One movie this January told an empowering tale of black history sans white saviour, but it almost didn’t see the light of day. Star Wars genius George Lucas, an extremely wealthy and successful movie-making white man, publicly lamented how difficult it was to secure financing and distribution for Red Tails.It’s a swashbuckling flick for black teenagers, as he puts it, on the Tuskegee airmen, African-American pilots in World War II. It’s a story both true and inspiring, but he couldn’t stir up any interest from financiers, so he paid for the prints and distribution. Lucas told the New York Times he felt that the film didn’t fit in with the industry’s marketing plans. He summed up trying to pitch the movie as such: “Well, it’s kind of like ‘The Color Purple,’ only they’re in airplanes. It’s sort of like a Tyler Perry movie, only without jokes.”
Lucas’s awkward comparison raises another concern: Perry’s movies, like his Madea series, are rollicking comedies featuring black actors, targeted for black audiences. While they are successful, some fear that they take away from more series thespian pursuits. “There seems to be a market for that,” says Bonnie Farmer, a Montrealer, teacher, children’s book author and playwright. “But for serious dramas, there does seem to be an absence of good material out there for [black] actors.” The Help, obviously, doesn’t really count. Farmer would like to see more black characters facing ordinary problems, and not just living out romcoms. And diversity in books, movies and television is important for young people of colour: “If everything you see is one image, then how can you relate to it?” Farmer describes growing up black as living “in two worlds.” There is your reality, and then there is a whitewashed depiction you see onscreen. In reaction, many of the characters in Farmer’s books and plays are black. What’s ironic is that though Lucas hired a black director for Red Wings, he’s almost a bit of a white saviour himself – a rich Caucasian steering a black project. Actress Michelle Sweeney thinks that onus for this search for richer roles and stories for people of colour needs to come from “ourselves.” Sweeney is an actress and singer you might remember best as the strict vice-principal Mrs. Morton in the late ‘90s teen television series Student Bodies. But she also has her share of credits on IMDB as waitress, server or nurse. “Wehave a black president, I think it’s about time that we can do a little bit more for ourselves,” she says. “We have to step up.”
In an ideal world, Hollywood should take its cues from Black Theatre Workshop, where the goal is to put showcase empowering stories and roles for people of colour. And they aim for a wide audience: “We don’t do theatre for black people, we do theatre for everyone,” said Armorer. Maybe it’s just been a couple of off-years in terms of diversity on film and television. But seeing Spencer and Davis getting noticed for playing servants, decades after McDaniel won for playing a caricature, you kind of wonder what it will take to see more empowering roles for actors of visible minorities, and not just stereotypes and token roles.