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Hollywood anything but color blind

BY GRETA HAGEN-RICHARDSON | MARCH 12, 2010 7:30 AM

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These past few weeks have seen a range of articles about the state of black cinema in America. After the weekend’s Oscars, the majority of the discussion has focused on Mo’Nique’s Best Supporting Actress win and speech. However, I was a bit blind-sided, if you’ll allow the pun, by Sandra Bullock’s win over Precious star Gabourey Sidibe, who seemed to really be the break-out, no-holds-barred talent of the multi-award-winning film.

The whole thing left me thinking about this year’s slate of cinema both directed at black audiences and primarily compiled of a black cast and crew. In many ways, it wasn’t a good year.

Some may recall the recent Vanity Fair rising young Hollywood actresses cover, in which all the rising stars were white. It ignored the Oscar-nominated Sidibe, as well as the extremely popular star of Avatar (and supporting character in Star Trek) Zoe Saldana.

It would seem that part of the problem is that many big-budget films don’t want to cast black actresses (or actors who are not Will Smith) in lead roles. Consider some of the films to be released later in this year, such as The Prince of Persia and The Last Airbender. Both films are set in areas that are generally devoid of white people, whose source material is ethnic, yet both star actors that are white. Is it possible for a black person to be in a film where they aren’t coded (i.e. blue aliens, frogs)?

Among my favorites from the past year, Black Dynamite and Chris Rock’s Good Hair are the stand outs. The two films work on opposite ends of the pole. Black Dynamite is operating as an exploitation of Blaxploitation cinema and is in no way an accurate representation of the community it centers on. Good Hair, on the other hand, looks at a predominant aspect of the black community that outsiders generally have little awareness of.

One movie that seemingly went under the radar was the Disney animated film, The Princess and the Frog. For me, outside of Up’s opening 10 minutes, The Princess and the Frog was the best animated film this year.

This film brings me to my main point of contention. The majority of the Disney Princess movies center on young women who either wait around, hoping to be saved by their white knight, or young women who are willing to give up everything, from their voices to their cultures, to be with a man.

Part of what was so endearing about Princess was its underlying message: Nothing will be handed to you, so figure out what you want and work for it.

With Precious, we received another story about a young woman who will get nothing handed to her. In fact, Precious gets most things taken away from her. This raises the question: Were there any mainstream movies out this year about black people that didn’t involve struggles and adversity?

Consider The Blind Side or Invictus. I can’t really think of a film where the black characters are fully formed individuals that function in everyday life.

It can be extremely difficult to continually see people who look nothing like you live in the movie world. I can personally attest to the feelings of inadequacy and not belonging that this pattern can cause. I often wonder how men would feel if 95 percent of movies were directed by women or how white people would feel if every movie they saw starred black actors.

This year’s Oscars saw the first-ever female Best Director winner. But looking back, how many black people have been nominated, let alone won the Best Director award? There have only been two, and Spike Lee is not on that list. Can you even name a black female director?

Perhaps this will be the year that a major studio breaks from the pack and allows someone of color (again, Will Smith doesn’t count) a lead role. Based on last year’s crop, it seems doubtful. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.


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