By Okodan Akwap
The mightily deceptive allure of Hollywood is that many black actors would be dying to play villains
Among local commentaries on America’s problematic race relations, Andrew Mwenda’s article, ‘Beyond America’s façade of democracy’ (The Independent, December 8), stands out.
He notes that, “The ‘democratic’ process … consistently promotes the narrative that a criminal is a black male. So effective has been the mass media propagation of the image of a black person as a criminal in the U.S. that most Americans subconsciously equate crime to blackness.”
I join Mwenda in slamming the grand jury decision to clear a white police officer, Darren Wilson, who killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri and the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by another cop, Timothy Loehmann, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Mwenda poses – and answers in general terms – the question: “How does America criminalise an entire part of its population and yet retain this image as a successful democracy in the minds of many people, especially the African intellectual elite?”
I want to tackle that question with one specific answer: Hollywood. Hollywood is a mosaic of creations that have succeeded in making real life to imitate art instead of the other way round.
A chance to visit America in 1990 on a six-month press fellowship opened my eyes to one of the most effective ways America “hides its crimes at home and abroad” , to use Mwenda’s words.
Together with another fellow from South Africa, Themba Molefe, a reporter with The Sowetan newspaper, we had an opportunity to attend the National Association of Black Journalists Annual Convention in Los Angeles. We also visited Universal Studios, one of the biggest in Hollywood.
One of the key issues that came up for discussion was how Hollywood greatly portrayed – on TV and big-screen film – nasty stereotypes about blacks as criminals – killers, gangsters, crooks, rapists, drug dealers, prostitutes, dirty cops, name it.
I learned firsthand that the mightily deceptive allure of Hollywood is that many black actors would be dying to play villains in blockbuster movies. Bad characters aside, many would thankfully play loyal servants, gardeners, drivers, etc, to rich whites. Remember Morgan Freeman in the 1989 film ‘Driving Miss Daisy?’
In 2001, Denzel Washington, a top-drawer African-American actor, won an Academy award for playing a corrupt cop. In 2011, the Academy award for best actress in a supporting role went to Octavia Spencer, a black woman who played the role of a maid in the film ‘The Help.’ In 2014, Lupita Nyong’o, a Mexican-Kenyan actress won a similar accolade for playing a slave.
These are some of the many instances Hollywood portrays blacks as either villainous or inferior to whites. Like Mwenda, many American commentators find such media portrayal appalling.
Stephen Balkaran states: “The (US) media have focused on the negative aspects of the black community … while maintaining the cycle of poverty that the elite wants.”
Nadra Kareem Nittle, a race relations expert, notes: “There’s no shortage of black male actors playing drug dealers, pimps, con-artists and other forms of criminals … The disproportionate amount of African Americans playing criminals in Hollywood fuels the racial stereotype that black men are dangerous and have zero respect for the law.”
No matter what you say, the danger to us is far-reaching. Many gullible children have very easy access to Hollywood’s misleading, stereotypical creations shown as “entertainment” on screens in our homes, bars, cinemas, video halls, Internet cafes and mobile phones.
It is possible that we have many youths falling victim to drugs, alcohol, unsafe sex and crime partly because these activities are romanticised in Hollywood films and “soaps” from Latin America.
If your kids like watching TV, never ignore the PG (parental guidance) or other age-limit warnings. Real life is not always what it seems to be on TV.
Okodan Akwap is a lecturer at Kampala International University