Thursday, February 23, 2012

Heaven "Help" Us

I have a confession: In recently watching “The Help” honored at both the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards, I was tempted to carry around a rabbit's foot, a box of lucky charms, and a pocket full of pennies in hopes that lightening will NOT strike a third time at Sunday's Academy Awards. Needless to say, I was not a fan of the movie. Now, before you chastise me for wishing something so sinister on such hard-working actors who simply want nothing more than to be celebrated by their peers, let me explain.

In 1939, Hattie McDaniel received an Oscar for best supporting actress for playing a maid. Fast forward 73 years (yes, you read that correctly), and two of Hollywood's best African-American actresses today (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) are being nominated for playing what? You guessed it. Maids. No matter how one spins it (or peppers their acceptance speech with accolades to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to justify the necessity of such a movie and role (uh, yeah, Octavia)), there's no getting around the fact that when it comes to blacks being celebrated in and by Hollywood, it is mostly for roles that reflect them in a subservient or less favorable light, e.g., welfare mothers (Halle Berry's "Monster's Ball" and Monique's "Precious"), bad guys (Denzel Washington's "Training Day"), overly-animated caricatures (Cuba Gooding Jr.'s "Jerry Maguire" and Whoopi Goldberg's "Ghost"), and servants (Morgan Freeman's "Driving Miss Daisy"), and the list goes on and on. Sure, there are a few African-American's who have been properly celebrated for powerful, uplifting roles, but the bottom line is this: there is simply not a enough of those roles given or celebrated to create enough of a balance to where seeing us play the maids, thugs, and pimps, is not still difficult to swallow.

If there were more diversity in Hollywood in the roles we were offered and, thus, celebrated for, this blog post--and the many articles speaking on this same topic--would be unnecessary. If there was a presidential role for every pimp role; a captain's role for every convict role; and a microbiologist role for every maid role, I'd be the first to celebrate...but there aren't. And until there is, it's up to black actors to be more selective in how we're represented and celebrated. Just as it’s also the responsibility of our legends to not take steps backward that hurt those chances as well (i.e., our most respected Cicely Tyson also playing a maid in this movie). The argument that regardless of the roles taken, winning awards helps to open doors for us couldn't be further from the truth if they're continuously opening the SAME doors. Yes, it's tough in Hollywood and even tougher if you're a black actor. And, yes, folks need to work. But to quote a line from one of my favorite movies, "There's work at the post office."

As Octavia Spencer took the stage to accept her SAG award for best supporting actress in "The Help," her tears as well as those of her peers said a lot: this happens far too infrequently, and so we should celebrate. In 2012, that's unacceptable. Do these women deserve to be celebrated? Absolutely. Do they need to be celebrated for this? Absolutely not. Seventy-three years and here we are. That "open" door is more like a "revolving" one.

Friday, February 17, 2012

What We Can Learn from Whitney’s Death (and It’s Not Just Say ‘No’ to Drugs)

Another songbird has flown away. Ms. Whitney Houston. Her unexpected death has left so many shocked, saddened, and reflective. And we’ve lost so many others in recent months that conjure up these emotions as well: Nick Ashford, Heavy D, Etta James, Don Cornelius, and now, America’s first black “darling.” When we lose someone unexpectedly—be it our Uncle Skeebo; our sister, Deborah; or a musical idol that inspired us to set up countless impromptu concerts in the bathroom mirror (hairbrush microphone and imaginary audience included)—we can’t stop thinking of how they touched our lives and, more painfully, how they’ll never be able to do so again. And then we forget the money they owed us; the one or two holidays they ruined; or the boyfriend they stole from us (that wasn’t good for us anyway). And instead we begin to celebrate the good they did; the laughs they gave us; the support they offered us; and even the “soundtracks” to our lives they provided us.

Much like pop icon, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston’s rise to fame and celebrity in her latter years was more infamously notable than famously celebrated. Michael’s fight against pedophilic allegations, plastic surgery mocking, and a number of misunderstood actions, undeservedly earned him the moniker of “Wacko Jacko” alongside his well-earned title of “King of Pop.” And then there was Whitney’s struggle with drug abuse, a questionable marriage, erratic behavior, and notorious interviews, which caused many to question whether she would ever regain her rightful place in music history or would we simply be mourning an untimely death. Yet, ironically, at the time of her death, her fans were doing both, for it seemed she was back on her way to the top, yet struggling to let go of what kept the Whitney we grew to love away from us so long. But in the end, it was not meant to be. And what inevitably followed was the expected negative press. But what is ultimately prevailing is a celebration of her life.

There is so much she—or most entertainers for that matter—can leave us standing around the water cooler for hours gossiping about. However, what often rises in the end is a reverence for a person’s unequivocal legacy. In this week, I’ve learned of several charities Whitney contributed to, medical wings named in her honor, and the maternal love and guidance she gave to so many young stars that were lucky enough to work with her. Yes, the talk of drugs is still a constant as the final cause of her death is still being determined, but it is not what we are choosing to remember her for. And that’s the beauty in choosing how we celebrate and treat each other every day.

And so, this is what we can all learn from Whitney’s untimely passing: focus on the positive of a person; celebrate their triumphs and quickly forget their mistakes; pray for them as much as we praise them; and never, ever stop letting a person know they are authentically loved and appreciated. I can’t help thinking if we would do this more often with the people we encounter every day as well as with the celebrities we admire, there would be less searching in unwelcomed places, unfamiliar faces, and deadly substances to “feel” these things in a world that is quick to highlight your failures and slow to recognize your triumphs. After all, isn’t that what we all want in life and how we want to be remembered in death? Let’s not wait until someone leaves our presence to start doing what we can in the present. That is, loving each other fully, wholly, and unconditionally—every day.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Common Thread Called "Pariah"

So, yes. I was one of those gung-ho for George Lucas' "Red Tails" to debut and, in hearing about his struggles to get it produced, made it a personal mission to spread the word and garner as much support for it as possible. Four weeks and $41 million dollars later, I feel good about my small part to seal its place in movie history.

However, as the movement for "Red Tails" was gaining more support by the day, another movement for a lesser known independent film was growing as well. That film was "Pariah," a coming-of-age story written and directed by Dee Rees and partially executive produced by Spike Lee. But outside of film festivals and movie clubs, that highly praised the film, one question kept surfacing: "Why is no one pushing 'Pariah' like they're pushing 'Red Tails'?" Probably not the fairest question with the two movies being so vastly different, as the only similarity both seemed to share were being films with all-black casts about a black American experience. But that wasn't the only similarity. For what ties these two movies together akin to Yin and Yang is one very strong thread: the thread of acceptance. One about race; the other about sexuality.

And there possibly lies the answer for why "Pariah" is not receiving the mainstream conversation it so rightly deserves. That being, that regardless of how common sexual images have become on our TVs, in our music, and on the silver screen, many are still not comfortable discussing sexuality. It's the blessing and the curse for this movie because although that's its core theme, there are so many more layers that exist that everyone regardless of race or sexual orientation can relate to: the struggle for acceptance; experiencing rejection; making friends; losing friends; seeing your parents for who they really are; having your parents see you for who you really are; experiencing your first love; experiencing your first heartbreak; and, ulimately, choosing to discover life on your own terms.

In the end, what emerges is a beautiful, visual tapestry of the complexities of life while the focus on sexuality rests comfortably in the passenger's seat. Not that it isn't integral to driving the plot; it's just that when you open your eyes--and your mind--to what "Pariah" is offering, you simply see so much more. And isn't that what the fight for equality is all about? Looking past the surface for the common bond that unites us all? "Pariah" masters this with respect, humor, heartfelt emotion, and does it all from a rare perspective: an African-American, teenage girl from Brooklyn.

With exceptional acting by both newcomers (Adepero Oduye, as subject character, "Alike") and veterans (Kim Wayans, as her heartbroken mother, "Adele," who struggles to accept Alike's choices as well as choices she has made in her own life), "Pariah" easily becomes a movie that not only needs to be seen but needs to be supported and talked about. It may not have the big budget or vast screen placement as "Red Tails," but it doesn't have to. It's found a way to make a powerful statement in a small space and with quiet genius. I laughed. I cried. I learned. But more importantly, I was inspired. I think you will be too. See it...and spread the word.

Official Trailer: