Demeaning images matter. Over the weekend, the Film and Media Studies program hosted a symposium focused on director Spike Lee and my role was to not only introduce one his most controversial movies Bamboozled, but to analyze it for the audience as well. I watched the movie four times, constantly astounded and uncomfortable after each scene because of Lee’s use of satire to exaggeratedly illustrate (and mock) real American issues such as cultural appropriation, influence of black culture, economic inequality, the danger of stereotypes and police brutality.
I saw white people in blackface. Black people in blackface. Black people in blackface tap dancing on a studio-made watermelon plantation. Truly disheartening scenes that wouldn’t escape my mind for at least a week.
But there is one moment in the film that stood out to me the most. The central character, Pierre Delacroix, who in the beginning of the movie wanted to break a system that encouraged typecasting minority groups, is at an awards ceremony receiving recognition for his work – a minstrel show. In his acceptance speeches, he excitedly jumps up and pumps his fist, breaks into tap dance like the “coons” on his show and even gives his award to a random white actor, justifying this action by saying “If I did that, I would be assured of work forever….Delacroix, the grateful Negro.”
Some might say Lee making his character act in such a way is promoting an idea that is too far-fetched.
I don’t think so.
This was a great example of racial performance that is necessary for African-American actors and actresses to remain successful in Hollywood even at the expense of their own racial identity. Bamboozled calls out racism and holds Hollywood responsible.
This past Sunday, comedian Chris Rock did the same as he hosted the 88th Academy Awards.
Rock faced the issue of racism in Hollywood head-on, immediately revealing his doubts on hosting after a few black actors called for a boycott of this year’s ceremony because of the lack of diversity among the nominees for the second year in the row.
From jokingly putting the Civil Rights movement into perspective and declaring that Hollywood is “sorority racist” because of its blunt exclusiveness, Rock’s monologue was a successful balancing act that probably made him appear to be on all sides of the argument. But he got the message across: “What I’m trying to say is, you know, it’s not about boycotting anything. It’s just, we want opportunity. We want black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors.”
That’s when I finally got it.
The issue with Hollywood isn’t the handing out of the golden statues but what minorities have to do to ever even be considered in the nomination process. In its 88-year history, only 14 men and women of color have received Oscars for Best Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor or Supporting Actress. Fourteen.
Worse, these actors were nominated because of their portrayal of black stereotypes: a crooked cop, a maid, a brutal and corrupt dictator, abusive mothers, entertainers and of course, a slave.
That’s the problem. It seems that Hollywood recognizes people of color only when we’re put in these dehumanizing and lethargic roles that only showcase a certain part of our history; a.k.a tap dancing on a watermelon plantation.
Images that we’re trying to break away from.
The Oscars are supposed to recognize excellence and talent in American film industry. Yet black, Asian, Latino and other actors of color continue to be shut out. That’s not an accident.
Last year, the Writers Guild of America released a report showing that minorities make up a mere 13.7 percent of TV staff writer positions. In other words, 86 percent of the creative teams that write the scripts and form the characters that are supposed to represent you in your favorite shows and movies are white.
So we don’t need a rule forcing members of the Academy to vote with race as a factor. We need more hired minority screenwriters, directors and heads of casting and talent — more people of color at the decision-making table and more suitable roles for minorities.
If you were there at the Spike Lee symposium, hopefully you will agree that Lee succeeded in presenting this message as well.
Senior journalism major
Printed in the 03/02/16 issue.