The burden of representation exists in every realm of African-American life, either enabling or paralyzing – or both – each member of this unique minority. Whether controlling the nation’s highest office or merely eating watermelon in white company, each black American has the option to either embrace or, as some see it, disgrace our conjoined marched toward…
Who knows? There have been many collective goals within the African-American community; arguably the most important is our representation in the media – all media. For the longest time the only news you heard or saw regarding the Negro was either altogether negative or simply tinted with a pejorative hue. And never mind roles in feature films or television. The Birth of a Nation –D.W. Griffith’s Pyrrhic masterpiece that both inflamed racial tensions and set a new bar for the visual medium – didn’t even bother to use real blacks, opting instead for whites in “blackface.”
On the timeline from Mammie to Madea, it’s debatable how far we’ve come in being properly represented in Hollywood. However, there are at this point in time more opportunities for black actors in the way of varied roles than ever before. I know what you’re thinking. The majority of roles offered to African-Americans are still for “negative” characters: criminal, baby-daddy, athlete (we all ball, right?), pimp or just a two-toned doo-rag in the background.
Roles of a certain type can be limiting, but what to do when a “type” role happens to be a great one as well? I turn now to the filmography of actor Denzel Washington. Mister Washington is back on the Oscar shortlist for his lauded turn in Flight, a film about a decidedly flawed airline pilot whose newfound hero status is jeopardized by his unrepentant drug abuse. Some have already moved – and prematurely so – to announce (and denounce?) yet another Oscar for a “darker” Denzel. This in turn creates a backdraft within our moviegoing community as we argue yet again over what constitutes a role that upholds the dignity of black folk, or destroys it utterly.
“Gotta have a little dirt on you for anybody to trust you,” said Alonzo Harris in Training Day, a film many indicate as the start of some elemental shift in the moral hue of Washington’s work. I would argue that Washington has been filling out morally ambiguous roles since A Soldier’s Story, but I entreat you all to consider and converse over the matter. At this time I would like to list every role Washington has ever played that, heroic or no, required him to inhabit characters that wore a healthy amount of that “dirt” on them:
- Pfc. Melvin Peterson – A Soldier’s Story (1984)
- Arnold Billing – Power (1986)
- Napoleon Stone – Heart Condition (1990)
- Bleek Gilliam – Mo Better Blues (1990)
- Lt. Col. Nathaniel Serling – Courage Under Fire (1996) [spiritually similar to Flight]
- Jake Shuttlesworth – He Got Game (1997)
- Det. Alonzo Harris – Training Day (2001)
- John Creasy – Man on Fire (2004)
- Det. Keith Frazier – Inside Man (2006)
- Tobin Frost – Safe House (2012)
- Capt. Whip Whitaker – Flight (2012)
I left out Malcolm X – he wasn’t always a saint – and Frank Lucas (American Gangster) as they are both historical figures. It’s worth noting that several of these roles could have been played by actors of another ethnic group. Washington has always been able to procure starring roles that were likely written for white actors to start. I bring this up only because the discussion I leave you to deals with race and representation.
So here’s the $64,000 question: Isn’t performance, rather than race, the true representation? When a talented actor delivers a masterful performance and creates an indelible character, does it matter if the role was “negative” or saccharine sweet? Should Washington and other actors of color be forced to play some variation of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life throughout their careers? Do they not “represent” by showing that we can be good, bad and everything in between while neither confirming hard stereotypes or slipping into caricature (see The Wire)? Does bad always mean bad, and does it reflect on our race as much as some believe?