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Isn’t Performance, Not Race, The True Representation? More On Denzel's Dark 'Flight'...

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by Adam Thompson
December 6, 2012 2:27 PM
28 Comments
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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 NationD.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:

  1. Pfc. Melvin Peterson – A Soldier’s Story (1984)
  2. Arnold Billing – Power (1986)
  3. Napoleon Stone – Heart Condition (1990)
  4. Bleek Gilliam – Mo Better Blues (1990)
  5. Lt. Col. Nathaniel Serling – Courage Under Fire (1996) [spiritually similar to Flight]
  6. Jake Shuttlesworth – He Got Game (1997)
  7. Det. Alonzo Harris – Training Day (2001)
  8. John Creasy – Man on Fire (2004)
  9. Det. Keith Frazier – Inside Man (2006)
  10. Tobin Frost – Safe House (2012)
  11. 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?

Discuss.

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28 Comments

  • Taz | December 12, 2012 1:01 AMReply

    Excellent article.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | December 13, 2012 12:35 PM

    Thanks, Taz!!!

  • Jimbody | December 10, 2012 7:12 AMReply

    Denzel has only EVER picked roles that he's found interesting. Go ahead and look at Leo Dicaprio's last 10-15 roles on IMDB, including his upcoming role in "Django Unchained." He's playing troubled, complex characters time and time again... because it's INTERESTING. He's not playing any clean-cut hero-types. I thought Denzel's "Training Day" performance was particularly astounding because I believed in that dirty cop. I kept convincing myself that his actions were justified in those warzone streets. I kept riding along, just like Ethan Hawke's character. It was only in the end that I realized what Denzel had done to me on a psychological level. And that made it impressive enough for an Oscar. P.S.: A lot of people are oversimplifying "Flight." There are far more complexities in that film than anyone is giving credit for. And the race of the pilot is one of them.

  • jeanettesdaughter | December 13, 2012 3:32 PM

    so well said jimbody! my feelings exactly. in training day it was nearly impossible to despise him until the last act. it seems to me that african americans have been set up to become obsessive over the need for positive images onscreen and in public media. it's understandable but to me a sign of how far we have to go in our own estimation of ourselves before we can really look clear eyed at representation and/or misrepresentation. i say just bring it on, bring it all on. there are so many stories to tell. besides our actors need work. so writers get and keep busy telling them and showing them on stage, on screen, and on the page. we are as various as any other people. we have the good, the bad and the ugly just like every other people. but then again, i eat watermelon in public and in front of white people. why should i live my life for the white gaze? my granny already did that!

  • Adam Scott Thompson | December 10, 2012 11:22 AM

    Wow. Great stuff, Jimbody!

  • Eshowoman | December 9, 2012 2:36 PMReply

    I'm confused, how is his character not black? Black people are airplane pilots, black folks have drug problems and black men certainly have relationships with white women.

  • Inquisitor | December 13, 2012 4:01 PM

    Wait wait.... we have to break this down and appropriate the right way. I don't believe that someone has a "blackness" Being Black can never be truly separated or compartmentalized in any way. So that blackness working for or against statement doesn't sit right with me. However another character can work against you or for you because you are Black... but that is another character's choice... Denzel is black and his body and image is present on the screen. Because his characters didn't react to it doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Reactions are reactions, not confirmations that something exists. Denzel played a pilot, and he also portrayed a Black pilot. It's both not either or.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | December 9, 2012 6:08 PM

    It's not to deny the obviousness of his ethnic background but rather to say that said background plays no obvious role in the part he plays. Same goes for Cheadle's character. Their "blackness" never works for or against them in the film, nor does is it color, if you will, the central conflict in the plot. That said, the role could've gone to any actor of any race and it would still just be Capt. Whip Whitaker, the pilot who miraculously landed a plane but can't admit he has a substance abuse problem. [It is mentioned by Whitaker that his grandfather was a Tuskegee Airman, but we'd have to read the original script to know whether or not that was something added in later once Washington had committed to the role/film.]

  • Agent K | December 9, 2012 8:55 AMReply

    To me it doesn't matter because people are gonna see what they want to see regardless of what is shown. I don't think they lack common sense (which there is no such thing) because they choose to have that viewpoint. Some of the comments are a bit folly.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | December 9, 2012 6:00 PM

    Good point, K. Perception is everything!

  • Karen | December 8, 2012 5:25 PMReply

    I am a devout fan of Washington's--for many reasons. I happened to see the movie with a friend, who as it happens is Anglo. As we were watching the movie, she leaned over and whispered, "I thought Denzel didn't kiss white women." I leaned back and said, "Denzel didn't, Whip did." The filibuster can go on about the merits of ability vs. color. Any logical, common sense person knows that one has nothing to do with the other. The problem, however, remains that too many people (i.e., viewers) don't possess either logic or common sense.

  • jeanettesdaughter | December 13, 2012 3:34 PM

    touche!

  • Adam Scott Thompson | December 8, 2012 6:15 PM

    Agreed! :)

  • Donella | December 7, 2012 2:46 PMReply

    The only saccharine sweet role that I recall from Denzel is the angel in Preacher's Wife.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | December 7, 2012 7:26 PM

    Agreed. Even in his "nice guy" roles he's got some edge. In "Philadelphia" he was prejudiced and homophobic. In "Remember the Titans" he was excessive at times in his coaching style. In "The Taking of Pelham 123" he was being investigated for bribery. Everyone loves "John Q" but... he did take hostages at gunpoint in a hospital. lol

  • Ankh Entertainment | December 6, 2012 11:36 PMReply

    If one removes, color, gender, and culture.
    Leave a framed platform, lets call it acting.
    Then any talented professional could fit into that frame.
    Unfortunately, living up to expectations placed on us by race, gender, class, species, culture and all of those man made labels, it's no wonder there is a worldwide epidemic of hate crimes, mate crimes, ptsd, cancer and everything else. If we could just see a man that is a trained professional actor, and yes, just in case you live in some unknown place East of nowhere, blind, and mute, he is a black man. If we were all deaf and blind, would it really matter? If we heard Denzel's voice, smelled him as he walked by, envisioned him in a dream, again, would it really matter. What would matter are the sensations that we would feel, the pain and pleasure of it all and the certainty that the hard earned money we spent, counted at the box office. Gave Mr. Denzel, some additional acting credits, got him once again Oscar nominated and gave us all something to talk about. Most of all, we enjoyed seeing a great movie, that just happens to star Denzel, who just happens to be black. Not just a local community black, but a famous black and a good looking famous black. How's that for labels.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | December 7, 2012 12:02 AM

    "Not just a local community black..." ROTFL

  • Charles Judson | December 6, 2012 9:04 PMReply

    Nice thought piece. It does raise a critical underlying question about how do we continue to progress. For all the barriers and obstacles, S&A has recently posted quite a few stories about creators, performers and actors getting deals, working on major films, producing new shows and getting into major film festivals. It's not a deluge, but if you compared just the last 6 months, it probably not only matches last year, it probably eclipses it. If you just go back two years, there was definitely not this sustained bit of news across film, television and festivals (I could be wrong, but it sure doesn't feel like it). For that to continue it becomes incredibly difficult if those same folks, and the folks following, have representation chained around their ankles, dragging it into every project, into every role. Representation that's at times so confining and restrictive it pretty much undermines any and all legitimate reasons anyone wants to be in the business of film or entertainment, because no matter what, those reasons are flat out wrong or flawed. It's a stand still, get into lockstep mentality that's frustrating to encounter when you are already going into a world that has predefined you. Want to get into film, great? Meet Systemic Rock of Racism. Oh and meet Hard Wall of Black Folk behind you. Don't worry about trying to navigating your way forward, we know it's hard. But, pull hard enough and maybe you can break off a limb to get free. As it's been pointed out, no one has made much about Denzel's race besides a very small minority. Hell, it's now pretty much a given that Denzel is just an actor. But, I wanted to try an experiment to test that. I just Googled "Denzel black actor." The first two results I got are for his Wikipedia page, then IMDB page. The next two are "Kerry and Denzel talk struggles of Black actors - Defender Network." After that it's "Denzel is the latest Black Actor to show his behind for the Illumanti!" on Lipstick Alley. Then when I just Google "Denzel Washington" I get IMDB, Wikipedia and then Yahoo movies. After that it's "In ‘Flight,’ Denzel Washington, white women and turbulence". Then Biography and People. But, then we get to "'Flight:' Is Denzel Washington our most reliable male star?" Three more results down is a piece in the Hollywood Reporter on Russell Simmons encouraging people to not boycott FLIGHT (a piece that's from 11/5, so the controversy is definitely old as hell in media-time). Now this is by no means scientific or definitive. But, what does it say when articles on Denzel and his white female costar, or some strange ass conspiracy, or the struggles of being a black actor, outrank the one story that highlight Denzel as primarily a male actor?" It's a metaphorical victory that it's there and ranks on the first page. It's still disappointing that the first hits from an African American perspective are mostly negative or retreads that have been written over and over again. I think some of these questions of representation that continue to arise across the web aren't as groundbreaking or useful as folks think. Instead, they tend to keep us in the very boxes we're supposedly trying to climb out of, lending us to STILL use definitions and perspectives that we ourselves did not create to speak about ourselves. I'm not arguing for the articles and debates on representation to go away. Not by a long shot. Give it not even a good seven days and I'm sure I, you, we will find something to cringe at. However, we have to get more nuanced when we speak of them. More importantly, what we write, like on the craft, on the careers of actors, directors and creators should outnumber by a wide margin the ones that point out yet another problem, another issue. We're talking amongst ourselves and within our circles we should be discussing what makes those internal circles stronger, not continuously looking outwards waiting for something to float into our vision to unite us.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | December 6, 2012 10:44 PM

    Well stated, sir! "Meet Systemic Rock of Racism. Oh and meet Hard Wall of Black Folk behind you." This made me guffaw in a public place... just so you know. lol

  • justin | December 6, 2012 6:42 PMReply

    this article is kind of infuriating. the nuanced troubled performances that actors put on are generally lauded by people the world over, regardless of race. denzel is a great actor who gets to play great parts. so is daniel day lewis. so is charlize theron. cheap exploitive cinema is changing constantly and racially profiling everyone for different reasons all the time. red neck hicks in appalachia are scary white inbreeds. gay men are effusive and effeminate. women need to date to be happy. but in a good film with a good director and an amazing cast, the performance of the actor is the central focal point. why can't we just push past that and appreciate the fine work washington did as an actor and for once not see him as a black man, but as a man who deserves recognition for a job well done. more often than not, it's people like the author of this article that even make it an issue in the first place.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | December 6, 2012 7:30 PM

    Sorry, I hit "Submit" by accident. lol Anyway, I agree with you that an actor is an actor and a role is role (for the most part; let's not be completely naive). But this is an issue which keeps coming up -- not instigated by me but by others on this blog and elsewhere -- so I'd be remiss not to address it.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | December 6, 2012 7:27 PM

    Thanks for reading, Justin! I'm not trying to stir up a hornet's nest, I promise. We're actually going the same way.

  • Mack | December 6, 2012 5:43 PMReply

    It is possible to separate race from representation, even if you're an actor. Case in point, the black man who played Barney. He was in that suit and voiced the character, yet no one had a clue what color he was. But when that was revealed, the cultural shockwave that followed was palpable. Some people felt duped, and you know which people I mean. While others were quick to claim the character who otherwise would have continued to criticize him. And what about Kevin Clash with Elmo? Same thing to a certain degree. And what about all of the black artists working behind the scenes on film and TV (especially in the animation field) who do so without outside knowledge, like the director of "Rise of the Guardians" or the black female producer who won a Golden Globe with her white female producing partner for producing "Toy Story 2"?

  • Adam Scott Thompson | December 6, 2012 7:30 PM

    Great response, Mack!

  • Julia | December 6, 2012 4:18 PMReply

    I believe you can separate representation from race. In Flight, I saw a pilot who was an alcoholic. I did not see a Black man. There wasn't anything in particular about his life that stuck out about his role to stick him in a category of race. Had I watched the movie with my eyes closed, I would not have known his race one way or another.

    I do believe it is possible to separate depending on the scope of your lens, as well as, they type of role and subject matter.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | December 6, 2012 7:31 PM

    Simpatico.

  • NN | December 6, 2012 3:01 PMReply

    It is impossible to separate race from representation because it is always evident, it is always visible. It is a medium of IMAGES and so you can't pretend or ignore the physical presence of the actor and all that their physical presence entails. The same goes for gender.

    Sometimes a script is written with a white character in mind for the role. And then a Black character is cast. And that changes the role. (The same goes for gender. Like Sigourney Weaver in Alien).

    And I don't think the goal should be for black characters to only play or only be recognized for playing "good" "positive" roles. The goal is to have a diversity of complex, interesting characters. When Black people can be seen as people with as much depth and diversity and etc. etc. etc. as white people then we can talk about separating race from representation. In the meantime, we carry our history with us.

  • Adam Scott Thompson | December 6, 2012 7:32 PM

    Agreed, NN -- we do carry our history with us. I just don't know that we should make that everything, every time.

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