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February 27, 2005

Hollywood Shuffle

"The difference between a nigger and a black man is that the nigger believes he's a nigger."

All I know at this moment is that Morgan Freeman won best supporting actor. Good on him. But I imagine that there's going to be a lot of pontificating tomorrow morning and I decided to get a few words out there first.

As I've said before, speaking on behalf of the Old School, we don't play the 'positive images' game around here. So it's not particularly interesting whether or not 'Ray' is a true black film. One of these days I'm going to check it out though. I hear it's very good. On billboards all over the city is Halle Berry. She's to star in the upcoming feature, 'Their Eyes Were Watching God'. It's an Oprah Winfrey production, and as such has all the earmarks of what I would imagine to be the perfect black on black on black film. As well, I hear that 'Diary of a Mad Black Woman' is due to hit the theatres soon, and it will be co-starring none other than the legendary Cicely Tyson. Quite frankly, I thought Cicely was dead - you see I saw some of her scenes in a special preview of Eddie Murphy's 'Life' several years ago and none of them made it to the theatres. Last time I checked 'Tuvok' had a cast role on ER, showing he survived the passing of his Star Trek role. And there are probably a dozen other examples I could give to show that blackfolks are alive and well in Hollywood.

Of course it will never be enough.

I think the sooner people realize that there is no satisfying blackfolks, they'll stop trying. And that will be a good thing. Because then blackfolks will stop thinking that everything they do is progressive and they'll start being conservative. Some of us already are, of course. When I read Cane by Jean Toomer, it hit me in a unique way. Suddenly I understood that what I needed to move forward as a human being was already done. It wasn't about what Hollywood had or had not produced for me, but what I hadn't done to deal with myself. The book had collected dust on my father's bookshelves since before I was born, and had been mentioned in a thousand anthologies, but I had not reached out and read it. My bad. Not Hollywood's.

Chris Rock is right, you know. The very idea of handing out awards for art is ridiculous. Craftsmanship? Sure. So to think of the Oscars as that makes perfect sense in that context. But the very idea that the peer recognition of professional filmmakers should resonate socially with people who have the same skin color as the recipient is an error.

It is inevitable that blackfolks will win Oscars. But they will always be different from the average black person hungry for existential validation. And here's where it gets deep.

Life keeps moving. African American life keeps moving. They are the same. But black stays still. It is a historical moment in time, the end of which is coming soon. There will soon come a day in American history when it will be clear that everything blacks promised each other and the world will come to pass and simultaneously become irrelevant. There will soon come a day when the actual Negro Problem will be forgotten. It will be renamed and redefined of course. Some minority within the minority will claim the stage and continue to shout while the overwhelming majority will have gone home. But all of the symbols and signs of struggle will seem odd, clunky and distant - like what fingers look like after a day of picking cotton. Like the adjective 'cotton-picking'.

When that day comes, the ability for people to represent black desire will be indistinguishable from their ability to represent human desire. It will be the day everyone recognizes blackfolks as humans. Today, there are lots of folks on both sides of the color line who can't, because that fixed thing that is Black, that Negro Problem, still substitutes for the actual real complexities of actual real people.

So today people can still jump up and down and claim that Nelly's videos really do set the black race back 50 years. And people can still jump up and down and claim that Condi Rice's success means goodness and light for all blackfolks. And people can claim that Morgan Freeman winning something for his work means something to black you and black me, or that Jamie Foxx stands for more than just Jamie Foxx, or Halle Berry, or Oprah or Denzel or whomever...

They don't. They're just people who are good at what they do.

I think I represent some of the best that Black Nationalism has to offer. I think I learned most all of its lessons. I'm very proud of where I come from, and I know that to be a very real Black place. I catch crap for it every Kwanzaa. Such is life. But I also know a hundred ways that Black Nationalism, Black Consciousness and Black Arts did not prepare me for the large life I have. People don't speak much about 'Black Macho & The Myth of the Superwoman' much any longer. In fact, I'd bet the name recognition ratio of Malcolm X to Michele Wallace is 100 to 1. I know the Black Nation was a Man's nation where women were allowed to have larger afros, but that's about all.

So how can I explain it other than to simply and flatly state that in a million years, no Hollywood writer is ever going to get Queen Latifah to that level? Don't expect it. All the static theories are going to come up short. All the limits of concepts and ideas and thoughts and literatures and arts are going to fail to represent life faithfully. The images simply cannot be real and perfectable. Choose one.

The Black Problem, the Negro Problem, all of those things we think we know, become outdated and passe. All the performances cannot be abstracted to symbolize anything that applies to all of us, or even most of us, nor even some of us. I say the symbolism stops pretty much at the red carpet. To be inside that room on that stage getting that award is what those lives are dedicated to. Anybody who believes much more than that is a liar or a fool or both.

If I remember correctly, Nell Carter died in her plush livingroom somewhere in Beverly Hills. It happens every day, you know. Somebody with a star on the walk of fame, or three dozen episodes to their credit, kicks the bucket. Do like I did. Take a walk at dusk in Beverly Hills. Search the eyes of the men bent over their walking sticks or the women with the small dogs and arthritis. They were somebody once - maybe she was the voice of Betty Rubble or he was the guy who came up with the slogan "Where's the Beef?". Maybe he headlined in Vegas. Maybe she was the second wife of a studio mogul. They all had their parts to play.

I know without a doubt that I'm a human being and there is nothing extraordinary about that. I also know that in three generations the entire film industry cannot and will not ever adequately describe much about the human condition. On the other hand, if I thought I was just a nigger, or just a Negro, or just Black, then I suppose there might someday come around the perfect symbol for me. I might even wait patiently for it, but life keeps moving on.

This is just too precious to not quote in its entirety.

Love Ya. Loved the Pitch. We'll Do Lunch. I'll Call. By Martin Kaplan Martin Kaplan, a former Disney executive, is associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Norman Lear Center (learcenter.org), which studies the effect of entertain

February 25, 2005

When you watch the Oscars on Sunday, you will see winners thanking their worst enemies, losers concealing their disgust and weasels being honored for their commitment to uplifting the human spirit. In some circles, this kind of dissembling is little more than good manners. But in Hollywood, being a good liar is a prerequisite for professional success.

Late last year, for example, Michael Eisner took the stand and testified that his former best friend, Michael Ovitz, was a liar. Ovitz testified that Eisner was a liar. Both, no doubt, were right. They didn't become two of the most powerful people in the entertainment industry by being Boy Scouts. Like showmen from P.T. Barnum to Harry Cohn, they rose by learning to bluff, bedazzle and shill.

These are venerable American skills. But Hollywood is a special case. It's not just that the entertainment industry, like other corporate sectors, is short on scruples. It's that entertainment itself is a tissue of lies.

That's why Plato banished the poet from the Republic; because poets — the pop stars of his day — get people to believe things that aren't true. Then as now, entertainers con us into thinking that illusions are reality, that dreams come true, that actors are the characters they play. They persuade us to suspend our disbelief. Show business is about talking the suckers into the tent to see that magic.

The problem is that when you lie as a matter of professional duty on a regular basis, sooner or later you lose touch with reality even on the big things.

I spent 12 years on the Disney lot, four of them as a studio executive, the rest as a feature film writer-producer. My initial training as a suit consisted of watching the masters at work. Early on, I sat in a meeting where a chieftain told a producer and a writer who'd just pitched a project: "I love this movie. Let's do it." After they left, the executive, without missing a beat, told me: "Get me out of that."

The operating principle, I learned, was never to say no to someone's face. And because both sides of the transaction assumed that rank insincerity was baseline behavior, everyone also understood that "yes" could just as easily mean "pass." No wonder Eisner told Larry King he'd rehire Ovitz in a heartbeat, even as he tried to offload him to Sony.

Everything in Hollywood is always fabulous. ("Fantastic" is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's favorite word.) No studio executive is going to admit that the tent-pole picture on which he just spent $150 million tested miserably with preview audiences. Virtually every human interaction in the business involves marketing, salesmanship, promotion. If you say a casual "How are you?" to someone in the industry, the minimally acceptable reply is, "Excellent." I have also heard, "Perfect." And from an agent's assistant, on the phone, I once heard this: "I can't imagine how I could be any better."

Executives and producers spend their days playing God. In development meetings, they invite writers, who themselves play God, to re-imagine their scripts. "What if she doesn't die, but gets married instead?" "How about setting it in Malibu, instead of Sparta?" "Hey, what if the president uses the space shuttle as a doomsday plan to escape a nuclear war?" (actually proposed to me by one of Hollywood's most successful producers).

No suggestion by a studio executive — no matter how idiotic — is ever laughed at. As at Versailles and the Vatican, acceptable answers range from "yes" to "Why didn't I think of that?"

The illusion of omnipotence and infallibility is fostered not only by a sycophantic corporate culture but by the staggering amounts of money that people are paid. Super-agents and their clients, and super-executives and their courtiers, need never butt up against the real world's limitations. Your flowers are always fresh. Your office can look like a Cotswold cottage or the flight deck of a starship; your home can resemble a movie set or a theme park. Private jets exempt you from civilian inconvenience. Not everyone lives in a bubble as impermeable as Michael Jackson's, but we shouldn't be surprised that even minor Hollywood royalty risk confusing the exquisite sensory input they permit to reach them with the foul rag-and-bone shop of reality.

"Nobody knows anything" is how screenwriter William Goldman famously boiled down entertainment industry epistemology. Most players in town know how subjective their opinions are and how much luck goes into success. That's why accountability often means failing upward.

"If I said yes to all the pictures I said no to, and no to all the pictures I said yes to, it probably would have all turned out just the same" is a saying I've heard attributed to Eisner, as well as to half a dozen other moguls. But in Hollywood, even apocryphal tales can be true. Psychologists talk about an impostor syndrome, in which people have nightmares that they will be discovered to have no credentials for their job. In that respect, Hollywood is probably no different from politics, punditry or any other part of the infotainment economy. There's no way to credential yourself to pick hits.

If actors and actresses are simply grown-ups who are rewarded for playing and pretending, the way they did as children, then it should be no shocker that the suits who make their deals and sign their paychecks also believe in make-believe.

Posted by mbowen at February 27, 2005 09:17 PM

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