Critic's Notebook: Hollywood, Obama and the Boxing-In of Black Achievers

The Amy Pascal-Scott Rudin emails about President Obama, as well as the protests against police abuse of black men, find haunting echoes in Chris Rock's 'Top Five' and Ava DuVernay's 'Selma'

I wonder what President Obama thinks of Selma. Or Top Five. I wonder if he and the first lady cuddled up after the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony to watch Beyond the Lights. Or if he screened Dear White People for his daughters, as a preview of their impending college years.

Those films weren't mentioned in the leak of a private email exchange between Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal and megaproducer Scott Rudin, which revealed the pair's racialized mocking of the president and last year's major black films.

But they might have if they had been released in time.

Coincidentally, Rudin produced Top Five, Chris Rock’s talky, referential, hip and self-consciously funny new film. In addition to writing and directing it, Rock stars as Andre Allen, a stand-up comic turned Hollywood star made popular by the “Hammy the Bear” blockbusters. Eager to leave the Hammy series behind him, he's written, directed and starred in Uprize, a biopic of Dutty Boukman, a leader of the Haitian Revolution. As he tells Charlie Rose in one scene, he now wants to make "uplifting, thought-provoking movies." 

Read More 'Top Five': Toronto Review

In order to promote the film, Andre agrees to be profiled by New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson). As in Nora Ephron's walk-and-talkies, the couple traverses the big city, shooting the shit and connecting over their shared past as recovering alcoholics. But while Top Five is New York-centric, Hollywood is never far from anyone's mind, and what keeps the film from being a typical rom-com is Rock's perspective on the spectacle of African-American celebrity. The black male star, in Top Five, is often hemmed in by an industry that won’t allow him to reach his potential or explore different facets of his artistic identity.

Indeed, the white people Andre encounters while promoting his film seem intent to put him in a box and keep him there. In one scene, a white radio DJ asks Andre to sound more "stank" while recording bumper ads. In another, a montage of white critics crow that Andre isn’t right for drama and is a better comedic actor. 

Read More Chris Rock Pens Blistering Essay on Hollywood's Race Problem: 'It's a White Industry'

If nothing else, the Pascal-Rudin email exchange came as a stark reminder that the boxing-in of back male achievers has no limits. The two producers may have been joking, but apparently even being a two-term president with far-reaching and well-documented intellectual interests and accomplishments was not enough for them to imagine President Obama’s film tastes encompassing more than black-themed movies. Indeed, the president, like Andre, is continuously compartmentalized by onlookers: “(too) black” for some and “not black enough” for others, just as Andre vacillates restlessly between so-called low-brow (Hammy) and high-brow (Uprize) art.

Ava DuVernay's beautifully shot and brilliantly acted Selma, which captures the weeks leading up to and during the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches, echoes current events on a larger scale. In one scene, we see an Alabama State Trooper murdering Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) the same evening as a night march to the county registrar. Earlier in the film, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (a radiant David Oyelowo) tells President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) that none of the people who murder black Americans have ever been convicted because they are protected by the state. The film is the rare period piece to find connective tissue between the horrific past and the equally unnerving present. 

Read More 'Selma': AFI Review

Selma isn't just timely in its depiction of police violence against black men and subsequent protests, a cycle that continues to make front-page news in 2014. The generational and philosophical divisions between the civil rights movement's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the upstart Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), as portrayed in DuVernay’s film, also have a surprising contemporary analogue. Though centralized black leadership today is almost nonexistent, instead dispersed among a younger generation empowered by Twitter-driven activism, Pascal responded to the email imbroglio by reaching out to old-guard black leaders Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. In the age of new media, when Pascal could've apologized to President Obama himself, and to black America at large via op-ed or vlog, her decision to follow obsolete protocol further suggested the chasm between Hollywood as it sees itself (a progressive oasis) and Hollywood as it is (an out-of-touch white industry, as Chris Rock himself describes in his recent essay for The Hollywood Reporter).

Perhaps most disturbingly, the leaked correspondence between Pascal and Rudin reveals Hollywood power players’ blatant disregard for black cinema. Coming from people who develop and greenlight movies, their snarky, sarcastic name-checking of recent black films speaks to the continued ghettoization of and discomfort with these movies within the major studio system, despite the popularity and Oscar success of a project like 12 Years a Slave. In a white-dominated industry that seems to prefer its African-American-driven films to reflect archetypes of either black nobility (as in 12 Years) or black dysfunction (Precious) — or to feature black men in dresses a la Tyler Perry’s Madea movies — one wonders what Rudin, Pascal and their colleagues truly make of Top Five and Selma, prickly, provocative, layered films that resist such easy dichotomy.

Do they find Top Five simply hilarious, or do they grasp the underlying critique of Hollywood? Do they think of Selma, for all its sharp attention to political strategy and its immersive and harrowing sequences of violence, as just another uplifting educational-social-issue drama? Will DuVernay end up being lumped in with Rock, as disparate as they are, just as Rudin and Pascal lumped Lee Daniels’ The Butler in with Think Like a Man? Given the way things are going with these leaks, we may soon find out.

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