The human race card: New leaders, old habits and popular culture
The baseline of our national culture — who and what we mean when we talk about what it means to be American — isn’t what it used to be
Fourteen days from today, we’re having an election that will be as much a civic statement about the primacy and impact of race as the issue that dominates our politics, our economics and our national psyche.
That civic statement stems from the conversation we’ve been struggling to have about race and ethnicity: in our tweets and comments, with our hashtags and Instagrams, on our TV talk shows and drive-time radio programs.
A lot of that inchoate conversation misses its real mark; often as not, we discuss that third-rail American issue among like-minded partisans, fellow members of the Church of Either Side of the Debate. On everything from law enforcement to social protest, the depth of our fidelity to one camp or another has hardened us to the prospect of any communication with The Enemy, out there across the uncrossable Rubicon.
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God knows some have tried in their own ham-fisted, hubristic ways. Rachel Dolezal, the white woman outed in 2015 for donning the literal identity of an African American woman, was deeply condemned for really doing nothing more or less than trying to accommodate her life to that which is important, central, crucial to her existence.
Despite outliers like Dolezal, that burgeoning conversation gets hung up in the soundbites and campaign ads and bad online manners that form the basis of that tortured exchange of opinions and facts.
Like with many changes in our distinctly, peculiarly American society, popular culture is taking point in navigating these several shifts of the national life. And consistent with society, outlets of our pop culture are as much a reaction to, and reflection of, society as they are flights of the imagination.
As the language of film and TV begins to more deeply diversify, as we move ourselves (kicking and screaming if necessary) to places and worlds outside our storytelling comfort zones, stories with black and brown faces are resonating with white audiences at every level of our visual culture.
Some certain cynic invented the phrase “the race card” as a way to express a universal disdain for breaking with race-neutral decisions in Hollywood’s casting choices, or a similar disdain for political discourse that invokes race in … uncomfortable ways. Those whose reflexively complain about “the race card” being “played” would be surprised to find the phrase doesn’t have the charge, the punch that it used to.
African Americans have long been considered the canaries in the coal mines of American social change. Lately their placement in positions of authority in the teleculture has helped solidify that image of blacks as the go-to barometer of diversity’s potential, its impact and its dividends. The elevation of two African American women at a major U.S. network were two quietly seismic events whose impact really hasn’t been fully felt yet.
Channing Dungey’s promotion to head of ABC Entertainment Group, in February, made her the first black president of a major television broadcast network. Jamila Hunter followed earlier this month, when she was tapped to head the ABC Comedy Department, overseeing the development of the network’s comedy pilots.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, directed by Cheryl Boone Isaacs (an African American woman), has undergone an unprecedented internal self-examination to increase its number of women and minorities. The #OscarsSoWhite controversy has provoked change at the Academy, historically one of the more hidebound institutions in Hollywood.
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But even being in positions of leverage doesn’t erase the old racial arithmetic. The debate over Nate Parker, actor, co-writer and director of “The Birth of a Nation,” is the latest case in point.
The recent howls for Parker’s metaphorical blood, the demands in the media for him to apologize for an act of rape 17 years ago, a crime that he said and a jury determined he didn’t commit, typify a call not only for justice — some make the case that the legal adjudication of the matter at trial was justice — but also vengeance, a colder retribution, the extrajudicial pound of flesh meant to satisfy our inner Hammurabi: an eye for an eye.
With tragic irony, more powerful as a byproduct of that lust for vengeance than it could have been by intention, the call to bring Parker to “Justice” also feeds into the toxic mythology of the original “Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s malignant 1915 epic: the black man as rapist monster.
Parker’s well aware of that irony: Fox Searchlight Pictures, the distributor of his film, released one of the posters to promote “Birth,” a poster showing Parker — presumably in character as Nat Turner but maybe not — with his head and neck in a noose of the American flag.
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But “Birth of a Nation” is just one of the major movies this Oscar-hunting season. Most of the films thought to have the weight and intellectual gravitas to contend for the Golden Dude will be out between now and year’s end. But this is more important than being the contestants in the hunt for Oscar gold.
Those films, and other works for the big screen and television, reflect the growing expression of black and minority filmmakers and creatives, and their evolving ability to do what storytellers do and have always done: tell a universal story in a small one.
Consider the buzz about “Loving,” the much-anticipated story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial Virginia couple whose love required a 1967 Supreme Court ruling to be validated in the Old Dominion — a ruling that effectively reaffirmed a basic constitutional right.
“Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins’ highly acclaimed film on growing up black and gay, has taken on one of the aspects of black male identity that’s historically been on the downlow in black America. Variety said Monday that the film “could be this year’s indie box-office breakout.”
This holiday season, we can expect to see “Fences,” the long-awaited film of August Wilson’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play, to be directed by Oscar winner Denzel Washington and starring Washington, and the reliably incandescent Viola Davis.
And Kathryn Bigelow’s “Untitled Detroit Project” will feature John Boyega, John Krasinski, Will Poulter and Jacob Latimore in “a crime drama set against the backdrop of Detroit’s devastating riots that took place over five haunting summer days in 1967. The Oscar-winning director plans to release the film next year, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the riots.
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In recent months, we’ve seen stories of modern African American life break through with wider audiences on television, the way their real-life counterparts exploded into the wider consciousness. “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” all but swept the Primetime Emmys in September, winning nine Emmys, including those for best limited series, lead actor, lead actress, supporting actor and writing (The reboot of the “Roots” miniseries, a new interpretation of Alex Haley’s 1977 ABC series, was also nominated).
“Insecure,” the new series co-created by and starring Issa Rae, has taken HBO viewers by storm with a quirky view of a modern black woman’s life in Los Angeles, a storyline that taps into universal emotions and themes of acceptance, discovery and heartbreak.
“Atlanta,” Donald Glover’s brilliant take on what it is to be young, black, poor and living in the Deep South today, is the FX series that’s wowed television critics across the country.
On Netflix, the critically acclaimed “Luke Cage” brings some of the tropes of the superhero down to a human scale. Cage, a black man living in modern-day Harlem, is literally bulletproof — a fact of his existence that’s a resonant creative response to the deeply unsettling number of police-involved shootings in which the victim is an African American male.
Ava DuVernay’s emotionally lacerating documentary “13th,” also on Netflix, examines the impact of the 13th Amendment (the one barring slavery without due process) and the ways in which it persists into the present day, evidenced by a frighteningly dramatic rise in the prison population and a disproportionate process of black men caught up in the meat grinder of the prison system.
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In the culture beyond entertainment per se, African Americans have challenged the orthodoxy of allegiance that Americans have conditioned themselves to — and found legions of supporters who aren’t African American.
When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee in August while the National Anthem was playing — a mute but eloquent protest of all those police shootings of people who look like him — little did he know how his action would ring through the whole country. Since he made that kneeling stand on principle, similar statements have happened numerous times, with high school, college and professional athletic teams — even a woman singing the National Anthem — taking a solidarity knee as well.
The recognition of the racist elements of Francis Scott Key’s celebrated song (whose more offensive lyrical identity is discovered among the verses we don‘t sing) has transcended the relative convenience of black or white. Over time (since August anyway), we’ve come to acknowledge how the song’s crueler intimations clash with what is, fundamentally, our own innate sense of right-and-wrong. The voice of those better angels we talk about, no matter who or what color we are.
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When the 2016 presidential election steps off in two weeks, it’ll reveal more than just a preference between two candidates. The outcome will say plenty about our readiness to head into a future nobody can really see coming, and who we trust to help move us toward that future.
No matter who you pick for that awesome job, it will say as much about us as a nation as it says about either of them. And the widening of the dialogue that’s starting to happen vis-à-vis the perceived baseline of our national culture — who and what we talk about when we talk about what it means to be American — is a powerfully hopeful start toward that future.
“Race” was always only the beginning; the received wisdom of its role as the default demographic characteristic by which our democracy pivots towards its better self is rightly evolving, widening, expanding. And fast.
Women — the panorama of their lives and experiences, dreams and demands — are becoming more fully woven into the mosaic, as are the lives of Latino Americans, Asian Americans, indigenous Americans, Arab Americans, LGBTQ Americans, and more, and more.
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The next America is the America we’re living in now. With popular culture leading the way (as it often does), we’re in a country where the phrase “race card,” as a rhetorically poisonous expression, doesn’t convey the exclusivity it once did. The toxicity of the phrase is diluted, first, by the scientific fact that “race” itself is an artificial construct; and second, by its fullest social application: Whether the cynical inventor of that phrase intended it or not, its meaning (insofar as it has any meaning in the everyday world) has also evolved, widened and expanded.
We are the stories we tell. And the stories we tell ourselves and one another today, as a nation, look, sound and feel more like this nation — its 325 million storytellers — than they ever have before.
When lives intermingle and genders interact, when stories intertwine and narratives weave within other narratives, when we live our American lives fully and truthfully … there is no race card. There’s just the human race card, and that’s every card in the deck.