The Myth of Black Hollywood

{ exclusive feature}

Recently I was listening to some of my old Public Enemy records, tapes and CDs. I can admit that I’m old enough to have purchased all three from a retail store. I came across one of my favorite songs from Fear of a Black Planet:

It’s hard not to be struck by the irony after considering the subsequent career paths of some of the featured artists. Flavor Flav flatly rejects an offer to play a buffoon in this video. Well, we all saw how that turned out:

Ice cube who defiantly says, “Fuck Hollywood!” goes from this:

To this:

A lot can change in 20 years. A lot should change in 20 years. The question we should ask ourselves is: Are things changing for the better? It’s clear that black people have a much larger presence in front of and behind the camera. Tyler Perry, for example, has probably experienced more “success” as a black producer/actor than anyone else in recent memory, but it’s hard not to be disappointed or downright embarrassed by many of his productions.

I had the displeasure of seeing Why Did I Get Married Too at the behest of an avid Tyler Perry supporter and self-proclaimed "Black Hollywood" buff. And while I can’t say I found anything about this movie even mildly interesting or entertaining, it was good in that it served as a catalyst for me to think about the notion of a “Black Hollywood” while I perused her extensive collection of black cinema. There are so many "Blackbuster" movies produced and distributed every year that one might think that black people have truly become a powerful and independent force to be reckoned with in Tinseltown. To the contrary, I would argue that there are no truly autonomous black producers or black production companies in Hollywood. Spike Lee may be as close as we come, but even he has problems financing his projects. I’m still amazed that he was able to get Malcolm X on the big screen. And it should be noted that it made it to the screen, not because of the Warner Bros., which tried to effectively assassinate the project with time restrictions, but because of the contributions of wealthy African Americans including, but not limited to, Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey.

We definitely have many more culturally influential executives that answer to higher-ups. We have more black producers and production companies helmed by black people (Broderick Johnson of Alcon films and Rob Hardy and Will Packer of Rainforest films spring to mind), but they are still financed by and beholden to those who’ve never had our interests at heart or our humanity in mind. I would go even further in saying that they are beholden to people who actually hate us. One can even see this with a cursory glance at the film projects that many of the most prominent black producers have been involved with: Monster’s Ball, Something New, Precious, etc. In my opinion, these critically-acclaimed and financially successful films are little more than assaults to the psyche of black people. I’m willing to admit that perhaps I’m just being too sensitive here. Maybe no subject is truly taboo anymore. If that’s the case, then please direct me to a big budget (30 million+) and accurate treatment of Nat Turner, the Tulsa Oklahoma terrorist attacks, Denmark Vesey or Toussaint L’Ouverture (Danny Glover has been trying for years).

I’ve stressed the word “accurate” here because, in the handful of relatively mainstream forays into “racially” charged topics (John Singleton’s Rosewood comes to mind), there’s a tendency to balance out negative portrayals of white people with some positive or at least semi-positive protagonists. Like Fox News, the goal is to be “fair and balanced” even at the expense of the truth. The reason why the aforementioned film topics don’t get produced is for fear that they might alienate white people and the dollars they bring in. There is a conscious effort to tread carefully so that we do not offend their delicate sensibilities. We, on the other hand, are given no such consideration. From my point of view, “Black Hollywood” is little more than a front that provides an opportunity for the “educated” and “industrious” among us to receive a tidy profit for themselves and generate a much larger profit for their sponsors by pimping and fetishizing black culture at a level that’s at least on par with the most ignorant, hedonistic rapper you can find.

In addition to the black producers who abide by the blatant racism and double standards practiced in Hollywood, we also have black people who have been designated as the intermediaries between Hollywood and the black community. They are the ones who come out on TV and radio and try to guilt and goad us into seeing a film. You know how it goes: As soon as a mainstream movie comes out featuring a predominantly black cast, we get the siren call from them telling us to support “black films". For me, the major problem isn’t with any particular film or even the savvy albeit morally dubious marketing strategy to drive up sales by drawing on racial solidarity. It is the idea that if we don’t support the latest mainstream films then we should no longer complain about the dearth of quality, black films. In politics, a similar point of view is encapsulated by the saying: “If you don’t vote, then don’t complain.” It seems to escape some that perhaps you are complaining when you don’t vote. Perhaps some of us are not willing to endorse or cosign anything simply because it’s different from nothing. From my perspective, the promulgation of the idea that we should support terrible films so that we may eventually complain about terrible films doesn’t make much sense and only serves to highlight our ineffectual state.

Undoubtedly, Tyler Perry is responsible for a spate of terrible films and television shows, but I don’t place the blame squarely on him. I place a lion's share of the blame on a hyper-capitalist society that nurtured us, gave him a platform, and purposely ignores those who are unwilling to betray a more complicated, complete and uncompromising view for a few dollars. Tyler Perry is an easy target for critics because of his brand of melodrama, his penchant for cross-dressing, his blatant color-coding and his promotion of religion and prayer as a panacea.

Still, I admire Tyler Perry for his tenacity. His determination to make something out of nothing has been a hallmark of our existence in this country; but I also understand how this kind of drive can be subverted by money or other powerful motivators. What can I say to someone like Perry who went from living in his car to living in a mansion? I wasn’t there to help him out of his car and into a home. It was his own work, coupled with those who recognized that they could exploit it (and us) that moved him up the socioeconomic ladder. Consequently, my criticism would probably ring hollow to him if he were to hear it. To attack Perry on the quality of his films and television shows is tantamount to saying, “Could you please make better movies and television shows and risk going back to the streets?”

By the time you reach his level, there’s absolutely nothing you can say to him. The same is true with most of our mainstream politicians, athletes, entertainers and actors. We live in a capitalistic society that demands results even at the expense of all ethical considerations. I know we sometimes like to pretend that it isn’t the case, but young people are picking up this message at increasingly earlier ages. This explains why Montana Fishburne sees a sex tape as a spring board to fortune and fame. It explains why so many mainstream rap videos and films are filled with people willing to trade tales of sex, material excess and violence for profit and why so many young people are willing to “buy” what they’re selling.

Blacks are, to the extent that they are willing to play their position, allowed to do so. In the final analysis, there is little difference to me between Tyler Perry, Oprah Winfrey, 50 Cent, Ice Cube or similarly situated individuals. They all display an extreme drive for fortune and fame even if it requires a callous disregard to everything or everyone else in the communities from whence they came. And I maintain this position regardless of whatever token contributions they’ve given to charities. Donating to a Negro scholarship fund does not offset decades of corporate-sponsored exploitation. Their personal stories may be very different, but the conclusions they eventually reach (even if it takes 20 years) are remarkably similar in that they all show an almost complete lack of progressive politics.

The Hollywood corporate machine effectively uses these celebrities to fool us into believing that any movement is a movement in the right direction. Their role in promoting so many “black firsts” and "black faces" (from athletes to award-winners to presidents) has led many of us to confuse pioneers with revolutionaries. They have done a fantastic job in making some of us believe in the power of “Black Hollywood.” And for that, they deserve the Oscar.