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An Industry Without... Black People (What If?)

Features
by Stephanie
May 24, 2013 11:38 AM
14 Comments
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I’m sure many of you have heard of or read Douglas Turner Ward’s 1965 one act play Day of Absence.


As a refresher (and an introduction to those who don’t know the work) Day of Absence is set in a southern town where one day the white residents, to their shock and utter horror, wake to find that most of the town’s black people have vanished. The only remaining black people are in comas, and some of the folks they thought were white...well, turns out they've vanished too. Panic ensues as the whites realize that there’s no one to shine shoes, raise their kids, and clean their houses (among other things).  The town mayor makes a national plea for the return of the black people, and if he can’t have them back, well, maybe some other blacks will do just fine. By the end of the play (which was written for and performed by black actors in “white face”) all of the black residents return in the same inexplicable way in which they disappeared, and the audience is left with a sense that life goes on—perhaps the same way it always had. 

After the first few productions of the play, it received mix reviews, even within the black community, for its technical and contextual shortcomings. Nevertheless, the idea was bold, inciting, and intriguing, piling the audience’s plate high with food for thought. 

Ward’s vision was clear, no matter how it was executed, and it was a timely classic. The question remains though, was the play a timeless classic? 

I'm not sure Day of Absence would have the same impact today, on the stage, or adapted to film or television. 

As recently as 2004, director Sergio Arau gave us A Day without a Mexican. It has almost an identical premise (without attributing any credit to Ward), except this film is about modern day Mexican residents of California, instead of black people in the south. 

The social and political shift here is palpable. 

Nevertheless, while black people’s role in society has shifted considerably since the 1960s—and to be fair the breadth of our influence, even then, went farther than Ward suggested—it’s the kind of shift I’d like to focus on here. 

As an exercise, let’s imagine another form of absence, a more extreme form—let’s just completely erase people from our history. Now, this could easily turn into a complicated exercise if I included all areas of society, so let’s concentrate on film and TV (this is Shadow and Act after all). The impact can be purely artistic, it could be technological, or it could be in the area of organization (including entrepreneurial) and activism. Submit a comment with the name of a black person in TV and film. Erase them completely from history and describe the impact it would have on the industry as a whole (not just for black people). 

Let's try to not repeat names, so if someone already submitted your first choice, try and submit another. 

Does Ward’s vision (of the black community as an anchor in American society) still have the same relevance today as it did 45 years ago? Part of that answer might just be found here, so weigh in.

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14 Comments

  • Martin | June 6, 2013 10:33 PMReply

    I think people are missing the point by trying to bring up things Black people have done in the past. The question isn't what if there never where Black people but that one day we all just vanished. What we did in the past would still have been around, we are just gone.

    Sadly I think the world may go on. As we have gotten more integrated in to America, the more spread out we have become.

    Some of us still are working the lowly jobs that are part of the over look backbone of our economy. So of us are at the top of the business world and many of us are somewhere in between. If we disappear there are many people who take our jobs (no mater where we are in the economic scale the rich and the poor.)

  • LaffinLam | June 4, 2013 4:32 PMReply

    No Oscar Micheaux = no existing model for the DIY distribution; No film debut for Paul Robeson because "Body & Soul" would not have been made; Gregory, South Dakota would no longer have a reason to hold a film festival; No "Within Our Gates" which some say was an answer to "Birth of a Nation"; No "Race Films" for scholars to analyze, discuss, and upend the "light skin/dark skin" issue of blackness; And worst of all, I wouldn't have my funky looking t-shirt with Oscar Micheaux's face on it!

  • julius Hollingsworth | May 26, 2013 12:37 PMReply

    No Lloyd Richards no Angela Bassett Courtney Vance etc. @Yale Drama School ,no raisin In The Sun,No Cliff Fraiser -No Third World Cinema...etc.

  • FactChecker | May 24, 2013 3:53 PMReply

    Great, interesting, piece Stephanie.

    I think if you eliminated blacks, in general, in all aspects of entertainment, the genre wouldn't be nearly as great, inspiring or rich, as it is today. Especially if you consider music, and the area of sports, which have always had global appeal and reach long before, as a society, we started using the term "globalization."

    I agree with others that Spike, Oprah and Sidney Poitier, and Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks, Bill Cosby and Eddie Murphy, have also largely contributed, to entertainment -- and not just for blacks, but whites too.

    And as an aside: what if Martin Luther King Jr. didn't come forth to fight for the rights of blacks. Would someone else? ... If not, would the world still look like 1949 OR would a white person have come forward, blazing a trail against civil rights injustice, the Vietnam War and other political injustice and chaos of the time?

    In sum, when it comes to entertainment whites have co-opted SO much from blacks (Rock-n-Roll, the blues, gospel music) that one wonders if the world would have evolved to where we are today, OR would it still resemble 1950?

  • Nunya | May 24, 2013 4:55 PM

    CAREY,
    you are right. Let's also not forget about the Cold War. The US could not win the war against Communism with overt racism. The US was competing with Russia for influence in Africa and Asia (non-White areas) using Democracy as a selling point all while debasing Russia in the process. All Russia had to do was point out Jim Crow as a major hypocrisy which gave them the moral upperhand. Granting the demands of the Civil Rights Movement was about silencing the opposition of the USSR as well.

  • CareyCarey | May 24, 2013 4:21 PM

    Factchecker... a small correction. If not for Malcolm X, Eldridge Clever, Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis and the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King Jr. would not receive the praise nor "credit" that's now associated with his name. And those whites who did and did not walk walk with Martin would not have come forward.

    Listen, during that period the USA was catching hell from all sides. Over one-half millions U.S boys and men where being forced to fight in a racistly motivated war. At home, racial tensions where at it's highest point. The United State had to pick sides. Martin Luther King was their safest avenue of "defense". He was saying forgive and forget, and turn the other cheek... and love thee neighbor. Well, other folks wasn't trying to hear that.

  • sergio | May 24, 2013 12:51 AMReply

    Johnny Keyes. The pioneering black adult film actor. Take away him and there's no black adult film industry or performers.

    That guy opened the door

    ...and not with his foot

  • willie dynamite | May 23, 2013 8:57 PMReply

    Great concept Stephanie, if we take Melvin Van Peebles away, there is no blaxplotation era.

    Take Michael Schultz away no cooley high, then no hood flicks

    Take Spike away and their is a whole generation of writers, directors, and editors that are
    drastically affected.

    Take Eddie Murphy away(more so than Richard because his movies didn't do well) no Martin, Chris or any other A list comedian.

  • BluTopaz | May 23, 2013 1:39 PMReply

    Oprah. Whose couch would Tom Cruise have jumped on?

    j/k Ms. Winfrey has been a game changer (hate that expression but can't think of anything else right now) for decades, and her uniquely Black American female influence has positively affected the lives of many people.

  • Sayitaintso | May 23, 2013 1:19 PMReply

    Sidney Poitier. It'd be interesting how long it would have taken to break the main stream color barrier and who would have been deemed fit by whites to "let in" if not for him.

  • CareyCarey | May 23, 2013 8:49 AMReply

    Stephanie, are you sure you mailed the invitations? Something ain't right. If it wasn't for drunk Leon (he smelled the free liquor), we'd be all alone.

    Well, I love boxing parties, card parties and movies parties, so I'm here. However, until someone else arrives, I'm gonna change the rules a wee bit.

    Okay, in your scenario, the people vanished, but, to make this a little more easier to write, in my rendition they're replaced by another person. The replaced/vanished/disappeared person(s) will all be black Oscar winners. The rub, they leave in the middle of the movie in which they won the Oscar.

    The first to go is Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy:

    The scene opens with Hoke Colburn's (Morgan Freeman's) hands around the steering wheel of the Hudson automobile. Miss Daisy (Jessica Tandy) is sitting in the back seat. The shot pans out. They're sitting at a railroad crossing. The lights are flashing but there doesn't appear to be a train approaching. Hoke decides to cross.... ** BAM!!!...** a speeding diesel engine knocks the car in a swamp. Miss Dasiy starts screaming "HELP ME LORD, HELP ME... where is my niggra". The chauffeur appears but it's not Morgan Freeman, it's Saul, the old Jewish man (Eddie Murphy) from Coming To America. Saul has a bump on his head and appears to be slightly confused. He speaks, "Listen lady, we've been called many foul names but "nigger" is not one of them, so I KNOW you're not talking to me. So I'd suggest you find your way out of that back seat before that white meat loving alligator eats your a** up." Fade to black....

    The next scene involves Halle Barry:

    The prison guard Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thorton) is about to have his way with Ms. Leticia Musgrove (Halle Berry), in other words, they're about to do the nasty. But **POOF** Halle is gone. In her place sits a butt naked startled looking Sergio Mims. Now everyone knows Sergio don't play that Brokeback Mountain mess, so the scene takes a strange twist. But first, ol'Billy Bob can't believe his eyes. He had fine Halle right where he wanted her, but now there lays Sergio, hog tied like a greased pig. But Sergio ain't nobodies fool, and since he's a film critic, he knows what happened to Ned Beatty in deliverance **banjos playing in the background** so he goes to work... " Listen man, I know you like brown sugar but this is play-play, you know, we're making a movie, it's called THE HAPPY SAD. I don't know how I got this part but untie my hands so we can read the script - together." Ol' Hank fell for the okie-doke. He untied Sergio's hands from the bed post and his ankles from the refrigerator. Sergio immediately whacks him upside his head. Sergio got the last laugh... and now he's in the process of writing about it at S&A.

    The next scene involves Mo' Nique:

    It's the gripping scene in which Mary Jones (Mo'Nique), Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) and Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey) are sitting in Ms. Weiss's office. Mo'Nique says the words "What about me, who's gonna love me?". Then **POOF**... she's gone. In her place sits Nicki Minaj. Across the room (with evil looks on their faces) sits the real Mariah Carey and her husband Nick Cannon. I forgot to mention that Oscar nominees disappear too. So Nick now sits in Precious's vacated seat. So, when Mo'Nique (now Nicki) said "who's gonna love me", Mariah and her husband said, "sho ain't us b***h". They then commenced to whoopin' that ass. Mariah snatches off her platinum weave while Nick tugged on her rubber booty. Nicki pleads "STOP, I was just playin', I was just trying to get our rating up". Mariah said, "playin' my ass, play with this fist in your face. Where's your dog Randy Jackson at now?". Her husband takes over "yeah, where's Lil' Wayne and the boys? I heard y'alls song "I Get Crazy" so we's about to go medieval crazy on your signifying behind. Mariah: "That's right, we's about the be the new American Idols... FADE TO BLACK.

    There you go Stephanie and thank you, 'cause I love engaging in anything that involves movies.









    who engage in debate with Saul, the old Jewish man (Murphy)

  • CareyCarey | May 23, 2013 2:17 PM

    Blutopaz, although I wrote that line, it made me laugh as well. But my favorite "image" is Sergio being strung-out between the bed post AND the refrigerator (ass-butt-naked) :-()

  • BluTopaz | May 23, 2013 1:41 PM

    lol @ "If it wasn't for drunk Leon (he smelled the free liquor)"

  • Leon Breckenridge | May 23, 2013 4:07 AMReply

    It would a day without the black sports player. Or a year without the black sports player.

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