Beyond the Pale

Darcy Bell-Myers

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.

"There are 37 distributors of films in the United States," says Lipsky, whose company put out the Inuit epic The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) this summer. "And we want to make and distribute films [by and with people of color]. But we can't possibly grasp the cultural nuances needed to penetrate the communities of African Americans or Asian Americans or Hispanic Americans who aren't supporting the films that are already being made by ethnic filmmakers in the country. And it's not going to happen until someone says, 'You know what? We have to go out and raise $1.5 billion to start a major studio and make A-level films, and spend $40 million on advertising each one in order to get it into the multiplex. Then not just the African-American or the Hispanic audience will go to see it. White audiences will go, too--and they won't ask why the movie isn't about them. They'll go because they're told by the advertising that that's what they have to see this weekend."


So if Lipsky's grim prognosis is to be believed, the problem with race representation in movies lies as much with ourselves as with the system. Too often we don't know what films are playing outside the multiplex--and don't care to know. (Even well-read and avowedly progressive media types will often choose to "engage popular culture," as the saying goes, at the expense of marginalia. Which is their right, of course: Just don't ask them to be accountable for the diminished value of film culture.)

Ostensibly this is where a film festival finds its relevance: in discovering alternative cinema (read: marginalia) and presenting it to an audience that wouldn't otherwise exist. But even in a multicultural, cosmopolitan city such as New York, that mission can't survive on its own. Like Rosie Perez, the New York Film Festival trades on the flashy gesture in order to subsidize the more rarified one. Just as the opening-night film of 1983, The Big Chill, would have paid for Robert Altman's Streamers on closing night, this year's pre-sold vehicles for Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) and Adam Sandler (Punch-Drunk Love)--let's call them white movies, shall we?--support the inclusion in the 25-film roster of, say, Love & Diane. This harrowing, two-and-a-half hour documentary (heretofore known only to audiences at the Locarno fest) follows an African-American family in Flatbush through its constant battles with poverty, unemployment, disease, drug addiction, and the alternately neglectful and controlling influence of the welfare establishment.

As a work of investigative journalism and social activism, Love & Diane--produced over several years by first-time filmmaker Jennifer Dworkin--is incisive and, yes, important. As a film experience, it's a heartbreaker. Watching the collision of personal and political forces that cause a young boy to be separated from his HIV-positive teenage mother makes the viewer feel desperate to redirect the course of events. Which is entirely the point. But who will be made to feel desperate? One could hardly fault the documentarian for failing to stage a gratuitous booty-shaking scene in order sell the general public on such tough material. Yet until you've actually seen the film, its primary selling point is merely the trustworthy endorsement of the festival's selection committee--which only matters to the cineastes whom Perez may somewhat justly regard as "artsy-fartsy weirdos."

The terrible irony here is that Love & Diane's unsparing realism could be precisely what prevents the film from being seen by the sort of people it's about--not to mention the sort of people who might be willing to help them. To hear the panel's Reuben Cannon tell it, that owes to more than just marketing limitations. "Black people do not lack for drama in their lives," says the casting director. "Therefore a hard-hitting movie doesn't come to mind as the first way for them to amuse themselves. Personally, if I had the choice of making a black drama and putting it out there, I would probably take it to HBO. Not because HBO sponsored this [discussion], but because there are a lot more black viewers of HBO than there are paying $10 for a movie ticket on a Friday night."  

Such a strategy may work to help a smaller film find its core audience, but it does less to shift the balance of power at the multiplex, where big-budget, white-authored entertainments mainly advance the almighty agendas of those who make them. Anyone else who shows up is left to take what he or she can get. According to Hudlin: "One of the important functions of film and television is to address the psychic needs of the audience. And our notions of what our psychic needs are [as African Americans] differ from their notions of what their psychic needs are [as white Americans]. In the mid-'70s, for example, there hadn't been a white heavyweight champion since 1960--so there was Rocky. The war in Vietnam was lost--so along came Rambo.

"Naturally the films like these that address the psychic needs [of white America] are the ones that are commercially successful. What Hollywood does is to say, 'If the American people are frustrated psychically, we will create a cinematic character who gives people the massage that they're not getting in real life.' Now, if anyone needs a massage, it's people of color. The problem is that to make our own films on a large scale, we have to get the consent of financiers. And oftentimes the very proposal of the sort of film that we want to make--the sort of film that will be good for our community--will be enough to end the conversation."

To the degree that adversarial challenge and outright anger can be galvanizing forces, it seems to me a shame that the panel couldn't have included one of the industry's more insidiously powerful masseurs: George Lucas, let's say, or AOL Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons, whose debt to his current moneymakers at HBO (not to mention his identity as an African American) might have secured his participation. Alas, those with the most to protect are the ones who tend to keep to themselves. So, whether owing to executive insularity or to that old, familiar desire for upbeat entertainment, the discussion played a bit like a movie without a villain: some good dialogue, to be sure, but not enough drama.

As for me, I began this article with a booty call, but I'd rather not end it that way. So how's this for keeping it real? Regardless of our color, we support the mainstream media's vision of the world at our own expense.

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