*At the start of the film industry, Blacks were relegated to disparaging roles, including the roles of overweight, ignorant maid, such as the one portrayed by Hattie McDaniel.
To this day, many African Americans continue to celebrate the awarding of an Oscar to McDaniel as though the taking of that role was groundbreaking and opened doors for other Blacks.
If that role were so groundbreaking and door-opening, then why are confused Blacks celebrating the Academy Award of another overweight Black maid in 2012?
At some point, we need to be serious about the business of protecting our image.
But instead of pressing Hollywood to make more movies with dignified Black roles, or pressing ourselves to make and support such movies, many confused knee-grows will rage against me for even discussing this issue.
The Black image has been and still is, under assault.
Unfortunately, some of the most vicious assaults on the Black image have come from our own community.
And, when those assaults become popular, we celebrate them and defend them.
In the movie Hollywood Shuffle, film maker Robert Townsend attempted to deal with Blacks who play demeaning roles in films just to get paid. Townsend’s character admonished the “sellouts” with the tagline: “There is always work at the post office.”
That statement is very true indeed. The defending line for every demeaning role in the history of film, from Hattie McDaniel all the way to the new “Blaxploitation” era of today is that for many Black actors, these are the only roles available. Yet, no one has ever been forced to take a demeaning role in film, or to work for wages not to scale and in fact, there have been Blacks participating in the independent side of film for a very long time.
The difference between African Americans and nearly every other ethnic group in America is that we have done a poor job of controlling our own image. We can take control of our own image by taking control of the image that is bought and sold in modern film.
It is weak to claim that demeaning roles are all that is available, and it is particularly weak when the option of making our own films has been available for a long time.
It is nearly insane to self-denigrate our image today, when there are a plethora of us making power moves in front of and behind the camera.
For all the ranting and raving I do about Black-owned businesses and how integration hurt us in many ways, I always get confused looks and questions from the people who have no idea that we were making things happen in a real way when we had real Black communities with real Black commerce.
One such shining example was a Black man from Metropolis, Illinois named Oscar Micheaux, who in 1919, made his own full-length feature film from his novel called “The Homesteader.” He was the first African-American to do so, and served as inspiration for Townsend, as well as Spike Lee, Tim Reid and Carl Franklin, among other filmmakers.
The son of former slaves, Micheaux worked in Chicago as a shoe shine boy while pursuing his dream of being a writer, moving to South Dakota, where he penned several novels, formed his own publishing company and sold copies of his books door to door.
Please read carefully, because while this story is nearly obscure, it should serve as inspiration for every Black person in America today with a dream.
During Micheaux’s era, most of the films made were silent, and for the most part, Blacks were silent as well as invisible, save for the buck-dancing, shuffling, demeaning images of self-effacing actors such as Hattie McDaniel and Lincoln Perry, also known as Stepin’ Fetchit.
Our very relationship with film was initiated with the early “classic,” Birth Of A Nation. The “talkies” ushered in the era of Blacks as weak buffoons and idiots or manly mammies when most of the actors were dark-skinned Negroes who continuously bucked their eyes for outlandish comedic and demeaning effect.
Actor Ving Rhames, Keenan Ivory Wayans and other confused Negroes have been outspoken about calling Stepin’ Fetchit a hero, claiming that the shuffling, foolish actor from the early days of film opened doors for today’s Black actors. What doors were opened by an embarrassment who claimed his fame by bucking his eyes out of his head in childlike fear, by poking his bottom lip out, by stooping his head, or by speaking in a slow, dull-witted cartoonish voice, designed to provide comedy relief to racists?
There were real doors opened for Blacks, but they came in the form of high quality films with Blacks as protagonists in respectable roles, written by a Black man named Oscar Micheaux.
Micheaux understood the film game and as an entrepreneur, knew that he would have to start his own film company in order to get his stories to the silver screen. He did just that and launched a successful film business with more than forty-three movies to his credit.
Micheaux’s film business was just that–a business. He hired all of the actors, made the movies and even handled his own distribution to the seven hundred-plus Black theatres in existence in the nation at that time. Do I have to repeat that there were more than seven hundred Black theatres in existence before integration?
Currently, Earvin “Magic” Johnson is a revolutionary for attempting to rebuild what once was, taking theatres into parts of Black America which haven’t held first-run theatres in decades. His revolution is to build the future by revisiting the past.
In the late Eighties, Spike Lee set off a new Black Renaissance in film by regenerating interest in Black-themed films with Black actors that weren’t pandering to America’s beloved Negro stereotypes.
There are a number of actors and actresses who are doing very good work on television and in film, holding the line and refusing to denigrate our image for a paycheck and fifteen minutes of fame.
Today, generations after Oscar Micheaux’s revolution in film making, it makes no sense for anyone to say that they are taking a demeaning role because there is nothing else, or that they have to avoid their dream because it is simply unavailable. Micheaux was not a rich man, but he was able to accomplish his dreams by relying on resources found within his own community.
In order to generate funding for his films, Micheaux began shopping the concept of an all-Black film to the Black theatres and asking for payment in advance, which he would use to make the film.
Micheaux wanted to make Black films with positive roles for Black actors. Think about that the next time you are in front of the television when the new House Niggers make everyone laugh on television or when the latest film featuring Blacks over-exaggerating their own behavior for a punchline rolls through Hollywood for a bellylaugh at us.
If we were controlling our own images, we would not have to worry about what anyone thinks about us. We would be the heroes as well as the villains, the lovers as well as the thieves and defining those roles ourselves. Further, the good roles wouldn’t be relegated to a handful of shining Black princes and princesses who refuse to clown their race for a punchline and a paycheck.
If we wish to move beyond our present, we have only to revisit our past. Let’s make Black history a part of the Black future.
Darryl James is an award-winning author of the powerful new anthology “Notes From The Edge.” James’ stage play, “Love In A Day,” opened in Los Angeles in 2011and will be running throughout 2012. View previous installments of this column at www.bridgecolumn.proboards36.com. Reach James at [email protected].