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Black actors can flourish in films that aren’t about race

Will Hampton

Sunday night’s Academy Award winners for Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali) and Best Supporting Actress Actress (Viola Davis) both starred in roles in which their race played a key factor. In fact, every black actor and actress nominated for an Oscar this year starred in films about being black. “Fences,” “Loving,” “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures” all contained racial themes to one degree or another.

This is nothing new for the Academy Awards. When black actors are nominated, race is almost always a theme of their performance. In fact every single black winner for best actor, actress, supporting actor or supporting actress won for a film in which their race was at least alluded to. These actors don’t win for playing people, they win for playing black people.

With regard to white Oscar winners, mentions of their race are almost unheard of. In “Forrest Gump,” Tom Hanks is admonished by a Black Panther sympathizer to get his “white ass” away from a window. “The Blind Side” includes the line “White people are crazy,” and “Django Unchained” includes gleeful references to killing white folk. There are also films like “Ben Hur,” “Sophie’s Choice” and “The Godfather,” in which the character’s ethnicity, not race, is alluded to in some fashion. However, apart from these isolated examples, white Oscar winners almost never star in roles in which their race is a theme or issue or is even mentioned.

Race always an element

Since Hattie McDaniel’s 1939 Best Supporting Actress win for playing Mammy in “Gone with the Wind,” films starring black Oscar winners have always contained racial content or themes. This year’s nominated films all contain variants of the n-word. So do most other films in which a black actor has won an academy award. Race is always an element.

In addition to the cavalcade of films with a primary theme of racism, slavery or bigotry, those films that are not overtly about these subjects always manage to find a way to work the character’s race into the story when the actor playing them is black. Cuba Gooding Jr.’s role in “Jerry Maguire” included multiple, often irrelevant references to his race, including the beautiful moment when his character’s wife tells him, “You’re a fine, proud, surviving, splendid black man,” leaving many to wonder if black spouses actually feel the need to constantly remind each other of their race or if this was a white writer’s creative fantasy.

Similarly, in “Million Dollar Baby,” Morgan Freeman is randomly and irrelevantly called a nigger, as a joke. Like any respectable black man would be expected to, his character finds the joke hilarious.

In “Ghost,” for which Whoopi Goldberg received a Best Supporting Actress award and which should have had absolutely nothing to do with race, somebody in the film inevitably mentions that she’s black. In fact the script for “Ghost” specifically called for a black woman to play the character of the psychic. (Notably absent: a race specification for the main characters, who are assumed to be white).

Outsiders

Dr. Derrick Lanois, an expert in African American media studies, believes the latter example perfectly illustrates how black actors are selected for roles in Hollywood. Goldberg’s role in “Ghost” was specifically and needlessly written for a black woman and her selection had everything to do with being a black actress. She has this in common with every other black Academy Award winner since the beginning of time.

“It authenticates that there is something different about the black experience,” said Dr. Lanois. “Something exotic. Something not representative of the general human experience.”

Dr. Lanois describes a Hollywood that is mired in bigotry and insists on casting black actors in stereotypical roles that set them apart as different, eccentric, and disconnected from the general human experience. These characters are absorbed by general audiences as exotic outsiders.

“Even these white liberal progressives still have implicit biases in them that work themselves out in multiple ways,” Dr Lanois said, referring to the legendary uber-liberal and predominantly white Academy voters. “Even for them, whiteness is not seen as a race. Whiteness is seen as the norm. When it’s a white actor it’s the story of everyone.”

Whatever the reason, the Academy continues to celebrate black actors for playing black people facing black problems, while white people are celebrated for playing roles meant to make general statements about the problems shared by all of humanity.

Transcending color

One notable deviation to this pattern was Morgan Freeman’s Best Actor nomination for 1994’s “The Shawshank Redemption,” in which race is never mentioned, a surprising and refreshing choice for a film set in a 1950s-era prison. Freeman’s performance and narration elevated this film to the level of high art.

The film’s excellence is due in no small part to director Frank Darabont’s insistence on casting Freeman in the role of Red, a character described as Irish in the source novel by Stephen King. Executives were pushing hard for Harrison Ford to play this role but Darabont knew that Freeman was the right guy for the job, the same way he knew to cast an English soap opera star as the redneck cop in “The Walking Dead.” The guy has a sixth sense for casting.

Moreover, this “Shawshank” example demonstrates how black actors can be inserted into serious, high-quality productions as simply people. They don’t have to be black people all the time. They don’t have to stare proudly at the camera while somebody calls them the n-word in order to issue a serious performance. Freeman’s role was representative of every man, and he played a character that every viewer sympathized with deeply. His performance was the emotional core of a film meant to comment on the general human condition.

Hollywood might do well to remember that lesson. Black actors can flourish in films that have nothing to do with race, in roles that represent the entire human condition and not just the black experience.

Unless they want to actually win an Academy Award. In that case, they’d better make sure the script is about being black.

Will Hampton is a freelance journalist.