Category Archives: representations

Check it out: United Colors of Amani

Amani Starnes’ new web series centers on what it’s like to be an “ethnically ambiguous” actress in Hollywood and the recipient of a host of stereotypes and biases. Starnes writes that she has “dealt with the ‘What are you?’ question her whole life. But what does it mean to be black, white, and everything in between as she navigates the entertainment industry and life in LA? The United Colors of Amani, a comedy with sociological undertones, sheds light on the uncomfortable, awkward, and outrageous constructions of race permeating showbiz.”

Episode 1: The Tryout

Quoted: The Atlantic on Hollywood’s “Sassy Black Lady” Problem

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Writer Akash Nikolas on the buzz surrounding Oprah Winfrey’s role in The Butler:

A win for her would be deserved—she’s wonderful in the film. But it’d also be the latest example of what seems to be a Hollywood maxim: Black women only get the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress when they play characters who confirm the stereotype of the Sassy Black Lady—bold, sharp-tongued, impertinent.

Hattie McDaniel was the first black actress to win an Oscar for Gone With the Wind, playing house-slave Mammy who was warm and witty with her slave-owners. Half a century later, Whoopi Goldberg won for Ghost by playing Oda Mae Brown, a psychic with no back-story of her own and whose entire purpose was to support a white couple and entertain the audience with sass talk. In recent years, black actresses started winning Best Supporting Actress more frequently. Jennifer Hudson won forDreamgirls by playing Effie White, a diva with too much attitude to remain in a successful pop group and just enough attitude to cover “And I Am Telling You.” Mo’nique won for Precious by playing Mary Lee Johnston, an abusive mother whose sassiness was taken to a monstrous extreme as she terrorized her daughter out of her own fear of being alone and unloved. And Octavia Spencer won for playing The Help’s Minny Jackson, a back-talking maid who fried chicken, cracked jokes, and literally made a racist employer eat shit while her husband beat her.

If Oprah nabs the Oscar, she will have also won by playing sassy, but look closer and you’ll see her role rises above and complicates the stereotype. In her introductory scenes, Gloria is sweet and maternal, and it’s only as the movie progresses that we see her sassiness growing out of resentment—over her husband’s career, over the discord between her son and his father, and over her station in life. In this way, the film actually provides historical context for the sassy black woman, suggesting that she became that way because of decades of inequality. At the same time, the film also offers a modern revision of that role. Gloria feels fleshed-out; she’s not over-the-top, her story is fully explored (and fully her own) and, with the film covering several decades, we get the scope of a complete life lived well into old age.

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The Rape of Harriet Tubman

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By Guest Contributor Janell Hobson; originally published at Ms. Magazine blog

This year marked the 100th anniversary of the passing of Harriet Tubman. I had the opportunity to celebrate that fact when organizing a special symposium back in March, resulting in some thought-provoking critical papers on her legacy of resistance, which I’m currently guest-editing for Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism.

One of the more interesting conversations that came out of this event questioned why, on the anniversary of her death, we have yet to experience an epic cinematic treatment of her life.  She certainly qualified for that great Hollywood biopic. Against all odds, as a disabled enslaved woman, she escaped to freedom–having learned of the Underground Railroad network that included support from black and white allies–and once she made it to the other side returned to slavery 17 more times to free countless other slaves.

Tubman used all sorts of wit and trickery to enable her dangerous journey in this secretive network, and even believed in her divine right and power to engage in liberation. She collaborated with John Brown on the raid at Harper’s Ferry, recruiting slaves for the project, but her illness at the time prevented her from taking part in the uprising. During the Civil War, she served as a Union army spy, nurse and soldier, and in 1863, she led a successful military campaign on Combahee River in South Carolina, resulting in the liberation of 750 slaves.

In short, she’s the stuff of legend–for black history, women’s history, American history. The fictional Django from Django Unchained ain’t got nothing on her!

But on the year of her centennial anniversary, what does Tubman get instead of the great Hollywood biopic? She gets a “sex tape.”

You read that correctly. Recently, in an internet launch of his new YouTube channel, All Def Digital, rap media mogul Russell Simmons featured a failed comedic video titled Harriet Tubman Sex Tape–the first in the line-up of this new series. It didn’t take long for black audiences on social media to utterly denounce this video and petition against it. Within 24 hours, Simmons removed the video from his channel and issued this apology:

My first impression of the Harriet Tubman piece was that it was about what one of the actors said in the video, that 162 years later there’s still tremendous injustice. And with Harriet Tubman outwitting the slave master? I thought it was politically correct. Silly me. I can now understand why so many people are upset.

It is amazing that Simmons could not have predicted the outrage upon seeing such a video–which infers that, in order to build an Underground Railroad network to free the slaves, Tubman basically used blackmail against her white slaveowner by conniving with a fellow male slave to create a “sex tape” of their sexual encounter that she could later use as “leverage.” Then again, this is what porn culture will do to one’s perspective–something Simmons has perpetuated in his decades-long involvement with sexist rap music and culture.

Just reading the video’s premise was enough to make my blood boil, but sometimes, especially when you do media analysis as part of your scholarship, you just have to be a witness. So I viewed the video, and I don’t believe I am exaggerating when I say that, on this centennial anniversary, Harriet Tubman got raped.

Most of Tubman’s biographers have argued that there is no documentation that Tubman experienced sexual abuse while enslaved.  She was definitely physically abused–routinely beaten, and at one point as an adolescent suffered a head injury caused by an overseer who threw a two-pound weight against her head, breaking her skull and nearly killing her. The injury impacted her throughout her 91 years of life, as she was often given to sleeping spells (which Tubman claimed brought on various dreams and prophetic visions).

Slavery was “hell,” Tubman described in her narrative, dictated to Sarah Bradford since she could neither read nor write. She experienced a great deal of trauma while enslaved, but if there were any experiences with rape–which marked the experiences of far too many enslaved women–Tubman remained silent on the issue. It’s still also possible that, as hellish as her experience might have been, she was spared from a deeper hell that sexual violence brings to the picture. Which is why Simmons’ “sex tape” adds insult to injury.

It’s a hell of a sobering reality to realize that, 100 years after Tubman’s passing, our porn culture–intertwined inextricably with rape culture–would produce such a demeaning narrative about one of our great American heroes. It happened not because there is any basis in history for such an imagined scenario (Tubman simply would not engage in sexual leverage–it’s not part of the essence of who she was) but because our culture continues to trivialize rape (which is what we must categorize any unequal encounter between a slaveowner and slave, regardless of “consent”) and debase women’s experiences.  Ironically, the horrendous truth about sex tapes is that they tend to be used as leverage not against men but against women! It is women who are often blackmailed or demeaned when sex tapes are made available on the Internet. Women are the ones who have everything to lose, considering the slut-shaming that still clings to female sexuality. Sure, some celebrities might parlay such “porn” videos into a career, but the intention of sex tapes is public humiliation.

The Harriet Tubman Sex Tape publicly humiliates one of our great icons, and if she–whom many believe is inviolable, sacred, untouchable–can be debased, then not one of us is safe.

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Friday Fun: Ava DuVernay Makes Fashion Fair Cosmetics Look Good–And Relevant!

By Andrea Plaid

Via chaudmag.com

Via chaudmag.com

I’ve always given side-eye to Fashion Fair Cosmetics ever since I started wearing make-up. To be a part of the Johnson Publication empire–the people who bring us Ebony (and its online equivalent) and Jet–their make-up was not only too rich for my wallet but never quite fit my skin tone. (You’d think, of allllll the companies, Fashion Fair would have a shade that fit the full spectrum of Black folks and well, right?) And, to be honest, the brand itself made me think of its relevance to my mom’s generation–the fresh-off-the Movement, up-the-corporate-ladder Baby Boomers–not mine.

Of course, it would be award-winning director Ava DuVernay who would make Fashion Fair relevent to my mom, me, and younger generations.

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Meanwhile, On TumblR: “Serving Up Black Frida Kahlo Realness”

By Andrea Plaid

It’s the second time I’ve seen a photo like this.

One of my favorite Tumblrs, black beauty, featured photos submitted by Tumblrer Indigo, who dressed in an homage to legendary artist Frida Kahlo. (The headline comes from the caption she wrote to describe her picture.)

Serving Up Frida Kahlo Realness

She isn’t the only African-descended woman to get gussied up as the iconic Kahlo. Guest tweeter Minna Salami, a.k.a. Ms. Afropolitan, did a similar shoot back in March of this year:

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Image credit: Bumi Thomas Photography.

Not saying that it’s a trend or anything. I just find it really cool to see women of color are showing love to women artists of color like this, like speaking back to the elders with gratitude.

See what and who else we find cool at the R’s Tumblr!

Elegy: The Racialicious Review for Fruitvale Station

By Arturo R. García

Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) and his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal) share a moment in “Fruitvale Station.” Image via nyfcc.com.

Fruitvale Station reminds us that the story of Oscar Grant is not over. And the world seemingly took a cue from that on Wednesday, when a federal court rejected his killer’s appeal, enabling his father to continue to seek justice in his name.

The man who shot Grant dead early on New Year’s Day 2009, former transit officer Johannes Mehserle, doesn’t say anything in writer/director Ryan Coogler’s account of the last hours of Grant’s life, a choice that not only allows Grant (Michael B. Jordan) and his loved ones more time to be seen and heard, but defines Mehserle as less character than calamity – a clumsy, confused-looking thing that happens. Both Grant and Mehserle are introduced from afar in the film’s opening seconds before shifting focus to follow Grant (sometimes, literally, from behind), pointing the viewer toward the same destination. But knowing what’s coming from a dramatic standpoint doesn’t diminish the visual impact.
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Muslimahs Want Their MTV

By Guest Contributor Shireen, cross-posted from Muslimah Media Watch

A shot from Outlandish’s video for their cover of “Aicha.”

Last year, I got a call from a young cousin who informed me, with sheer glee, that the new One Direction music video featured a young Muslim in hijab. Those few seconds in the video that highlighted a giddy, veiled teenager were a breakthrough for young identifiable Muslimahs in the world.

I think this meant that I was supposed to embrace the boy band that I had successfully been trying to avoid. I must admit I checked out the video. OK, I can’t lie. I watched it on repeat about ten times. (It’s a catchy song). And yes, from 1:20 to 1:23 in the video may seem like young eager Muslimah pop fans have been well represented. No inferences of weakness, oppression and need of immediate liberation. There isn’t race. There isn’t creed. There isn’t blatant stereotyping of women; there is just 1D fangirling – which unites us all.

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Quoted: Mark Anthony Neal On Black Dads On TV

John Amos in Good Times. Via obnug.com.

John Amos in Good Times. Via obnug.com.

With Father’s Day this Sunday, I’ve been thinking about how fathers have been portrayed on television over the years.

As a child growing up in the Bronx in the 1970s, the TV fathers who I best remember were Jim Anderson, Robert Young’s character on “Father Knows Best,” and Mike Brady, portrayed by Robert Reed in “The Brady Bunch.” Both men were typical of the kinds of men that many expected to be the “head of the family” in 20th-century American society.

Mr. Anderson and Mr. Brady were also in stark contrast to my father and many of the working-class black men I knew in my neighborhood or saw on TV, characters like Redd Foxx’s Fred Sanford and John Amos’s James Evans, Sr., who was much closer in spirit to my own dad.

That all changed in the fall of 1984, when America was introduced to Bill Cosby’s Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, who quickly took on the unprecedented role for a black man as America’s “favorite dad.”

There was a need to celebrate a character who challenged historic stereotypes of black men as fathers — often portrayed as absent, shiftless, unemployed and overly chauvinistic. But was an upper middle-class professional not dramatically different than his white male peers really what black audiences were looking for? Where were the black male characters who represented the complexities of what it means to be a black in contemporary America?  Would we even know them if we saw them?

In my recent work researching the intersection of African-American and pop cultures, I have been examining the ways that black men are legible to us in the popular imagination. In the ways that seeing a black man on television with a basketball or on a newscast about crime is terribly familiar to us, more complex images of black men as fathers seem few and far between. Indeed, the recent Samsung Galaxy II commercial–featuring basketball star LeBron James engaging with his sons over breakfast–seems almost revolutionary.

–Mark Anthony Neal, “On Occasion, TV Captures Complexities Of Black Men As Fathers,” The Herald-Sun 6/12/13