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Denzel Washington, who won a best actor Oscar in 2002 for playing a bad cop in Training Day, is getting awards buzz this year for playing an alcoholic airline pilot in Flight. But that has angered some observers, who note that Washington didn’t win the gold when he was nominated for playing the title role in Malcolm X. Dr. Boyce Watkins has called for a boycott of the Oscars, arguing that the Academy rewards black actors only when they portray troubled characters. “The bottom line is simple,” he has written, “If a black person does a good impression of a thief, drug addict, prostitute, maid or athlete, you’ve got yourself a touchdown. The worst thing you can do, however, is play a role that communicates intelligence, integrity or courage… that’s ‘not realistic.’ ” Here, hip-hop impresario and business mogul Russell Simmons responds in a guest post for The Hollywood Reporter.
I read some bloggers, and one of the bloggers I respect is Dr. Boyce Watkins. He inspires thought. He usually is spot-on about black issues, and he’s no punk. He says what many blacks think but have no platform to say. He is quick to point out what he sees as injustice, and I love him for that. I was interested in his take on Denzel Washington’s performance in the movie Flight. There have been some bloggers who claim Denzel played a “stereotypical” role and that the Oscar buzz should have been around his performance in Malcolm X two decades ago, not for Flight. I agree that Denzel should have gotten an Oscar for his performance in Malcolm X, but I certainly don’t believe that Denzel’s character was a role stuck in a stereotype.
So last night, Dr. Boyce reported that some blacks actually are organizing and “boycotting” the movie over the idea that Denzel played this stereotypical black character. I was baffled by the call for a boycott. Troubled as well — as I’m moving to Hollywood to make more “inclusive” movies — because I thought that Flight was a step in the right direction. I was impressed with Denzel’s ability to take on another difficult role and play it with surreal authenticity and charismatic grace. There should be nothing stereotypical about playing a drug addict or a drunk, regardless of your skin color. If Robert De Niro were 15 years younger, Denzel and De Niro would have been fighting with the studios to play this role. This is a role that every actor in Hollywood would love to play; it just so happens that Denzel got the part. And not only did he get the role, he took a pay cut along with the director, as the studio was concerned Flight would not perform well at the box office. Well, it just did $25 million at the box office this weekend, proving that America is yearning for good movies with great performances.
That is exactly the reason I am leaving New York City and going to Los Angeles. I want to tell American stories that make a difference. While America’s complexion changes, Hollywood storylines must change with it.
Flight is a perfect example of how Hollywood can embrace a new American reality, where black people are pilots of airplanes and have problems just like white people. Research shows that blacks and whites abuse drugs and alcohol at the same exact rate. So Denzel’s character doesn’t represent a black problem or a white problem; he represents an American problem. Flight is a classic American story of redemption.
Hollywood liberals need to take more chances, and they will find that it’s good business to promote more diversity. The business of diversity means a lot of money, and Hollywood studios and execs stand to gain a whole lot if they embrace the evolution of American culture. More important, they will be moving the world in a positive direction. The diversity in Hollywood we are seeking is not only where blacks get a shot at more “black” movies but where black stars get a chance to play all roles. We understand that there are still some business realities or pitfalls in our quest for equality. For example, black movies that are all-black do have a limited crossover, just like certain lily-white movies don’t play in the black community. But we need Hollywood to see all or most roles as colorless, and they need to be more inclusive — like they are with Flight. If we do that, we will build a much stronger future for our country and for the world when we export these ideals.
I am asking for people not to boycott this film. Instead, take your friends to see another amazing performance by Denzel and be left with the inspiration that America is moving forward!
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