama, which intends to realistically portray the brutal violence of modern and historical racism in the United States. 12 Years A Slave, Selma, The Butler, The Help, The Blind Side, Precious, and (ugh) Crash have each been critical and commercial hits, garnering awards and helping to make household names out of talents like Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Steve McQueen, and Lupita Nyong’o, among others. In many ways, this is an encouraging sign, especially in light of recent events; it shows that the general public is willing to appreciate black narratives en masse.

However, with the success of every new film about slavery, poverty, hired help, and the fight for civil rights, I can’t help but feel that the depictions of blackness in mainstream cinema are currently as stagnant as they’ve been in decades. When, as Roxanne Gay points out in her essay “The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi” that “[the] prime role for a two-time Tony Award winner and one-time Oscar nominee like Viola Davis is that of a maid,” then we’re clearly circling away from the Post-Cuba world I imagined as an adolescent and somehow circling back to 1939.

It’s not just that the modern race drama actively recycles the same worn representations of black life that’ve been circulating since we first stepped in front of a camera: the wise, long-suffering, good-advice-shilling maids of The Help; the wise, long-suffering, good-advice-shilling butler in The Butler; the unloved, under-educated kid from the ghetto who learns to value himself in The Blind Side; the unloved, under-educated kid from the ghetto who learns to value herself in Precious; and of course, their kind white saviors. It’s that those tropes are always brought forth in order to impart a thin moral lesson onto its audience. This lesson is, without fail, about the evils of racism, as though racism was the sole theme of African-American life. While “racism is bad” is certainly a moral worthy of narrative reflection, when we begin to consider the comparative shortage of three-dimensional non-white, non-male characters across the history of film, it strikes me as a problem that the only genre interested in rendering fully dimensional black characters — aside from some science fiction films, or comedies driven by the talents of Kevin Hart and Tyler Perry — is the race drama, a genre markedly interested in preaching morality. It’s as if there’s only room for three-dimensional black film characters when those characters function as educators, as teachers to the audience on the subject of blackness. This reinforces an existing notion that, as Audre Lorde says in “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference”:

Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.

Instead of being celebrated for bringing fresh, dynamic representations of minority life onto the screen, we’re often congratulated for sticking to the same script. It’s a script that says that to be black is to absorb the cruelty of others, and to transform that cruelty into a suffering so selfless, so noble, that it may educate the world that cruelty is wrong. In this definition, the only way to make it or become a credit to the race is to tow the line and continue perpetuating society’s perceived notions on the hardships of black life.

In the world of the race drama, in which minority characters must educate white characters and, through them, the audience, on what it’s really like to be black, the primary teaching tools of minority characters are the narratives of their own people’s suffering. On its purest level, The Help is about a wide-eyed and big-hearted white woman who becomes morally pure (and financially self-sufficient) by writing down the narratives of mistreated black servants and selling those narratives to the same people who were doing the mistreating in the first place; in The Butler, there are several scenes where the gist is basically: “Gosh, Forest Whitaker, even though I’m President of the United Sates, I didn’t know how bad it was for y’all black folk until I saw y’all gettin beat the hell up on my TV. Here you go, take some human rights.”) As these films are currently some of the only ones attempting at all to depict complex minority lives, it’s disconcerting that so much of the focus is placed on teaching and continuously rewarding liberal whites for understanding the simple principle that black lives matter. It’s been heartening to see the positive responses to these films — just as it’s been heartening to see how much of the country has rallied around the unlawful murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner — but why is it that we’re only mobilized to care about difference or otherness through the thematic relationship between suffering and saviorism? What audience are these films actually intended for?

It feels as if, where the modern race drama is concerned, we’re not as firmly central in our own stories as one might think. These stories are still coming from the same set of antiquated notions that wrote Hattie McDaniel’s speech for her, notions that dictate that a dramatic non-white narrative is only successful in so far as it speaks to the good-intentioned but ultimately reductive theme of racial progress, which in this case is a euphemism for proving one’s worth to the white population. As Chris Rock said in his recent brilliant interview with Frank Rich:

When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense…White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before…to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress.

Filmmakers are frequently required to make certain concessions so that their films are seen as being more palatable to wider audiences. Even still this progress-heavy way of framing non-white narratives encourages an unfortunate glass ceiling for minority storytelling, while also selling short audiences of all races. Do we really believe that white audiences will only pay for a movie if it speaks to them directly? Audiences of color have been showing up to films chiefly disinterested in them for decades. Empathy isn’t an ethnological phenomena. Most people just want to see good movies. We’re ready for the next generation of race films, films that explore other issues black people face besides white people. That’s when we’ll have truly made it.