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Saturday, July 30, 2005

Interesting plaint in Salon by a black woman wondering why Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn in Wedding Crashers seduce all ethnicities but black. Why are black women sexually invisible to all but black men? Is it because they're perceived as ass-kickers and men don't really want that?

Good food for thought. Back when I lived in LA I it seemed to me that there were lots of couples where the guy was Caucasian and the girl was Asian, but the reverse was passing rare. I supposed that, stereotypically, Asian women are brought up to be deferential, which some guys like, while Caucasian women might not be much interested in being bossed around, which traditionally raised Japanese guys, for example, might assume as their role. I wonder if anyone's dared gather statistics on this sort of thing.

Blackness does seem to have moved beyond a racial issue into a cultural issue, where it seems likely to stay for a while. No legit scientist would claim that there's such a thing as a black "race" -- most American Blacks have a lot of European DNA, and to a lesser extent vice versa -- but it would be hard to disagree that there's an African-American culture. And cultures have ways of reinforcing their borders.

Like every good liberal, I look for ethnic roles in stuff I write. Not particularly for Black and Latino roles because up here the ethnicities in play are the French Canadians and the First Peoples. If a series or a script I've written feels too lily-white because of bad mental habits, I'll do a diversity pass. There's no reason the movies can't front a better ethnic world than the one we live in. That's how people get used to it. I'm reminded of the story that Nichelle Nichols was going to quit Star Trek after the first season, and Martin Luther King asked her not to -- and that Whoopi Goldberg tells how she saw Trek for the first time and ran around shouting, "everybody, there's a black lady on television and she ain't no maid!" The world of TV and the movies is so much worse in many ways -- there are almost no functional families, and there are probably more fictional serial killers than there are in the real world in total -- there's no reason it can't be better. And if that means every single judge on screen has to be black, that's okay too.

10 Comments:

I suspect the reason Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn don't seduce any black women is the same reason we don't get to see Denzel kiss white women -- black/white relations are incredibly politically complex -- and, nowadays, it has nothing to do with offending rednecks.

By Blogger Steve Peterson, at 2:07 AM  

I would agree with steve on the black/white issue.

However, I decided to comment bc of one thing you mentioned in your post. You said you think that White men may choose to date Asian women bc they are brought up to be defferential to men, while Asian men normally don't choose independent White women. This is a very common misrepresentation of Asian women. My mother is Korean and my father is Caucasian. In my entire family (my parents, my Korean aunt's & Korean uncle's marriages, two sisters who are married, 2 all-Korean female cousins who are dating White men, 2 male cousins who are close to getting married to White women), the women rule the household. Let me repeat, the women decide almost all. They control the money, the kids, what to do on weekends, and where to spend the holidays. The only difference between White women & Asian women is that Asian women have a basic, unspoken understanding that men can say whatever they want in public & their wives will agree. (This unspoken agreement sometimes is violated by my two sisters, but we're only half-Korean. What can you expect?) When they get home, the woman is queen bee.

An example, years ago my aunt got into a HUGE fight with my uncle's wife. They came to hate each other. My uncle was not allowed to speak with his sister &, bc my mother took her sister's side (& the right side, incidentally), he wasn't allowed to talk to her either. One day at the church they all went to, my uncle's wife was gone to another church in another city & wasn't coming home until after dark. So, my uncle invited his sisters over to his house for lunch & a prayer service. His wife came home in the middle of it, there was a lot of cussing, yelling, & dragging of hair, the police were called, & everyone was thrown out. My uncle never said a word through it all. The Asian woman is queen bee.

By Blogger TN_Dreamer, at 1:34 PM  

Interesting question. However, I'd be careful any time I try to talk about race in a biological context. As you noted, no legit scientist would claim there is such a thing as a black "race". Race is a purely human construct, and there is no genetic basis for categorizing the human species.

I didn't catch the program myself, but the web content of www.pbs.org/race has some excellent resources for all.

By Blogger trl_path, at 1:04 AM  

To get into the depiction of African Americans in film is a topic that could take years to talk about. Whether you're talking about being an African American and watching Seinfeld, loving the universiality (sp?) of the stories, but also wondering why in NYC, Jerry has not a single black friend, makes you sigh. Or watching Will Smith's love interest in Hitch be a Latina rather than an African American, simply because if an African American actress were cast, the movie would be termed a "black film". Of course, no one worries about Diane Lane and John Cusack starring in a "white" film like "Must Like Dogs".

I'm an African American writer about to go to UCLA film school, and I've been wondering how the professors are going to receive my scripts. Are they going to understand the nuances of African American life, or even just the African American world view of life in general. To often, folks just think that African Americans are simply darker skinned white people, with no cultural differences, and that's far from the truth. So as I begin my Hollywood writing career, who's going to read and understand my work and how will it get filtered is a HUGE concern.

By Blogger Lawrence, at 3:28 AM  

Wait a minute Lawrence! You're absolutely wrong that nobody complains about the casting of "white" movies - every year there's a report issued by a couple of organizations (including, IIRC, the NAACP) which basically lambastes the major studios and networks for their poor hiring record with respect to minority actors.

But the truth is that a lot of white people /are/ hesitant to go see a film that they think is a "black" film. And a lot of black people are hesitant to go see a "white" film. The catch is that whites make up 75% of the population, while blacks are something like 12%. And I think it's downright sily to equate writing off 12% of your potential audience through casting to writing off 75% of your potential audience through casting.

As for your experience in film school, bear this in mind: your goal should be to tell stories such that we all get them. To respond to criticism by saying, "You don't get htis because you're not black," is abdicating your responsibiliy as a filmmaker. If people don't get it, then you need to find a way to make it clear to them, or decide that you're only interested in preaching to the choir.

I say this because of one student I went to film school with, who responded to any criticism by bringing up his ethnicity rather than by dealing with the craft issues which were making the script not work. You can choose to look at the difficulties of speaking across a cultural divide either as a challenge or as an excuse. Choosing the later is going to result in your making less interesting films.

By Blogger Hotspur, at 9:11 PM  

Okay, I have a few issues with your comment. One, organizations have been complaining about the depictions of blacks on screen since The Birth of a Nation (which was one of the NAACPs first mass demonstrations). So it's obvious that the problem is well known. The issue is that there's nothing concrete being done.

On television, shows with black themes are "ghettoed" to the UPNs and WBs of the world as those networks hope to build an audience on the backs of black viewers, and then move to white demo shows that advertisers pay more for. Witness FOX as a case study. Combine this with a Nielson service that tends to underrepresent the African American audience, and you have a perpetual cycle where black themed shows are routinely looked at as being disposable.

The hesitation of white audiences to see black themed films is due to what is actually allowed to get to screen. Usually, black themed films either are broad minstrel like comedies, Spike Lee/John Singleton movies, and anything about Civil Right/Slavery. Hell, who would want to see that all of the time?

I actually give white audiences more credit. White audiences want to see diverse films just like everyone else. They like new or different stories about topics, and it's not necessary to have a white face in the movie for them to find a character they can relate to. One doesn't have to look like Stevie Wonder to like Motown music, but where is Motown music played the most in film? Not in black films, but in white films like The Big Chill to any chick flick hitting the screen.

The problem is that who is going to give white audience a chance to like a black themed movie. You have to market it to them while not trying to acquiese to them. As an African American, I can tell fake characters and I'm sure white audiences can tell them to.

As for film school, the stories I'm telling are definitely going to be stories that are universal, however from an African American point of view. That's where I come from. But I think what happens is that people assume that if I say that, then there's an assumption that this point of view has nothing to do with them, if they're in a different cultural group or race. That couldn't be more ridiculous. Hell, most African Americans who make it to grad school know more about white society than those IN white society.

But the audience also has to be challenged. A white audience that comes to a film I've written needs to walk in saying that I may not know anything about these African American characters, but their attributes and characteristics are universal. I may even put people into a new world, but they shoudl go into that world open to finding out about the characters and the plot. Once you are able to do that, you can understand the humanity within the characters.

And although I don't know of the film student you are talking about, I would be very, very careful in saying that his responses were excuses. They may or may not be. But I can tell you that a lot of film schools (or grad schools in general) rarely admit a lot of students of color, which can lead to a frustration when explaining even the most minute differences in cultures. And sometimes, the easiest response is to simply write off the criticism not for that particular criticism, but for the cumulative criticisms and misunderstanding that comes with working with folks who aren't familiar with your culture.

My attitude going into UCLA is that I enter with stories that I think are extremely interesting. My goal is to make sure that I learn my craft so that my writing is rock solid. However, it's no more my responsibility to shape my scripts to a white sensibility, than it is Mike Leigh's responsibility to shape his films toward mine. However, I can watch his movies and understand British working class culture and I think everyone should be able to understand African American culture.

BTW, Go ManU!! LOL

By Blogger Lawrence, at 10:40 PM  

Well, when it comes to TV ratings I think we need to be careful of what's caused by racism and what's caused by economics.

I don't think there's anything nefarious in saying, "I'd rather appeal to 75% of the potential audience than 12% of the potential audience." That's just economics. Thankfully, with the explosion of television chanels, there's now more opportunity to get both on the air.

I mean, "Seinfeld" was incredibly popular with whites, and almost no blacks watched it. The result: one of the most succesful shows in television history. Whereas something like "In Living Color" - which did phenominally well among blacks but only so-so among whites - was a quietly profitable show for a few seasons.

What businessman - a person who will be fired if the quarterly profits don't go up every year - is going to aim for the later rather than the former?

Which is not to say that stories driven by black actors can't succeed with white audiences (eg, Cosby - although that strikes me as just about the whitest black family in TV history; maybe the Jeffersons are a better example).

I also disagree with you that the problem with "black" films is the sort of films they are. The last decade has seen an explosion of black-themed films: the Barbershop series, the Friday series, etc - which have done phenominally well with "urban" audiences and done rather poorly with whites. I know some people are wondering if the failure of the XXX sequel was because, in a leading role, Ice Cube isn't somebody white audiences are prepared to go see and connect with (as they will, by and large, with Will Smith).

As for my fellow student, he probably didn't see them as excuses - but when he responded to criticism on craft issues (eg, making typical beginner mistakes wrt handling exposition or delineating character) by saying we just didn't get it because we were white, well, it's hard to come up with another explanation.

WRT minority students in film school, I can't speak for UCLA but I can for your crosstown rivals. USC tries very hard to find minority students (and women, too) but the overwhelmingly vast majority of applications come from white males. I just bring this up because it wasn't clear to me who you were blaming for that particular state of affairs.

(PS, if you want to tick off a spurs supporter, you've got to cheer Arsenal, not Manchester United. :) )

By Blogger Hotspur, at 4:31 PM  

My memory was the student body at UCLA Film & TV was quite diverse ethnically, though all the professors seemed to be Eastern European defectors (or, possibly, retired spies).

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 4:47 PM  

To Hotspur,

As for economics and racism, they can go hand in hand. There's nothing that says they have to be mutually exclusive. I can make a decision that say that "The O.C." will make tons of money because it hits the white demographic perfectly (that 75%). But I can also make a racial decision to not add any black characters to the show in order to not "turn off" white viewers. Typically, like the addition of children to shows, black and Latinos are added to long running but dying shows that need a boost in membership (that 12% they ignored for so long) i.e. "Friends" with addition of Aisha Tyler. In the meantime, a show like Friends get the benefit of African American viewership without the overt investment. And BTW, I can tell you the plot of every Seinfeld episode. LOL

I think the point is that you don't shoot for either the 79% or the 12% or the Latino percent, but integrate stories so that you can get the 100%. A good example of this would be the old "LA Law" program, which drew in the Latino audience with Jimmy Smits and the African American audience with Blair Underwood.

Lastly, please don't interpret my comments as complaining. I have no clue to the proportion of white to black applicants to UCLA. In fact, with Prop. 209, I think it's illegal to even look at the race. And UCLA tries to do its best. But I was making the point that blacks in the top film schools (or grad school in general) tend to find themselves as part of a tiny, tiny minority. But that's nothing unusual. I went to a prep school at 14, so you get used to it. But when your fellow students, your teachers, and the mentors are not familiar with your community, or worse, make horribly erroneous ASSUMPTIONS about your community (and that happens all of the time. I'm not trying to beat up on you, but your note that Cosby was the "whitest" black family falls into that category. If you wanted to make the point that Cosby was formulaic like Father Knows Best or the thousands of other "father is clueless, but always saves the day" sitcoms, I could buy it. But if you were saying that a black doctor and a black lawyer with a functional family is equated with whites and therefore unrealistic for blacks, is a prime example of not knowing or understanding the different segments of the black community. I would actually say that The Jeffersons were unrealistic, because I don't know anyone like George Jefferson, but a thousand Bill Cosby's.)

Lastly, I wasn't trying to get under your skin. I really AM a Red Devil fanatic (check the link on my blog). LOL Although I must admit, I did visit Highbury in 2001 to buy a t-shirt for a friend.

To Alex,

I'm laughing about the professors being spies!

We'll see about the makeup. My friend just finished his first year in the program, and he's one of three black folks in his class (screenwriting). But UCLA IS trying, so we'll see.

By Blogger Lawrence, at 7:49 PM  

THANK YOU Lawrence! Well said. And you are SO right on point about the Huxtables vs the Jeffersons comment. I was thinking the EXACT same thing as I was reading that post from hotspur -- he, like so many others (especially whites) just don't get some things about the African American community, and I do believe it's because all they or anybody else gets to see of the African American community or culture is boiled down to crime, sex, or buffoonery. I too am an aspiring screenwriter like you, Lawrence, and I wish you the best at UCLA. I will look forward to seeing some of YOUR films from a DIFFERENT perspective one day. Unfortunately those in power in the industry today do not give other audiences (especially that 75% that hotspur keeps alluding to) a chance to even SEE stories from African Americans that have a universal theme, and most of them do, by the way. But one thing hotspur also needs to know is that that 12% pays A LOT of money for movies now that may or may not have anything to do with them. Black people go to the movies -- they buy tickets to see films like Wedding Crashers or Must Love Dogs just as much as whites do. It's not so much the percentage of the population, it's the percentage of that population who will actually SPEND MONEY to go see a film. I think if you check the stats on that, you'll see that a HUGE percentage of ticket-buyers are of other ethnic groups, including Blacks. I think there is a movement afoot in the African American community, however, to "voice" our demand for more inclusive films by exercising our right to just not buy the ticket. If too many African Americans stopped buying tickets or stopped watching TV, I suspect we would see a sincere effort to appeal more to that audience. Despite what hotspur might think, that 75% isn't buying all of the tickets (maybe not even the majority) or watching all of the TV shows --- other ethnic groups, including African Americans, are also supporting the film/TV industry.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:47 AM  

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