Funny Girl, the 1968 vehicle that plucked a young Jewish woman from Brooklyn named Barbra Streisand out of relative obscurity and vaulted her into immortality, is on the cusp of revival on Broadway. In an interesting wrinkle, the casting of Lauren Ambrose, a television actress chosen to play lead character Fanny Brice, has been met with some consternation.
The problem? Apparently Ms. Ambrose is a bit too Shiksa (non-Jewish) to occupy a role once held by a Jew who is now one of the most successful entertainers in modern history.
The Funny Girl controversy bears more than a whiff of the subterranean fire smoldering around The Help, an estimable film about black domestic workers in the 1960s segregated South, and the aspiring young writer aiming to breathe literary life into their stories.
In some quarters, The Help has been dismissed as yet another entry in a genre that sees potent black characters relegated to supporting parts in favor of white protagonists (shades of The Blind Side) In a contorted sense, it’s an ethnic-reversed version of the oft-maligned magical negro trope.
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Another frequent criticism is that such movies are often helmed by white directors/producers who may lack the necessary appreciation for the experiences of the black characters they bring to the screen.
It should be said outright that The Help — based on a best-selling novel written by author Kathryn Stockett and directed by Tate Taylor (both of whom are white ) — more than lives up its advance positive buzz. Set in segregated Mississippi during the turbulent civil rights era, the movie brims with humor, emotion and Karmic comeuppance in a way that perfectly captures the range of its fine cast. With directing that encourages flawless performances from Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (who spends much of the film harnessing her inner Aunt Esther), The Help belies the notion that white writers/directors are somehow incapable of doing justice to black stories.
Cinematic history is replete with examples of movies that spark ire over the racial composition of the team behind the camera. That invariably distracts from the high quality work that takes place in front of it. Whether it’s the memorable yet often criticized Ghosts of Mississippi, or Amistad, which quickly solidified itself as the gold-standard for artistic endeavors about the Middle Passage, most commercially viable movies have names like Steven Spielberg or Rob Reiner attached to them.
This leads to the inevitable lament that the movie industry overlooks the accomplishments of black actors and directors, and that African-American narratives ought to be told by writers and directors who share their ethnicity. Obscured in this philosophy are certain inconsistencies that cry out for sunlight.
Moviegoers might recall pointed critiques from the ever-irascible Spike Lee, which allowed him to bigfoot his way into the director’s chair of Malcolm X based on claims that a white director could never do the civil rights icon justice. For identical reasons, Lee also lobbed rhetorical spitballs at Amistad. Yet his criticism was self-serving at best, and hypocritical at worst. Lee’s status as a black man certainly didn’t prevent him from making Summer of Sam, with its predominantly Italian-American cast (an irony not lost on film critics who, in a delicious bit of Schadenfreude, panned the film).
The Do the Right Thing creator’s blackness also couldn’t deter him from taking the reins of Inside Man, a critically acclaimed box office hit that co-starred the decidedly Caucasian Jodi Foster and featured a nuanced sub-plot about the Holocaust that called into question Lee’s contentious relationship with the Jewish community.
All of which suggests that critics are drawing the wrong lessons from movies like The Help. The parlous state of black film is a hotly debated topic that refuses to disappear. Most, though certainly not all, writer/directors consign themselves to appealing to the lowest common denominator.
Successful filmmakers like Tyler Perry and Lee Daniels endure all manner of hand-wringing about feeding negative stereotypes, in spite of their movies’ emphasis on redemption, and the men’s undeniable success in an industry that tends to overlook quality black films.
It’s highly doubtful that a white director would have been able to do justice to the lurid bleakness that won Precious its accolades, or the hilarity that personifies Perry’s Madea characters. It’s also more than likely that a white director of those films would have been hit with charges of racial insensitivity.
If racial essentialism is the motivating factor behind who gets to tell certain narratives, then perhaps someone may want to explain that to John Singleton. The mind behind Boyz In The Hood is directing the upcoming action flick Abduction starring Twilight refugee Taylor Lautner, whose key demographic hardly skews black.
Good stories have universal resonance, and have little to do with race or ethnicity. The Help is demonstrative of excellent storytelling that will probably make moviegoers forget the color of its creative team. Carrying the argument to its logical conclusion, a gentile can certainly get away with playing a Jew.
Similarly, a white director or writer — with the right vision — should be able to etch a tableau of from the richness of black history. The artistry that underpins the film, its historical accuracy, and the quality that lie at its heart, is what matters to most film watchers. Best to appreciate the art, and leave the ethnic checkboxes at the cinema door.