Black Actors Gain Visibility, Fight Stereotypes

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Actors of color have increasingly been making their presence felt on the silver screen. But what are the roles that win them awards? Commentator Deborah Mathis says it's often the stereotypical roles that get the awards, while more nuanced performances go unrecognized. Mathis is a syndicated columnist and a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

ED GORDON, host:

Black actors in Hollywood have often lamented the fact that they must play stereotypical roles in order to get work, but commentator Deborah Mathis says the problem is compounded when these portrayals win awards.

Ms. DEBORAH MATHIS (Syndicated Columnist and Professor, Medill School of Journalism, Northwest University, Chicago): When I saw Three 6 Mafia standing offstage as the envelope for best song was being opened at the Academy Awards, I thought, save it y'all, you're not going to score this one; did you hear that theme song from Crash? Now that's a winning song.

I should have remembered that this was the Hollywood crowd, which, notwithstanding George Clooney's self congratulatory remarks about doing right by folk before the culture catches up, can be as superficial an old hat about race as the rest of society. I should have remembered that yes, the Academy gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar way back in 1939, but it was for her role as a mammy-like maid to that porcelain southern princess, Miss Scarlet.

And yes, it gave an Oscar to Denzel Washington, but not for his astounding portrayal of the defiant, self-actualized, da-angerous Malcolm X, or the innocent, determined, persevering Rubin Hurricane Carter, but for a fictitious, bad-to-the-DNA, crooked cop. And yes, it finally recognized a black woman as black actress, but it was for Halle Barry's portrayal of a messed up woman who had get-down-sex with a racist redneck who had marched her husband to the death chamber.

There have been some high moments, like Jamie Fox winning last year for Ray, and once upon a time, the Academy even had the good sense to recognize Sidney Poitier's mastery in Lilies of the Field. But awarding It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp was regression, and it makes me wonder if stereotype portrayals might be the surest way for black artists to win. I mean, the music has a hook to it, but it's pretty monotonous. And the lyrics? Mercy. All I can say is, it's hard out here for a listener. This song, and I use that term generously, doesn't even raise pimp to its most modern level, which is a term of art, if you will, for anyone who is making it.

No, in the hands of Three 6 Mafia, a pimp is what a pimp always was: a man who profits off prostitution. Their take is replete with invectives, you know, calling women Bs, and Hs. What in the world could the Academy have loved about that? What could have captivated a majority of voters, unless they just had to give something to somebody black this year to keep up the image of being inclusive? And in their minds, you don't get blacker than talking about the lowdown, gritty hustle.

I've got a favor to ask the Academy. Don't do us any more favors. Don't strain yourselves to award black artists. We'd rather wait until it's really something that blows your mind, something that does honor to the craft, and by the way, you'll find plenty of that if you'll look beyond the mammies and crooked cops and emotional cripples. We'll wait for the real thing because tokenism is hideous, even when it's gold plated.

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GORDON: Deborah Mathis is a syndicated columnist and professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois.

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GORDON: This is NPR News.

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