The word “why” is small in letters but large in impact. We always apply it when we are trying to find out why a specific act happened. It can be defined as “for what purpose, reason, or cause, with what intention, justification or motive. Let me now apply the use when analyzing the sage advice given to us by a number of great historical artists and our failure to adhere to their very wise words.
Let’s begin with the wise words of the great Paul Robeson, undoubtedly a Renaissance Man. He made the following statement in his autobiography. “In the early days of my career as an actor, I shared what was then the prevailing attitude of Negro performers, that the content and form of a play or film scenario was of little or no importance to us. What mattered was the opportunity, which came so seldom to our folks, or having a part—any part—to play on stage or in the movies; and for a (Negro) actor (actresses) to be offered a starring role—well that was a rare stroke of fortune indeed! Later I came to understand that the (Negro) artists could not view the matter simply in terms of his (her) individual interests, and that he (she) had a responsibility to his (her) people who rightfully resented the traditional stereotyped portrayals of Negroes on stage and screen.”
Given Paul Robeson’s assertion that Blacks should not play stereotype roles, WHY would Halle Berry play Leticia in Monster’s Ball, a role that perpetuates the age old stereotype of the Black woman being a sexual object, who doesn’t know how to love but only have sex.
The next observation comes from the greatest Black poet and an icon of the culture, Langston Hughes. He wrote as part of his critique of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son and particularly the character Bigger Thomas. “Where are the Black heroes in our literature. Where in all our books is that compelling flame of spirit and passion that makes a man say, “I too am a hero because my race has produced heroes.” The great poet was expressing his disappointment with the manner that Blacks were depicted in novels at that time.
Given Langston Hughes’ suggestion that novels and for that matter, movies, should create more heroes, WHY would Denzel Washington play the role of Detective Alonzo Harris, in the movie, Training Day; a rogue cop who is as big a crook and bad guy as the men and women he is supposed to be arresting. His partner Ethan Hawke, Officer Jake Hoyt, is the good, honest and reputable policeman, the hero and of course he is white. I imagine, Langston Hughes would have argued that the roles should have been reversed and Washington play the part of the hero policeman.
The final observation is from Ralph Ellison. He wrote, “The solution to the problem confronting the (Negro) will be achieved when he is able to define himself for what he is and what he desires to be.” Ellison obviously was referring to the fact that Black Americans have always allowed others to define them.
Ellison is essentially asserting that Blacks must begin to tell their story their way. If that is the case then WHY is a Black Hollywood Producer/Director using the novel Holocaust in the Homeland: Black Wall Street’s Last Days, written by a white woman, Corinda Pitts Marsh, as the point of view story for a movie about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. That slaughter occurred when over ten thousand whites crossed the Frisco Railroad Tracks into the Greenwood section of the city, best known as Black Wall Street, and killed over 300 Black men, women and children, burned down 33 square blocks of businesses and homes. WHY use this version of the tragedy, which really is an insult to the Blacks now living in the Greenwood section of the city as well as Blacks from all over the country, when he could at least consider Frederick Williams (yes that’s me) novel, Fires of Greenwood: Tulsa Riot of 1921 as the point of view novel for his movie? Is he essentially telling Black America that the white woman can tell their story better than they can? Do you believe that Hollywood would allow a Black writer to produce a novel and also screenplay on the Alamo? Do you believe a white woman writer can get into the head of Black man and for that matter women who lived in Greenwood in 1921? No more than I can get into the head of an Italian woman living in New York City in 1921.
Do not take my comments as some kind of sour grapes, but only as another example of how we fail to adhere to the teachings of those who have gone before us.
I guess the answer to the three WHYS that I raise, is simply because they can and they chose to do so. Race pride aside, money and success reign.