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Hollywood’s idea of reparations isn’t what you’d hope

By Shun Smith 

Black Americans, it’s been a long time coming. Reparations have been paid in full by Hollywood. They have done what the legislative and executive branches couldn’t do. But don’t expect an Automatic Clearing House credit in your bank account like the stimulus checks.

No, the motion picture industry is issuing recompense in the form of tokenized roles for historically white characters, black tragedy films, diversity quotas, Academy nominations, and–for black elites–major motion picture deals.  

Any retrospective look at Hollywood’s relationship with the black community immediately calls attention to the blaxploitation films of the ’60s and ’70s. Films like Shaft, Foxy Brown, and Cotton Comes to Harlem (one of my personal favorites) are some of the genre’s high notes. 

On the downside, movies such as Mandingo, Blackenstein, and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song are notable disappointments. Moving right along into the ’80s, black actors found roles in predominantly white films as “Thugs Numbers 1 and 2,” drug addicts, or prostitutes. 

This isn’t to say there wasn’t any successful classic black cinema. Eddie Murphy released multiple hit movies, including Coming to America, Beverly Hills Cop, and 48 Hours. The ’80s was his best decade in film. Writer-director Spike Lee of the famed Do the Right Thing and School Daze showed what black filmmakers were capable of. 

Then there’s Hollywood Shuffle, directed and produced by Robert Townsend. Despite a lack of studio backing, Townsend raised $100,000 to finance his film. In the film, Townsend played Bobby Taylor, an aspiring actor who lands a lead role as the jive-talking and gyrating Jimmy.  

The fictional movie in Townsend’s work is full of stereotypes, and the collection of vignettes was a harsh critique of Hollywood at large. Today, elements of Hollywood Shuffle hold true. The film encapsulated the dilemma between the motion picture industry and minorities.  

We’re far from the days of blaxploitation films and black film executives making exclusively urban content. But at some point, while opening the doors to black and minority creatives, Hollywood went woke and turned that dry-eyed insomnia into a perverted form of reparations.  

If you believe Black Twitter, any time a black actor or actress is cast as a historically white character, an angel gets its wings. From Heimdall the Norse god to Ariel the Little Mermaid, social media celebrates the triumphant takeover of historically white figures in fictional media.  

Even a mention of a black Superman movie with the involvement of Ta-Nehisi Coates or a strong independent black woman filling the tuxedo of 007 generates palpable online excitement. Nothing says advancement like trading in the martini for a glass of Moscato. 

Don’t bother saying these characters should stay white for the canon’s sake either. If you do, you’ll be disparaged to the nether regions of the “you’re a racist!” space by wokesters and online activists. 

Keep in mind, criticizing this hollow black jubilation doesn’t lessen Hollywood’s past ambivalence at casting white actors and actresses in a similar fashion. But what did we expect? They thought it was a good idea for a white man to play the light-skinned Michael Jackson. 

The issue, however, is that instead of creating original characters that add value and start new franchises, they declare it a win when blacks get the leftovers.  

However, there has been a spark of originality in black film. It’s been sprinkled with black tragedy, protest, and activism narratives. Recently, more so than not, films like Harriet, Antebellum, Emperor, Just Mercy, The Bankers, The Hate U Give, Queen and Slim, and Judas and the Black Messiah have received the green light. 

These films didn’t serve as the entirety of black cinema, but over the last five years or so they’ve received the lion’s share of promotion along with what seems to be an infinite budget. Not to be outdone, the small screen didn’t just dip its toe in the pool. They were waist deep. With 2020 being the year of protest, TV producers were provided with enough content to spread the racial injustice wealth across every major network. 

Prime-time television shows became home to fictional activism. CBS’s police drama SWAT gave viewers a double helping. Proud Boy-esque militia groups and BLM LA riots encompassed almost the entirety of Season Four. 

On the same network, the series Equalizer, starring Queen Latifah, debuted after Super Bowl LV. Latifah’s version of Equalizer is like Denzel Washington’s version in name only. Robyn (not Robert) McCall plays an overweight, over-the-hill special agent who rescues minorities from mostly wealthy white male villains. 

The writers of Equalizer managed to weave additional racial narratives and woke-isms throughout the dialogue. Streaming platforms are home to some of the most inglorious black trauma. Some of the notable ones include The Underground Railroad, Them, Lovecraft Country, When They See Us, and Dear White People.  

As Hollywood doles out movie meal tickets to black actors, directors, and producers, the next phase in the motion picture reparations disbursement are the prestigious and most-coveted awards. 

In September 2020, during the year of the Racial Reckoning, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced inclusion and representation standards that will impact a film’s Oscar standing in the Best Picture categories. The new standards, taking effect in 2025, require that an actor from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group play a lead or significant role. Also, films must include inclusion percentage requirements for ensemble and storyline subject matter.  

Movies with hopes of winning an Oscar will likely get a COGO (cast-one-get-one) deal if a minority actor or actress is a part of the LGBTQ+ community, filling two quotas at once. With so much reparational harmony between Hollywood and black America, it wouldn’t be fair if our elitist betters didn’t get their 40 acres and a mule.  

If a meme could exemplify how well black elites have profited from motion picture reparations, it would have to be Oprah Winfrey’s “You get a car, and you get a car” meme. But instead of the screaming adulation of suburban white women getting a free Pontiac G-6, the elites landed production contracts. Before retiring to the California hills, BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors signed a deal with Warner Bros. Television Group, all in the name of promoting black voices. 

If you’re aware of the messaging from BLM, then you know black trans people’s voices will likely get the attention. Patrisse is currently sitting in the producer’s chair for Eyes on the Prize: Hallowed Ground, a modern take on the PBS series from the 1980s. 

The original show documented the civil rights movement up to the election of Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago. The new show, as they explained, “activates the radical imagination and explores the profound journey for Black liberation.” Whatever that means. 

In 2018, the Obamas signed a deal with Netflix and are scheduled to release at least 16 projects. So far, the former president and first lady have dropped Becoming, a documentary following Mrs. Obama’s memoir book tour, and Waffles + Mochi, a kid’s show about LGBT puppets going on adventures learning about food and culture. This leaves much to be desired.  

Hollywood’s panacea has fueled the hyperbolic racial conflict in America. Television and film vilifying white people and reinforcing the idea that blacks are still second-class citizens belittles the sacrifices of those who came before. It’s still possible for cinema to create avenues for black directors to tell better stories and blacks thespians to play the lead in original content that doesn’t center on civil rights or black trauma. 

However, it’s been easy for Hollywood to become the advertising arm of a particular political slant, and it doesn’t start with an R or like peanuts. 

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Shun Smith

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