Not saying Quvenzhané’s name is an attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to step around and contain her blackness. Yes, sometimes black people have names that are difficult to pronounce. There aren’t many people of European descent named Shaniqua or Jamal. Names are as big a cultural marker as brown skin and kinky hair, and there’s long been backlash against both of those things (see: perms, skin bleaching creams, etc.). The insistence on not using Quvenzhané’s name is an extension of that “why aren’t you white?” backlash.
It is easier to be colorblind, to simply turn a blind eye to the differences that have torn this nation apart for centuries than it is to wade through those choppy waters. And Quvenzhané’s very existence is enough to make the societal majority uncomfortable. She is talented, successful, beautiful, happy, loved, and adored–all things that many people don’t figure that little black girls with “black” names could, or should, be. Their answer? Let’s make her more palatable. If she insists on not fitting the mold of the ghetto hoodrat associated with women with “urban” names, let’s take her own urban name away from her.
Refusing to learn how to pronounce Quvenzhané’s name says, pointedly, you are not worth the effort. The problem is not that she has an unpronounceable name, because she doesn’t. The problem is that white Hollywood, from Ryan Seacrest and his homies to the AP reporter who decided to call her “Annie” rather than her real name, doesn’t deem her as important as, say, Renee Zellwegger, or Zach Galifinakis, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, all of whom have names that are difficult to pronounce–but they manage. The message sent is this: you, young, black, female child, are not worth the time and energy it will take me to learn to spell and pronounce your name. You will be who and what I want you to be; you be be who and what makes me more comfortable. I will allow you to exist and acknowledge that existence, but only on my terms.
Perhaps it doesn’t seem like the biggest of deals, but our willingness to accept the casting of anyone with a tan as a
generic ethnic/exotic look is what got us Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl (A Mighty Heart), Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin (Iron Man 3), and Janina Gavankar as Luna Garza (True Blood). People of color aren’t as interchangeable as Hollywood would like us to believe, but Infinitely Polar Bear‘s casting calls prove that that belief has yet to successfully challenged.
Beck reminds us that this systematic problem in casting doesn’t boil down to the idea that all directors, producers, and casting directors are evil racists that need to be stopped. Yeah, something needs to be stopped, but it goes beyond shaking up the people making decisions. We need to shake up our school of thought. We need to stop finding excuses and loopholes for monochromatic casting, even if that means that I crawl through breakdowns every day with the sole purpose of publicly shaming those who deserve it. We need to stop defaulting to white.
Though Perry doesn’t know or care, I have been disturbed at his elevation by the mainstream as some storyteller of the black experience. And, if I am honest, I am none too pleased about his popularity within the black community either. It’s not that I don’t admire the brother’s hustle. I wish I had that kind of work ethic and mojo. But I am no fan of the Perry ethos. I think he makes black women’s lives harder, in particular, by reinforcing sexism and the centuries-old stereotypes the plague us. I wish a brother like Perry, with so much money and support behind him, could present a better case for black womanhood than the big, ball-busting granny and the embittered, work-obsessed, money-hungry bourgie chick who doesn’t know how to appreciate a good, blue collar man. Actually, his portrayal of blackness as a whole, to me, amounts to a combination of dysfunction, shucking and jiving and saccharine set to gospel music.
My views on Perry haven’t changed. He is never going to be my favorite director. But I realize the energy I have put into railing against his efforts is misdirected. And I realize that I am indulging in a form of respectability politics that is more hurtful than helpful.
My eyes were opened while writing an article, “No Disrespect: Black Women and the Burden of Respectability,” for Bitch magazine. Inspired by negative reaction to Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer’s portrayal of maids in The Help, I wrote about how the personal and professional choices of black women in the public eye are routinely judged through the perilously unflattering lens of the majority culture — Eurocentric, patriarchal, Judeo-Christian, heteronormative and middle class — and found wanting. Davis and Spencer (and Halle Berry and Erykah Badu and Beyonce) are not allowed to be simply women or performers, but, by dint of their blackness, are asked to serve as ambassadors whose every decision reinforces the respectability of black folks to white America. That means Davis and Spencer are criticized for playing domestic workers. Halle Berry is criticized for having graphic sex with a white man in Monster’s Ball. And Erykah Badu is judged for having children out of wedlock as Beyonce is praised for using her uterus “the right way.” That is how respectability politics work. And, in my article, I judge that extra burden as unfair and damaging.
I have, hypocritically, directed the same unfair expectations I abhor toward Tyler Perry and his career. I have expected him to be my ambassador, communicating my secular, feminist, middle class, progressive values to the masses. But he is not me. However disappointing I find his schtick, it is his. Perry has done the work and paid the price. And there is no doubt he believes he is doing what is best, not only for himself, but as a member of the black community. And there is this: For as much as I don’t identify with Perry’s output, there are plenty of black folks who see their lives reflected in his storytelling.
Film bloggers got a bit abuzz last week at reports that an all-female spinoff of the Expendables franchise was being developed, with “several prominent actresses affiliated with the action genre” being contacted.
This being Hollywood, of course, don’t expect too much on the diversity front–heck, even seeing Jet Li as part of the crew in Sylvester Stallone’s original ensemble and Yu Nan and Terry Crews in the sequel–is about as good as we’re probably going to get in that series.
But here at Chromatic Casting, we know we can do better. And so we’ll give it a shot under the cut.
Keeping in mind that this series basically involves anthropomorphic tropes as characters, we won’t get too deep with the descriptions, but we’ll slot folks into some archetypal roles for the protagonist team, with the villains being a bit more fluid.
If Tony Scott had a muse it was Denzel Washington, who starred in many of the director’s best films. More often than not, Washington portrayed a guy who did his job even when circumstances called for extreme measures, someone who stepped up when the life he saved would not be his own. “Crimson Tide,” “Man on Fire,” “Déjà Vu,” “The Taking of Pelham 123,” and “Unstoppable” were all anchored by rugged individualists who understood only too well the cause and effect that came with any decisive action.
He was at his best when Washington was in the picture. The characters the actor played are the archetype of the kind of men Scott made. At their core, and what guided all the actions that followed, was a fundamental decency. They were flawed men to be sure, some more than others, but men who accorded dignity to anyone who deserved it.
Washington and Scott would do five films together, but it was their collaboration on 2009’s “The Taking of Pelham 123” that remains my favorite. It is an extremely interior piece of acting by Washington. His subway dispatcher, weary and wrung out by his job, his life, becomes the perfect counterpoint to John Travolta’s crazed kidnapper. It’s impossible not to be mesmerized by Washington’s face in the film — it is where Scott kept the focus — and the reward is one of the most finely attenuated studies of a man in a moment of crisis as you can find in film.
In a nutshell, here are my two cents ..
I’m not surprised that a movie is being made about Nina Simone without consulting her family or estate. Not one bit. We know this story all too well: The Help and Untitled Nelson and Winnie Mandela Biopic also moved ahead without consent from the source …
I’m also not surprised that the screenplay for the Nina Simone biopic wasn’t written by a black woman, and thus, per her daughter’s concerns, will use that as license to perpetuate inaccuracies.
And finally, though sadly, I’m not surprised that black women have busied themselves with the question of who will “play” the role of Nina Simone (Zoe Saldana vs. dark-skinned black actresses) rather than focus on the root cause of misrepresentation in Hollywood: the absence of a strong network of black writers, producers, and studios.
This is the only comment I will be making on this issue because it’s always the same story, but even more frustrating, always the same rhetoric about how white people are appropriating our stories. As a community, we’re not doing nearly enough writing to make white people’s overly simplistic, inaccurate, saviorist depictions of our lives irrelevant.
The hard truth is this: if we spent more time creating media instead of criticizing it, there’d be way more diversity in representation, and way more stories and perspectives to which white people can be more frequently held accountable.
Pushing for ownership of both the infrastructure and content that portrays our lived experiences–that is the crux of the issue; not just the politics of light- vs. dark-skinned actresses. So, whereas I am completely on board with calling out the colorism behind the biopic’s casting choices (and the harmful message that’s being sent to young, dark-skinned black girls everywhere by having a light-skinned woman play Nina Simone), there aren’t enough strong lead roles written for women of color in Hollywood for me to fairly tell Zoe Saldana, a hard-working, talented brown woman, to ”sit this one out.”
When will black women, LGBTI, Africans, everyone-that-has-been-screwed-over-by-Hollywood finally get it that we need more autonomy over our media? When will we begin militantly fighting for mainstream media’s accountability to not just the story but the storyteller?