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Earnest Harris Headshot

Hollywood's Invisible Man, The Good Black Man

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It sure does get old being portrayed as the villain in popular culture.

I am referencing the latest in a long line of heavily hyped feature films that jump on the bandwagon that seems to believe the only real Black man is a drug dealing, two-timing, woman-hating, physically abusive criminal, as is portrayed in Tyler Perry's latest film, For Colored Girls.

Not surprisingly the heavily hyped Tyler Perry film has garnered rave reviews and done very well at the box office. Fortunately for Perry, and unfortunately for the Black community though, almost any move with this kind of cast, tailored to the Black community, is going to do well considering there are so few movies of quality that come out, that allow us to go see people that look like us on the screen in major roles. Denzel Washington or Will Smith being the only exceptions... And this is especially true for movies targeted to Black women. I give Perry, and Lionsgate, the studio that bankrolls his movies and the hype, all the credit in the world for recognizing this reality and filling that need.

The problem though is that this movie, like Precious the year before, the previous darling of Hollywood and the mainstream critics, perpetuates the stereotype that there are no good Black men out there doing right by their families, their spouses or girlfriends, their communities. It is not a coincidence that For Colored Girls, Precious or even The Colored Purple back in the day, were all widely celebrated by Hollywood and critics, event the liberal media. Such reactions are no more of a coincidence than the fact that of all the great, even heroic roles Denzel Washington has played in his career, the one he finally wins an Oscar for was as an out of control, somewhat criminal cop in Training Day. No more of a coincidence that Halle Berry "breaks through" and wins her only Oscar for playing an emotionally scarred, mixed up women in Monster's Ball, the only movie I know of where she does a very graphic sexual scene. It seems that the Hollywood ideal of what Black people, and especially Black men, are like, is not on par with reality. Those movies that live up to that image are backed and applauded. Those that don't, well you won't likely see them or ever get a chance to hear of them, because they won't get made or won't receive the necessary support to have a chance at success.

Putting my cards on the table, I am a filmmaker myself, a producer, scriptwriter and director. So I am coming at this with a firsthand view of what I am talking about. I know for a fact that there are scripts out there, and I am not referring to my own, that portray Black men, and Black culture in general, in a more positive view, one that accurately reflects the reality of the vast majority of Black men that I know. Men that are working hard every day, taking care of their families, making a difference in their community and the world. And I know other actors, producers and directors who have tried to get some of these stories told but what they, and I hear, in subtle ways, is our stories aren't "black enough." You heard that right. Black stories, written by Black people, get the message, from non-Black people, what is an acceptable Black story or Black portrayal. No, no one will say that directly, or maybe they do, but I haven't heard it quite like that. What we get is not so direct.

My wife and I were pitching one script to a well-connected producer not long ago, who wanted to get behind the film, and she had the clout to get it done. But she had a key reservation and change she wanted to see. The leading Black male character, an educated, well-spoken family man, was not "real" enough," needed to be more harsh. Barring changing the character, she wanted us to cut out much of his part in the film. I kid you not. My wife and I could not do it. That character, that upstanding Black man, reflected our reality and to make him less of a good man would be selling out. We walked away from her and the money which may have gotten this project done in a big, big way.

I don't say this to say that Tyler Perry is a sell-out, or that the many, many Black women who support the portrayals they see in For Colored Girls or Precious are somehow supporting an unbalanced Hollywood system intent on keeping the Black man down. For Perry and these women, clearly the characters do reflect their reality. My problem is that other portrayals do not get a chance. And when they don't the only image, that of the scary Black man, is the only reality the world sees. There are lots of White male wife-beaters, rapists, cheaters and the like out there. And they do get portrayed in film and on television. But these portrayals are always balanced by heroic, good White men, often in the same move. Not so in these wildly popular Black films. We're simply bad. That's it.

Of course, the argument I hear all the time is, well why don't you go make those movies that show this other side. And hey, Oprah and Tyler Perry backed Precious. And there are lots and lots of rich Black folks out there. Why can't we go to them to back these alternate portrayals, this other reality?

I wish it were so easy.

The truth is, even Spike Lee has commented on how hard it is for him to raise money to do a film. In the independent film world, raising money, especially in this economy is very hard. And wealthy Black individuals are not easy to get to. So investing in a movie is a tough call. That's true for any movie. So the reality is the best chance to get a movie off the ground comes from the usual industry sources -- established studios, distributors and production companies. And as I have already written, they have a narrow view of what Black is. Do a Black comedy set in the ghetto or a film that portrays the seedier side of the Black community, like Hustle and Flow, or that lives up to the stereotypes of the evil Black man, like For Colored Girls, and you have a shot at funding and possibly even that Oscar. Offer to tell something that doesn't fit that societal narrative and you're on your own, and that is a truly uphill climb in a business that requires a great deal of funds to make and properly promote your product.

Unfortunately right now, Hollywood seems to have its one Black director, who is backed seemingly for as many films as he wants to make. And one viewpoint is the only one being accepted. So for the rest of us, who want to tell other, alternative, more positive stories, we're just out of luck. Perry is the voice. Good for him, because his voice is needed. But it's just too bad, only one voice, one side is allowed or celebrated. The evil Black man is one of Hollywood's most accepted characters. Play that up and you have a chance. There are more than enough people who are glad to support that image. Meanwhile those of us who are nothing of the sort, will keep on doing what we do to be the best men we can, however invisible we may be to Hollywood.