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Morris W. O'Kelly Headshot

Post-Racial Hollywood? One Huge 'Cop Out'

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2010-02-19-CopOut.jpgAs I watch the various trailers and interviews featuring comedic actor Tracy Morgan and his latest movie Cop Out, it invariably makes me wonder where we are in terms of this supposed "post-racial" society.

Post-racial ... as in after or beyond the issues of race.

One could argue that if we have reached this supposed Promised Land, we wouldn't be talking about it to the degree we presently do. We as a nation acknowledge our "post-industrial" status only as an anecdote; at most as an aside as to why the Big 3 car-makers have failed or why corporate outsourcing to India is both viable and profitable. In other words, we say it as an explanation of the obvious, not an argument to be proven.

The benchmark of course has been the presidency of Barack Obama in this "post-racial" discussion. What's not in debate is whether his election was both symbolic and substantive in nature. What is in question is the ratio between the two.

Symbolically and substantively, the pairing of Robert Culp and comedian Bill Cosby for I Spy in 1965 was significant as it was the first of its kind for a television drama.

Pairing a prominent White actor (Bruce Willis) with a Black comedian in 2010 (Tracy Morgan) ... not so much. Depending on whom you ask, such a combination either affirms or disputes the contention that race still matters. For some, the idea that African-Americans need to be funny or "entertain" audiences opposite their White "intelligent" counterparts is just as insulting today as it was back in the day. To that point, not everyone Black was fond of pairing Eddie Murphy with Nick Nolte in 48 Hrs. or even the hugely successful duo of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder.

Successful yes, but racially progressive?

Conversely, there are those who would say that the entertainment industry is about just that ... "entertainment." The goal is to make money; generate the biggest laughs which help generate the biggest gate.

The truth is probably somewhere in between, a combination of proven box office formulas and lingering stereotypes of "acceptable" roles for African-Americans.

Some others that readily come to mind:

Men in Black - Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith

The Last Boyscout - Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans

Rush Hour - Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker

The fundamental question in any discussion of whether this "post-racial" society has arrived is whether America is different now than before the election of Barack Obama on the issue of race.

In terms of cinema, no. When it becomes routine to cast an African-American male lead opposite a White female love interest, then maybe. When the controversial sex scene in Monster's Ball is socially acceptable even if the genders and ethnicities are reversed...then maybe. When Denzel Washington can win an Oscar for playing a civil rights hero as well as a sociopath monster...then maybe. When Halle Berry can win an Oscar while never having to disrobe...then maybe.

But not a moment before then, to be sure.

The ironic part about Hollywood is that it plays on both sides of the fence. It helps changes opinions while at other times reinforces prevailing stereotypes. If you think the casting of Morgan Freeman and Dennis Haysbert as "The President" in the movie Deep Impact and the television series 24 respectively didn't positively influence the future campaign of Barack Obama, you would be a fool.

If you think the multi-cultural cast of Star Trek and on-screen interracial kiss of Uhura and Captain Kirk in 1968 didn't help change the course of television and race-relations you would be a fool.

2010-02-19-KirkUhura.jpg

And of course we can't forget the Roots miniseries.

On the other hand, if you think that African-Americans aren't also tired of the "critical acclaim" of stories featuring Whites "saving" Blacks ... you'd be a fool. Despite how "true" the movie The Blind Side, Glory Road et al. may be, there are plenty "untold" stories in reverse which seem to never make it to the silver screen.

If we extrapolate this even further, despite the wonderful special effects, the White soldier hanging out for 3 months on Pandora who manages to single-handedly "save" the indigenous people "of color" from technology (who just happened to wear beads, braids/dreadlocks) wasn't exactly appreciated by all African-Americans either. And that's saying nothing of the wide noses and full lips of the Pandorans.

Hmm...

Avatar may be the top grossing film of all-time but it sings a familiar refrain along the way. Memories of Tarzan haven't altogether faded over the years.

Blackface...blueface; you say tomato, I say tomawto.

Why James Cameron could imagine a beautiful, uncharted utopia thousands of light-years away, yet couldn't imagine a more creative depiction of its storyline, Mo'Kelly isn't quite sure.

I know what some of you are thinking...Mo'Kelly is finding "race" when and where it wasn't meant to be and had no role in the production.

Wrong.

We attend movies as a sum total of our experiences. Mo'Kelly can't watch Cop Out and simply ignore the memories and history of Black/White buddy cop movies. There's probably nothing overtly offensive in Morgan's role, but history is always relevant to these discussions. Comedian Dave Chappelle says it best in explanation as to why he abruptly left his television show.

"I want to make sure I'm dancing and not shuffling."

To understand the depth of that comment means to understand the history of media and the portrayals of African-American men.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner means more to my generation and my parents' than it does to young people today. Sidney Poitier musing about a world in which there "could" be a Black Secretary of State or Black President with "colorful administrations" doesn't quite mean as much to today's young people who don't remember a world without Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and now Barack Obama .

Sum total of our experiences...

Interracial marriage is not the "scandal" in 2010 as it was in 1967, a full year before the aforementioned first interracial kiss on television.

It's both good and bad.

It's good in the sense of the progress that can be charted and bad in the way it's clear how much farther the journey will be. The truth of the matter is that those who are too young to remember such a world found in 1967 aren't yet the opinion-leaders or the policy-makers in America.

One day they will be, but not yet. They are not the senators, the studio heads or even the network presidents. Not yet.

And until they are, we are not and can not possibly be a post-racial society. So Mo'Kelly will still go see Cop Out with my racial baggage in tow; because Mo'Kelly most importantly is a fan of Bruce Willis, Tracy Morgan and director Kevin Smith. But let's be fair as well as clear; Hollywood will not have put down its own racial baggage until it permanently moves away from flaunting the "racial" formulas and themes which garner the biggest bang for their buck.

Morris W. O'Kelly (Mo'Kelly) is author of the syndicated entertainment and socio-political column The Mo'Kelly Report. For more Mo'Kelly, http://mokellyreport.wordpress.com. Mo'Kelly can be reached at mrmokelly@gmail.com and he welcomes all commentary.