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On The "Burden Of Representation" Debate... Your Input Requested

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act August 8, 2011 at 8:04AM

It's been one of those hectic days for me, so haven't had much time to do any ShadowAndActing at my usual speed; to keep you engaged in the meantime, here's a little riddle/survey that has been hanging around at the back of my mind lately...
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It's been one of those hectic days for me, so haven't had much time to do any ShadowAndActing at my usual speed; to keep you engaged in the meantime, here's a little riddle/survey that has been hanging around at the back of my mind lately...

This burden of representation matter is one that has been debated heavily on this blog a few times in the past, whether directly or indirectly, and, as can be expected, a consensus has never been, nor will one likely ever be reached.

Understandable. However, that’s not my interest. What I do expect is consistency in our POVs.

Now maybe I’m just missing something here, and feel free to correct me if I am, but here’s what I’ve noticed.

In the past, I’ve questioned whether black artists (specifically those in the film industry – filmmakers, actors, etc) are under any obligation to “represent” the so-called black community. Essentially, should the choices they make be influenced by how those choices may be perceived (RE: the white man’s gaze), and whether they further 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 asked that question, 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. Essentially, 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 our comments suggest the first response – that there is indeed an obligation or 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. “I can’t believe she took that role” is a repetitive theme.

And then there are our 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. “He’s cooning” is another repetitive response.

So… really, which is it? I feel like I've asked the same question in a variety of ways in order to make the same point: should black filmmakers (actors, directors, writers, etc) carry what I’m calling this burden of representation? If your answer is yes, then I can understand your frustrations with a film like The Help, or with Tyler Perry’s portrayals, even though I may disagree with them. And if your answer is no, then you really have nothing to complain about, right? You can’t then suggest that a black filmmaker or black actor should make what you deem “better” or less offensive choices that are free of racial stereotypes, or that you feel discourage short-sighted perceptions of the rest of the group by “outsiders,” because you’ve essentially relieved them of the responsibility, have you not?

And pushing this even further… where does the black audience fall in all of this, when it comes to obligation/responsibility? The burden seems to be placed squarely on the shoulders of the black artist, but what about the black audience? Should the black artist specifically have any expectations of the black audience, just as the black audience has expectations of the black artist (assuming that to be the case)? I recall Sergio’s “castor oil films” post and the mostly “here, here” reactions that followed. If Denzel Washington makes The Great Debaters, or Antwone Fisher, or Spike Lee makes Bamboozled, or He Got Game, or Oprah makes Beloved, or even Ava DuVernay makes I Will Follow (and several other examples), should they have any expectations of us – essentially that we will support these films, because they are, at the very least, well-made, thoughtful works by black artists, no matter how challenging, difficult to swallow, or "boring" we might think they are. If we place burdens on black artists almost solely because they are black, should they place similar burdens on us, 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?

And yet another consideration to all this is... if there’s no burden to be placed on the black artist, and there’s no expected obligation or responsibility from the black audience either, then where does that leave us?

Am I making sense? I hope so.

Help me out here folks, I’m more left-brained; and I’m trying to reach some logical conclusion to all the “representation” debates we continue to have on this site… so chime in with your thoughts.

This article is related to: Things That Make You Go Hmm...


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