Saturday, February 26, 2005

What's Up With That? #13: A Hitch in complexion means no screen connection

According to an interview Will Smith gave to a British newspaper while on a publicity tour for his new film, Hitch, Latina actress Eva Mendes was cast as Smith's love interest in the film because casting either a black or white actress would have hurt the picture's box office.

Here's what Big Willie Style told the Birmingham Post:
"There's sort of an accepted myth that if you have two black actors, a male and a female, in the lead of a romantic comedy, that people around the world don't want to see it. We spend $50-something million making this movie and the studio would think that was tough on their investment. So the idea of a black actor and a white actress comes up — that'll work around the world, but it’s a problem in the U.S."
How bizarre is it that we're still reading this sort of story nearly half a decade into the 21st century?

The apparent distaste in foreign markets for all-black casting...well, not much we can do there. There are vast portions of Europe and the Far East where folks of African ancestry aren't part of everyday life, so we can chalk up their limited world view to basic ignorance.

But here in the United States, humanity's melting pot, the land of the free and home of the colorblind, where all men (and, at least in the subtext, women) are created equal, we still can't get over our cultural horror that folks of varying melanin content do, in fact, find it possible to love one another.



Deeply, even.

And that it's okay. Really.

Perhaps it's because I, myself, am of biracial parentage that I have always been baffled by racism in general, and man's fear of man gettin' jiggy wit' woman of variant pigmentation in particular. As the product of a assignation that occurred 44 years ago between two members of the U.S. Armed Forces — a woman of Scandinavian extraction and a man of African descent — I am living proof that the biology works. Differently colored folks can mate and produce fine, well adjusted, morally upstanding model citizens (though my adoptive parents deserve the lion's share of the credit for the latter). Fully functional. Capable of rational, even intellectual, thought (want to see my Jeopardy! tapes?). Equipped with the complete complement of fingers, toes, and other accoutrements. Without horns, tails, hooved feet, or other marks of genetic mutation or defect. (Although, having been a lifelong reader of X-Men comics, I can name a few mutations I would dearly enjoy having.)

And it's okay. Really.

What's even more bizarre is that, while the onscreen union of black and white still bears the stamp of taboo, it's perfectly all right for black or white to hook up with people inhabiting the color wheel somewhere in between. Hence, while apparently some folks would take umbrage with seeing Will Smith romancing, say, Téa Leoni or Linda Fiorentino (female actors of the Causasian persuasion who have costarred with — but not played romantic scenes with — the erstwhile Fresh Prince), these same people would hand over their cash to buy tickets to see Will nuzzling with, say, a señorita linda such as Eva Mendes, who as an American of Cuban heritage is not dark enough to be "black" yet not fair enough to be "white."


And lest anyone suppose that this is merely a problem on the part of our melanin-challenged citizenry, it isn't. Plenty of African-Americans harbor equally passionate displeasure with "miscegenation," to use an archaic term. It's an open secret in Hollywood that one of our most highly regarded and honored actors — yes, Denzel Washington, I'm talking about you — declines to perform love scenes with Caucasian costars for fear of alienating his fan base in the black community. (I'm told there were sequences shot for Man on Fire featuring Denzel and Radha Mitchell that Mr. Washington personally requested to have edited out of the theatrical cut.) So stupidity isn't the exclusive province of any ethnic group.

Perhaps one day, the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. will be a reality in our private lives as well as in our public venues, including the motion picture screen: that we will learn to judge one another entirely by the content of our character rather than by the color of our skins. I'm not holding my breath, but it's nice to dream.

And it would be okay. Really.


2 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Blogger Janet offered these pearls of wisdom...

Although I whole-heartedly think it's wrong, I agree that this is definitely true of audiences, at least American audiences. Movies that have only African American stars seem to be targeted at African Americans. This is a shame. I think of the movie, Love and Baskketball. There were 2 African American leads, but somehow, it broke into the mainstream. I think if someone like Will Smith or Denzel Washington were to act opposite African American leads, there might be a better chance of breaking down such barriers in the long run.

6:00 AM  
Blogger SwanShadow offered these pearls of wisdom...

That's the other half of the dilemma, Janet -- thanks for bringing it up. It's a shame that people will presume that, because a film has, say, two black leads, it's necessarily only of interest to African Americans. Both the studios and the audience are guilty in this regard. (Conversely, did anyone presuppose that the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter films would only be of interest to white people? If so, think of what they missed!)

What a positive change it would be if we all expanded our range sufficiently that a great human story could move us regardless of the color of the humans on the poster or DVD keepcase! And the truth is, I think we'd find that such stories can move us, if we just give them a try. We might even learn something in the bargain.

I hope the success of a film like Ray, to cite just one example, helps people realize -- "You know what, I can watch movies about people different from myself! And like it!"

That, too, would be okay. Really.

2:26 PM  

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