Race in Hollywood

A long, long time ago, Gene Roddenberry wanted Spock and Uhura to be lovers, but the network vetoed it. Even if Spock was a green blooded alien, Leonard Nimoy was still white and Nichelle Nichols still black. Star Trek did manage to have the first scripted interracial kiss on television by way of alien mind control forcing Kirk and Uhura to kiss (the episode Plato's Stepchildren in 1968), but it wouldn’t be until the 21th Century that Roddenberry’s vision would reach the big screen in the most recent Star Trek movies. 

The portrayal of race in movies and TV has come a long way, thanks in no small part to visionaries like Roddenberry. His method, the method of Star Trek, was to simply hire minority actors to play scientists, engineers, pilots, warriors, and so on, without commenting on their race, subtly communicating to the audience that someday, in a better future, minorities’ rights, opportunities, and duties will be so secure that no one will have to even discuss it. 

The rebooted Spock and Uhura in Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) don’t talk about what it means to be a black person and a white person; they are busy discussing the problems of being human and alien, and their arguments could be better understood by gender studies than by race studies.

When I was growing up, race in Hollywood was a mixed bag. “Buddy movies” were slowly introducing the idea that the races could be friends on equal footing, such as the partnership in Lethal Weapon movies, with the white crazy war vet (Mel Gibson) and the stable black family man (Danny Glover). In reality, blacks served in Vietnam in disproportionately high numbers while black family life has been subject to harmful economic realities, but I suppose having the most emotionally stable man in Lethal Weapon be the African-American serves a purpose. 

But it was a buddy movie that first shocked me with Hollywood’s potential for racism:  Pulp Fiction. I do not think Pulp Fiction itself is a racist movie, but the Oscar nominations certainly were. Every writer’s workshop, every book on how to be a writer, will tell you that the main character is the one who makes the decisions and undergoes emotional change. That was so obviously Samuel Jackson’s character that when I saw John Travolta was nominated for best actor instead that I couldn’t have been more surprised if they’d nominated Uma Thurman. Before deciding to write this article, I polled my Chinese writing students, who are all too young to have even heard of the movie, and described Jackson and Travolta’s characters to them, but leaving out their race, and asking them which one was the main character. They voted for Jackson’s character 17 to 2. Unfortunately, the Oscars committee is 90% white males over 65. I think it’s past time for them to retire.

I should explain what I mean when I write that having the good family man in the Lethal Weapon movies “serves a purpose.” When I first saw the movie, I thought, like a good Star Trek fan, that having a successful black professional and family man was a good symbol of progress and perhaps an alternative role model to the drug dealers in their neighborhood. Then years later I read The Devil Finds Work by James Baldwin, and realized perhaps Danny Glover’s role was designed to reassure white audiences instead.  His perspective on the classic Hollywood anti-racism movies In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner turned my world on its head. Baldwin showed in detail that these movies had less to do with improving racial relations and more to do with reassuring white audiences that race relations were improving. The very introduction of Mr. Tibbs to the audience was absurd; no black police officer, not even one from a Northern city, would have been ignorant enough of the South to be sitting around a train station at night, alone, reading a newspaper, waiting for his connection. What In the Heat of the Night was really about was how pitiful the South was, trapped in its poverty and racism, but even that was soft-balled compared to its realities.

As for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, for a man in love to require her parents’ consent was decidedly old fashioned, but necessary for the plot, and it was equally unlikely that a postman would attempt to impose his will upon a far more successful son. Of course, the greatest danger for a black person and a white person getting married back then was American culture itself, from loss of employment to loss of life and limb, but since the happy couple will mostly live abroad, that issue is skirted.  But the movie did do its job, which was to reassure white people that if a black man is twice as successful as most white men, it’s okay to have him over for dinner. (He had to be so successful, to make sure no one, in the movie or in the audience, had any better sounding excuse for rejecting their marriage). I am sure the people who made these movies had the best of intentions, but they were writing about black characters from a white perspective, and I didn’t notice it because I viewed the movies from a white perspective. 

Joss Whedon, creator and director of such hits as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), Serenity (2005),  and Agents of Shield (2013-present), is on record has having said he has been reluctant to write black characters into his shows because of his unfamiliarity with African-American perspectives and, perhaps more importantly to him as an artist, speech, but he has tried. In his Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season three, the white villain had a black side kick, a jive talking vampire, who is then killed and replaced by one of the many super powered teenaged girls in the Whedonverse. In Angel the hero eventually has a black man, Gunn, in his gang, but as sidekicks go he had an unusually interesting story arc, and Gunn even jokes about how hanging out with all these white people is sucking out his cool, which I suspect is Whedon’s expression of his own concerns writing Gunn’s dialogue.  He even gets to be in the climactic last scene of the show, one of the all-time best endings in television. It isn’t until Firefly that Whedon simply adopts the Star Trek methodology of just hiring black actors to fulfill professional, rather than racial, roles in the show. Even the interracial marriage of Zoe and Wash is more concerned about Zoe being a “warrior woman” while Wash is more of a regular, if talented, guy, keeping in line with Whedon’s preference for dealing with gender issues.  

But the real stride in Hollywood recently has been with the black man as Authority Figure. Once again, Star Trek was ahead of the curve, with an African American leading man on Deep Space 9 ( and some of my favorite women characters from the multi-series as well) and all the minorities playing admirals in the background of Next Generation, but it is only in the last couple of years, after having had, in reality, Colin Powell as a military leader and potential Republican candidate for President, that Hollywood is allowing African-American characters to have real authority over white characters. Perhaps it is the campiness of G.I. Joe that allowed them to get away with it, but compared to all the horrid and misguided changes they made adapting the first movie from the cartoons, having Roadblock in command over Flint and Lady Jay in the second movie was a stroke of genius. Perhaps it was impossible to do otherwise, The Rock can’t help but be the center of gravity in any movie he is in, but when Roadblock was officially given command of the Joes at the end of the movie, it felt to me like a graduation ceremony for the African-American action hero, while the last generation of white action heroes are being put out to pasture in The Expendables. We can only hope The Rock’s success is a sign of things to come instead of a statistical anomaly. 

They have a saying in SF circles that SF movies are always twenty years behind SF TV, which is in turn twenty years behind SF novels, which is twenty years behind the magazines.  Most of Star Wars was either invented by SF writers working before WWII or stolen from Japanese samurai movies, but more to the point, twenty years after Captain Sisko walked onto the bridge of DS 9, an African American led humanity’s fight against alien invaders in Pacific Rim, the most unapologetically heroic action movie we’ve had in a long time, right down to theme music that made me want to go back to the gym and do my power cleans (I’m not joking, I did go back to the gym for a second work out for the day). He was not the central character, but the important thing is that the central characters treated him as Authority, even when rebelling against him. His voice and stance had enough power that you could imagine The Rock saluting, and that his will power was as important as the giant robots in combating the alien invaders. 

But Pacific Rim didn’t really have a main character, it just had a primary point of view character who happened to be white. The movie was about teamwork and trust, embodied by the electronically induced mental connection between the co-pilots of the robots, but also between the two scientists who learned to work together, and even between the Commander and the Crime Lord subsidizing the robots so he can sell alien bits on the black market. I suspect that if another ten or fifteen minutes of dialogue had been included to flesh out the relationships between Mako and the two men, the father/daughter relationship with her commander and the connection with her co-pilot, Pacific Rim could have been elevated from great fun to great film.  If they ever remake Pacific Rim in a more feminist age, they won’t have to change very much, because in many ways she is already more central to the movie than the men. 
Maybe someday I’ll be writing an essay about feminist progress in the media like Lethal Weapon III, Star Trek Voyager, ‘Buffy, the Alien movies, Battlestar Galactica and, indeed, a refocused remake of Pacific Rim.