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The New York Sun


When Producers Play the Race Card

April 19, 2005

By John H. McWhorter

"The way blacks are portrayed in movies and on TV," he answered. The question was "Why do you think that black Americans in 2002 still face racism every day?" and it was I who asked it, of a black education professor, during the commercial break of a talk show we were appearing on.

It was just as well that the commercial break ended right then and we went back to taping. There was no reason to even continue the conversation, because anyone who still trots out the complaint that blacks are mostly portrayed as criminals, minstrels, or tokens is no longer engaging with reality.

Gone are the days when "The Cosby Show" was a novelty in depicting middle-class blacks. Today, a whole string of such sitcoms thrive on the newer networks and in syndication: One of the Cosby kids (Raven Symone), now grown up, is starring in one on the Disney Channel. And to dismiss the careers of Jamie Foxx, Samuel Jackson, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, and others as exceptions rather than as a new norm is to dismiss black achievement, to an extent that would comfort a white supremacist.

The entertainment world is catching up with the way race is now experienced in America. The problems it still has are part of a transitional moment, and the state of the art is a heartening one. These days many parts for black actors are not even written with a race in mind. The trend stands out especially in theatrical revivals, in which roles originally performed by white actors offer a clear grounds for comparison.

Vanessa Williams played the witch in the revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical "Into the Woods" in 2002 - a part originated by Bernadette Peters, and Brian Stokes Mitchell has played the male leads in "Kiss Me, Kate" and "Man of La Mancha." Their color occasioned almost no comment. Some might object that in terms of skin color, speech, and body language, both are only so "black." But what about Denzel Washington currently starring on Broadway as Brutus in "Julius Caesar"? He's certainly a "real black man." Yet any controversy has been about his being a movie star, not his race.

Contrary to what anyone could have expected just 20 years ago, blacks playing "white" roles is now, of all things, ordinary. One way of looking at this is to pretend that race doesn't exist and revel in the individuality of each performer. But we can, indeed, only pretend that race doesn't exist, and its reality makes today's race-blind casting a double-edged sword.

On one hand, sometimes black ethnicity adds a new dimension to a part. In "Chicago," the prison matron role was originated by white Marcia Lewis, but a tradition soon set in of casting black women as replacements. It works, and then some: A black woman can bring inflections that are well suited to flesh out both this particular character and the show as a whole, as was clear in Queen Latifah's rendition in the film. Another example is in the current revival of "On Golden Pond" with James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams.

When Mr. Jones, as crusty old Norman Thayer, complains about various groups - including "Negroes" - making their way into rural Maine, the whites in the audience don't quite know what to do with the line. But the blacks chuckle along. We read this comment as a familiar sort of grouchy classism, bred in an era when the equation of black with the street had yet to become common coin. In this moment, Mr. Jones sounds rather like Bill Cosby in his recent calls for responsibility among poor blacks. From a white actor, the line just shows that Thayer is a tad parochial; from a black one, it is a more layered statement that lends extra depth to the character.

But then there is the downside. Too often, when blacks play in white roles, our professional critics are too racially "enlightened" to evaluate them as individuals. Mr. Jones's diction, that blend of the crisp and the cavernous that has served him so well as Darth Vader and the voice of Verizon, enhances the comedic lines in "On Golden Pond." But his voice has never been the most subtle of instruments, and this same quality gives the more tragic lines a satirical tint that makes the audience giggle in the wrong places.

Ben Brantley at the New York Times reads depths of pathos in Mr. Jones's portrayal that I missed. Does he perchance find a certain coziness in portly black men of a certain age with resonant voices? You know - black preachers on late-night cable, B.B. King, even Uncle Remus? But it would be underestimating Mr. Jones to read him as a salty black Santa Claus; he is a serious and experienced actor who deserves honest evaluation.

Meanwhile, Ms. Uggams can tear your heart out when the role is right. The cast album of her 1969 musical "Hallelujah, Baby!" is one of the apotheoses of recorded sound, and her portrayal of Kizzy in "Roots" had me glued to the television screen when I was young. But portraying Ethel Thayer throws her a bit: She gives graceful declamation rather than portrayal, in an almost antiquarian performance reminiscent of how actresses were taught to put roles across before the 1950s.

"Quiet dignity," Reuters decides, while Mr. Brantley finds Ms. Uggams "affectingly reserved" - but these are studied compliments. If Judith Ivey or Elizabeth Franz were contributing the same performance, reviewers would require more and make no bones about having missed it. Ms. Uggams is being received not as an individual, but as Acting While Black.

Finally, too often, race-neutral casting is also jarringly class-neutral, in a way that is not let pass with white actors. There is a range of speech styles and demeanors among black Americans that white casting directors tend to miss when matching up black actors as family members. Too often, white directors let "black" trump individuality. If the Thayers's daughter has married a black man who would sound "white" on the phone, for instance, why does the man's young son have an "Ebonic" vocal inflection and affect? He seems like someone who walked in from a play about working-class blacks - which the actor in a way has, having played Travis in last year's "Raisin in the Sun."

The same problem crops up in a cinematic example of blacks playing parts written as white. This year's "Guess Who," was a (very) loose remake of 1967's "problem picture" "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" with the interloper being a white man running up against Bernie Mac as the father. The daughter (Zoe Saldana) talks like Hilary Duff, while Bernie Mac speaks Ghetto-lite. No one would cast Mary-Kate Olsen as Jeff Foxworthy's daughter. Maybe the daughter picked up her speech habits from schoolmates in her airbrushed suburb. But then why does her own sister sound much more like a "sistah"? No one would cast Diane Keaton and Dolly Parton as sisters.

Today blacks are cast primarily as people rather than as cartoons or object lessons - contrary to the retrograde posturings of the professor I did the talk show with. We even see this in "Guess Who," flaccid footnote of a film though it is. In the original, Spencer Tracy's uneasiness at his daughter's interracial marriage was portrayed as backwards. Seeing "Guess Who's" currently ubiquitous poster, with Mr. Mac edging Ashton Kutcher off a sofa, I was afraid the film would give us Mr. Mac as an unreconstructed bigot - with the implication that for a black person, this is "understandable."

It was, once. It was one thing for George Jefferson and Fred Sanford to be as racist as Archie Bunker in the 1970s, when the Civil Rights Act was just a decade old. They were getting their own back after growing up in Jim Crow America. But this is 20 years later, and the time is past when it was civil or even realistic to pretend that whites will do all the work in healing the wounds of the past. Thus, I was pleased that "Guess Who" steps aside from the anti-whitey stuff after a few early sallies for comedy's sake.

As the plot moves on, Mr. Mac is less worried about race than the fact that Mr. Kutcher has quit his job without telling his fiancee and needs a major loan. In "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" the black maid (as it happens, Isabel Sanford, who would later make her name as George Jefferson's wife) tells off Sidney Poitier for marrying a white girl. The equivalent character in "Guess Who" is the sister, who simply revels in the drama of Mr. Kutcher's whiteness - there's no scene where she reads her sister the riot act for sleeping with the enemy. The race angle is a mere gloss in a generic comedy of manners that could have been played by an all-white cast.

"Guess Who," in its own way, brings the father and "sistah" characters into the racial landscape of the 21st century instead of reliving the late middle of the previous one. We'll know we have really overcome when we get a "Raisin in the Sun" with an all white cast. But there is an awful lot to celebrate in the here and now.

Original Source:



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