John Singleton is the Academy Award-nominated director of such films as Boyz n the Hood, Poetic Justice and 2 Fast 2 Furious. He also happens to be a black man. My name is R.J. Moeller and I was a pre-season All State football player my senior year in high school. I also once won a contest at a hamburger restaurant back in Chicago for naming a burger that the manager liked and put on his menu. I happen to be a white man.
I give all of this as background because apparently no one can create (or do) anything in our popular culture any longer without feeling compelled to specify their race, ethnicity and bank account balance. (Note: that third thing doesn’t apply, so long as you talk about things like “social justice” and furrow your well-groomed brow while mentioning the need for “honest dialogue” about racial issues.)
Mr. Singleton, a fine and talented movie-maker, was asked by The Hollywood Reporter to pen a guest column which was eventually titled “Can a White Director Make a Great Black Movie?”
Whenever a black-themed film comes out, I get the call. And even more stops on the street. “Yo, man. What did you think of that flick?” The truth is, I wish folks would ask me what I think of some general releases. (My two favorite movies of the summer were comedies: Seth Rogen’s This Is the End and Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.) But, hey, I guess commenting on all things black is my lot in life, being that I’m a recognizable African-American face in an industry that isn’t exactly the gold standard when it comes to diversity.
After bemoaning the fact that he is often asked to offer up token quotes any time there is a “black-themed” film released, Singleton expends a scant 1,500 words to offer up token, trite, regurgitated axioms regarding the allegedly “serious lack of roles” for people of color. To be fair, John Singleton did throw some shout-outs to some white people like Seth Rogen, Woody Allen and the UCLA student who serves him his Grande non-fat Latte when he’s meeting people for coffee in Beverly Hills.
Not everything Singleton writes is loathsome, and much of his wordy THR piece contains valid and interesting points. But it is the tone of his column that bothers me. It is his overall point – those rich people controlling Hollywood don’t want authentically black movies, so they won’t let black people direct more projects – that warrants a rebuttal.
Hollywood, we are told, is the most progressively liberal place on planet earth. Very few conservatives, Republicans, or knuckle-dragging hayseed Christians from the Bible Belt are in charge in Tinsel Town. Who are these nefarious forces keeping John Singleton and his friends from producing quality entertainment and art? Hollywood can’t simply be listening to Red State, fly-over Americans on this because Hollywood doesn’t listen to Red State, fly-over America on anything anymore. Those days are gone. We, according to Angry Black Director Spike Lee, live in a “post-Barack” era, do we not?
The well-known truth is that anyone who can raise the funds (or be innovative with the limited funds they already have) can make any movie they’d like in 2013. The traditional studio system that may have barred certain people from directing certain projects no longer exists. Americans love and celebrate black musicians, actors, entertainers and athletes. Unless M. Night Shyamalan is directing the movie, we can’t get enough of Will Smith. Singleton’s own Boyz n the Hood is a modern classic – one watched and talked about in the college dorm rooms of white college students from Berkeley to Boston.
I daydream on a daily basis about playing a round of golf with Michael Jordan.
A movie production company or major motion picture studio doesn’t owe John Singleton, Spike Lee or any other director of any other color anything. Nothing. These are businesses that (sometimes) produce artistic vehicles that (hopefully) millions of movie-goers buy tickets to watch. Hollywood is looking for interesting stories that they think they can package together for public consumption. They want story-tellers that can deliver those interesting stories. In this town, no one hands you anything and no one is un-fireable. It’s a cut-throat business, not an affirmative action seminar at Santa Monica Community College.
John Singleton’s point seems to be that he and his fellow black directors are owed something. We’re supposed to come away feeling that despite some valiant attempts by white directors, only black filmmakers can truly tell a story containing stuff about black people.
I thought the medium of film was about telling stories in unique and interesting ways? That it offered up new perspectives on things we’re already familiar with? That it could take us to new places we’ve never been before?
Make good art and hope for the best. Any advice past that is, at best, conjecture.