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Tag Archives: Race

Race From The Top

 

It’s delicate to talk about race. It’s downright incendiary to do so about a race outside of one’s own. Of course it’s the 21st century and we should have matured beyond this point by now. We think nothing of discussing religion, politics or sex at the dinner table or loudly into our phones on public transport. But race? Well, that’s a horse of a different color.

Race matters, as does religion. Many people define themselves by, well by their people. When asked to describe themselves in three words, many will default to; race/religion, gender, politics (or romantic affiliation depending on context/election year.) How we define ourselves is based somewhat on our affinity to a minority group. If one is a white Christian male, he may define himself in terms of profession or hobby. For truth be told, the majority venture through life a bit differently than anyone in an underrepresented group. (It can be confusing to consider women, who are 51% of the population as “underrepresented” but when we do so, we are referencing their position in society.) In the broadest terms, a white Christian male experiences, on the whole, fewer incidents of exclusion. They likely don’t have shop owners looking at them askew, or taxi drivers refusing their fare. They don’t have people assuming they’re the nurse (versus the surgeon) or the flight attendant (versus the pilot.) They don’t look upon the White House Christmas/Easter celebrations, year after year after year, and think; “Where do I fit into this Christian country?”

Almost any minority narrative is peppered with “where do I fit in.” We look at the culture as represented in entertainment, commerce, and leadership. We seek something familiar, someone with whom we can identify. With each decade our popular culture becomes incrementally diverse. If we were to grab the television remote today, and try very very hard, we could probably find positive depictions of more than the majority race. We may even find gay and lesbian people/characters who weren’t playing the perennial punch line. Women are more prominent in serious roles on television. But without a lofty film career or British citizenship on their resume, they are still mostly (two packs-a-day, dabbling in harmful behaviors) underweight and equipped with perfectly symmetrical faces. But they do vary in shades (if not body type.) The lighter darker skinned woman is much more prevalent on the small and sometimes larger screen. Many primetime dramas have a principle cast that includes women of (near of far) eastern, Latina or African American background. Most (if not all) are quite light. You can’t say the same for men of color in television or film. We could all probably rattle off at least a dozen high-powered/profile big box-office actors who are on the darker side. Some of these accomplished actors also wear the mantle of sex symbol. Can we think of even one actress with dark skin who is a) big box-office or b) a sex symbol? (This question is not rhetorical, please post comments.)

Recently the casting of a (n unauthorized) film about Nina Simone was leaked. Ms. Simone was a breath-taking talent (and civil rights advocate) and a dark skinned woman. The actress selected is Dominican/Puerto Rican and quite light skinned. While color blind casting can work, it does not when the subject matter is inextricably linked to race. Most likely there is no grand conspiracy at work here. More likely it is a general industry consensus that lead actresses need to appeal to the majority white male. Walk into any hair salon in any neighborhood and ask the women of any race, religion, and ethnicity if they would throw Denzel Washington or Jamie Foxx out of the bedroom. Go ahead, I’ll wait. But women, to be considered desirable by popular culture, must look somewhat related to Barbie. She can be Barbie’s tanned cousin, but her features (i.e., hair, face) must still look as if they belong on the Mattel family tree.

The good(?) news is that we have made some progress in the area of dark skinned leading men (no doubt Sidney Poitier was getting very lonely.) But the much more disturbing news is that women must still conform to a perceived majority male ideal. Is there any market research to bear this ideal out? Or is it simply that there are just a handful of people in any real power in Hollywood and what we see is in fact their own personal preference? Dark skinned actors are fine, because these male producers (probably) don’t want to sleep with them. They want to hang out with them (because in their worldview of race, this will make them cooler.)

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2012 in Cultural Critique

 

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The Human Race

I am often brought to my emotional knees by displays of humanity, specifically in the form of unity or support.  I have learned to choose my eye make-up carefully when attending the Heritage of Pride parade every July.  The marching NYPD and FDNY always destroy me as I know my history and recognize the gravity of the solidarity.  This summer I was brought down by the mother riding on the back of her daughter’s motorcycle while holding a sign proclaiming her pride in her daughter.  Humans supporting humans, be it strangers, family or friends, just plucks at my heartstrings.  Yet knowing this somehow did not fully prepare me for the emotional avalanche of watching the NYC Marathon at the finish line.

I think that it is safe to assume that for every runner, there is a story.  No one runs a marathon on a whim.  I certainly expected the city flair which was on display with running; chickens, Elvis, superheros, inflatable sumo wrestler suits, ballerinas, clowns, Blues Brothers and the like.  But the degree to which runners were being bolstered (physically and spiritually) by strangers, friends, and partners was surprising.  I stood next to a man who shouted words of encouragement to every person who ran past him with a name written on their shirt.  He did this for an hour.  “You can do it Amy.”  “You’re almost there big Sal.”  “Dig deep Carl, dig deep.”  I lost count of the couples holding hands as they walked/stumbled and dragged each other to the end.  There were many “teams” running together and more often than not, there was one member being held up while others slowed their pace in order to stay together.  One man collapsed with an injured leg and could no longer walk.  Marathon volunteers picked him up and carried him to the finish line.  I saw a young woman holding a rope tied to an old man.  I saw runner guides leading disabled runners.  I lost count of how many pairs of runners had their arms around one another’s waist.  There was a military “no one gets left behind” determination on their faces.  As the sun set and the crowds of spectators thinned, a race organizer took to the microphone and yelled inspirational messages (in a good way.)  She told the runners that they were just a block away from the moment they’ve been waiting for and one that they’ll never forget.  She did this for hours.  In the dark.

It was a moving and inspirational day for this non-marathoner.  I tried not to focus on the anomaly of the outpouring of support and instead simply revel in it.  Parades, marathons, snowstorms, disaster, they bring out our best.  It’s not that we choose to not be our best everyday, it’s that most of us simply don’t have that kind of stamina.

 
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Posted by on November 7, 2011 in Cultural Critique

 

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Race – Review

I (finally) saw David Mamet’s Race this weekend at the fabulous Ethel Barrymore Theatre.  Much has been written about Mamet’s latest plays being “less than Mamet.”  I am not a huge proponent of holding artists to a rigid historical framework, yet went to this production with just a bit of apprehension.  If the critics (professional and water cooler alike) find Mamet’s more recent works to be less explosive and edgy, I would agree.  If they are equating the fading of sizzle and the increase of substance to be an indication of talent slippage, I would disagree.  Race is powerful in the way that Mamet is always powerful.  The use of language is intoxicating, the rhythms hypnotic, and the respect for the audience palpable.  We are made to question the questions posed.  There is subtext that is presented, not pretentiously, but dramatically.  There are elements in the storyline similar to Doubt, and clearly the audience left the theatre in a similar; “did he, didn’t he?” manner.  The cast (in classic Mamet style) is comprised of four characters.  Also, classically Mamet, is the poor female character.  Whether the cartoonishly drawn female has become his intentional hallmark or not, it is there, as predictable as a Hirschfeld “Nina.”

The plot centers around a wealthy white man (Richard Thomas) accused of raping a black woman.  The attorneys considering representing Mr. Thomas are played exquisitely by James Spader and David Alan Grier.  Their assistant is a young woman of color (Kerry Washington.)  Directed by Mr. Mamet, on an old fashioned slanted stage, creating great sight lines and interesting subtext.  Mr. Thomas displays utterly convincing mannerism of the manor born.  There was a moment, when Spader, Grier, and Thomas were on stage together, that I briefly thought of the different decades of pop-culture they represented (In Living Color, Brat Pack, Waltons) but that is entirely my own issue, and not that of the actors or the production!

Ms. Washington is not served by her part or direction.  She is stilted and not believable as a person, let alone a neophyte or con-artist (we’re never sure which.)  Elizabeth Moss was recently able to break out of the Mamet female stranglehold in Speed the Plow.  I would suggest, that Ms Moss is the exception.  The only other distraction in the production is a strange pause between scenes in the second act.  It is not needed dramatically or technically and is just kind of bizarre.

If you love language, if you have any interest in race, politics or sociology, or if you simply love seeing brilliant performances, this is the play for you.  It was entirely refreshing to leave a play feeling intellectually challenged and respected.  The cast could be perceived as interlopers (although all are stage actors) and this could be seen by some as a ‘bold face’ name production.  It did not feel star studded in the least (even William H Macy and his wife, seated in front of me did not disturb the lack of glamorousness of the production.)  Perhaps when all is said and done, I’ll take multi-layered substance over sizzle any day.

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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