It’s the Men’s Turn
Program Explores the Undertones of Celebrated Black Actors and their Controversial Award Winning Roles
By Auburn Mann
Four days prior to the 84th Academy Awards, the Department Student Life completed their pre-Oscar dual part series with, “Commendable or Crooked”, with this being a sequel of sorts to the program held a week earlier entitled “Stand-up or Sell Out”, centered on Academy Award winning African American actresses and the controversy that is often associated with these, this one dealt with African American actors and their Oscar winning portrayals.
Tamisha Jackson, who also hosted Stand up or Sell out, began this event in a parallel manner, “I expect ya’ll to do a majority of the talking today” she light heartedly stated. Then she backed up this desire for interaction by distributing colored cards ,with one color saying commendable , and the other one saying crooked, leaving it up to the audience to eventually select a card to judge whether the actor was commendable or crooked for playing that role.
The actors who were of subject, included Sydney Poitier and his pioneering Oscar success in Lillie of the Fields(1963) in the role of Homer Smith, Louis Gosset Jr. for the Officer and a Gentlemen (1982), Cuba Gooding Jr in his supporting role for Jerry Maguire (1996), Denzel’s supporting and lead roles in Glory(1989), and Training Day(2001) respectively, Jamie Foxx for his depiction of legendary Soul and Rhythm and Blues musician Ray Charles in Ray(2004), Morgan Freeman in Million Dollar Baby(2004), and Forest Whitaker for the Last King of Scotland in 2007. After a series of brief clips of the movies, the discussion commenced.
First, in evaluating the actors as far as rating them either commendable or crooked for their roles, unlike the more varied consensus when it came to the event’s female counterpart the week before, this vote leaned almost unanimously toward Commendable, with the exception of Denzel’s role as Alonzo Harris with a few tentative assertions when it came to Jamie Foxx in his candid portrayal Ray. Ms. Jackson took note of this, saying “that’s interesting; the fellows get mostly commendable, whereas the ladies were seen mostly as sellouts.”
Jackson then asked “what are some other films that some of these same actors were in, that you feel should have won?” This really galvanized everyone, which was beginning to thicken due to the conclusion of the schedule rivaling Student Body meeting. Some common answers were Denzel Washington for Malcolm X, and The Hurricane, which as most of the attendees agreed were quite a bit more constructive than training day, or Cuba Gooding Jr in Boyz n The Hood. This naturally progressed into a “Why not”? One reoccurring theory that arose was the issue of typecasting among African American actors and actresses.
Someone like Denzel, who tends to be selected for more serious roles, with him epitomizing the strong black man .Yet; ironically, he won his highest honor at the academy awards for a negative role, in Training Day, and incidentally, the same year Halle Barrie became the first African American women to win an Academy Award for best Actress, through the price of a unsavory portrayal of black mother and womanhood in Monsters Ball. On the other hand, actor Morgan Freeman is consistently type casted as what critics refer to as the “The Magical Negro”, which is a role that usually entails an old black man who is responsible for imparting some pivotal advice to the main protagonist, who for the majority of the time is a white male. This was evident in his Oscar-winning role of best supporting actor in “Million Dollar Baby”.
The discussion then progressed into black actors who have broken out of their typecasting. This inevitably went back to Denzel, and how his villainous role in Training Day, was a stretch from his usual “stand up” parts. Another actor who was recognized in this manner was Jamie Foxx, who grew from doing “Lawanda on In Living Color, to Ray”, as one put it.” In both cases these role reversals were able to lead to greater success.
Jackson then asked, “Now continuing down the would of, could of, should of page, Can anyone identify any black actors who were nominated for an Oscar but didn’t win”? Names such as, Will Smith, and Don Cheadle, came up. “One of the things we should pay attention to is who some of these actors were up against the year they were nominated” stated Jackson. Will Smith, who has been nominated for an academy award twice for the films, Ali, and Pursuit of Happiness, in 2006, has lost twice.
However, his defeats have been to many of the celebrated Oscar winners. At the 74th Academy awards, in 2002, he lost to none other than Denzel Washington in “Training Day,” and five years later at the 79th Academy Awards, his inspirational rags to riches role as Stockbrokerage CEO Chris Gardner, lost to Forest Whitaker’s imitation of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, Forest Whitaker, in “The Last King of Scotland.” In Don Cheadle’s case for his part in the 2004 dramatic “Hotel Rwanda,” lost to Jamie Foxx in “Ray.”
One thing Jackson pointed out in the reason, many of these seemingly equal or even greater performances and films bore the brunt of defeat, was their subtle lack of diversity compared to the victor actors. For example, in Denzel’s “Glory,” some of his costar’s included the likes Matthew Broderick, as Col. Robert Gould Shaw. Fast forward to 1996, with “Jerry Maguire,” the lead actor, which Cuba Gooding Jr was awarded for supporting, was Tom Cruise. Forest Whitaker, in “The Last King of Scotland,” was supported by Caucasian British actor, James McAvoy. Louis Gossett Jr.’s Sgt. Emil Foley, was supporting Richard Gere. In addition to this harsh reality, according to Jackson, many of the Oscar winners or even nominees starred in autobiographical films, whether, “Ali,” “Malcolm X”, Ray Charles, or, Idi Amin.
Finally, just as during the week before, Jackson asked the question “are we too hard on ourselves? As African Americans are we too quick to criticize our public figures?” This produced a mixed response from the audience. One argument was that “when white people have all types of roles negative and positive, and they don’t catch half the backlash that black actors and actresses do for those questionable parts.”
Attendee Akia Wesley stated “we’re not hard enough on ourselves”. We can’t afford to do the same things as the mainstream culture; being African Americans, we are a minority and are not in power. We won’t be able to get away with that. The little we are recognized it will be the overarching view of us all.”
One thing Jackson suggested was that more black actors should apply for roles in black written, directed, and produced films, then stating prominent examples of Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Tyler Perry. Spike Lee and John Singletary, which have also involved the likes of Cuba Gooding Jr., and Denzel Washington in their films.
The mention of Tyler Perry however, sparked some more controversy. Many stating how, he wasn’t in the same league as the former two, and therefore, wouldn’t attract the same caliber of acting talent. “When is the last time you’ve seen a Denzel, Forest Whitaker, or a Morgan Freeman in Tyler Perry film.” His movies are too adhering stereotypical personas of black roles.”
Jackson pointed out that “Tyler Perry is still relatively new on the Hollywood scene, with his first movie Diary of a Mad Black Women only premiering seven years ago. So more so than making Oscar bound work, he’s more generally giving up and coming actors their starts”.
One person argued acting is acting, and I don’t think there should be such discrimination. At the end of the day, these are all professional parts.”
Eugene Craig stated that “Tyler Perry’s problem is that he’s stuck to the Negro Niche Market. Once he breaks out of this box, he can grow and diversify his market and join the ranks of Lee and Singleton”.
Jackson also although showing her dislike for the typecasting limitations, however, agreed that in some cases some actors should simply stick to their complimentary roles. “It’s like a singer singing a song that doesn’t correspond with their voice, an actor or actress might play a part that they shouldn’t have, and sometimes are just are naturally suited for their usual roles ” she stated.
Now ten years after the double Best actor and actress Oscar win for “Black America”, this year with Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer being the main African American candidates for best and supporting actress spots respectively for the 84thacademy awards, for their roles in The Help. Although the circumstances for Academy Award success in the past have not been the most ideal, but they were starts in the rough road thespian pioneers had to plow through, to get to this present situation, with two black women vying for two top actress positions.