Before I begin, please know that the majority of my disgust is reserved for Cynthia Mort and Jimmy Iovine. They hold primary responsibility for your casting in the upcoming film “Nina,” and that choice symbolizes the utter disregard the film industry has shown for telling the stories of Black women faithfully.
But you’re a grown woman, Zoe, and you made the decision to participate in this film despite public objections from Nina’s daughter Simone. Of course you owe nothing to me or the thousands of other people of African descent who find your choice to portray Nina disturbing and offensive.
I do wonder how it must feel to research Nina - to read and watch her critiques of racism and white supremacy in American culture - while preparing for a project that reinforces those very things. Quite simply Cynthia Mort, Jimmy Iovine, and yes, you, are not tributing Nina Simone’s legacy. You’re disrespecting it.
I know enough about the history of Black performance in America to understand that it’s not as easy as “just say no” for Black artists. Zoe, I realize that artists, particularly Women of Color artists, must sometimes be opportunists to survive. But artists must also assume culpability for the work they produce, and this work is damaging.
I’m afraid you lack self-awareness. And in truth, feigning ignorance of colorism doesn’t help your case. I still can’t believe you retweeted this.
omg I just got the petition for someone “blacker” than @zoesaldana to play Nina Simone.. Reverse racism at its best
— Pamela c∕̴Ɩ (@pam_aquino) September 19, 2012
Perhaps you’re just trying to hold on to whatever you can to justify your decision, but no, Zoe, this is not reverse racism. Reverse racism doesn’t exist. Black women are not discriminating against you because you are a light-skinned woman. We are expressing our frustration at a racial hierarchy that renders us too unattractive even to represent ourselves. And if we’re being honest, you got this role, in part, because of the privilege you’ve been accorded as a light-skinned Afro-Latina.
That’s not to say I don’t think you’re a talented actress. You most certainly are. In fact, I think you could surprise us with your performance in the film. That doesn’t change the fact that you are contributing to the ongoing invisibility of women who cannot remove their deep brown complexions, broad noses, and kinky hair every day after work. This project is a testament to the unconscionable arrogance of white supremacy. By taking part, you’ve condoned that arrogance.
But ultimately, Zoe, you’re just a single actress. Despite your privilege, you’re working within a system that exploits you and your image without acknowledging your existence. As the face of a project with many collaborators, you’ve unfairly become the fall girl. I’m not mad at you. I don’t think any of us are. Frankly, I feel more pity than contempt. It’s the same way I feel toward minstrel performers who donned black face at the turn of the century or black women actresses who embodied steretypical mammies 60 years ago. Artists do the best with the opportunities they are given.
Few dark-skinned actresses in Hollywood could open a film. That’s not your fault. However, in the future, I would caution you from making statements like, “..why the f— would I sit down and talk about how hard it is for Black women in Hollywood when there’s a Black president in my country?” Because even in the United States where Barack Obama is the president, dark skin, kinky hair and African features are still loathed.
I offer this critique in love. I can’t say that I hope your movie will be a success; however, I do hope that you will use your growing influence to speak up when confronted with obvious inequality in the future. You don’t owe that to us. You owe it to yourself.
I knew this was going to happen. As soon as I got word that Viola Davis, Goddess of the Universe, walked the Academy Awards red carpet without her signature wig, I was positive we would see article after article about the politics of her choice. And we have.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The actress made a bold decision. A decision, that I couldn’t be prouder of because of what it means to so many Black women.
Viola’s appearance was an important moment for us. I missed the red carpet live, but I’ve taken several moments since Sunday to soak in the gorgeousness of it all: her chocolate brown afro, luminescent complexion and remarkable stature. I see myself in her, and I feel powerful.
Contrast that emotion with the hopelessness I experienced as a little girl navigating the world without similar models. I needed her then.
This has been a long, contentious awards season for black folks, but the unignorable presence of outspoken, brilliant Black women at these traditionally monochromatic awards shows has made the infighting worth it. Witnessing tremendous talents like Viola Davis and her co-star Octavia Spencer celebrated provided much needed respite from the usual barrage of attacks.
African American women must seize this moment. Embrace fearlessness by shedding unnecessary accoutrements if only for a day. I’ve just begun to regularly forego the heels and the makeup. It was just as difficult as I expected but more rewarding than I imagined.
Our personal guides for aesthetic liberation need not be famous women. Do you have a Viola Davis in your own life? Maybe you are someone’s Viola Davis.
Groups whose identities have been stigmatized partake in Coming Out Days to celebrate their true selves. The LGBT community has one; as do feminists. Pick your own Coming Out Day to leave the house without all the stuff—I’m talking external and internal—you think you need.
Perhaps we can prevent another woman’s self-loathing spiel like the one Wendy Williams gave on her show following the Oscars.
Viola’s hair belongs to her. She owes us nothing, but no doubt she paid it forward on Sunday. Let us follow her lead and do the same.
Let’s get this out of the way. I adore Viola Davis. I adore her gravitas, intellect and fearlessness, but above all, I adore her prodigious talent. For her merits, Davis deserves to be named alongside screen legends like Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro. But alas the black, female body she inhabits prevents her from reaching the professional heights she so deserves. Ms. Davis as a radiant, 46 year-old woman, only came close to fully realizing her potential on film 3 years ago in her limited but remarkable role in Doubt. In a part so small it could nearly be called a cameo, Viola Davis wrought a compelling performance that earned her an Academy Award nomination.
Last year, Davis’ lauded work in the film adaptation of The Help propelled her back into the spotlight. The magnificence of her portrayal of Aibileen is unquestionable though the film itself has been poked, prodded, and picked apart particularly by concerned black audiences and academics.
Pushback against the film forced Viola to take the defense. In an interview, she told Tavis Smiley all the way off saying his disdain for the film was a mindset that’s “killing the black artist.” Davis was nothing if not beautifully eloquent in her assertion that “the black artist cannot live in a revisionist place.” You couldn’t help but nod along as this brilliant Black woman argued her case.
Davis, of course, fails to take into account that Aibileen occupies the most loathsome of revisionist locales. Historians have noted that the tale of Minnie and Aibleen are not even close to accurate depictions of life in the Jim Crow south.
The most intelligent criticism of the film is based not on the fact that the women play maids but that they play mammies. Maids, you see, are real women whose stories deserve to be told with dignity and without shame. Mammies are fictive martyrs whose love for their white employers eclipses the economic and often sexual exploitation domestic workers endure(d). The Black women of The Help are the latter. (Melissa Harris-Perry explores this in our book club pick, Sister Citizen) The critique is a rejection of the ways white filmmakers have manipulated our stories to assuage their guilt or to suit their interests.
The story of The Help is appalling; the acting is sublime. Both Black and white filmgoers loved it which makes criticizing the movie in any manner like navigating a minefield.
I wanted so much to side with Davis during her showdown with Smiley, but she sidestepped the primary point. There’s no doubt that film critics overwhelmingly celebrate the debasement and pathology of African Americans. While the more than 94% white and 77% male Oscar voters award the varied, complex performances of white actresses, it seems Black women are only visible when we are playing out our most damaging cultural mythologies. Smiley makes it clear that his frustration lies with the racist Hollywood system that dictates what makes it to theaters. Conflating that criticism with a dismissal of the actresses is misguided.
This is all none of Viola Davis’ or Octavia Spencer’s concern really. We place an unfair burden on black actors by asking them to constantly justify their professional choices. They are actors not activists. This is their craft, but it is also their job.
So when those of us who understand and appreciate the importance of media representation express our frustration at the film, its fabricated history, and the racist film industry it signifies, it is really, truly not personal. We want black actors to flourish and to explore the depths of humanity in new, untold stories. That is our tribute to great Black artists who spent their entire careers encaged, and that is the battle we all must continue to fight.
It’s been over a year since The Game returned to television, and the comeback has been rocky. The story arcs lack depth and the dialogue lacks wit. But those missteps might have been forgiven had the show preserved the integrity of the characters we grew to love so much that we, the viewers, petitioned for months to revive. Not only did that not happen, but since it’s return, The Game took a nasty misogynistic turn that has left many members of its Black, female viewership frustrated and confused.
A show that once centered around the fraught yet loving relationships of a trio of unlikely friends, has devolved into a replication of the same tired stereotypes Black women are fed at every turn. What spurred that creative decision? I doubt The Game’s audience has changed since its days on network TV, and the team behind-the-scenes has remained largely intact. But the BET production now lives up to the network’s reputation as a haven for Black woman bashing.
The women on the show are now merely plot devices. None of the characters are fully developed but the definition of the female characters seems malicious. Melanie’s bizarre transformation this season provides a prime example.
The show’s writers made some questionable choices with Mel in the past, but she was a woman whose eyebrow raising decisions were dictated by her complex and often messy circumstances. (Some of which she controlled, but many she did not.)That Melanie was relatable. This one is unredeemable. She’s shallow and materialistic. The woman who worked her way through medical school is now ceaselessly vapid.
The infertility story line, however, concerns me more than anything. The show took some jabs at name brand religion this week, but the framing of Mel’s struggle to conceive relies on the Gospel of slut-shaming taught by patriarchy and conservative religion. It is more than implied that her infertility is a punishment for past promiscuity. Despite the fact that one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime, The Game’s writers seem intent to perpetuate the negative stigma associated with, what is, a common medical procedure.
The Chardonnay storyline, meant to evolve Jason Pitts, provides even more cringe-inducing moments. Chardonnay couldn’t simply be Jason Pitts’ love interest; she has to be the link to his forgotten heritage. She’s Chardonnay the Magic Negress ushering him to the Proud Black Man Promised Land. The character would be less maddening if heterosexual Black women were not expected to subvert personal work to become our fullest, freest selves in order to guide the maturation of our partners.
And then there’s Tasha Mack. Not even her immaculate head scarf could distract from the offensiveness of her lonely black woman spiel to Jason in which she calls Steve Harvey a prophet. A prophet? The man who made millions exploiting the real pain and imagined deficiency of Black women. Tasha’s grounded moments come in interactions with her son, but I deeply resent her overall coonification.
The frustration with which I watched last night’s episode of The Game makes me wonder why I bother. Then I remember television and I have a dysfunctional relationship that borders on the abusive. The more shows I once loved hurt me, the more invested I become in their success. The Game, once a light comedy, is now a heavy handed dramedy that halfheartedly attempts to tackle deep issues within black communities without an ounce of nuance.
This is an official plea to flesh out the The Game’s female characters. It’s time for show to explore the fullness of their womanhood. Let them be women not caricatures.