The title of this post comes from a phrase in an essay by Tanya Steele (see below). She writes about Viola Davis’ rise to stardom and Ms. Davis’ comments on the lack of choices black actors have in their film roles. Ms. Davis points a finger at black filmmakers for their lack of vision. But Ms. Steele points out that it is a lack of support from within our community to finance and promote alternative visions from progressive black filmmakers that limits choices for black actors.
I have had a very difficult time garnering support for my film production Tango Macbeth. But the people who have supported the vision understand that it is not just about me. What I create in film is an alternate reality that people of color never see in mainstream film and television. I also employ people who would never have a chance of working in key creative jobs on a feature film or television program. Making a donation to Tango Macbeth is not about me “making bank”, but about us as African Americans preserving our cultural footprint in a society that is hell bent on whipping us out of the cultural landscape and historical record.
It’s A Difficult Time To Be A Black Filmmaker With An imagination (Or… An Open Letter to Viola Davis)
Featuresby Tanya Steele | February 13, 2012 | 48 Comments
I was so excited to see the Viola Davis spread in the LA times. I thought, my goodness, when is the last time I saw a Black ‘star’ take off the wig and go au natural. Loved it! I’m thinking, yes, we are becoming courageous enough to be who we are, not who others want us to be.
Now, before you start thinking I am a ‘go sista’, ‘waving fist in the air’, ‘burn it all down’, black woman, I’m not. I believe that black women can do whatever they want with their hair. But, I do get a little confused by the long weaves and the desire to get as far away as possible from what you were born with. I don’t understand that. I’ve started to see a lot of black women and girls on the streets of NYC with Naomi Campbell style weaves And, I wonder why. What are these women/girls attempting to say about themselves? It’s not judgment, I really want to understand what is going on in their heads. “America’s Next Top Model” and “Sex In The City” have created a culture of womanhood that has everyone trying to look like they stepped off of the runway. Women want to feel beautiful. I got that. Women want to be admired. I got that. But, at what cost to their pocketbooks and mental health?
So, when I saw Ms. Viola show off her natural tresses, it was like a breath of fresh air. Such a beautiful counterpoint to her Maid (Aibileen) imagery. Haven’t seen ‘The Help‘. I won’t. Don’t ask. I know what it is. I know how Hollywood does black history. But, more importantly, it isn’t adding anything to my imagination. It isn’t feeding my brain or offering me a way to re-imagine America. I’ve seen the arguments for and against, but, I just don’t see how it will add anything interesting to my life. I try not to participate in American rituals that don’t enrich me in some way.
And recently, I did give it a shot. Tuned into the Super Bowl for a minute and was just puzzled. So much energy, time and money spent so that a handful of people could make millions of dollars. And, I wondered if most of the people tuning in had health coverage, were meeting their mortgage, had enough food for their children. I can’t watch things that don’t nourish the American imagination. Things that don’t move the country forward or benefit the citizens in some way. So, that’s why I won’t see ‘The Help’. Americans have been given the short end of the stick with respect to black history. This doesn’t serve your average American. And, it keeps us at odds with one another. Until we get the history right, America will continue its downward spiral.
Ms. Viola’s spread in the LA Times did feed my imagination. It did offer me a new way of seeing a Black ‘star’. And, it made me more curious about Ms. Viola. So, I’ve tuned into her interviews, paying careful attention to her fierceness. A friend called and left a message on my answering machine, ‘just saw Viola in a room full of white people, she said, “I always wanted to be somebody.” He hung up. I got it. I get it. It’s generational. Currently, the vanguard of black culture is still healing wounds from their past. Wounds that racism have created, wounds that drive you to gain acceptance in the larger culture. The acknowledgment comes in the form of a paycheck, exposure, star status, acceptance. An acceptance that is more important than our legacy. Isn’t it that simple? How else could a black woman read an inaccurate portrayal of a black maid, one of the most heroic crosses black women have had to bear in America, and take the role?
As stated, I have been watching Ms. Viola’s interviews. I want to know the answer. I want to know what she wrestled with, the questions, the doubts. I, unlike many, was disheartened when I saw ‘Doubt‘. [I loved her in ‘Doubt’, snotty-runny-nose and all- this is the only point in the article I take issue with–NP] I just couldn’t embrace the character, didn’t believe it. Didn’t know when I had seen a white actress look so weathered down and had sh** dripping down her face. I was like, really, did we need all of that? What is that? Did we really need to get that far into breaking down the image of this black woman. But, I guess Ms. Viola thinks that ‘dignifying’ downtrodden black women is her calling. If Ms. Viola gets to play anyone close to Viola Davis, we will have moved forward in America. Actors, Actresses, Directors and Writers have to make the decision to commit to the truth of our legacy or keep perpetuating falsehoods. The days of, “well, there is nothing else I could do” are over. They are over. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.
During her Oscar press junket, Ms. Viola keeps bringing up Black filmmakers and writers as if our piss pour skills made her choose the Maid role. I beg her pardon. I don’t remember seeing Ms. Viola in any black independent films. She says because she is only offered “urban crack addicted mothers.” By whom? Has she ever heard of the NYU Graduate film program? Certainly, she must have. There are Black folks coming out of that school with screenplays that offer complex, interesting characters and lifestyles. How is it that she can only access screenplays about crack addicted black mothers when there are filmmakers who couldn’t write about a crack addicted mother if they tried?
So, in her diatribe, she’s placing the responsibility of having to choose the black Maid role at our feet? How in the hell did that happen? And, don’t get me wrong, it’s not about being a black maid. Hell, the Black Maid, one day, will be deemed a heroine of black american culture. These women bore scars that none of us will ever know. We lift them up. So cease with the argument that we don’t want to see Black maids; that isn’t it; it’s about the falsification of our history, and how one makes a choice as a black person to participate in it.
Just say you want the paycheck and the exposure. We can live with that. But, don’t throw black filmmakers and screenwriters under the damn bus. We are out here struggling, fighting, facing rejection, dealing with false starts, having doors closed in our faces because we are trying to bring a truth and a humanity to the film world. Do you know how hard that is, Ms. Viola? I think you do. I think you know the struggle to be a black artist with imagination, with so much beauty and fire you want to bring to the arena and can’t, so, your insides burn. I know you know it. I heard about your performance in ‘Intimate Apparel‘. I saw your spread in the LA Times. I know what your imagination must have suffered as a child. I know your path. I share your story. So why is there a bridge that does not allow us to meet and share our story?
Let’s think about that. There are so many black women filmmakers and screenwriters that would die to sculpt something for your beauty; that would offer you a sandbox to play in and put your range on full display. And we couldn’t write about a crack addicted mother if we tried.
But, are you, like Michelle Williams, willing to work with an independent black filmmaker? An unknown who is a free thinker and has a grand imagination? Are you willing to trust an unknown black filmmaker with your image? Is Will Smith? Is Denzel Washington? Is Morgan Freeman? Is Sam Jackson? Well, he definitely has with ‘Eve’s Bayou‘. We will not be able to change black representation in Hollywood until the ‘names’ start taking chances with the free thinkers, with the folks who color outside of the lines. Understand, this is how new voices enter the arena. Martin Scorsese lead with his point of view, Oliver Stone lead with his point of view, Jane Campion, the same. The mavericks start outside of the mainstream and then, if they choose to, become the mainstream. That’s how it’s done. But, who is willing to take the chance with the ‘auteur‘ black woman filmmaker?
Black folks have the capital and the talent but, for some reason, people don’t trust black women filmmakers to tell our stories. Yes, we can call it racism with white folks but what do we call it when it’s our own? Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry can’t just swoop something up after it’s won Sundance. There is so much talent that will never see at Sundance. This is not rocket science, it is about giving people an opportunity. And, yes, I blame the aforementioned. I blame those who champion Zora Neal Hurston and Lorraine Hansberry, now, when they are dead. If they were alive during these times and were filmmakers, you would not hear them. They would not be able to access you in your Black tower.
They were the creatives, the truth tellers, the free thinkers of their time. And the free thinkers, those with creativity and imagination in our time, get marginalized. And then we’re told we aren’t’ doing enough or we need to stop complaining, or, or, or…. You have the power, we don’t. But, we won’t stop. We will break through and you know what, we are as displeased with you as we are with “the whites“. And we will be talking about you when we tell our stories.
America needs a strong infusion of truth and imagination, it’s the only thing that is going to move us forward.
Black america has to stop being paralyzed over what they think “white america” will do or what “white america” wants.
It’s time to put courage at the center of our Art, not excuses.