By Dr. Boyce Watkins
Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons stepped into the fray to speak on the recent controversy about the film, “Flight” starring Denzel Washington. In yet another masterful portrayal, Washington gained instant Oscar Buzz for playing his character to a tee, which is what we’ve seen over the last 20 years. I loved the film, and I highly recommend taking a look.
But I also heard the moans in the audience from those who see Denzel in the way they see President Obama. You know who I’m talking about, those (typically women, since he’s a sex symbol) who see Denzel as more than a man playing a role, but as an object of such admiration that he rises above any type of objective analysis.
I study Obama’s policies and Denzel’s acting, to try to appreciate what they do right and wrong, but there are “sistuhs” out there who love these men in a way that says that they can almost never do anything incorrect.
The reason some in the audience were groaning is that Denzel’s character was probably the worst he’s ever portrayed: an alcoholic, drug-addicted, white woman worshipping, wife beating, lying, cheating loser that none of us would want in our own families. Those who love Denzel for the integrity he tends to display on screen were disappointed, but I was only annoyed because these kinds of stereotypical black characters are usually the ones who get Academy Awards. Anyone who understands the creative arts knows that actors are supposed to test their range with a multitude of portrayals, so I completely understand why Denzel decided to take this role.
One challenge for Denzel, however, is that his most recent role was presented in the backdrop of a Hollywood institution that has a long history of wanting to see the worst of black people on screen. They don’t want to see Tuskegee Airmen or Malcolm X, they want to see Flavor Flav and The Help.
Russell Simmons wrote a piece for the Hollywood Reporter in response to my arguments on the matter, and I think that his point of view should be heard. I respect both Simmons and Washington, and encourage you to see the film for yourself (so no, I’m not signing off on a boycott of Denzel’s new movie). But I also encourage all of us to think hard about why the powers-that-be tend to reward black people for degrading ourselves and punish us when we choose to elevate.
This, my friends, is no coincidence:
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.’ “
PHOTO: Russell Simmons.
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, 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 are actually 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 — 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.