It all started back in 2002, when Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won Academy Awards for their respective leading performances in Monster’s Ball and Training Day. After decades of a invisibility, the kind that Ralph Ellison so eloquently defined in Invisible Man, suddenly the blinders on the eyes of mainstream audiences and Academy voters had seemingly been removed and black performers were no longer “Hollywood ectoplasms” but reel characters of actual flesh and blood that could be appreciated beyond the casual and crude stereotypes that had haunted screens for so long.
Jamie Foxx (Ray) and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) came into sharp focus. Morgan Freeman, who along with Washington had attracted passing glances before from the Academy (supporting nominations for Street Smart and Driving Miss Daisy), finally earned recognition for Million Dollar Baby, and last year Mo’nique poked audiences in the eye with her searing portrayal of a hellish welfare mother in Precious.
To paraphrase the ubiquitous catchphrase from those cell-phone commercials, we no longer needed to ask, “Can you see me now?” It seemed as if the resounding answer was, “Yes, we can!”
Of course, that makes 2010 a bit confounding because fresh off the aforementioned wins, a host of nominations and a steady rise in the presence of African-American filmmakers working and finding success behind the cameras (from Tyler Perry to Lee Daniels) to an emergence as studio project shepherds (F. Gary Gray's The Italian Job and Law Abiding Citizen) and indie storytellers (Barry Jenkins' Medicine For Melancholy) has resulted in a year of stagnation that could be either a mere dipping blip on the radar or a return of the fade to invisibility.
On the surface, the appeal of African-American performers appears to be broadening.
One such example would be the seemingly inexplicable retread of Death at a Funeral, which transplanted a curiously absurd British comedy of manners to the black U.S. suburbs. Yet, the nearly note-for-note replay (featuring Peter Dinklage in virtually the same role in both films) dares viewers to find and appreciate the similarities rather than the differences in the all-too human comedy. Unfortunately, the urban niche market might not have embraced the class-based laughs and the largely black cast possibly scared off mainstream moviegoers.
That last statement might trouble some readers, but the reality and the box-office evidence suggests an uncomfortable truth. Studios continue to assume that films with predominantly black casts don’t play as well outside the U.S. (meaning in large part that these films are not granted wide international release) or even within the domestic market.
The Tyler Perry brand, with its roots on the stage that have extended to film and television, is a cash cow for Lionsgate — but only within its niche urban audience, having proven unable to tap into the general ticket buyer public. Why Did I Get Married Too performed as expected, but his reach certainly failed to exceed his grasp with For Colored Girls, his adaptation of the award-winning choreopoem by Ntozake Shange (for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf).
Attempting to stake out a claim beyond the stereotypical urban drama that has been his staple, Perry slammed into a glass ceiling that caused far more harm to the wings of several talented performers in his cast than to his own dreams of flight. Actresses like Loretta Devine, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose and newcomer Tessa Thompson give voice to exquisitely haunting characters, women who desperately need to be seen and heard, especially in this new world order of keenly heightened visibility. But because this is seen as a “Tyler Perry” production, their efforts get relegated to the periphery, out of sight and mind.
Kerry Washington, one of the colorful ladies of For Colored Girls, spent 2010 chipping away at that invisible barrier. She burned brightly among the fine ensemble cast of Rodrigo Garcia’s Mother and Child, alongside a noteworthy performance from Annette Bening. This multifaceted gem of a film was one of the few truly diverse offerings from either the studio or independent world mixing the flavorful spices of class and race into a hearty stew about the universal nature of motherhood.
Washington was able to fully embody a strongly driven black female in the world without having to explicitly signify her status as such. And she ended the year with Night Catches Us, the Sundance-supported feature debut of writer-director Tanya Hamilton, about former Black Panthers struggling to resettle in Philadelphia in the mid-1970s.
It's films like these and performers like Washington and Night co-star Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker) that keep hope alive for the continued visibility of black folks onscreen. For both performers and audience, it's vital that an open awareness exists, a recognition of the necessity for stories from our cultural perspective that also speak to our presence in the greater socio-cultural frame so that we all can see and appreciate how black folks help to define what it means to be visibly human participants in the ever-evolving modern American narrative.