Stacey Dash – Right, Wrong, or Clueless?

Stacey Dash made headlines this week for disparaging “racist” activities such as the airing of the B.E.T. Awards and the celebration of Black History Month. Although she has been vilified as a cooning, sell-out, Uncle Tom figure, I want to try to take her statements seriously. Her point seems to be that since white people are excluded from the B.E.T. awards, black people shouldn’t complain about being excluded from the Oscars. In other words: is there something hypocritical and racist about having an all-black awards show, and a month devoted to black history?

2015 BET Awards - Show
LOS ANGELES, CA – JUNE 28: (L-R) Recording artists Tori Kelly, Ne-Yo, Lifetime Achievement honoree Smokey Robinson and recording artist Robin Thicke perform onstage during the 2015 BET Awards at the Microsoft Theater on June 28, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mark Davis/BET/Getty Images for BET)

My answer to that question is “no” for two main reasons. First of all, no other accolade in the industry has the prestige and power of the Academy Award. So, being routinely excluded is inherently career-limiting. Secondly, separate institutions for black people arise out of necessity, not bias.

Here are a few examples of separate institutions and why they arose:

  • Black beauty was considered an oxymoron. Although the Miss America contest began in 1921, it did not admit its first black contestant until 1970. The first black Miss America was Vanessa Williams in 1980. She was also the first Miss America to receive death threats. Thus arose the need for local all-black beauty contests.
  • Blacks were excluded from many colleges. Even the American Medical Association prohibited black members until 1950. When blacks were finally admitted to colleges as a matter of law, there were few support systems to help them navigate the overwhelmingly hostile or indifferent environments, so Historically Black Colleges and Universities were created. Incidentally, HBCU’s have always admitted anyone, regardless of color.
  • Most people on dating sites are white, and tend to request other white people only – or they will specify “only white, Asian, or Latino.” Therefore, black dating sites sprang up.
  • Black history month was created because the accomplishments of black people were often ignored, hidden, or lied about in the mainstream history books.

I could go on and on. Separate institutions began and continue out of necessity, not “reverse racism.” Racism, unfortunately, is not dead. Just recently I heard a black female producer recounting a tale of professional racism. She and her white business partner were pitching a science fiction series whose main characters were black. Before they had even completed the pitch, the producer interrupted and rejected the idea. His reason: black people don’t watch science fiction because they don’t see themselves in the future. First of all – what?! Second of all, how would he know? In any case, the lady and her partner went on to develop the idea on their own, and it’s doing quite well as a graphic novel series.

It should be plain for any thinking person to see why there are separate institutions. In order to maintain our self-esteem and dignity, we transform rejection into new opportunities. Robert Johnson created BET in 1980 due to the types of frustrations mentioned above. When he sold it in 2000, he became one of the first black billionaires. Not bad.

Besides, Stacey Dash is wrong. The BET awards do not exclude white people on any level. First of all, the channel is now owned by Viacom, which also owns MTV and VH1. Moreover, you do not have to be black to win an award. The awards go to individuals and works of art that appeal to B.E.T.’s version of The Academy. Sam Smith, Robin Thicke, Eminem, Mindy Kahling, and Erik Valdez are a few examples of non-black nominees and/or winners. It is a niche award show. And just like the People’s Choice Award, or any of the other niche award ceremonies, such as the Cinema Audio Society awards or the Costume Designers Guild Awards, the focus is specific. Separate award shows complement – but do not compete with or replace – major award shows such as the Oscars or the Grammy’s.

The most important thing to remember, though, is that awards and accolades are not the primary motivators of true artists. We do what we do out of love and passion, not for statues and labels. And – artist or no artist – you should never wait around for someone else to appreciate you. Look in the mirror and appreciate yourself. Awards can be wonderful, career-enhancing (not career-defining) things. But they should have no effect on the love we have for our work, or the effort we put into it.

Let’s make this week a week of gratitude for the gifts and talents we have, and our ability to express them – whether or not we receive any praise.

*Movie Recommendation: Dope (2015), directed by Rick Famuyiwa*

To Get Those Whites “Oscar-white,” Try Our New and Improved…

oscar_white

Oh, my gosh, honey, you got my socks Oscar white! Thank you! Thank you! (quote from my new fictitious laundry detergent ad).

In the aftermath of this year’s Oscar nominations, much talk has been floating around about how “white” the Oscars are this year – again. It’s true. Of the well-received films that included black characters and black stories, including Creed (my personal favorite), Concussion (a close second), Straight Outta Compton (a brilliant script), and Beasts of No Nation (hard to watch, but extraordinary), none of them – well, none of the black people involved in them, anyway – received Oscar nominations. I really was expecting Michael B. Jordan and/or Will Smith to at least be nominated for best actor – not because they’re black, but because their performances were so powerful. But, despite all the controversy and the racist legacy of the film industry, I have a slightly different take on it.

As cool and as universally engaging as movies are, the people behind the scenes are a network of good ‘ol boys – not the Confederate flag, kind, of course, but a white male network nonetheless. These are the people who decide what’s good and what ain’t. But, remember, that doesn’t actually mean anything in the grand scheme of things. They are voting according to their opinions and their opinions (like all opinions) are shaped by who they are.

As a slight aside, in the idiotic Comments sections of some of the websites talking about this, low-class racist trolls muddy the issue by talking about black crime, Black Lives Matter, and Obama. Besides the obvious fact that their racism proves the point about bias in this country, there is a bigger issue. Institutional racism (not personal racism) is the problem. The white male Academy decides which movies are “great.” The white male legislature decides what crimes are real crimes (see the movie The Big Short for an illustration about the way “white collar crime”, or, perhaps, “white crime” is handled in this country versus petty street crime). The white male police academies throughout the nation decide which lives matter and which ones don’t. And the foaming mouths of bitter white conservatives repeat the same lies so many times on their media outlets that a (black) president with a stellar record continues to be treated with general disdain and fear, no matter what he does.

But, back to the Oscars. The answer, in my opinion, is to stop putting so much stock in these people’s opinions. Yes, they are powerful. Yes, they are the controlling voices in the industry. But on a very real level, these are just people with opinions. As Derek Thompson wrote less than two years ago: “Essentially, the Academy has the demographics of a New England all-men’s bridge club.” I’m sorry, but a New England all-men’s bridge club does not represent my interests. I take their stodgy old opinions with a grain of salt. They grew up in a different era. Their level of experience with things and people outside of their own group is perhaps very different from that of a Gen Xer, like me, who grew up in Los Angeles.

So, screw ‘em. Do we really care so much what this group says? I don’t. Just as there are now alternative production companies like Netflix and Amazon, and alternative distribution outlets, such as YouTube, and different ways of watching movies, such as  smart phones and tablets, there should be alternative Academies. They should be filled with youthful, diverse, intelligent people who specialize in different niches. There are already many different award shows. Although they do not have the la-dee-da cache of the Academy, they are probably more relevant for more people. The world is steadily moving towards more democracy, not less. This Oscar situation is just a hold out. As the Academy cruises along in its comfort zone, the rest of the world moves on without it.

So, congratulations in advance to all the winners. Enjoy the night and the fruits of your hard work. Just remember to keep it all in perspective!

RSB

Work Cited:

Thompson, Derek. “Oscar Voters: 94% White, 76% Men, and an Average of 63 Years Old.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group. 2 March 2014. Web. Accessed 15 January 2016.

For Your Consideration: Oscar Michaeux, and Thoughts on The Hateful Eight

Life is a series of actions and reactions. Everything we do, everyone we meet, subtly changes us, moves us in faintly different directions, changing the course of our destinies. Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie The Hateful Eight was an unpleasant experience that dramatically changed my course of action. I had such high hopes for it, and was so bitterly disappointed and offended. But the experience lit a fire under me that hasn’t diminished in the slightest, though it has been a couple of weeks now.

I feel that there absolutely MUST be alternative voices in the film industry, a persistently racist industry “birthed” by D.W. Griffith’s bigot-porn, Birth of a Nation. Like Samuel L. Jackson’s character Major Warren in Hateful, who is surrounded by white people calling him (and me, basically) “nigger,” I found myself in an auditorium full of (mostly) white people who were thoroughly entertained, laughing at things that really weren’t funny. To be fair, the movie was beautifully shot, the music was stellar, and the dialogue and pacing were expert. And the over-the-top, revolting, cartoon violence is to be expected in Tarantino’s movies. Still, if I wanted to be called names for 187 minutes, and watch poor Samuel L. Jackson’s balls being blown off (a further degradation reminiscent of Ving Rhames’ character Marsellus being man-raped by a white man in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction), I would expect some prize at the end. (Raven Burnes, you witnessed and endured a filmmaker belittling and degrading your people for over three hours. Heeeeere’s – A NEW CAR!)

But, the first amendment is the first amendment. Rather than continue to protest or complain, I’d rather respond. That desire – to be part of the emerging artists who are working on projects that uplift all people – projects such as movies, and comic books, and web series, where people of all colors are treated like real full-fledged people – led me to research the pioneering voices of the past. That research brought me to the amazing and satisfying discovery of Oscar Micheaux.

Micheaux was a black filmmaker and author who lived from January 2, 1884 to March 25, 1951. He was a contemporary of Griffith, though few (including me until a few days ago) have heard of him. He was highly prolific, making 43 films completely outside the Hollywood system. This is an amazing feat in any era. But, doing so as a black man during the Jim Crow years is nothing short of stunning. He wrote, produced, directed, and distributed his movies himself. His movies were meant to be a response to the racist narratives of works like Birth, and the blackface minstrel shows that were popular in the 19th and early 20th century. Micheaux’s films featured middle-class, educated black and multi-racial characters overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve success. The fact that Micheaux could achieve so much in such a hostile environment leaves me wondering – what’s my excuse?

So, I view Micheaux as a professional mentor and role model, though he exited the planet long before I showed up. I respect what he tried to do, and I relate to the passion with which he approached his subject matter. Though D.W. Griffith’s name continues to be hailed as the “father of film”, and there are box sets upon box sets of his restored work, it is Micheaux’s legacy that inspires me to keep trying to do what I do. Regardless of how much money, if any, I ever make, regardless of how many people ever hear me, it is the work itself that matters. Whenever I make my own exit from the planet, I want to be proud of what I leave behind. Though we can never control the majority culture’s response to us, we do have absolute control over our own integrity. I am grateful to Oscar Micheaux for blazing the trail.

Whatever is yours to do in this world, do it right.

Peace,

RS Burnes