There’s No Such Thing as Black Hollywood

Hollywood’s not a pretend secret club with gatekeepers who don’t want Black people in. It’s a REAL secret club that doesn’t want us in.

by Patrick Washington

The Academy Awards air this month, and four Black actors are going into the ceremony with nominations: Will Smith for “King Richard” and Denzel Washington “The Tragedy of Macbeth” for best actor. And Ariana DeBose got nominated for best supporting actress for “West Side Story,” as did Aunjanue Ellis for “King Richard.”

But I won’t be watching the broadcast.

Some of you may remember the historic Academy Awards night in 2002 when Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, and the late great Sidney Poitier received Oscars for their work and legacy.

I wrote something at the time called “The Night the Oscars Went Black” as a knee-jerk response to an event I had predicted months earlier. If you recall, there was more going on this night than just the entertainment industry honoring films made in 2001 and sobbing Halle Berry speeches. Let me set the stage…

At the ceremony in 2001, Denzel lost Best Actor to Russell Crowe for his performance in 2000’s “Gladiator.” Denzel had been nominated for the lead role in “The Hurricane” — and was pretty much expected to win for his Oscar-bait-y biopic portrayal of Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter, a former middleweight boxer who was wrongly convicted for a triple murder in a bar in Paterson, New Jersey.

Those three Oscar wins that night were in response to a year of pressure, not the talent.

It was an adaptation — Oscar bait — about a real person — Oscar bait — starring an Oscar winner — Oscar bait. AND it had some white savior flavor in there. OSCAR BAAAAIT. Not to mention, Denzel Washington had already won the 2000 Golden Globe for Best Actor, which is a good indicator of how the Oscars will go.

Halle Berry was also nominated for her role in the film “Monster’s Ball.” I have to be honest: I’ve never seen this movie all the way through. In 2001, I was content not watching a Black woman being “loved” — if that’s what we’re calling it — by some white man.

To be fair, the nominations for films released in 2001 weren’t strong, and due to the Denzel snub for “The Hurricane,” many folks were expecting a classic Hollywood overcompensation routine.

Finally, Sidney Poitier was honored with an honorary Oscar, given by Denzel no less.

OK, so why all this backstory?

Those three Oscar wins that night were in response to a year of pressure — reminders of the mistake and the politics of the industry — not the talent. Denzel won for playing a villain in “Training Day.” Halle won for playing a broken Black woman who has a questionable relationship (if we can call it that) with a white man in “Monster’s Ball.” Sidney Poitier “won” for basically being Sidney Poitier for the last 50 years. That’s it.

In her announcement of the winner, even Julia Roberts, who presented the award to Denzel, proclaimed, “About time!” as if to subtly let us in on the joke.

I remember sitting there watching the broadcast with my cousin and her friends. I’d accurately predicted out loud the winners of most of the categories, and when it came to the moment for Denzel and Halle, I told everyone confidentially, “Oh, they will win, trust me… they don’t want that drama again this year.”

Moments later, they were all open-mouthed and amazed. I wasn’t. When Denzel won, he stated, “Two birds with one stone, eh?” The crowd lightly chuckled, again letting us in on the joke. I stopped watching the Oscars after that.

The problem is an affinity for white validation runs deep in Hollywood’s Black circles.

So here you get the headline: There is no Black Hollywood, and that moment made me understand it.

Black folks have long maligned the representation of our community, as it is portrayed through the Hollywood lens. Another op-ed could easily be about the beginnings of Hollywood and its reliance on Black oppression. “Birth of a Nation,” “The Jazzman,” “Gone With the Wind,” — Hollywood keeps us remembering how amazing these films are even though they add to the violence against Black people. They are touted as “technical marvels” and “cinematic master classes” — and are still being placed on lists of the top films of all time.

Years after Denzel, Halle, and Sidney won, prominent Black filmmakers still beg to get their invite into the VIP with campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite — the next hashtag should be #Duh.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Many have tried and failed to create a media industry that represents Black America.

Tim Reid — for my generation, the dad on the sitcom “Sister Sister,” has, since the late ’70s, campaigned for control of the creative works of African Americans. He has launched production companies and even recently launched a streaming service. I recently watched an interview with Tim Reid where he lamented that his colleagues didn’t believe they could achieve the type of success they wanted without major studio partnerships or investment.

Then there’s Robert Townsend, creator of the quintessential Black Hollywood experience film, “Hollywood Shuffle.” He’s repeatedly tried to get his peers to join him in creating a “Black Hollywood “center. But, again, he has stated that he couldn’t get the support of the other Black people around him. 

So why can’t Black people create this “thing”? After a few decades of studying this and watching it unfold in real life, I concluded that Black people working in Hollywood don’t want to. 

Not to count anyone’s pockets, but of just the Black Oscar nominees, you’re looking at half a billion in wealth and resources — and that doesn’t even include production companies, social clout, fanship etc. 

You really have to ask yourself why you keep hearing from Black audiences: “We don’t want non-American actors playing historic Black American roles” or “Why can’t we just have a Black James Bond?” or “Why we always get the same type of slave movie?” — especially when we know the people and resources are available to make something else. 

It’s not a pretend secret club with gatekeepers who just don’t want to let Black people in. It’s a REAL secret club that doesn’t want us in. 

We get hit with the same okey-doke that corporate America throws when it comes to recycling: “Well, what are you doing about it?” 

Seriously, that’s the response. “It’s on you, Black community.”

The problem is an affinity for white validation runs deep in Hollywood’s Black circles. DEEP. Ranging from the ever-so-subtle stereotypical characterization of Black Americans to the forced, token white character present in most, if not all, Black media. 

I think Black people working in entertainment have been beaten up so much that they believe the way Hollywood runs is actually supposed to be that way. Like, can you make a movie if there are no white people involved? 

You have to realize that there hasn’t been Black programming or cinema that has been created specifically for Black people. It’s all for white people — for the white gaze. Yep, even the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and “Martin,” Even “Living Single,” and “Family Matters” — all for white people. 

And if by some chance, white people ain’t feeling it like that, they’ll add some shows — because they can. Don’t believe me? Reference “New York Undercover,” anything on The WB, and the entire UPN network. 

So, what do we do? Well, as always, support the Black Press — the foundation of Black media — and watch entertainment built from the ground up, which is the best plan, if you ask me.

And stay woke. Because what you should have noticed by now is that it has been 20 years since that Oscar night where Halle and Denzel won, and not much, if anything, has changed. 

Black entertainers make millions, they create production companies — and even now have full studios — and we still get remakes of white TV shows, movies shaded brown for “diversity and representation,” and reimaginings of old Black shows and movies. When something does come out that Black people actually like, it gets canceled or under-marketed, so it can’t last (Check Misha Green’s catalog for reference).

The only way to make a Black Hollywood is to first understand Hollywood is an actual place. Put it in Google — you’ll get directions. It’s not an idea or a social concept. Hollywood is full of studios and filmmakers and lawyers. It has scale and reach. It took 100 years to build, and it’s a major part of the American social fabric. 

It’s NOT an imaginary feeling created by people who want to be seen. It’s not a theoretical concept only shared by creatives. It’s not a pretend secret club with gatekeepers who just don’t want to let Black people in. It’s a REAL secret club that doesn’t want us in. 

It has been 20 years since that Oscar night where Halle and Denzel won, and not much, if anything, has changed. 

But here’s some good news: Black people can make enough money to build studios. Black people can be creative enough to write good scripts. Black people can be savvy enough to partner with movie theaters and build TV stations and streaming services. And Black people have enough money to spend to make Black Hollywood a viable industry.  

Maybe, just maybe, we can look to ourselves to honor ourselves. We can give them a cheeky nod when we all show up looking like the Harlem Stroll in 1924 to the Micheaux Awards (see what I did there), and never again worry about what the old Hollywood squares think was worthy that year. 

I still love movies, and I am excited about where Black filmmakers are taking the art. Jordan Peele, Misha Green, Barry Jenkins, Melina Matsoukas, Boots Riley, Jeymes Samuel, and many more are slowly creating that reality. I can see it. I just don’t want them to get to the top and realize that they only got to where they are because Black people saw white people watching them in awe and thought, maybe we should watch, too. 

I have hope and faith that one day they will realize they already have the tools — and the resources — to create Black Hollywood for real. 

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