A black film renaissance, or a step backward for black actors?

OPINION - Yes black actors should be cast in more mainstream, read “white,” films but, the main problem with Hollywood is that they generally only make films with white people...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Huffington Post Entertainment Editor Kia Makarechi is absolutely right to title his well-intentioned piece “Hollywood’s ‘Race Problem’ Is Worse Than You Think.”

In it, Makarechi discusses the stark reality behind the possibility that Chiwetal Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station) and Forest Whitaker (Lee Daniel’s The Butler) could all be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.

While it is certainly good news that Ejiofor, Elba, Jordan and Whitaker are indeed on the tongues of Hollywood’s top critics for nominations, it is, according to Makarechi, bittersweet. For Makarechi, the roles for which these men are garnering praise are ones that “have to be played by black actors” and that, for Makarechi, indicates no true progression in Hollywood.

Makarechi argues that “the fact that [black actors are] generally only rewarded for roles that literally could not be given to white actors is cause for concern.” Breaking it down further, he writes, “A study of the roles that have earned black men Best Actor nominations reveals that this is a historical problem.”

Sidney Poitier’s character in the novel behind the movie Lilies of the Field, for example, had to be black, he notes. So did Ray Charles, for which Jamie Foxx won his Oscar, and Idi Amin, Uganda’s third president, for which Forest Whitaker won his Oscar. Of course, the notable exception is Denzel Washington for Training Day.

But while Makarechi sees the fact that black actors are only generally recognized for playing real-life roles or roles in which no white actor could realistically be cast [although Hollywood has found ways to work around even that]  as a problem, it isn’t necessarily. Yes black actors should be cast in more mainstream, read “white,” films but, the main problem with Hollywood is that they generally only make films with white people.

This year’s crop of films may be bountiful in its showcase of black male actors but that’s far from the norm. Reality, however, is that lots and lots of films get made without black actors of any gender getting cast at all. Sadly it’s only at awards time that most mainstream critics even notice the slight at all. After all, we’ve been so conditioned that films are the province of white men.

Truth be told, Hollywood has had no change of heart with the films for which Ejiofor, Elba, Jordan and Whitaker are receiving Oscar buzz, either. All four of these films, as Makarechi notes, were all done independently and never even originated from the Hollywood pipeline. Hollywood would much rather greenlight films like Dumb and Dumber, whose  sequel, Dumb and Dumber To [yes that is the title], is now being filmed, than race a long overdue all-out biopic on Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest figures of the 20th century, to the big screen.

Makarechi asserts that most of the films in which black actors have starred are true stories, as if that’s some egregious assault, when the reality is that a lot of films, especially those recognized by the Academy Awards, are based on true stories.

Colin Firth won his Best Actor Oscar for playing the real-life King George VI in The King’s Speech, about him overcoming his speech impediment. Daniel Day-Lewis won earlier this year for playing Abraham Lincoln. Many films generally take their cues from history: Titanic, Schindler’s List, Walk the Line, Argo, the list is endless.

So, if Hollywood is mining the history books anyway, why not tap more stories from African-American history and make even more films of the caliber of this year’s offerings? After all, is having one black actor in a cast that is at least 90 percent white really progress?

Even sadder though, as Makarechi also observes, is the plight of black actresses. They have fared even worse at the Oscars because you simply can’t be nominated for roles in which you are rarely ever cast. Because when black women are cast, as evidenced by breakout star Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave and Gabourey Sidibe in Precious, or the pint-sized Quvenzhané Wallis, whose breakout role in Beasts of the Southern Wild resulted in her Oscar nomination earlier this year, great things do happen.

With this piece, Makarechi focuses on the black male actor and his plight and, in that regard, argues that true equality in film will come “when Hollywood casting directors and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences view people of color as deserving of equal opportunities to shine when a black man in the role of a fictional caring father, son, teacher, student, doctor, author or otherwise non-racially coded character is nominated for and wins Best Actor.”

Makarechi indeed has good intentions here but they reveal that he is guilty of the same racial myopia that continues to cripple the Hollywood system that he rightly blasts. Hollywood’s main problem is not its failure to cast black men in roles where they are fathers, teachers, students, doctors or what Makarechi calls “otherwise non-racially coded characters.”

Instead, its failure is not being able to look at a story like Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, for example, and see that, in addition to being an extraordinary human rights activist, he too is a father, son, teacher, student and more. Until Hollywood can look at a story and see it as a good story, even when it has no central roles for white male actors especially, it will never progress.

There’s nothing wrong with making films with “roles white men could never play”; the foul is that the unstated  criteria  for “legitimate” films, certainly those that receive virtually all the Oscar nominations, is that white men have to play critical roles.

Until we all recognize this, Hollywood’s race problem will continue to be worse than even well-intentioned entertainment insiders like Makarechi think.

Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @RondaRacha.