Beyond the Pale

Screwing the white guy and dancing with the devil: Race matters at the 40th annual New York Film Festival

Rosie Perez is onstage at the New York Film Festival, shaking her booty like it's 1989. Dropping this cheeky interlude midway into her more sobering presentation at the fest's panel discussion of race in American film, the former In Living Color choreographer manages at once to lighten the topic's heavy load and, uh, to broaden its appeal. In a flash--literally--Perez reminds those of us who've paid 11 bucks to see Hollywood's "race problem" discussed by a group of actors, academics, and filmmakers of color (plus one white guy) that even "message movies" (and panel discussions) are works of entertainment. And they need to be.

Put it this way: No movie in history, however artful or "important," ever broke even on a sizable investment by telling people what they didn't want to hear--or at least not without diverting their attention now and then. Spike Lee knew it 13 years ago when he prefaced the hard lessons of Do the Right Thing with the playfully tough image of Perez in boxing trunks busting a move to the beat of Public Enemy. And Perez herself--speaking on this HBO-sponsored panel alongside the likes of producer Warrington Hudlin (House Party), casting director Reuben Cannon (Get on the Bus), and distributor Jeff Lipsky (The Fast Runner)--knows it today. "The only people who are going to see a $24,000 movie about Latinos are artsy-fartsy weirdos," Perez tells the festival crowd (of artsy-fartsy weirdos?) before coating that bitter pill with a little Fly Girl sugar.

The point isn't lost on this reporter. I mean, if I want to write a 2,000-word newspaper article about how American movies generally function to strengthen rather than fight the powers that be, then I'm going to have to sell it--to my editor, certainly, and also to you, the reader. In other words: Let me describe here what some people you might never have heard of had to say about something related to what only a small portion of you might care to identify as White Male Hegemony. But first I have to tell you: Rosie Perez's backside is fine.

And now the main attraction: her brain. "When we talk about the history of Latin people in the media," says Perez to a half-full house of film enthusiasts at Lincoln Center, "we see that [racist representation] isn't new. There was this Latin screen star, Lupe Vélez, who was Mexican; she crossed over because she starred with Gary Cooper [in 1929's Wolf Song]. She was called the 'Mexican Spitfire.' And they asked her to dance in everything: love stories, Westerns, whatever--she'd break into dance. Back then, they didn't call it 'The Latin Explosion,' but it was basically the same thing. What followed for her was a series of films where she played oversexualized women--caricatures. Unless [a woman of color] was screwing a white guy in Hollywood, she didn't have a chance. A lot hasn't changed."

So it hasn't, unless you count the fact that a woman of color won an Academy Award earlier this year...for playing an oversexualized woman who screws a white guy. Halle Berry's Oscar for Monster's Ball--along with the one that went to Training Day's Denzel Washington for playing an ultraviolent man who screws with a white guy (and pays the price)--is chief among the reasons this festival meeting was called to order. As discussion facilitator and author Michael Eric Dyson (Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line) put it: "The margins have now claimed the center." If that's true, then the question becomes: At what cost, and for whose benefit? Berry powerfully claimed her Oscar on behalf of "every nameless, faceless woman of color who now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened." But a chance to do what? To play another oversexualized woman who screws a white guy--and win an Oscar for it? Or does the power of this award afford the opportunity--for Halle Berry, if not for the nameless and faceless--to play other kinds of roles, perhaps in movies not directed by white guys and designed to win Oscars?

To some extent the answer to this question can be provided by only Berry herself. Whether she'll seek to spend her clout on more critical and reflective ventures such as her title turn in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, or to cash it in for more well-paid window-dressing parts such as the ones she played in Swordfish and the new James Bond movie, is largely a matter for her and her conscience to decide. (And perhaps her agent, too.) But personal responsibility only extends so far within a system controlled almost completely by people who wouldn't dream of making a difference. The racial and political demographics of American studio executives can't be incidental to the simple fact that nonwhite people remain sorely underrepresented in Hollywood movies when they're not being grossly stereotyped or relegated to sidekick, servant, and victim roles. (Will mainstream horror movies ever allow the token black man to live past the third reel? Will the nonwhite cop buddy ever win top billing?)

To be fair, a number of actors--Will Smith, Chris Tucker, Jackie Chan, Martin Lawrence--have managed to escape the Hollywood ghetto of caricature and earn nearly the equivalent of their white counterparts in the process. And there are at least as many low- to medium-budget movies geared primarily to black audiences today as there were in the early '70s. But for every Barbershop made on a modest scale by, with, and for African Americans, there are two or three xenophobic blockbusters such as Black Hawk Down--which may as well have been called Black People Down. And where are the mainstream Asian-American and Hispanic-American movies? As it happens, the panel's sole white man--longtime indie distributor Lipsky--is the one to point out that only a single film-distribution company in the U.S. is run by a person of color. That's Strand Releasing (Stonewall, Show Me Love)--and its primary agenda is to release queer movies.

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