by Avis Jones-DeWeever, Director of the National Council of Negro Women's Research, Race-Talk contributor
Twenty years ago, hip hop pioneers Public Enemy decried the perpetuation of decades of exploitive cinema in their now classic, Burn Hollywood Burn! Though many things have changed over the years, current events in the world of cinematic arts prove that many others remain same.
Today, Oscar buzz abounds surrounding the performances of comedienne turned dramatic actress, Mo'Nique as well as long-time Hollywood fixture, Sandra Bullock. Their polar opposite depictions of motherhood in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire and The Blind Side, initially appear to be worlds apart. One is the story of how severe physical, mental, and sexual abuse fails to derail the loving spirit and aspirations of one "precious" soul. The other depicts the guts and determination of a brash, yet lovable white woman who opens up her privileged world to a destitute stranger across the color line. Although each have earned high marks from critics and audiences alike, the two films are seemingly worlds apart but for one disturbing commonality--the all too familiar Hollywood depiction of dysfunctional Black motherhood.
Why is it that American cinema seems completely incapable of displaying a mothering experience congruent with my own? The multiple generations of love, support, inexhaustible work, wisdom and sacrifice that has been the norm in my life as well as in the lives of countless others is somehow more rare than wizards, werewolves, and celestial beings on the silver screen. Even the most "inspiring" of tales, perhaps a category to which both The Blind Side and Precious aspires, can at best display a protagonist who perseveres and achieves in spite of Black mothering, rather than because of it.
Take two of my most beloved movies, each, coincidentally, starring the brilliant and talented actors, Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett. In both the 2006 hit film, Akeelah and the Bee and the 1991 John Singleton breakout movie, Boyz-N-the Hood, Black mothering is, at best, portrayed as bad mothering-"lite." Boyz-N-the-Hood begins when Tre's highly educated, professional and accomplished mother abruptly gives up on raising her son by dropping him off, unannounced, at his father's house to stay for good.
While Akeelah's mother makes it her mission to aggressively stand in the way of the expanded development of her child's academic capabilities by, of all things, discouraging spelling bee participation! Her anti-academic behavior is so deeply in-grained that the dramatic climax of the film is achieved when mom is reluctantly talked out of pulling her daughter off the stage of the State Spelling Bee already in progress! And to think--comparatively speaking, this is "good" Black mothering by typical Hollywood standards.
More common than not, Black mothers are nothing more than loud talking, gum smacking, side-hip baby carryin' balls of dysfunction. Or are at best, not even Black women at all, but instead, are Black men dawning fat suits and wigs. As the song goes, "For what they play Aunt Jemima is the perfect term--even if now she got a perm!"
Yes, it's true. Our mammy, jezebel, and sapphire roots are showing, despite our aggressive desires to cover them up through the now-trendy, self-congratulatory post-racial narrative.
How far have we really come when the continual perpetuation of the Reagan-era welfare queen mythology is now perfectly timed to appear at a theatre near you shortly before discussions surrounding the re-authorization of welfare reform are set to begin?
How far have we really come when one of Halle Berry's two crack-addict depictions on her way to Superstardom is now retold, this time in feel-good form, with the added bonus of being based on real events?
Compelling as they are, these films and others of their ilk are not the only images of Black mothering that should be given the green-light for production. Nor should they be the only type of stories starring Black actors that receive serious consideration for Academy Awards. This all-too common scenario is insulting at best, or evidence of down-right racist misogyny at worst in terms of Hollywood's one-note fixation on the perpetuation of stereotypical notions of who and what Black women are in our most intimate of spaces--that of mothering our children.
Of course, there are some notable exceptions to this rule. Last year's Secret Life of Bees was a rare gem, even depicting caring, protective Black mothering in the nurturing of a white girl in need of good female influences. And though snubbed by the Academy, by business standards, the film was a resounding success, grossing more than three times the production costs of the film. Clearly, there is a market for this type of work. Too bad Hollywood too often fails to get the memo.
But even when Hollywood gets it wrong, it is still possible to leave the theatre with an appreciation for stellar acting performances, compelling drama, and recognizing some virtue in attempting to bring to light uncomfortable situations that are far too often swept under the rug. But when virtually the only images of Black mothering that is packaged, sold, and absorbed on the world's stage are stories that have at their center perceptions of the most brutal of social pathologies, the residual effects cannot help but be damaging.
Given this long-standing reality, is it any wonder that today the most popular Google image of our First Lady is one that horrifically defiles her face to animalistic form? And is it any wonder that when I ask my thirteen year-old son and his friends to recall just one image of positive Black mothering they have seen on film in their lifetimes aside from The Secret Life of Bees, the only response I get is deep reflection and dead silence?
It is not.
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