White Movie Heroes and Black Supporting Casts

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In the final analysis, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? is a lecture – a lecture delivered by Hollywood and directed at America.  Matt Drayton may be nominally a newspaper publisher, but he’s still Spencer Tracy, film icon; and his wife is Katharine Hepburn, also a film icon.  Their house, with its breathtaking view of San Francisco Bay, is the kind of luxurious residence to which the Hollywood filmmakers themselves are accustomed.  Their relationship to their maid and to other members of the lower orders is very much the same as the relationship of the filmmakers to such people.

The filmmakers are, in the end, saying to us: “This is how people like us – the Hollywood elite – would deal with this situation.  So should you.”  The condescension is obvious.  Perhaps less obvious is that, although the filmmakers obviously intend to do something positive for black people, the film isn’t really about Dr. Prentice or any of the other black characters – what it’s about, above all, is the Tracy character’s inner moral struggle over the idea of his daughter marrying a black man.  The liberal Hollywood filmmakers wanted to make a “serious” movie about race, but what they made was a movie in which the major black character’s fate hinges on the conscience of an elderly white man – a man who is, practically speaking, a stand-in for the filmmakers themselves.

Things haven’t changed in Tinseltown – not so much as you might think, anyway.  On the same flights on which I watched and re-watched Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, I saw The Blind Side and The Help.  Both have been lavishly praised.  Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for The Blind Side, and several actresses are nominated this year for The Help.  Both films pull at the heartstrings, but in ways that one ultimately recognizes as cheap and manipulative.  Bullock’s character is a well-to-do Memphis housewife who takes a promising young black football player from the wrong side of the tracks into her home and helps him to become an All-American.  The Help is about a white Southern girl in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s, who, in defiance of the social codes of that time and place, interviews local black maids about their lives and turns the material into an explosive book about racial prejudice.  The Blind Side is based on a true story; The Help has no basis in fact.   Both are about the nobility of white people helping black people – and, implicitly, about the nobility of white people making movies about white people helping black people.

Which is not to criticize all movies about white people helping black people.  To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the great motion pictures of all time.  But The Blind Side and The Help are pedestrian pieces of work that derive whatever power they possess over audiences from the cheap uplift experienced by white viewers who enjoy identifying with the white do-gooders.  The white girl in The Help writes a book about the lives of black maids.  But the movie isn’t about their lives.  It’s about her interest in their  lives.  The good liberals in Hollywood pretend they’re interested in those lives, but they’re not about to make a movie about them.

It’s odd.  There are plenty of black stars nowadays who can carry a big-budget Hollywood picture.  But whenever Hollywood decides to make a movie about race – an “issue” movie, a “problem” movie – the reflexive inclination of the good liberals in charge is still, all too often, to go for a story in which the whites are the heroes and the blacks are the supporting cast.  This is Hollywood liberalism in a nutshell.  Shame.

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  • vlondo

    Mr Bawer says the film challenges racism. l have no idea what challenging racism means however why would anyone want to breed children that dont resemble themselves – because that is what usually occurs when a White "couples" with a Black – the children are usually Black. Or perhaps thats the whole idea, if the Whites get with the Blacks then there wont be any more Whites – because (obviously) the Whites are the problem, arent they?

    • Danny

      And if human beings get with other human beings, maybe then there won't be any more of you. Think about it.

    • Mike

      Really? Inter-racial marriage is for the express purpose of the extinction of white people? Stop being so paranoid.

      • vlondo

        In the US White babies now constitute less than 50% of all babies being born. You go from 90% down to 80% down to 70% down to 60% and now its under 50%. Whether l'm paranoid or not doesnt change demographic reality. Soon White babies will constitute 40% of all babies being born.
        People who admire the Nazis dalliance with SOCIAL ENGINEERING will get a big kick out of the constantly declining number of Whites. That the Whites are declining numerically is a direct consequence of government policy, its not some random accident – its a government sanctioned third world invasion thats turning what was previously a White majority country into a White minority country. l call it White genocide. You'll really get a kick out of affirmative action programs and the entrenched anti-White government policies when Whites are a minority – oh boy l cant wait! Anyone who imagines these policies and programs will be dropped when the Whites obtain minority status has rocks in their head. Thats when the persecution of Whites will increase 100 fold.

  • StephenD

    Sometimes a movie is…just a movie. But I get the point. "The Help" is "Pedestrian" as you say compared to "To Kill a Mocking Bird."
    Then again, when we melt all into a cauldron rather than enjoy the subtle differences say of a stew; instead of lifting any individual up we end by bringing everyone to the lowest common denominator. This is probably the best you can hope for with such mental midgets running the show. They may as well end each such "piece" of work with the song "We are the World."

  • tagalog

    The reason why Hollywood production staffs can't make movies in which the lives, mores, personalities, and character of the black characters are not explored in any insightful way is that Hollywood production staffs are overwhelmingly composed of white people who have nothing significant to do with black people, don't understand black people, and hence see the black characters in their movies as either black white people or stand-ins for Tupac Shakur.

    Hollywood would NEVER, under present circumstances, see its way to portray the average black family, which is typically church-going Christian, typically moralistic, typically focused on conventional social mores, and not living the kind of lives that white Hollywood types pay attention to.

    When Guess Who's Coming to Dinner first was released, one of the most cogent critiques of it was that the Sidney Poitier character was the kind of person most parents would give their right arms to have marrying their daughter, so that Spencer Tracy's and Katherine Hepburn's characters' quandary seemed a bit suspicious.

    • Guest

      Agree completely!!! Watched this film on TV many, many years ago with my very ordinary parents who saw Tracy and Hepburn as self-regarding phonies who couldn't even see their own hypocrisy. The irony of it. The Tracy/Hepburns of the world looked down on people like my parents.

    • Questions

      Baloney. Try the following:

      "The Pursuit of Happyness"
      "Eve's Bayou"
      "The Preacher's Wife"
      "The Color People
      "Antwone Fisher"

      That's a very partial list.

      • Questions

        Make that "The Color Purple." My point still stands.

  • Danny

    Whites "getting with" non-whites will inevitably lead to just more "sub-groups". Which I'm sure will suit you since you'll have even more sub-groups to hate and accuse of white genocide.

  • samsgran1948

    The same thing happened with the movie about the Navajo codetalkers in World War II — Windtalkers. The true story of the code talkers could have written itself. But, no: Hollywood had to make it about the white officer (Nicholas Cage) who was assigned to watch over them and kill them if it looked like any of them would be captured by the Japanese. The code talkers themselves were background noise supporting Cage's character.

  • clarespark

    Excellent piece. I haven't thought about the few black male stars and their archetypes, maybe superheroes or tricksters or silly minstrels (Morgan Freeman, Denzel, Eddie Murphy, Tracy Morgan). But in the case of Whitney Houston, consider whether her story is being told along the lines of the tragic mulatto. I wrote about that here: http://clarespark.com/2012/02/13/whitneys-spectac…. In my limited contact with the rich, few care about the help, whatever their "racial" origins.

  • Ray Olson

    Fine posting, Bruce, about a situation I had forgotten, more because it is one of the reasons I seldom see Hollywood films made later than, oh, 1964, than that I wasn't aware of it. Guess Who's is, by my lights, a truly horrid film, phony through-and-through and visually ugly, to boot. You have my astonished respect for enduring more than half a viewing of it. My congratulations, too, for writing a piece that evoked responses that, with one exception, provoked thoughtful and respectable responses.

  • kblink45

    This article is generally correct regarding movies, but what about tv? Why was The Cosby Show such a phenomenon? How about all of the Disney series that center on a black family. My daughters love them (the little race traitors).

    This article would have been stronger had it painted with a slightly narrower brush. It is not that all movies marginalize their black characters, just the ones that seek to make a point or to give the director absolution. The author Shelby Steele explained this type of phenomenon in The Content of Our Character and other writings.

  • mrbean

    The NAACP wants affirmative action for Blacks (read quotas) in Hollywood. Hollywood's failure to include and promote blacks affects its programming decisions, say the protesters. More minorities, more "diverse" programming sensitive to the needs and desires of minorities. Do the media "exclude" blacks? If media includes all forms of entertainment—such as music —blacks excel. Rap music is a major moneymaker, and other black recording artists routinely score on the top-40 playlists. There are "black-themed" television shows, black daytime talk show hosts, black judge shows, blacks pushing products on infomercials, as well as many black characters in situation comedies and dramas. Roughly 12 percent of film and movie jobs go to blacks. Black directors get about five percent of the jobs, up dramatically from ten years ago. And blacks account for nearly 12 percent of all roles in commercials. The NAACP are racists and hate white people as as well.

  • Cliffy J

    Fine column about the Hollywood liberal mindset. But the movie (which was released in 1967) does not support today's Leftist agenda that without the massive social safety net and affirmative action no one can get anywhere in America. The Sidney Potier character, son of a mail carrier became a prominent MD based on his hard work, focus and skill, no mention of affirmative action. It also showed the model of an an intact family of a married father and mother together. Ironically, the movie came out around the beginning of the LBJ "Great Society" which has been so destructive to Black society and has the brought on the culture of entitlement that has been so destructive.

  • Chris C

    This makes me think of two things: the movie “The Last Samurai” (which was supposed to be Ken Watanabe’s character, not Tom Cruise’s) and a joke from Dave Chapelle’s show during a “Negrodamus” sketch: he talks about The Last Samurai, The Mexican, then says they should make a movie called “The Last N**ga on Earth” stating Tom Hanks lol