Blerd Vision

C. Thomas Howell in his tour-de-force performance as Mark Watson in Soul Man (1986) and yes I’m being sarcastic. Image courtesy of The Telegraph

Imagine a Harriet Tubman biopic starring Julia Roberts (Yes, that Julia Roberts) in the lead role. Her hair corn-rowed or in Bantu knots and her complexion a tanning bed brown as she leads “her people” on a perilous journey through the Underground Railroad to instant scripted freedom.

Sounds impossible, right?

But while you shake your head in disbelief, once upon a time in Hollywood, it was actually a suggestion made by a studio exec who reasoned that because Harriet Tubman is a historical figure from a long ago, bygone era that audiences wouldn’t know the difference between an iconic Black woman and Roberts. Which is very much on-brand for an industry that greenlit a stereotypically racist movie like…well…Soul Man (1986) where anti-Black racism is not to be taken seriously but comes off as an offensively unfunny punchline in an unnecessary romcom no one asked for.

And despite Soul Man co-star Rae Dawn Chong’s best efforts in defending the film, I don’t think it has aged well. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how the movie made “white people look stupid” as Chong claimed. Instead, Blackness gets reduced to C. Thomas Howell’s character, Mark Watson–a Harvard Law School hopeful–ingesting some tanning pills and sporting an obviously fake afro wig as he moved about onscreen, his overt whiteness undetected even by the seemingly intelligent Black characters he frequently interacted with.

Incredibly enough, Chong, Howell and other notable cast members were able to walk away from this train wreck of a movie, careers unscathed. Soul Man was even considered somewhat of a box office success amid lukewarm reviews, harsh criticism by a then up-and-coming film maker Spike Lee, and even though a chapter of the NAACP protested the film at the time of its release.

So why am I bringing up an extremely cringeworthy movie that’s over three decades old and will hopefully never be remade or, God forbid, spawn a sequel or become a streaming television series? Because I’m a Blerd–a Black nerd–which is the kind of thing Blerds do. And in case you haven’t noticed, I proudly wear my Blerd hat whenever I post reviews and I’m often petty and resentful with my analysis because Black people experience movies and television differently.

African Americans understand that historically Hollywood has always been and continues to be a white supremacist’s propaganda machine (*see D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) or you can just watch the Hallmark Channel). Which makes it more difficult for us to emotionally invest in characters and stories that do not share our lived experience of anti-Black racism in this country. And any current attempt at inclusiveness or diversity in Tinseltown, though necessary, often feels more like cultural appropriation, exploitation, and seems mostly profit driven.

It’s also cheaper, costing basically nada to create intersectional narratives about marginalized groups based on race, sex, gender preference, religion, etc…providing the illusion of progress instead of using a very powerful and lucrative platform to produce works that actually confront white supremacy and all of its phobias and -isms head-on. It reminds me of politicians kneeling while wearing Kente cloth or nationalizing Juneteenth without passing any meaningful legislation in genuine support of racial equity.

But let’s face it, Hollywood is not well. Hollywood is not okay. Hollywood, like America, is not ready to be honest about its addiction to whiteness. My guess is that Hollywood is not necessarily addicted to whiteness itself but to the power and privilege that comes with being white in America. And until we can see this addiction for what it really is, a pathological disease, I’ll be waiting for the late comedian Paul Mooney’s film The Last Nigga On Earth starring Tom Hanks to be posthumously released. A movie that will most likely have been directed by Quentin Tarantino.

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