This is an expanded piece from a recent Facebook post.
Recently my good friend, Maxx Myrick posted a piece about John Wayne's daughter endorsing Donald Trump for president on Facebook. Within that piece was an excerpt from Wayne's 1971 Playboy interview. It was so disturbing that I had to find it and read the whole thing in context. That didn't help.
Looking for the Cool, is designed to be exactly what the name implies, an ongoing search for content that has an aesthetic which appeals to me, one that I'm happy to share with others. However, the current uproar regarding the lack of diversity in this year's upcoming Academy Awards broadcast made me think that sometimes 'looking for the cool' calls for emphasis on the 'Looking' part of the title, and an examination or observation of 'Cool' not found. This blog has no interest or facility in becoming a political soapbox (aside from saying "don't vote for Trump, vote for anybody else"), but as a lifelong fan of movies, this is a disheartening trend that needs as much light shined on it as possible.
Below is another excerpt from that Playboy
interview with John Wayne that gives an example of an ideology that unfortunately seems to still be pervasive in the voting Academy to some degree. To be clear, I am aware that there are more important issues to be upset about than who wins a gold plated statue. I'm not equating the Oscars with any of them. The reality is that film, television and music have a lot to do with our perception of ourselves and how we are perceived around the world. Addressing that which uses our talent and doesn't represent us fairly does matter. I leave it to each person to determine how much. It's not a matter of asking for 'handouts' or cinematic 'affirmative action' as many narrow minded, faceless (and nameless) writers have suggested. It's like any other business: if the work is superlative and well received by previously agreed on measurements of success (critically, commercially etc.), then acknowledge the work accordingly.
JOHN WAYNE PLAYBOY INTERVIEW- 1971
"I will say this, though: I think any black who can compete with a white today can get a better break than a white man. I wish they'd tell me where in the world they have it better than right here in America.
PLAYBOY: Many militant blacks would argue that they have it better almost anywhere else. Even in Hollywood, they feel that the color barrier is still up for many kinds of jobs.
Do you limit the number of blacks you use in your pictures?
WAYNE: Oh, Christ no. I've directed two pictures and I gave the blacks their proper position. I had a black slave in The Alamo, and I had a correct number of blacks in The Green Berets. If it's supposed to be a black character, naturally I use a black actor. But I don't go so far as hunting for positions for them. I think the Hollywood studios are carrying their tokenism a little too far. There's no doubt that 10 percent of the population is black, or colored, or whatever they want to call themselves; they certainly aren't Caucasian. Anyway, I suppose there should be the same percentage of the colored race in films as in society. But it can't always be that way. There isn't necessarily going to be 10 percent of the grips or sound men who are black, because more than likely, 10 percent haven't trained themselves for that type of work."
Now, it may not be fair to ascribe the opinions of a long dead father to his living and politically active daughter, but when she endorses someone who has made a commitment to insult and denigrate anyone who doesn't fit his idea of what an 'American' is, one could argue that perhaps the nut didn't fall terribly far from the tree.
But more importantly (and much more disturbing) than Ms. Wayne's poor choice of candidates, is the way the rejection of the voting results by people of color has upset older members of the Academy and younger whites who claim that this is another call for affirmative action. It reminds me of the recent battle President Obama endured as he worked to convince the country of the need for better gun control laws. Where he called for a better screening process, gun advocates heard 'he wants to take our guns', even after he clearly stated 'this is not a measure to take guns or violate your right to defend yourself', it didn't matter, they heard what they wanted to hear.
In this case, the black film community is saying that if people of color do exceptional work, let it be fairly judged with the work of their white counterparts. There has been a rush to try to shut down the discussion by framing it as something that it's not, but it's not working. I've read pieces where 'anonymous' Academy members talk about how there have been black actors who've won Oscars, like there's a quota that's been met. It's true that there have been a number of winners over the last 15 years, but aside from Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby) and Jamie Foxx (Ray), those awards have gone for portrayals of slaves (Glory, 12 Years A Slave), criminals (Training Day), broken down women (Monster's Ball, Precious), maids (The Help) and homicidal dictators (Last King of Scotland). By that selection, Idris Elba's performance as the monstrous leader of a group of young men going to war should have been a shoo-in.
Looking at the awards won, is it wrong to consider that a selection of the older voting members may more likely to vote for people of color, when they're in roles that have the stamp of oppression all over them? Is it possible that for some members it's easier to see black people in these stereotypical roles than deal with a world where an African doctor can come to America and have an impact that affects an entire industry (Concussion), or where a young black man can be a professional boxer and still be intelligent, articulate and sensitive (Creed) or where a group of hip hop artists could use their art to connect with people around the world, while shining a light on unfair practices at home (Straight Outta Compton)?
Of course, there's no real way to know the answer to those questions, but the fact that they can't be dismissed out of hand is a shame. At the Sundance Film Festival recently, The Birth of a Nation, (writer-director-producer-star) Nate Parker's story about Nat Turner's slave rebellion shook the festival to its foundation with its powerful story of the effects of slavery in the 1800s. Shortly after the screening, reviews went up in the trade magazines singing the film's praises, but you didn't have go too far down in the comments section to see statements like, "it'll probably win all of the Oscars next year to make up for last year" or "note to white directors with Oscar-worthy project this next year. Shelve the project till 2017. You’ve already lost." How about this one: 'This claptrap cannot come within a million miles of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 masterpiece The Birth of a Nation”.
And then, just when you think you've read the most ridiculous remarks that anyone could write, there's always one waiting in the wings to surprise you: "Slavery was a small part and the countries prosperity took off only after slavery was ended. It’s pc now a days to somehow make blacks feel better about themselves by saying slavery had a bigger part than it did". Those are all real comments taken from Deadline Hollywood.
Once again, these geniuses are missing the point. The goal isn't for The Birth of a Nation to be nominated and win because black folks got shut out two years in a row. The goal is to win because the film is determined by a jury of its peers to be the best of the rest. Jada Pinkett-Smith's recent video suggesting a boycott of the Academy Awards offered a thoughtful point of view to consider. I found this passage from her remarks particularly stirring: "Begging for acknowledgment, or even asking, diminishes dignity, and diminishes power, and we are a dignified people - and we are powerful, and let's not forget it."
But on the other side of the coin, David Oyelowo made an equally valid point: "I would like to walk away and say it doesn't matter, but it does, because that acknowledgement changes the trajectory of your life, your career and the culture of the world we live in."
While I won't be watching the Oscars this year, aside from Chris Rock's opening monologue, I will be going to the movies and watching the debut of the Black Panther onscreen in Captain America: Civil War, Jesse Owens putting his foot to Hitler's ass in Race, Don Cheadle as Miles Davis in Miles Ahead, the return of The Best Man('s Wedding), the hijinks of The Rock and Kevin Hall in Central Intelligence, documentaries on Maya Angelou and Michael Jackson, Morris from America, one of the best reviewed films at Sundance this year, starring Craig Robertson and Southside With You, a film about the first date of Barack Obama and the future first lady, Michelle Robinson among others.
So there are a lot of choices for entertainment and a lot of opportunities to speak with your pocketbook. The road to Oscar seems to be a long one, but there are some cool stops along the way. I think one of our greatest artists sums it up nicely in his classic composition, 'I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothin' Open Up the Door, I'll Get It Myself', with this lyric:
Here I come, here I come
I'm comin' in any type of weather
Comin' 'cause I got myself together
Open up, open up, open up, up