‘Undefeated,’ ‘The Help’: Are Films About Blacks Made by Whites Always Oscar-Worthy?
If ever a picture is worthy of receiving an Academy Award for its depiction of African American culture and experience, it will always be produced, directed and written by whites. This is the case with Undefeated, one of the movies up for an Academy Award this year.
As a person born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, Undefeated, to me, takes on the typical Hollywood approved plantation themes of white people helping African Americans more than we help ourselves. The documentary chronicles the relationship between underprivileged inner-city football players at the North Memphis Manassas High School (where my grandmother attended) and their rich volunteer white coaches.
Yes, a movie set in the inner-city of Memphis on the Manassas Tigers 2009 football season has been nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award. Produced by Rich Middlemas and co-directed by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin. The collective spent close to a year with the Manassas High School football team, from July 2009 to April 2010. Undefeated is the first movie project shot in Memphis to be recognized by the Oscars since Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow and the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line in 2005.
To be honest, I enjoyed the movie — I am biased towards anything from my hometown — but I have a strong disdain for the incessant predilection of Hollywood to use the themes, subjects and experience of African Americans as mere scenery. I am not saying that white folks cannot accurately tell the stories or explain the historical situations of African Americans, rather they cannot do such with the same background in terms of a collective unconscious as theorist, Carl Jung called it.
Although this, and other movies like Red Tails and The Help, nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Viola Davis) and Best Supporting Actress for Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain), may be harmless in the eyes of others, for me all they do is make white folks feel good about themselves and black folk angry about the fabrications being presented. In the book, all the attention is on Skeeter, the narrator. However, in the movie, the focus is on one of the maids (Aibileen). In fact, given the time period, there was only one mention of violence in the story and that involved domestic black-on-black crime between one of the maids and her man, although lynchings were as frequent as the mail delivery. Hollywood, as usual, has sugar-coated the daily impact of racial discrimination and prejudice in America as if the truth is too painful.
As most movies about race (The Legend of Baggar Vance comes to mind) white Hollywood need to create white superheroes who are made to be more involved in the struggle against racial oppression than whites. Nelson George described this as “the magic Negro” phenomenon, where the black character is simply a mirror for the white man character to see themselves.
To shine a real light on racism would be to show the real Hollywood. The Help is another in this tradition of having white folk tell the story of discrimination and racial hatred as if they lived it, while playing down the experiences of those who actually did. Hollywood films that deal with race reflect the institutionalized racism common place in the movie industry itself.
The simple truth is that historically, there has been limited daily interaction between African Americans and whites and there is no substitute for stories about the lives of black people as told by us.
–torrance stephens, ph.d.