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Filmmakers Look Behind Hollywood’s Lens on Race

A group of activist filmmakers combat racism and make change inside and outside Tinseltown.

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“People who see a certain type of character on screen assume that’s reality,” Dong says. “We see that mistake happen time and time again. Audiences do not necessarily have malicious intent, but they’re misinformed. It’s been a problem ever since cinema was invented.”

The history of the so-called blaxploitation films of the 1970s also demonstrates how a community can be torn by disagreement about the value of certain styles of representation. Isaac Julien’s documentary Baadasssss Cinema presents clashing viewpoints on films such as Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, Shaft, and Superfly. The first of these films, written and directed by Melvin Van Peebles, became the largest-grossing independent film made up to that time. Van Peebles set out to make a film about a black hero who defied the white power structure and lived to tell the tale. Furthermore, he would use a diverse crew, necessitating the risky use of non-union labor, as faithfully depicted by his son Mario in the feature film Baadasssss!

In a time when mainstream white cinema was defeatist, the blaxploitation films were about winning, and some viewers criticized them for precisely that. Julien’s documentary presents archival footage of Roy Innis of CORE saying, “Once you get through that vicarious thrill of seeing a black man beat up a white man on the screen, you go back and you face the same evil system that you faced before you went there. We should always deal with reality and not fantasy.”

More than one commentator counters that the black audience at that time was in desperate need of heroes, however escapist or anti-heroic. “We needed something to make us feel better about ourselves,” the actor Samuel L. Jackson tells Julien. “You watched the news; every day, people were being beat down. Things weren’t progressing the way we wanted them to.” Film historian Ed Guerrero tells Julien that the blaxploitation films reflect the shift of the larger society from the self-sacrificing “we” of the civil rights era to the consumerist “me” that reached its apotheosis during and after the Reagan era.

Today, many people classify Al Jolson singing “Mammy” in blackface in the 1920s as an insult. The same could be said when Paul Muni and other white actors played Mexicans. Similarly, many would agree that the use of yellowface makeup for white performers playing Asian characters is unacceptable. Charlie Chan was played by various actors, most of them white; the German-born actress Luise Rainer won an Oscar for her portrayal of a Chinese woman in The Good Earth. As recently as the 1990s, controversy erupted when a white man was cast as an Asian character in the stage musical Miss Saigon.

A more—or less—obvious gray area is when minority actors play parts from which ethnic or racial identity has been scrubbed, resulting in characters who feel inauthentic, says Nancy De Los Santos, the Chicana co-director (with Susan Racho and the late Alberto Dominguez) of The Bronze Screen: 100 Years of the Latino Image in Hollywood. Still, as one who says she prefers imperfect representation over invisibility, she admits that in such cases, “The needle would probably still go to the positive rather than the negative. ”It can also be insulting, as De Los Santos learned, to suffer through a film in which malign verbal references to a particular racial group are gratuitously sprinkled in the dialogue. She experienced this at a screening of The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

“I remember being in the theater,” she says, “and within the first few minutes the characters are talking about going to Tijuana and watching a woman getting fucked by a horse. And I’m the only Latina in the theater, and immediately I could feel myself getting hot with embarrassment. Was it necessary? I don’t think so. It had nothing to do with the plot. I think they were just looking for something shocking. There’s another scene later in the movie of the female lead talking about her memory of her first sexual experience. I think it was with her family’s Guatemalan gardener. Of all the beautiful Guatemalan gardeners in the world—these poor guys who get up at sunrise to go and cut your grass—why you are putting that image out there, of that poor guy having sex with an underage girl? Did that just pass by everybody else?”

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