At the protagonist of "Being There," a nitwit who has been isolated from reality most of his life, rises to the inner circles of a U.S. president's confidence, a black woman watches him on television.
"An" it's for sure a white man's world in America," she says. "Hell, I raised that boy since he was the size of a pissant, and' I'll say right now he never learned to read and write. No sir! Had no brains at all, was stuffed with rice puddin' between the ears!"
For me, that black woman captured the essence of the slow gardener's ironic and swift acceptance in the world. Maybe, I thought at the time, the filmmaker was finally addressing the issue of white incompetence and how certain a ticket to success white skin can be.
Maybe the black woman was used because the creators wanted to salute the intuitive wisdom of black folks. My immediate reaction struck a chord with friends. But when one of them cheered loudly during this scene her yells only met with stares from the white moviegoers in the theater.
"It didn't even register," observed Ann Chinn, a social worker. Later we decided this scene was just a slip. Though that image of black, savvy remained strong long after I saw the movie, an even stronger one was that of Peter Sellers, the gifted actor who plays the gardner, emerging from his cloister and running smack into a taunting group of black youths. It was Washington, it was real, but it seared. The underlying message, says Tony Gittens of the University of the District of Columbia's Black Film Institute was, "When you come out of y our house, the most threatening problem are the blacks. He could have gone into a supermarket, been very confused, and the point would have been made."
Films, with their lack of black presence, their offensive use of black characters, and their shallow portrayals of other minorities and women, continue to be a hot topic. Except for Ben Vereen's predictable apperance as a dancer in "All That Jazz," no blacks have had leading roles in films this past year.
Indeed the movies nominated for Academy Awards tonight have returned to the sketchy landscapes of the 1940s and 1950s when Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Louise Beavers, Mantan Moreland and Louis Armstrong were carrying trays and singing the blues. This is what my friends and acquaintances argue about regularly and heatedly -- What's offended you lately? We are especially concerned since we find the movies a still-budgetable form we would like to admire. Unfortunately, after another year of faithful attendance, from "Nosferatu," to "The China Syndrome," we found there's very little to applaud.
There is even a scene in "Jazz" in which Roy Scheider, recuperating from open-heart surgery, asks a black hospital attendant to sing. Shades of Stepin Fetchit! Some might argue that no one outside the particular filmmaker's mirror has ever come off in full dimension. But the sore point of the latest movie is that the black characters are representing old sterotypes without any counterparts of actual recent black success. There is no Sidney Poitier as a doctor to counterpoint "Jazz's" designation of an attendant nurse, janitor and dancers. There is no Jim Vance to ask Gardiner questions and counteract his rquest of a black woman he meets on the street to fix him lunch.
"Manhattan," Woody Allen's lyrical homage to his hometown, has probably drawn the prize as the most offensive film of the year. In this ode, there are no blacks, Puerto Ricans or any other visible minority. "It's just as well," said a friend of mine. "It was his private view. He probably wouldn't have handled the characters properly."
This criticism of invisibility has been particularly thorny since the mega-success of "Star Wars" and its vision of a future without black faces. This disgruntlement apparently reached the ears of the sequel's producers, who added Billy Dee Williams, the leading black matinee idol, to its cast. But that has not smoothed the black filmgoer who feels left out of America's fantasy image of its people, their dreams, their lives. "For a large part of the industry, a mirror image without minorities is what they choose to be," said an other friend. "If 'Manhattan' is today and 'Star Wars' the future, we ar not in it," said another movie buff.
With screenplays now touted for their realism, the lack of black involvement in them is even more maddening. "If a filmmaker wants to be, he will show us," said Gordon Braithwaite, the National Endowment of the Arts minority liaison. "The thing that bothers me is they don't even acknowledge our existence."
No one has an answer. The wistful response is to again cross the fingers and hope that a new Age of Enlightenment hits Hollywood, that the cash registers jingle from black success, or that enough of us can poll resources and take the situation into our own hands. That has all happened before, with subsequent successes and failures. "Claudine," a black-engineered, general release love story, was an enormous hit in the black community. "Roots" and its sequel were lavishly praised for their acting, but most of the performers have been scrapping for an acting livelihood since then.
While most of the blacks who participate in these spontaneous analyses feel their hands are tied, their tongues aren't. "La Cage aux Follies," the sensitive French comedy about a homosexual couple trying a temporary heterosexual life, comes in for universal praise. Even its black principal, Luke, who runs around in pink hot pants and sequins. "He laughed at those white folks. He was silly but humorous in the context of the film," said Basil Buchanan, a specialist on the Caribbean at the Phelps-Stokes Fund.
"All That Jazz," Bob Fosse's indulgent portrait of a choreographer, was universally disliked. "I reached to it from a sexist point of view. Everyone is a body," says Mary Helen Thompason, Sen. Paul Tsongas' press secretary. "And you can't be too offended because that's the world of entertainment. And the black people follow the role of adornments."
Tony Gittens found Ben Vereen's portrayal of a buffooning dancer offensive. "There he was rolling his eyes, dancing and singing about death. He was the prince of death and that was offensive. He was cheering the guy on to his death." Whether Vereen was shuffling or not, Marvin Holloway, a consultant on African politics and economics, said that it was "well-done. . . Fosse used Vereen as a dancer who creates multiple images and possibilities. Fosse is very adult about his sterotypes."
Another Academy Award frontrunner, "Apocalypse Now," drew every kind of response. "The scene where the guy runs across the black soldiers and asks who's in charge bothered me. Those guys don't answer and they had killed the white commander. That needed to be said and dealt with," said attorney John Payton. 'And everyone in the movie who is killed is black, except Marlon Brando. But that didn't offend me, that was the reality of Vietnam.'
Looking to the future and another round of awards, "American Gigolo's" black pimp has already rubbed some nerves. But that's another story.