Different viewpoints

A couple of weeks back, I was browsing a blog post suffused with nostalgia for blacksploitation movies—which I admit to being quite fond of myself—and laughing at the idea some black groups had actually criticized the movies as not representing black life in America. Yeah, right—like Schwarzenegger and Stallone action films represent reality? But you don’t see white guys protesting, do you?
The problem with this, as I pointed out (but never went back to see how things went from there) is that us white guys don’t depend on Rambo or Terminator to capture us on screen. During the eighties (I’m picking that decade because that’s when the two stars seemed to embody action films) we also had Michael Douglas as a power broker in Wall Street, Tom Cruise as an angry Vietnam veteran (Born on the Fourth of July), Steve Martin as a lawyer possessed by Lily Tomlin (All of Me) and Jeff Bridges as a saintly ET (Starman).
Back in the seventies, the same range applied to white roles. Blacksploitation, on the other hand, was pretty much the whole ball of wax. Mean streets, crime, cops, PIs such as Shaft and freelancer troubleshooters such as Pam Grier in Coffy. No millionaires or upper-class types except in supporting roles (despite the fact there were black millionaires around well before I was born). Very few family dramas, with occasional exceptions such as Sounder (which was set in the 1930s, not the present). I’m not saying the films were bad (my DVD collection proves I like a lot of them), just that it’s kind of a limited range.
As the late comics writer Dwayne McDuffie said once, when you have only a couple of black or minority characters in any medium, it’s not possible to represent the full range; no one character (or character type) can capture the whole black (or Latino or female) experience. So it’s understandable the lack of more diverse roles bothered some people. The problem isn’t the films that were made, it’s the films that weren’t made.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to be conscious that there’s nobody on screen who represents your people; I’ve never had that problem. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have no-one representing you at all, except in walk ons, or the endless black maids and manservants in thirties and forties films. But I’ve heard enough people talk of the experience (or the thrill of finding a doll that had their skin color) to know it matters.


Filed under Politics

3 responses to “Different viewpoints

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