It’s been fascinating to see how the #OscarSoWhite conversation has evolved to include both personal and industry minded perspectives. As celebrities, media outlets and movie fans react and share their political perspectives, perhaps the conversation should evolve away from the glamour of the Oscars to the real problem ; the overall narrative depiction of blackness in mainstream American cinema. As a cinephile, I find it depressing that this conversation continues to be sparked at Oscar time but is mostly dormant during the regular movie year. From summer blockbusters to fall Oscar contenders , the conversation needs to be more focused as the roles Black America plays in mainstream cinema continue to be indicative of cultural values that are misaligned with the urgency around equality and inclusion.
This isn’t something new. In a definitive text titled Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema, academic Yvonne Tasker examines the politics of both maleness and the representation of Blackness in contemporary action cinema. The conversation of action cinema is not to be dismissed as it continues to be the most popular of mainstream cinema. Whether as hybrid or in its purity, the genre continues to thrive. Just look at the most successful films at the North American box-office. All of the titles (Star Wars the Force Awakens, Avatar, Titanic, Jurassic World, The Avengers), are all entrenched within the action realm.
As Tasker notes in her essay “Black Buddies and White Heroes: Racial Discourse in Action Cinema,” “constructions of blackness in particular, are central to the American action Cinema (Tasker, 35). Tasker continues to build and sustain an argumentative and legitimate discourse that “blackness is coded in spectacle.” As such, the role of the Black character is primarily to support narrative through physicality or action. This is not to say that such characters cannot play vital roles, but rather, those roles are typical to build the visual spectacle of the narrative or to serve the white protagonist. This is strictly evident in the Rocky series. Celebrated as an American story, the original Rocky and subsequent sequels (exclusive of Creed) are problematic within the relationship with race. Aligned with Tasker’s notions of Blackness, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), reinforces both spectacle and servitude. From the original Rocky (1976) where his charisma and body become a canvas in which Rocky must evolve as a fighter and person, to Rocky 3 (1983) where Apollo intimately serves Rocky in the role of the trainer, the idea of the black character is typically supportive and lesser. This is echoed in the Rocky 4 (1985) where Rocky, not Apollo, must “win” the cold war against Russian Ivan Drago. Apollo’s death in of itself becomes spectacle for it highlights the strength of white Russia only to be revenged by Rocky Balboa himself.
Within the conversation of Rocky, the issue has not dissipated over time. Beyond mainstream films starring Denzel Washington, Dwayne Johnson or the likes of Will Smith, the role of the black character (primarily the male), continues to be aligned to Tasker’s thinking. This is evident in Casino Royale (2006), Quantum of Solace (2009), where Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter to the comedic antics of Tyrese Gibson in the refuelled Fast and Furious franchise, the idea of the black actor continues to be trapped within spectacle and servitude.
With all of this, the Oscars are indeed overly white. However, as George Clooney shared in Variety, the conversation is not about nominees but rather the mode of production. The story telling as a mode to address cultural attitudes must change.
Can this happen? Yes! What we all need are more films like Selma and Creed, films that both echo the black voice of America and more importantly transcend race and succeed within the popular cinema conversation.
Although I focus here on the male, the issue is not singular as female representation is in equal (if not more) need for a re-telling. More to come on that!