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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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*SPOILER ALERT*: The Story Of America Does Not End Well

AP Photo by Julio Cortez of flag bearing protester

“You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible that you were a worthless human being.”

James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time)

How We Got Here
So, how did we get here? Short answer: White supremacy. The insurrection, the attempted coup by a terrorist mob of white Trump supporters on the Capitol in Washington on January 6 of this year only serves to punctuate a history of unchecked white supremacy in this country. The ease with which they gained access, believing that their cause is just, and the feeling of righteous indignation, entitlement, and impunity for their actions is on brand for a race of people whom history has inadvertently conditioned to believe that they are America’s perpetual ruling class. A false notion largely unchallenged for centuries.

This Is Not Who America Is
This is exactly who America damn well is. America’s very own history indicts this country on a daily basis for its growing list of atrocities carried out against its non-white citizens. But this is America’s current dilemma–squandering valuable opportunities to reckon with and failing to atone for its historical legacy of racism, inequality, and injustice. And after the white insurrectionist’s coup attempt, there are some who foolishly claim that this is not what America stands for. That this is not the America that they know and that America is somehow better than this when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

America Is A Failed State
America originated as a failed state founded upon the violence and bloodshed of its hypocritical, genocidal, land-grabbing, white supremacist, racist enslavers. America’s sordid history of forced bondage, oppression, and toxic white nationalism is very much alive in the faces printed on our currency, in the holidays that we celebrate, in centuries old monuments, in the namesakes on our various institutions across the US, the flags that we pledge our allegiance to, and even in our nation’s anthem. They are constant reminders of not only this country’s many transgressions but of its continued refusal to take responsibility for them.

America Must Unite?
Calling for unity and healing in this moment without first punishing those accountable for trying to violently overturn the results of a presidential election is disingenuous and unrealistic. Historically, America has given little indication that it is actively seeking to purge white supremacy from the soul of this nation. And threatening to impeach and remove Trump from office does nothing to ensure that these types of incidents will never happen again. I believe the insurrection on the Capitol was just the opening act of 2021 setting a frightening precedent.

The Message Is Clear
African Americans have long since lost the luxury of being shocked much less surprised by white violence in this country. But we remain outraged with our humanity yet to be recovered because we know that last week’s carnage in Washington will not result in any significant changes in policing or severe punishment for those involved, especially when we see Kyle Rittenhouse out on bail after killing two protestors in Kenosha, Wisconsin last year. And after Jacob Blake learned that no charges would be brought against a white police officer, Rusten Sheskey, for shooting him in the back multiple times which initially led to the unrest in Kenosha where Rittenhouse was able to act out his white power, vigilante fantasy.

My Prognosis For America
Make no mistake, it is not because white supremacists felt necessarily threatened by a Joe Biden presidency that spurred the deadly events at the Capitol. Or that they even felt the election was actually stolen. It is because white supremacists were utterly humiliated on a global stage by a majority of Black, Brown, and Indigenous masses–Americans they do not consider to be deserving of equal rights as citizens–who mobilized, organized, to overcome blatant voter suppression tactics to deliver a historical ass-whoopin’ to Trump at the ballot box. And what many consider to be the chef’s kiss by electing Kamala Harris–the first woman and woman of color–to be this country’s vice president. Signaling a power shift that the white racist patriarchy and their supporters feel they must destroy by any means necessary including violence in order to preserve white supremacy at all cost. Which is why the story of America cannot end well.