Was it David Brin who said that a century kicks in after 12 years? Well, I’m starting to think that the new millennium is kicking in, only 15 years after the formal date. I’m going out on a limb: I predict that Will Smith’s “Focus” will be the first film to feature a non-white male star in a sexual relationship/love scene that breaks the 100 million barrier domestic.
Some thoughts on this, because I would LOVE to close the door on this particular issue.
When I was a kid, I noticed that there were few black folks in SF/Action films, and when they were there, they generally didn’t survive. Worse still, they often died protecting white people. And no, if white people didn’t die as readily protecting them, this was no compliment: it was a measure of perceived or desired value on the part of the artists and audiences. It was so bad that when I went to see a movie like “Ice Station Zebra” the guys in the neighborhood would shake their heads and ask: “how’d they kill the brother this time?”
We knew what America thought of us. We could see it in the news, in the exclusion from history books, in depictions on television, film, and literature. My father was a professional singer, did back-up for Nat King Cole, and could perform in Las Vegas hotels where he was not allowed to stay. I remember being kicked out of a restaurant when I was about 6 years old (in Michigan, maybe?), because they thought my parents were a mixed couple. And being automatically sorted into the “slow” reading group in 1st grade based on race alone. Oh, yeah, I knew. The horror stories my mom told me about growing up in Georgia were scarring (which is one of the reasons I’m grateful to have spent three years there–got to meet so many wonderful people, and see the way the South is trying to deal with an ugly history. And…succeeding. Lord, we human beings move so slowly sometimes. But we move.)
But it is difficult to quantify change. Or problems. And any individual case of reduced humanity can be explained away. Only larger patterns reveal truth. And I got very tired of pointing things out just to have them all rationalized by people who stood to gain by believing problems were in the past.
In 1977 I was in a movie theater in Hollywood, watching “Damnation Alley” with a friend, Dan Pinal. Basically, it was the story of three men: Jan-Michael Vincent, George Peppard, and Paul Winfield traveling across a nuclear wasteland in an atomic Winnibago. They reach the outskirts of a city (Las Vegas? Salt Lake City?) and out of the rubble comes…the (apparently) last woman in the world.
And she’s white.
I turned to Dan and whispered: “they’re going to kill Paul Winfield.” He looked at me as if I was crazy. “Why in the world would you say that?” (the theater was almost empty, so we weren’t disturbing anyone)
“Well,” I reasoned, “they’re not going to let him compete for her. And they can’t pretend he wouldn’t be interested. So their only option story-wise is to kill him.”
“Jesus, you’re cynical” he whispered back. And five minutes later, poor Paul was eaten by giant cockroaches. Oh, I watched him die in movie after movie, often protecting white folks: “Serpent and the Rainbow”, “Wrath of Khan”, “Terminator”…oh, the fun goes on and on. But whenever I talked about it, black folks knew EXACTLY what I was talking about, and white folks tended to argue with me. It COULDN’T be true. If it was, it was just those racist Hollywood liberals…
It was frustrating. How could I prove my point, when any individual case could be explained away? I noticed other things as well: 1968-1975 was an amazing period in black film, the only period when blacks were presented as fully human beings, with the same hopes, dreams, heroism, sexuality and what not as their white counterparts. This happened at least partially because movies like “Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song”, “Cotton Comes To Harlem” and “Shaft” proved there was a market. If a movie could be cheaply made, there was a rabid, starving audience that was so desperate for positive images that they just lapped it up.
But there is this thing called “Gresham’s Law”: bad money drives out good. And the studios large and small that realized that that starving audience would watch ANYTHING flooded the screens with product, increasingly sub-standard, and the “Black Exploitation” movement died.
But…I’d worked and lived around Hollywood enough to know something was true: even if the stars like Richard Roundtree, Jim Brown, and Fred Williamson no longer top-lined movies, LOTS of black artists, cameramen, writers, and assistant directors, who got into the business during that time, could go “underground” working in television and film anonymously, but gaining skills and connections.
My thought was: the culture is changing. Slowly. I remember speaking at a white college and as often happens, I was asked to represent the attitudes of Black America: “why are they so angry”? I always laugh at that: it is nothing but a lack of empathy, a lack of the capacity to put yourself in the skin of the “other.” As soon as I asked that audience to imagine trading places, to imagine themselves dragged captive to a strange land, having their names, gods, languages, cultures, and personal identities stripped away, watching their children sold, and women raped without legal recourse, that instead of the (on average) seven year span of “Indenture Servitude” served by Europeans, that lasted for not a lifetime but generations, the state passed to their children and their children’s children…and then to listen to the descendants and relations of those slave masters claim “it wasn’t that bad” and “why don’t you just get over it…”
Well, I didn’t get through that list before every guy in that audience was making predator-face at me. They knew damned well that if the shoe was on the other foot, they’d want to kill us. Oh, yeah, they knew.
So as often happens, one of the teachers asked: “what do we do?” And as I was in an evil mood, I told them the truth: “be good people. Raise your children well. Have long, happy, successful lives. And grow old and die. Because by the time you’ve reached puberty, your core attitudes are set, breeding down in your unconscious and making choices for you. And it is very, very difficult to change them. But your children or grandchildren won’t want to carry your cross, shoulder your sins and your parent’s sins. They will shuck that. So as the older generation dies out, we’ll see things change naturally.”
Man, they didn’t like that answer. But I took a certain amount of sick satisfaction in saying what I’d muttered under my breath for years. It was …liberating.
How to measure the change? I don’t know exactly when I created my metrics, but it HAD to be prior to 1990. You see, the first one I noticed was the vast difference between successful comedies and successful hourlong dramas. The percentage of successful comedies and dramas seemed about the same for whites (percentage of shows that premiered as opposed to lasting 2+ years). But for blacks (let alone Asians) it was bizarrely skewed: there were lots and lots of successful black comedies, but no hourlong dramas. None. They all died. So…I used that as a measure. And of course, when I brought up the failure of “Shaft” on television, or “Get Christy Love” or “A Man Called Hawk” or whatever, I would get this sympathetic expression. Poor deluded Steve. Can’t deal with the fact that those shows were simply lousy. Yeah. Maybe. Now, please, suggest a mechanism that would make a disproportionate number of shows lousy just because they had black stars. And no, “I Spy” doesn’t count: the “star” is the person whose name comes first in the titles. I like objective measures. Don’t tell me about how Greg Morris was your favorite character on “Mission: Impossible” or Nichelle Nichols was your favorite on “Star Trek”. Doesn’t count. Apples and apples, folks.
“Deep Space Nine” was the very first. It was hourlong, it was dramatic, and it clearly starred Avery Brooks. And it succeeded. True, it was syndicated, and success on syndication demanded a smaller audience than a show on ABC, CBS, or NBC. And…it was part of an established franchise (Star Trek) which gave it a competitive advantage. But hey, a drowning sailor doesn’t complain about the color of his raft. I took it.
But in 1990, I was sitting in a movie theater watching “Die Hard 2” in Westwood. And during the coming attractions, they showed one for “Mo Better Blues” with Denzel. And they showed him in a love scene. I was the only black person in the theater. Because I was in a nasty mood, instead of watching the screen, I turned around and watched the audience. And saw something fascinating: all the women leaned forward. And all the men leaned WAY back, pushed themselves away from the screen. It was fascinating. I’d never seen anything like that, and it is just possible that that started my chain of thought.
Could I use sexual depictions in films to measure the unconscious effect of racism? The thing that people don’t want to admit to themselves that they feel? It seemed plausible on the face of it. One of the ugliest racial taunts I can remember is “they breed like rats.” False accusations of rape were one of the means of social control during segregation. But at the same time, miscegenation was rampant–as long as it was white males with black women, and never the other way around.
So I evolved a theory that films in which black men had sex would under-perform at the box office. It made sense, but how to prove it, when people would just “explain away” any specific instance. (And by the way, folks, in case you’re feeling uncomfortable: these racial/tribalistic tendencies I’m noting aren’t exclusive to whites. It is a deeply human thing, and if the positions were reversed, I can promise you blacks would screw you over just as badly, and be in just as much pious denial about it. Really.)
So I began to look into how I might prove, simply, something that was invisible, something that people were in denial about (“you can’t wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep” might be too harsh. How about modifying Upton Sinclair’s observation to: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his opinion of himself and his culture, as well as maintaining his cultural privilege depends on his not understanding it.” Yeah, that works nicely)
One day somewhere between 1985 and 1990 I saw an article about how the measure of real success for a movie, real cultural acceptance and support, is one hundred million dollars in domestic box office. Hmmm, I said. I wonder where I can find the stats on that? I found them in VARIETY, the industry magazine, and had a great time looking over the list. Maybe wondering how many of the movies I’d seen.
Then…something occurred to me. I wondered how many of those movies had non-white (and especially black) stars? To my delight, a fair number of them did. Maybe 8%. Great! But…how many of those stars had love scenes?
ZERO. A big, fat zero. Well, maybe its just that those films tended not to have love scenes at all. I checked. And if I considered, say “Gone With The Wind” and such movies to have love scenes, evaluated by the standards of their time (generally that’s a man and a woman alone, kissing. Fade out. In the morning they are together or clearly have engaged) then about 20% of those movies had ‘em. But zero for non-white.
Wait a minute…there WERE instances of black, or Asian WOMEN having sex in such movies…as long as they were with white males. And voila, I had my metric. The percentage of sexual images per capita as it were. About 20% for whites. 0% for blacks. And I could quote it, and send people to where they could check for themselves, and because movies with such images existed, it could be posited that this wasn’t just a matter of a few bigoted executives…it reflected the culture as a whole, what the AUDIENCES were willing to watch. Felt comfortable watching.
It had simplicity and elegance. I was able to predict the failure of movies in advance. Without a simple mechanism to explain how those movies just happened to be lousier than movies without sex, and why this only happened to black people, and why, consistently, white audience and critics could be relied upon to dislike and criticize such movies more than black audiences…well, I felt I had something.
And for at least 25 years I’ve been able to point to this. Even when inflation kicked it, so that that 100 million dollar standard has far less value than once it had. Even when the percentage of 100-million plus films with black/non-white stars climbed to about 15 percent overall. The number with black guys getting laid remained at zero.
My prediction was simple: as the culture changed, as things got better racially, we’d be able to see the effects not just in what people do consciously (like answer poll questions) but in the choices of entertainment they make. In what they feel when they sit in a darkened room staring up at images larger than they are, rolling up their eyes and going into alpha-trances. Oh, I don’t think they say “I don’t like watching Denzel getting busy!” No, that would violate their self image. They find a way to think “its only a movie. It’s only a movie” and start noticing imperfections in writing, direction, acting, camerawork–flaws that ALWAYS exist in any film. But if you have an intrinsic reason to WANT to like it, you are as forgiving as you are of your baby girl’s first piano recital. And if you have an intrinsic and unconscious reason to NOT like it? Your mind will come up with some reason that has nothing to do with sex–of course–but tears down the movie for some other, respectable reason.
That made, and makes sense to me.
I watched this play out at the 2002 Academy Awards, when Halle Berry got her Oscar for a hugely explicit sex scene with Billy Bob Thornton. While Denzel got his for getting shot down like a dog in the street. Nice. Predictable. But singular occasions. Of COURSE Barnes could just be obsessed and deluded…
But the other statistic? Never had anyone refute it effectively. Elegance and predictive capacity is hard to beat.
But I watched the numbers creep upward, and watched them carefully. Why? Partially looking for that cultural measurement. And partially because I write books and film, and was/am looking for loopholes. How to pogo-stick through the cultural minefield.
Denzel couldn’t get across that line. Nor Will. Nor Eddie. No one. Will Smith’s only two starring roles (not co-starring, thank you) in many years to fail to get across that line were “Seven Pounds” and “Ali.” His only two movies with sex scenes. Yeah, coincidence.
But things are changing. The election of Obama suggested that there were open doors that simply hadn’t existed in the 20th century. What might walk through them? “Hitch” was a successful romantic comedy. My theory: ah! It is because there is a “b” plot with Will Smith assisting Kevin James to getting laid. No perceived “cock-block”! Where else can I see tht effect:
“Think Like a Man” and “Best Man Holiday” both did very well. And both had sub-plots with white guys getting laid. Ah hah! I had, perhaps, recognized a potential means of defusing that bomb.
Denzel’s “Flight” got up to about 95 million–so close! The love scene was clothes-on, and there was a lot of pain anchored to him…but still. We’re creeping up there.
And then came “Scandal” in which Kerry Washington played the “Monster’s Ball” card and created an explosive hit. It was startling, but I saw how Shondra Rhimes was playing the game, and cheered her on.
Then: “How to Get Away With Murder” began with the same “Monster’s Ball” scenario (black woman/white man) but then subverted it in a lovely way. And also became a hit. So I saw that a television show with that dynamic could work, and work well. “Sleepy Hollow” began with the promise of the same dynamic…and was a hit. And took the focus off the black-white potential romance and on Ichibod’s relationship with his wife, leaving Nicole Bahare pretty much stranded without a personal life…and the ratings plummetted. Fascinating.
To compare, look at “Morgan” on Criminal Minds, played by one of the most gorgeous males on television, a supposed “player”…who was the only member of the original cast to have no personal life, not so much as a kiss, for the first nine seasons. EVERY other member had lovers. Morgan was dehumanized to being a mere fantasy for Penelope Garcia–who herself had a relationship. Don’t get me started.
But then last season he got his first kiss. I’ll bet that Shemar Moore had to fight like hell. I KNOW that black actors have struggled with this, because I’ve actually sat down and talked to them: unless there is color in the writer’s room, somehow their sexuality just gets…lost. Oops? Where did I put those testicles? Behind the couch, perhaps…
But as I said, I could feel a change was coming. When I saw the coming attractions for Will Smith’s new con-artist film “Focus” I had the sense they were hiding something. Was there a romantic relationship between him and his lead, or not? The movie “The Great White Hope”, a roman a clef about boxing champion Jack Johnson, played a fascinating game with the audience. There is a bed scene between James Earl Jones and his white wife, played by Jane Alexander. They are snuggling and flirting and getting closer to “doing it”. I saw it in the theater. White audience. I HEARD the discomfort, the grumbling, saw the strained faces and closed body language as they got closer to the forbidden image. And then…cops broke into their room, arresting him on miscegenation or morality laws. The release of audience discomfort into “outrage” was fascinating. I thought the writers were freakin’ brilliant, channeling one emotion into another.
Well, I saw the same thing in the ad for “Focus.” Will Smith on a bed with (gasp!) a white woman. They kiss…and then her husband breaks into the room (apparently. Remember, its a movie about con artists.)
Brilliant, I thought. Smith is SMART. He knows exactly the game he’s playing. I remember the ad scene from “Hitch” where Kevin James kisses him. Brilliant disarming of the “cock block” fear through the use of quasi-homosexual imagery. Wow.
So now this movie was on my radar. Smith knows what game he’s playing, and knows what he’s up against. The only question was…can he pull it off?
And last night I became convinced he can. Why?
“Empire.” “Empire” the series about a rap mogul (starring Terrance Howard and Taraji P. Henson) is a breakout hit. A trashy, exploitative addictive black version of “Dallas” or “Desperate Housewives” or any number of other night-time soaps. Man is it bad! And is it HUGELY fun. Wow. Never seen anything like it, and the black sexuality explodes out of it like I’ve never seen on television. Never. Things I’ve seen white people doing endlessly that we were denied, because it repulsed the white audience (IMHO).
And there it was, a clear evidence of change–the audience acceptance. The fact that there were enough black people in enough positions of power to “get ‘er done.” I could only shake my head, pop the popcorn and watch a living example of change.
And then, last night, they had an ad for “Focus.” Let’s just say that they left zero doubt that this movie is a romance between Will and his leading lady. Zero. They had picked the PERFECT television show to premier that ad (and yes, I think it was an exclusive ad). They have a hit television show where the audience can be expected to embrace the images rather than be repelled by them.
Arguably the world’s biggest movie star in his first leading role in years.
A smart, snappy romantic comedy suspense movie.
Advertising that can be slanted to stress or un-stress different elements depending on venue.
A hit, skyrocketing television show with similar imagery for them to advertise on.
And other movies have passed the 90 million mark. And yes, there’s a white guy in the ad making out with a woman.
OMG, I thought. This could be it. This could be the one I’ve been looking for for three decades. It would mean the audience has changed. Hollywood has changed. That I have a role model for how to create the kind of imagery I craved to create in my visual career my entire life. And thank God, I’m not too old and tired and disillusioned to take advantage of it.
So…I’m prepared to take a stand and make a prediction: “Focus” will be the one. 2015 is the year.
You heard it first.