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Chris Rock on That Stubborn Burden of Representation Thing (“Black Fame” vs “White Fame”)

Chris Rock on That Stubborn Burden of Representation Thing ("Black Fame" vs "White Fame")

In the below short interview with Charlie Rose, Chris Rock talks about his latest, much-buzzed about film, “Top Five,” as well as fame, and what he sees as the differences between “black fame,” and “white fame.” He summarizes, as only Chris Rock can, a subject we’ve long tackled on this site over the years – something we refer to as the “burden of representation” that black content creators shoulder (or choose not to). 

Essentially, the matter at hand is whether black artists (specifically those in the film industry – filmmakers, actors, etc) are under any obligation to “represent” the so-called black community. Should the choices they make be influenced by how those choices may be perceived (RE: the white man’s gaze), and whether they forward what we as the black audience recognize as racist agendas? Or do black artists exist strictly for themselves and their own personal motivations, as individuals, and not as part of, nor speaking for an entire group?

When I’ve previously asked that question on this blog, the majority of you choose the latter answer – that they are individuals, free to make their own choices, irrespective of the mythical larger group that they belong to; that the black artist specifically isn’t responsible to anyone, or for any resulting beliefs or actions that their choices may inspire in others.

All well and good. However, I continuously witness instances on this blog in which many of your comments suggest the other response – that there is indeed a responsibility on the part of the black artist; that they don’t live in individual bubbles, and their actions do have reverberating effects felt throughout the community.

All you have to do is take a look at reactions to Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in “The Help,” as a most recent example.

And then there are your reactions to Tyler Perry and his films, also suggesting that there is (or should be) some obligation or responsibility on his part, with regards to the kind of “art” he produces.

So, really, which is it? Or are black audiences split on this issue?  

Here’s what Chris Rock says in the interview below: “I wanted to do a movie about black fame. Being famous as a black guy is a little different than being famous as a white guy. Tom Hanks is an amazing actor, but Denzel Washington is a god to his people. Denzel Washington has a responsibility to his people that Tom Cruise, Liam Neeson, all these guys don’t have […] No one says ‘Hey, Tom Cruise! Stay white! Don’t forget your whiteness! Come back and visit white people! What’re doing for white people, Tom Cruise?!’”

It’s funny when he breaks it down as he does, but that’s what’s great about Chris Rock. Smart, poignant social commentary, dressed up in humor.

And pushing this even further, where does the black audience fall in all of this, when it comes to notions of obligation/responsibility to the black community? The burden seems to be placed squarely on the shoulders of the black artist, but what about the black audience? Should the black artist have any expectations of the black audience, just as the black audience has expectations of the black artist (assuming that to be the case)? If black audiences place any restricting “burdens” on black artists, almost solely because they are black, should black artists place similar “burdens” on us, the black audience, also because we are black?

We often say that we won’t support black films just because they are black films, even if they are well-made or well-meaning, which is certainly our right; however, what if they, the black artists, took a similar stance, and said that they aren’t making choices for the rest of us, just because we are all black? Do they have that right? Does the black audience also carry this burden of representation that we place on the artists?

Watch Chris with Charlie Rose below:

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