Monday, July 28, 2008

Oh Where Have all the White Heroes Gone ?

Actor Matthew Mcconaughey as attorney Roger Baldwin in Spielberg's Amistad.

Actor and activist Danny Glover is steadily working on a biopic about the Haitian independence hero Toussaint-Louverture. But it's with no thanks to Hollywood. Glover said he "slaved" to raise funds for the film because financiers refused to back it. "I couldn't get the money here," Glover told the AFP. "I couldn't get the money in Britain. I went to everybody. You wouldn't believe the number of producers based in Europe, and in the States, that I went to." And what was the reasoning given by those who hold the purses? According to Glover, the monied interests in the movie industry complained there were no white heroes. "Producers said 'It's a nice project, a great project..." Glover recounted. "'Where are the white heroes?'"

Pay attention everyone, this is how whiteness works.

The white hero motif in black films is so tried and true, it has become a source of comedy in the black community--one of those private jokes black people laugh at together, of which many whites may be blissfully unaware. If Hollywood gets it into its mind to create a "black" film, and it deals with any topic pertaining to racism or oppression, rest assured a central white character will appear almost like magic.

Sometimes these white characters are actually pulled from history, and are used as the lens through which the story of the black main character or event is told. The 1987 film Cry Freedom followed this model, in which Denzel Washington played the role of murdered South African activist Steve Biko, but was overshadowed by the role of white actor Kevin Kline--who played Biko's journalist friend Donald Woods. Rather than focus on the singular inspiring and tragic life of Steve Biko, his white friend became a guide and a lens through which to view the apartheid struggle. The tagline for the movie read, "The true story of the friendship that shook South Africa and awakened the world." It was nominated for 3 Oscars.

By 1988, a year after the much acclaimed Eyes on the Prize documentary, Hollywood gave us Mississippi Burning, a film in which two FBI agents served as heroes for the entire Civil Rights Movement--doling out their righteous justice on Jim Crow. Played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe, J Edgar Hoover's G-Men--far from the often neglectful, invasive and obstructionist figures remembered by many Civil Rights activists--are gallant and brave, doing their best not only to solve a brutal murder but protect hordes of frightened blacks who seem to spend much of the movie fleeing in terror from one set of whites or the other.

In 1996 the movie Ghosts of Mississippi, billed to be a story about the slain Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, ended up being a film about Bobby DeLaughter--the white prosecutor who successfully convicted Evers' murderer in 1994. "Instead of portraying Medgar Evers's quest for justice, they gave us the moral dilemma of a white liberal," critic Willie Morris of the New York Times noted. Even Variety objected this time around, stating the movie left the false impression that the battles for racial equality ''were fought and won by square-jawed white boys.'' That very year, John Grisham's fictional work set to film, A Time to Kill, seemed to teach just that lesson, as a white lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) was left to defend a black vigilante (Samuel Jackson). Any black would-be heroes, in the form of a diminished NAACP, were depicted as selfish, corrupt and inept.

Yet despite the criticism of the Medgar Evers film, a year later in 1997, Hollywood showed it hadn't abandoned its "white hero" formula. Steven Spielberg would give us Amistad, a movie that was billed as a biopic of the famed slave leader Cinque and his band of rebels who successfully defeated the crew of a slave ship and commandeered it for themselves. That turned out however to only be the first few moments of the movie. Rather than a film about slavery, Amistad turned into a re-telling of the dramatic trial over the Amistad and the white men (including none other than founding father John Quincy Adams) who fought it. Director Spike Lee would derisively note that the black actors in the film, Morgan Freeman and Djimon Hounsou, amounted to little more than "furniture" to dress up the set.

The most absurd case can probably be seen in Melvin and Mario Van Peebles 1995 movie Panther, intended to tell the life of the 1960s Oakland based Black Panther Party for Self Defense founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. The father and son team, in their search for funding, soon found that backing by Hollywood came with strings. Entertainment Weekly's article Power to the Peebles noted some of the bizarre requests studio executives made:

At one pitch meeting, Mario recounts, it was suggested the movie would be more desirably ''mainstream'' if its story were told through the eyes of a white student radical, preferably one played by a Tom Cruise or a Brad Pitt. At another, it was suggested that since Jane Fonda had once supported the Panthers, it would be great if a role were written for her niece Bridget Fonda.

Rather than take the money and insert a fictional white character, the Peebles settled for a small budget that barely afforded them money to market the film. And in an ironic twist, they created a black fictional character through which to tell the tale of the Panthers--an act that was probably no less controversial than what the studios execs had in mind.

Seeming to realize the game, black director John Singleton's 1997 film Rosewood, a depiction of the black Florida town destroyed by a murderous white mob, came ready-packaged to Hollywood with a white hero in the form of Mr. Wright played by actor Jon Voight. Mr. Wright, based on John Wright, was a real historical figure who was reported to have let several blacks hide in his home. Wright is portrayed by Singleton as a conflicted soul caught up in the midst of the racial massacre. Yet the story is not told solely from his perspective. Instead, the key figure in the movie is a Mr. Mann--a fictional gun-wielding black superman played by actor Ving Rhames. In Singleton's inversion, this invented black hero acts as a force upon Wright, pushing the reluctant and morally questionable white hero into action.

If recent cinema history however is anything to go by, the white hero figure--although now a bit convuluted--still occupies a place in Hollywood storytelling. In the highly praised 2006 film The Last King of Scotland, the story of Ida Amin's brutal dictatorship is told from the perspective of white actor James McAvoy, who plays Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan. The movie is based on the book of the same name by author Giles Foden, whose Garrigan is a fictional character believed to be loosely (very loosely) based on former British soldier and colonial officer Robert Astles. In the film Garrigan is portrayed as a corruptible white young physician whose sexual appetites for African women and a lavish lifestyle, causes him to turn a blind eye to Amin's atrocities. Unlike Astles, who spent over six years in a Ugandan prison for his role in the regime, Garrigan finds redemption and escapes with his life. Though African-American actor Forest Whittaker received an Oscar as best male lead for his portrayal of Amin, more than a few black critics noted with irony that even the story of a black villain seemed to require a central white male presence.

A similar formula would be worked out for Blood Diamond, as Djimon Hounsou was cast in the role of a noble African fisherman opposite a rougish arms dealer (Leonardo DiCaprio) who manages to find his conscience in the end and become the life sacrificing great white savior for all of Africa.

As noted, some of the afore-mentioned films are historical, so the white characters in question may exist. Some are semi-historical, composites or loose interpretations of reality. Others are pure fiction. But the accuracy of the films isn't the issue I'm raising here. Rather, the question is, why do movies about black historical figures or events--namely tales dealing with racism or oppression--need to be told from either the perspective of a white hero or with whites in key roles? What is the basis of this formula?

After all, one can *choose* to tell the story of Steven Biko from his perspective--and not his white journalist friend. The story of Medgar Evers or Cinque can focus on these black figures as individuals in their own right, rather than the white lawyers out to secure their justice. Tales of Africa's blood diamonds don't *need* white interlopers that serve as centerpieces of the story. So what gives?

Perhaps it's a simple matter of money. Hollywood execs seem to fear that white audiences will not accept any film dealing with black people, oppression or racism without a white mediator to guide them--someone they can identify with or to help assuage any possible "white guilt." Perhaps the fear is that white movie-goers will assume that any film with an overwhelming and centralized black cast is a "black film," and will not reciprocate the courteous patronage blacks give to "white films" on a daily basis.

Whatever the case, it seems though Hollywood is far from ready for a black-centered movie on the Haitian Revolution, which struck fear in the slave regimes of the West, humbled Napoleon's France and helped alter the course of human bondage, it will nevertheless have to contend with Danny Glover's long awaited biopic. Funded from varied sources, including $18 million from Venezuela through the friendship of its leader Hugo Chavez, the film will feature a black cast as diverse as Don Cheadle, Angela Basset and Mos Def. Hopefully white movie-goers will prove Hollywood wrong, find interest in a movie in which they must accept their diminished roles and thus tell the gatekeepers of popular cinema to stop handling their "oh-so-fragile" white psyches with kid gloves.

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