by Dr. Boyce Watkins
The best thing about the South Side of Chicago is that it’s nothing like the stereotypes you see on TV. Everything we see in the media about black men killing one another left and right, with gang bangers everywhere, is directly contradicted by the tree-lined streets and neighborhood fellowship that you see more often than not. Sure, the bad stuff is out there, but there’s a lot of good stuff that is never going to be shown on Fox News.
Denzel’s latest film, “Flight,” (which I happened to see in Chicago this week) makes me think about the South Side of Chicago, because it reminds me of how black folks get the most attention from whites when we behave in a way that conforms to their preconceived notions of who we are. Denzel, being the brilliant actor that he is, played a serial liar, irresponsible father and alcoholic/drug addict to a tee. His performance in this film, like many others, is worthy of the Oscar buzz that he’s been receiving.
But if the Academy does decide to honor Washington with an Oscar, I’ll admittedly find myself a tad bit annoyed. It’s so interesting how black people tend to be recognized the most when we play roles that fit into inaccurate stereotypes that fit white America’s vision of what it means to be “authentically black”: They don’t recognize Denzel for his brilliant performance as Malcolm X, but they fawn over Morgan Freeman’s role in “Driving Miss Daisy.” Halle Berry gets no Oscar Buzz when she plays Dorothy Dandridge, but they love her skankily-depressing performance in “Monster’s Ball.” The bottom line is simple: If a black person does a good impression of a thief, drug addict, prostitute, maid or athlete, you’ve got yourself a touchdown. The worst thing you can do, however, is play a role that communicates intelligence, integrity or courage….that’s “not realistic.”
Denzel’s Academy Award for Best Actor came after he played a corrupt cop and flat out horrible human being in “Training Day.” This was yet another case in which the Academy suddenly noticed that this Hollywood veteran has acting talent. The fact is that Denzel is every bit as impressive when he plays an honorable man as he is when he plays a menace to society. I’d rather see him in roles deserving of an NAACP Image Award than to have to stomach the site of a black American hero portraying the very worst that we can be as human beings. Of course these roles all lie within the range of artistic freedom, but much of that so-called artistic freedom is actually the vision of greedy corporations seeking to sell movie tickets in a racist society. So, in many cases, artistic freedom is merely an illusion and excuse to succumb to degrading behavior and poorly chosen imagery (see commercialized hip hop as exhibit A).
In the video below, I explain my thoughts more directly. Again, I am not one to say that Denzel doesn’t deserve an award for this performance, but I grow tired of seeing black actors forced to debase themselves and play to racist stereotypes in order to be recognized. In fact, they should boycott the Academy Awards altogether, since they really don’t mean a thing.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition. He is also the creator of the Building Outstanding Men and Boys Family Empowerment Series. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.