Sunday, July 8, 2018

Black Films, White Critics in 2018

Films are my passion.  They have been ever since I was a kid.  I mean that.  When I was in the 6th grade, I could tell you the names of five musicals starring Fred Astaire.  When our family went to the drive-in, seeing reflections of myself onscreen was always significant.  Seeing films that starred Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Diahann Carroll or Cicely Tyson wasn't just entertainment.  We felt that seeing them was our duty.  Three films centered on black stories open this season and they've gotten rave reviews from critics.  I am so excited to see these movies.  I'm also excited to see if this season brings about changes in the segregated field of film critics we've seen since the 1980s.  More on that later.  First up, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU got terrific reviews from critics in national publications, the kind of reviews that lead to Oscar buzz.  Actor Lakeith Stanfield, seen in the Oscar-winning GET OUT, stars in this movie written and directed by Boots Riley.
Stanfield is Cassius Green.  (Say it fast and it sounds like "Cash Is Green.")
He's in Oakland and learns what millions of black men in American have learned.  There is a class division.  A black man with talent, imagination and perseverance can be stuck for years at minimum wage while a white guy with a teaspoonful of talent can wind up making a 6-figure salary seemingly overnight.  From what I can gather in reviews I've read, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is a social commentary that makes you laugh in the same way Paddy Chayefsky's NETWORK did.  It's rooted in reality.  Click onto this link to see a trailer:

Another film with a story set in Oakland is BLINDSPOTTING.  It stars Daveed Diggs who graduated from Broadway's revolutionary HAMILTON to the cast of ABC's hit sitcom BLACK-ISH.  Diggs also co-wrote the screenplay.  Think of recent news stories about unarmed young black men who have been shot multiple times and killed by police.  Then think of white males who shot and killed several people in an Annapolis newspaper office, in a Florida high school, in a Colorado movie theater, in a church and were taken in custody unharmed.  Film critics Peter Debruge of VARIETY and Stephen Whitty tell us to put BLINDSPOTTING on the must-see list.  It opens in select cities on July 20.  Click onto this link to see a trailer:

Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman got big applause and praise at this year's Cannes Film Festival.  It opens in August.  This is based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black detective who went undercover and infiltrated the KKK.  He was interviewed by Scott Simon on NPR last month and he feels his 1979 story is intensely relevant now in the Trump era.  (The interview with Scott Simon on NPR is worth hearing.)  Spike Lee co-wrote the screenplay with the brilliant University of Kansas film professor and filmmaker, Kevin Willmott.  Here's a trailer for BlacKkKlansman, winner of the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix Award.
Spike Lee has never been an Oscar nominee for Best Director. Not for DO THE RIGHT THING. Not for MALCOLM X. Maybe his upcoming release will change that.

From two years, from 2006 to 2008, I was a regular on Whoopi Goldberg's live weekday morning radio show.  Our studio was in midtown Manhattan and the show was in 16 cities across the nation. I was the weekly film review and entertainment contributor.  I contacted Kevin Willmott after I saw the DVD release of his blazingly brilliant 2004 mockumentary called C.S.A.: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA.  It should have brought him an Oscar nomination.  Think Woody Allen's ZELIG with a touch of BLAZING SADDLES with a lot of American history and film history.  I urged Whoopi to watch it.  I wanted Kevin Willmott to do a radio interview during one of our shows.  For some reason, Whoopi nixed the idea when I passionately pitched it to her.  She was chilly to giving him airtime. I don't know why.

That mockumentary is worth a look now -- especially with Trump in office.  Because of the excellent reviews that Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott have received for BLACKKKLANSMAN, I am interested to see how Whoopi reacts now to Kevin's work.

About critics. My first professional TV job was film reviewer.  I reviewed new movies every week on Milwaukee's ABC affiliate and I was the first African American in that city's history to do so.  I was a movie critic on WISN TV for four years and, on a local indie station, I was half of a duo on a half-hour film review show. This is the early 80s.  On national TV, all the film critics on TV news programs were white males. ABC, NBC and CBS gave us white males.  Joel Siegel and Gene Shalit.  On PBS, after Siskel & Ebert departed for Buena Vista syndication, the new film review couples were Jeffrey Lyons, Michael Medved, Neal Gabler and Rex Reed.  Men as white as Cool Whip.  Then Ben Mankiewicz and Ben Lyons (son of Jeffrey Lyons) had their syndicated film review show.  Two more white males.  Caucasian Peter Travers of ROLLING STONE magazine has a film talk show that airs on some ABC stations. It's called POPCORN WITH PETER TRAVERS.  Today, we see Chris Connelly on ABC's GOOD MORNING AMERICA and David Edelstein on CBS SUNDAY.  White guys.  This is from the early 1980s to this month.  Chris Connelly and David Edelstein talked about films in segments that aired around the 4th of July.

I lived in New York for 25 years and never saw one black person on a regular basis as a film critic for a local station.  Sandy Kenyon was on local ABC and Neil Rosen was on cable's NY1.  Kathie Lee Gifford's son, Cody, reviewed films every week on TODAY in 2016 because he'd recently taken a film course in college.  He was 20.  I worked at WNBC in 1993 and wanted to review movies. The weekend news show producer didn't feel I had the skills to do it.

I am not the only black person in New York City who pushed and pushed for a regular spot on a TV news program as a film reviewer but could not crack the apparent color wall.  Nothing against those critics, but the executives who do the hiring seemed determined to keep the film arts discussion limited to a field of Caucasian male viewpoints.

Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg was the first person in New York to offer me work as a film reviewer.  Why?  Because she'd been a guest on my late 1980s VH1 talk show and she was aware of my film knowledge.  She was also aware that the playing field has not been level in the areas of onscreen entertainment news and movie channel hosting.

News show executives will bring us black contributors in to discuss black-related topics such as Blaxploitation films, classic films to see during Black History Month, or films relative to a specific black artist.  But when it comes to a mainstream conversation about superhero franchise sequels or new films from Scorcese, Spielberg and Meryl Streep, we are never seen in the on camera conversation.  From the early 1980s to 2018.

Early in his acting/directing film career, Tyler Perry stopped making his news available for screenings in New York City?  Why? Because the white critics were not attending and not writing about them.  This frustrated us black reviewers but we understood.  The absence of black critics seen on TV was so prevalent that Tyler Perry didn't even think we existed back in 2005 and 2006.  Just like years, Tiffany Haddish won an award from the New York Film Critics Circle for her GIRLS TRIP performance.  In her funny acceptance speech, she mentioned that she only seen two movie critics on TV in her lifetime -- Siskel & Ebert.  Can you imagine if she'd been able to see a black film critic on TV back in the 1990s?  A lot of us were around then in New York City alone.  Tiffany grew up where I did -- in South Central L.A.  She did not see a reflection of herself reviewing movies.  Neither did I.

David Edelstein reviewed STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON in August 2015.  No offense, but do you think David Edelstein has ever walked through Compton after dusk or sat alone on a bench in Compton waiting for a local bus?  I have.  I grew up just a few blocks away from Compton.  Rex Reed hated GET OUT.  He didn't think it was as good as THE STEPFORD WIVES.  I've been acquainted with Rex since the 1980s.  I've seen him and chatted with him at several New York City movie screenings.  At one screening, he told me he'd just gotten back for four weeks vacation in the south of France.

I have never, ever. ever ... in my entire life... known a black or Latino person who had four consecutive weeks of vacation time at a job. Ever.  But Rex Reed did -- and Rex Reed was quoted in national publications telling folks of all colors why we needed to see 12 YEARS A SLAVE.

Last year, HBO premiered SPIELBERG, a documentary directed by Susan Lacy.  There were six film critics and one film historian seen in the HBO documentary. Not a one was African American.  All seven people were white.  And one of the Spielberg films that got a lengthy discussion was THE COLOR PURPLE.

There needs to be diversity and inclusion in the field of film critics.  It cannot continue to be driven by a predominantly white male perspective.  Also, I deeply feel that some bookish white male film critics are mainly writing for other bookish white male film critics.  Not for the masses.  Not for working class people of color.  I mentioned movie channels.  On TCM, there are now four regular hosts -- Ben Mankiewicz, Eddie Muller, Dave Karger and Alicia Malone.  On a semi-regular basis, Leonard Maltin is the host of Disney feature nights.  Five hosts.  All Caucasian.  In 2018.

With those three summer releases hitting the screen, let's see if the light of inclusion turns on in the heads of network TV news producers who book film critics.  Let's see if that light gets turned on in the heads of other TV producers who hire and book talent to talk about movies.  If it doesn't seem to get turned on, I say "Time's Up."  Let's get on social media and write that we want race/gender inclusion and diversity in the field of film reviewers and TV hosts.

I'll see you at the movies.

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