Spike Lee, James McBride, Viola Davis, And Race And Hollywood

There’s been an awful lot of furor over Spike Lee’s declaration at Sundance, made with justifiable anger (and to my mind considerable accuracy), that Hollywood doesn’t know much about black people and doesn’t much care. The response to that statement, and a couple of other recent incidents, really seem to make clear how correct Lee is, and how loath the industry is to acknowledge his fundamental correctness.

Even before he got to Sundance, the Hollywood Reporter framed a Q&A with him by saying that Lee discussed “what he sees as a dearth of influence among African-Americans in Hollywood.” That kind of framing makes a fact seem like an opinion. During the Q&A, Lee asks his questioner multiple times to name an African-American in the entertainment industry who has the power to greenlight a movie, and the only person THR can come up with is an animation executive. All the studies of race and gender representation in the industry show that people of color are dramatically underrepresented in directing, writing, and producing positions. The only way that Spike Lee’s observations about race and Hollywood are an opinion rather than a fact is if the industry consensus is that it’s fine for people of color to be underrepresented in entertainment relative to their actual presence in the population. And if that’s the case, I’d really rather someone in Hollywood say that up front than listen to folks pretend that getting racial and gender diversity in positions of power is important to them.

And I think a lot of people in Hollywood want to believe they’re squarely committed to racial justice, or at least proportional racial representation. You see that in Charlize Theron trying to buck up Viola Davis after the latter says that not looking like Halle Berry makes it harder for black women to get good roles in mainstream entertainmentby telling Davis that “You have to stop saying that, because you’re hot as shit,” a statement that asks Davis to ignore the assumptions that have measurably governed her career and suggests that self-esteem can overcome institutionalized racism.

You see that in the affection for The Help, a perfect example of the kind of movie that Red Hook Summer co-writer James McBride is talking about when he says, “Nothing in this world happens unless white folks says it happens. And therein lies the problem of being a professional black storyteller– writer, musician, filmmaker. Being black is like serving as Hoke, the driver in ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ except it’s a kind of TV series lasts the rest of your life: You get to drive the well-meaning boss to and fro, you love that boss, your lives are stitched together, but only when the boss decides your story intersects with his or her life is your story valid.”

But complaining about this, even for 30 seconds, which is about as long as what the press has called Lee’s Sundance “rant” or “tirade” lasted. As McBride put it in that same essay, “When George Lucas complained publicly about the fact that he had to finance his own film because Hollywood executives told him they didn’t know how to market a black film, no one called him a fanatic. But when Spike Lee says it, he’s a racist militant and a malcontent.” The easiest way to marginalize a truth that would require you to make genuine changes if you accepted it is to marginalize the person telling it, to make him out to be crazy, or extreme, or whiny, or demanding rather than justifiably angry. That’s what’s happening to Spike Lee. Journalists should be thoughtful about what kinds of perceptions they’re abetting, and whether they’re framing the reaction to the Red Hook Summer session, or the reaction to The Help, or any other discussion of race in Hollywood in a way that’s the best representation of the truth, or a representation of a mass mentality that’s running scared.