Monday, November 29, 2010

As the Struggle Continues...What Will the Future Hold???

As the 21st century moves quickly into its second decade, the question of "how far have we really come??" is still asked. Its only been been 50 years since the end of enslavement (yes, the emancipation proclamation was given in 1865, but Blacks did not have a true sense of freedom until the Civil Rights' Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965), so the answer is not too far...we still have a long way to go before equality will truly come to fruition. With the exception of films produced by Black producers and directors, like their forebears, Black actresses are still not able to transcend racial barriers, and still not being given leading roles in major Hollywood films. Few actresses have crossed over into mainstream Hollywood, and even fewer have had constant leading roles. Ladies such as Halle Berry, Gabrielle Union, and Queen Latifah are a few actresses that have been noted in big productions. But what is the future of the countless talented Black actresses in Hollywood? Will their full potential ever be recognized? These are common questions with complex answers. In order for this to happen, societal stigmas and what is accepted as beauty must be completely revamped.

Although Black women are looked as as having a type of exotic sexuality and having an alluring beauty, they are still not the standard of beauty. While White women are also considered sex objects, they are still looked at throughout the western world as to prototypical resemblance of "American Beauty". Black women are still not gracing the covers of magazines such as Marie Clair, Vogue, Elle, or People, nor are they lead characters on popular sitcoms or dramas.Progress has been made, but it will take decades before the racism and degradation that encompasses and is do deeply rooted into American society is uprooted.

A Different Take on Sexuality

With the majority of Black actresses playing roles that are heavily sexualized, will the future give way to any improvement or a change in the characters Hollywood has women portray??
I believe that the answer to that question could be a little two sided. For example, Queen Latifah, one of the top A-list African American actresses of this time make it difficult to tell whether she is being sexualized, desexualized or just given a good role in a movie

Queen Latifah’s character Cleo was a complex black lesbian and her performance in “Set It Off” was incredible. It can be argued that Queen Latifah was sexualized in this movie because she featured in a sex scene where she was kissing another woman. Despite this scene not being as vulgar as Halle berry's monster ball scene, it still has elements of sensuality and sexuality. This is the only time that you can actually count Queen Latifah being sexualized in a movie. All other times her love intrest seem as mere boyfriends. Of the very few black actresses, Queen Latifah can be seen as one black actress that is given a positive image. Even with playing some of the stereotypical roles in the early stages of her acting career.

Sexualization...Degradation... or Both?

The media has been notorious for denigrating, hyper-sexualizing and fragmenting womens' bodies to make what they believe to be more interesting films. In Hollywood the defamation of black women is two-prong, in the sense of their race and gender. Many may remember 2002, the history-making year when Halle berry won an Oscar for best actress. Halle Berry made history as not only the first black woman to win an Academy Award for "Best Actress" but also the first woman to do so having lost all of her dignity in one of the raunchiest and self-degrading sex-scenes of that year.
The mini-celebration that broke out when Berry won the award for her role in Monster's Ball came to a screeching halt when some came to realize that she had won the award for whoring herself, something hardly worth applauding. Even more telling was that the "who's who's" in Hollywood made perhaps the most obvious yet subliminal statement about how exactly it is they view black actresses.  If you want to get ahead in this business (no pun intended), you have to take off your clothes.  History was made alright...that day marked the day that we gave the highest accolade to someone who displayed one of the lowest forms of human behavior. let's not fail to mention that the Oscar award was started in 1927 and black actresses have shown up in films since the 1930's. Here it is in 2002 the first black actress to win an Oscar for a leading performance had to "double degrade" herself, but Can we really blame Halle Berry for misrepresenting black women in her film roles?

We Got Our Cilvil Rights Decades Ago....Why Are We Still Fighting This Fight?!?!?!

For all featured films produced, 29% of casting includes actresses (all actresses). This statistic only leaves 10% of African Americans cast in films. which means that 90% of the time there would not be Black actresses cast as lead characters in major films. Consequently, for those who were fortunate enough to get cast.

Racism and the film industry's limited vision created paucity of roles for this "type" of actress. for Black women roles such as, hookers, maids, sidekicks, and bestfriends to the main white actresses just worsened the situation. Black actresses such as Dorothy Dandridge and Josephine Baker were the components that brightened the way for the rising actresses, but they too played in the image defying roles as stated before.

8o's and Beyond

Once the 1980's approach, roles played by women of color on film begin to diminish, and television begin to feature well-known actresses such as Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad, and Denise Nicholas. During this time of film-making, many black women coming from backgrounds other than acting begin to venture into film. Whoopi Goldberg originated in comedy but later starred in the featured film “The Color Purple”, along side Oprah Winfrey, who started as a news anchor. Vanessa Williams was the first black Miss America, who later became dethroned, begin starring in films during the eighties. The roles for black women during this decade, were very small in number but the quality was much more profound then the preceding decades.

Black women weren't given a voice until the seventies but even then their voice was muffled by sex and entertainment. Black woman in film has slowly progressed throughout the decades but there's always an occurrence of a demeaning role played by a black woman that back tracks the hard work of other women. Cicely Tyson  is one of the women throughout the sixties, seventies, eighties, and up till now that has not compromised her talent for fame or acceptance. So therefore I thought I'd leave you guys with a quote from Roland S,Jefferson, 

“The demeaning roles, the humiliating stereotypes, the offensive gestures and sexless, powerless images of black men and women that paraded before movie audiences for more than half a century were the creations of white society and in particular white-controlled Hollywood. The actors and actresses themselves were nothing more than puppets on a string at a time, in a country  when there were and still are, few options available to the black community. While I do not condone the actions of these actors and actresses, the pain and discomfort they experienced at the hands of an industry that offered them crumbs, transcends any criticism.” 

Blaxploitation & Misrepresentation

During the 1960's, 1970's, and the 1980's, Black women were more prevalent in mainstream movies the n they once were previous to this era. Black woman were often cast in supporting roles or even just as the stand-in's. White filmmakers only saw women of color as either the dark skin live-in housemaid or light skin sexualized characters. But once political change begin to occur during the 1960's the mammy  roles begin to dwindle and Black actresses were given a wider array of portrayal but this did not come without a price. Author of the article “The Black Experience and the Film Industry”, Roland S. Jefferson,

 “As the 60's approached, the black presence in films would take yet another turn towards distortion that would finally culminate in the reverse stereotyping of the 70's. The transition was subtle but received a great deal of assistance from the changing social conscious and attitudes the country was undergoing.” 

This was a slow moving transition for women of color, in general, to be represented in more ways than in servitude or as an exoticized female character. This progression was invoked by the fight for liberation and equal rights during the late 1960's, females played an important role in both the black power and civil rights movements. Women such as political activist like Assata Shakur, Angela Davis, Coretta Scott King, etc, played starring/supportive roles in real life to invoke political change in America. So it was only natural that these women would inspire new filmmakers but this inspiration was more like exploitation of the women and the movements. Author  of the article titled “Blaxploitation and the Misrepresentation of Liberation”, Cedric J. Robinson states, 

“The first Blaxploitation era, 1969-1975, appears precisely at that moment when Hollywood's 'liberal conscience' is at its apogee. In the years immediately preceding the emergence of the Black ghetto melodrama, intergrationism had become the reigning ideological drama...” 

Easing into the Blaxploitation era, black actresses such as Pam Grier, Tamara Dobson, Vonette McGee; these ladies are the most notably known for their roles in movies such as  "Coffy", "Foxy Brown", "Blacula", "Shaft In Africa", and "Cleopatra Jones". Women of color were becoming more sexually enticing to filmmakers and thus creating the notion that black women were not sexless and unappealing. This could be seen as a positive, in a sense, but instead of being seen for the talent and variety that black women are capable of, black women were being exploited. Black men played pimps and black women played the prostitutes, or they played the militant woman after revenge. Black women were representation for their bodies and still not their abilities, talent, and intellect. 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Sultry Seductresses of the Silver-Screen

While the 1950's would prove as a turning point in not only race relations, but the political discourse in regards to civil rights as well. The civil rights movement would be kicked into high gear by the Montgomery bus boycott, the formation of organizations such as the Southern Cristian Leadership Conference and the supreme court decision to desegregate schools in Brown vs. Board of Education.

While all this was going on, Hollywood was setting its sights and tuning into a provocative new sound. Black actresses had long been type-cast into the role of the mammy or maid, or supporting roles in which they were shadowing their white counterparts. However in 1954, Hollywood would see a new leading lady in Academy award nominated Dorothy Dandridge. Of course given the racial tensions and turmoil engulfing the United States would not allow for her to actually win the award, but she set in motion a new age of leading ladies. 

Playing the role of Carmen in the film Carmen Jones would shoot Dorothy Dandridge to stardom, however despite bringing about success in her career, she would unwittingly take part in shaping the views of Black womens' bodies and sexuality for years to come.

A Fresh New Face in Cinema

Throughout the 1940's race relations between whites and blacks were no better than they were in the antebellum south, in fact many attest to the fact that the jim crow south was exceptionally worse than the institution of slavery. Yet people  began to see a new face in cinema, one that added a bit more color and allure. However, these women were completely different from Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers, and although they were now light-skinned, singing, slim, sultry seductresses, yet they were still unable to transcend racial boundaries. While many might had viewed these women in a more favorable manner because they projected Black women in a positive light, the underlying motives of the white producers, casts, and production companies were in fact still placing them in demeaning roles. It was almost always the case that Black women would play some type of subservient role, essentially shadowing their white counterparts.

One such example was of the illustrious Lena Horne. Horne began her acting career in the late 1930's, but did not become notable until the early 1940's with the movie Cabin in the sky. However, like many Black actors and actresses of the early 20th century, she was not able to pick up a lead role because of the color of her skin. In fact, in several other roles she would be subsequently featured in, her part would be edited out because certain theaters refused to show black actors. The following decade would give rise to a new Hollywood beauty, but would still keep Black actresses from breaking the glass ceiling in terms of the roles they played.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Black Actress and Her Fight Against Invisibility

Since the institution of slavery and colonization, Black women, their bodies and body images have been used, chastised, criticized and abused. Yet at the same time, they have been coveted and used as a global prototype for women to model after. From the images and desecration of Sarah Bartman, to breeding houses on plantations, to house slaves and domestics, Black women have always been described on two ends of the spectrum, either being over-sexualized described as "Jezebels", "floosies", or "loose", or completely desexualized. At the start of the 20th century, many assumed that Blacks' had made substansial strides towards equal opportunity, particularly because they were now being portrayed in film, many of these images only helped to further the perpetual condescending images of the black man being the happy, care-free sambo and the black woman portraying the mammy. One such example is of the actress Hattie McDaniel. Best known for her role of the maid, in the 1939 film "Gone With The Wind", she played the typical "mammy". Making sure to that she did not upstage her white counterparts, it was essential that she was desexualized, and shown as an unattractive, dark, overweight and opinionated woman.

Although Blacks were happy to finally see someone like them on the silver-screen, this still did not remove them from playing the same role they did in society.Women like Hattie McDaniel, Madame Sul-Te-Wan and Louise Beavers would continue to be used as shadow and satirical characters for years to come