Appearances and Publications, Nonfiction, Pop Culture, Race, Uncategorized

Anatomy of a Failed Piece of Writing (Mine).

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I didn’t have plans to talk about the Oscars this year — especially not in print. This year, they are not ours to lose. There is, of course, no nomination for the luminous, near-floating Lupita. There is no woeful deflation weighing on Chiwetel’s face as he watches his lifelong dream waft further away from him and closer to the white man who made films like Fool’s Gold and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past for a full fifteen years before Getting Serious About His Craft. This year, I’d planned to regard the awards far more impassively, not with the rigor or attentiveness of someone with anything particular at stake. I intended only to ogle the dresses and to smile at Neil Patrick Harris and to sip wine like a socialite, wanly yawning at 11 p.m.

But I was asked if I wanted to write. And the outlet that asked has been one of my dream publications since long before seeing my byline there felt even remotely attainable. So I tried to develop an argument that began with Jessica Chastain and Benedict Cumberbatch, both of whom had spoken out about lack of diversity and dearth of opportunity for actors of color, in the U.S. and the U.K. I wanted to assert that, perhaps if a critical mass of white actors used their social capital to advocate for diversity, we might see more of it at a quicker rate than we have in decades past.

I am also working on a new fiction project*, and it involves old Hollywood’s lesser-known black actresses. I thought it might be powerful to weave in the story of one of them, whose life I’d just started to research, into the essay I planned to write. When you are writing for your dream publication, you want to create something gorgeous and sprawling and epic but also spare and elegant and searing. A tall order, but one I thought I might achieve by opening the piece with the story of Nina Mae McKinney and her first film, 1929’s Hallelujah.

Historians Donald Bogle and Avery Clayton’s 2013 Criterion Collection DVD commentary for Hallelujah is available on YouTube. Below, I’ve cued up to Nina’s first scene. Listen for about three minutes, as Bogle describes her, and watch her work, to get a sense of how captivating she was:

Hallelujah was one of the first two films that “integrated” Hollywood: a film that took black characters seriously (until this point black folks were played by whites in blackface, almost always as villains and/or buffoons). The filmmaker, King Vidor, was white and already in the prime of his career. Still, the chance he took on employing black actors for a major Hollywood production was a big one. He mined already thriving black entertainment sectors, finding actors who’d worked in “race films“** and musicians playing segregated, all-black clubs in New York and LA to populate the cast. But none of these spots were where he found Nina Mae. Nina was plucked from Broadway. Just 16 years old, she’d shimmied her way into the chorus line of a black Broadway musical review, Blackbirds of 1928. Vidor was transfixed and knew he needed her to play the sweet, seductive con-woman Chick in Hallelujah.

For his efforts in finding just the right star in Nina Mae and telling a story that gave black characters their own passions and predicaments, outside of white households and white communities, King Vidor was nominated for an Oscar in 1930. Nina Mae, of course, was not. It would be another nine years before a black actress was first nominated for an Oscar — for a playing a maid whose story was told solely through her interactions with whites. (Fun fact: Pioneering Academy Award winner Hattie McDaniel had an older brother, Sam McDaniel, who was also a Hollyood actor. He starred with Nina Mae McKinney in Hallelujah.)

Vidor’s confidence in Nina Mae McKinney’s star power wasn’t misplaced. MGM took notice, too, and did something unprecedented as a result: the studio offered McKinney a multi-picture deal. She was the first black actress ever to receive one.

What follows will be a familiar story. Because films with all-black casts were still rare and novel occurrences in Hollywood, McKinney didn’t find much work there that showcased her talents as generously as Hallelujah did. In fact, much of the work on at least one of her contractual film roles was edited out of the final cut. Other roles were simply brief and underwritten. Impatient with the slow march of progress, McKinney left Hollywood for Europe, where she became the first black actress to appear on European television. But even there, super-stardom eluded her. McKinney died relatively young, one month before her 55th birthday. At the time of her passing, she was rumored both to have been struggling with addiction and to have been working, in the last years of her life, as a domestic in New York City.

Somehow, I wanted to weave McKinney’s life story into my essay. But I also wanted to talk about what it’s meant, historically, for the benefits white directors have received for black performances to have far outweighed the benefits, if any, that black artists themselves have enjoyed. I wanted to talk about the Academy’s caprice, how one year it can fete black actors for reliving the atrocities visited on our ancestors, then shut out other black artists, just one year later, for embodying different forebears — ones whose voices held slightly more sway over their generation’s oppressive white regime.

Then, of course, I would need to tie in today’s oppressive white regime (the 94 percent white contingent of Oscar voters). I would need to make an adequate case for white actors appealing to their own — directors, producers, writers, other white actors — that their storytelling and their performances could only be improved by the nuance and challenge racial and cultural diversity provides.

But in the end, whether it was a failure of time or of my arrangement and rearrangement of the words or of the strength of my argument (and I suspect it was some amalgam of the three), my final essay — a patchwork of paragraphs culled from three separate drafts — didn’t make it into my dream publication.

That final essay did find an open, welcoming and generous home. You can read it there.

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The Oscars, however, are tomorrow. And even after the publication of my (decent) post about them, I still felt fairly restless. I hadn’t called Nina Mae McKinney’s career back into our collective consciousness. I hadn’t taken white Hollywood to task and hadn’t had a chance to go on record as commending Chastain and Cumberbatch for speaking out (even if the latter called us “colored” when he did).

I am running out of space here, as well, so I won’t talk about how writers agonize over their rejections and how mine are becoming more frequent, the closer I get to a new rung on the ladder of whatever career I’m cobbling together here. I won’t talk about faith or having it shaken — or about how patient my loved ones are when my insecurities make me really uncomfortable to be near. I won’t describe my daughter’s crestfallen face when she twice found me crying last week. Not yet. Those are stories for other days. Indeed, they are stories I’ve already told you. Let’s not belabor them.

Instead, we can focus our attention elsewhere. I am just one black woman, weathering dashed hopes and reconfiguring herself after what feels like a failed enterprise. I’ve learned, in the past week especially, just how common it is to miss the mark and to gather yourself and go forward, just to miss it again. It’s a story much older than Hollywood, much older than most of our ancestors. But it will always be a story worth revisiting. Somehow, circling back to it always reinforces our foundation.

* Don’t put too, too much stock in mentions I make of fiction projects. Until I get some quiet, dedicate time to flesh them out, they haven’t gained much traction. Right now, I’m hopeful about this one. But get at me in a year and we’ll see where we are with it.

** More on race film history appears in the Bitch magazine piece that was eventually published.

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Nonfiction, Pop Culture

When a (Comparatively) Carefree Blackgirl Wins An Oscar.

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This is a story of an elegance carefully cultivated. This is no sudden ascendancy to delicate silks and bold brocades, no tale of a girl plucked from obscurity or hardship, conferred the brass ring of Tinseltown by princely powers-that-be. It is, instead, a story of privilege, of justice. It is what happens when a Kenyan senator entrusts his daughter’s post-secondary education to The Yale School of Drama, rather than insisting she study medicine or law or finance. And these — the highest accolades in the field — are what’s expected when such a daughter is daring enough to pursue a life in pictures, within a family of professors, physicians, and politicians.

This is not a reality as well known to American black girls with silver screen ambitions. We watch our stateside actresses languish in Hollywood for decades, delivering pounds of flesh just for bit parts: girlfriends in black films and girlfriends in white films and staid, put-upon wives in comedies, action films, biopics. And yes, even now, the occasional brave domestic, even now, the harrowingly tortured slave. We see them shed their apple-cheeked innocence all too quickly, becoming more vocal and more cynical about the dearth of complex and meaty work for them to do as they age.

Our ingenues rarely win Oscars. It is our seasoned comediennes, sassing their way through lines like, “Molly, you in danger, girl!” or throwing frying pans at their pregnant daughters, who take home the gold. It is the reality star who belts a gut-wrenching beggarly torch song to a man already walking away or the naked grieving mother sexing the guard who executed her husband, the round, battered, quick-witted maid who bakes her own excrement into pies. They are the ones who win. And we are proud of their achievements. We take everything we get, and we are glad for, if critical of, it.

We know how hard those actresses had to work to get it, know how many low-budget straight-to-DVD flicks they made to keep themselves visible, how many blond wigs and gold teeth and fishnets they had to don and exactly how much of their bodies they had to bare — just for the opportunity to be seen. We suffered through Whoopi encouraging her ex to appear in blackface. We accept not just the existence, but the five-year run of The Parkers. And we swallow the painful realization that though many a role easily procured by a Paltrow, a Portman, or a Witherspoon could be played, if not better, certainly just as well, by an actress of color, the film would not likely be attended by as large an audience.

Because this our sisters’ lot in all of the American workforce. We are offered little, we earn less, we hustle harder and stress more — all in response to the idea that our appearance and ideas and work are not as marketable as a white colleague’s would be. Why should Hollywood be different?

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We are gathering our awe and placing it like so much frankincense and myrrh at the feet of Lupita in direct response to this resignation. This awards season she has become the boilerplate of every blackgirl dream deferred, and it is understandable. Her skin, a brown so rich and deep it seems to welcome the seeding of our hopes and the promise of harvest, is politicized (and romanticized) because such things are inevitable in any country where skin color can ignite or exempt citizens of resentment or responsibility. Nyong’o herself speaks to the significance of women who look like her ascending in high-visibility markets. She cites Alek Wek and any number of American black actresses as her own self-image inspirations. And she is similarly self-aware of what it means to be a literal projection of an audience’s desires, history, and needs.

But the story of Nyong’o’s near-instant entree to the A-list is uniquely her own. She stars in an elegant, brutal British film about American slavery, deeply connecting with part of the diasporic experience that is foreign to her family in ways it is not to the American black’s. And she graciously accepts a well-deserved Oscar for that portrayal without having to carry the full weight of the awards’ contentious racial history.

If she hears any naysaying speculation, any claims that she “only” got the Oscar for playing a slave or that the win isn’t one the black community can fully claim because she “isn’t ‘black’ enough,” the criticism will not dampen the moment, will not force her to interrogate her joy to the degree that it would for an American black actress.

She is not saddled with centuries of diminishing returns. Accordingly, Lupita is a carefree black girl par excellence — and we have yet to see what the career of a black actress this successful with just one feature-length role under her belt, and this comparatively unburdened by Hollywood’s racist legacy, looks like. (Consider other recent black American actress nominees with one role their belts — Quevenzhane Wallis and Gabourey Sidibe — and how their reception in Hollywood and media compares to Lupita Nyong’o’s. Neither swanned through her awards season unscathed by racist, appearance-policing coverage — and Sidibe is still the subject of think pieces that actually use their headlines to implore that the public treat her with more respect.)

It is this lack of similar encumbrance — perhaps above all else — that excites me so about Nyong’o. We have yet to see what happens when a privileged black woman begins her acting career with Ivy League theatre pedigree, unchallenged fashion icon status, and an Oscar for her very first role.

It would be easiest to succumb to the skepticism I’ve been keeping at bay. I know America; it’s my homeland. It is not Nyong’o’s. I’d imagine — and I could well be wrong — that she is coming into Hollywood with the un-self-conscious approach to race that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah heroine Ifemelu (and indeed, Adichie herself) have brought with them to this country.  Adichie was famously quoted last year as saying that American blackness did not initially occur to or appeal to her:

In Nigeria I didn’t think of myself as black. I didn’t need to. And I still don’t when I’m in Nigeria. Race doesn’t occur to me. Many other things occur to me. But in the United States, yes…. Also, race is something that one has to learn. I had to learn what it meant to be black…. If you’re coming from Nigeria, you have no idea what’s going on. When I came to the United States, I hadn’t stayed very long, but I already knew that to be “black” was not a good thing in America, and so I didn’t want to be “black.”

While I don’t get the impression that Nyong’o, having spent the last two years of her life immersing herself in study and portrayal of the American slave experience, would hold the same perception of American blackness as Adichie initially did, it is safe to say she can still hold herself aloft from it. For her, blackness, in a context of white American oppression, is a role. It is not intrinsic to her identity. She will play plenty of other roles, but she will not feel “relegated” to stereotypical portrayals in quite the way that American black actresses do.

I already know what Hollywood will try to make her. I know the gradations of blackness they will implore her to learn. But I do not know how she will resist. I do not know what she herself will teach. But she is entering the field with just enough privilege and confidence to inspire my hope that she will do just that: instruct rather than simply accept — and learn from black actresses (rather than white directors) how best to navigate this space.

Watch with me. And just you wait.

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