Yesterday, I finally had the chance to watch the 2012 Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, and Ray Liotta flick, Killing Them Softly. And while I won’t ruin it for you, let’s just say that it is your typical Boston-area mafia-related heist film. (Which is no surprise considering that it features both Gandolfini and Liotta, right?) You know, it’s about White people engaged in criminal activity while looking cool doing it.
Also of no surprise, the cast is all White – well, most of the cast is White…
The film’s only person of color comes by way of a Black prostitute. What is her name? We’re never told because obviously it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that she is there to service Gandolfini’s character, an alcoholic hit man on the verge of losing his freedom and his lady, in a dusty motel room. She’s also there to take his abuse. And during her brief appearance in the film he tells her that one day, she is going to get cut up into pieces by one of her johns. It is violent as much as it is dysfunctional. Yet, her only response is to make some wisecrack comment about how if that happens, it will likely be the first time that she can reach orgasm.
Now, I have nothing against who women are often forced, for economic reasons, to engage in sex work; but when it comes to the White imagination, Black women are routinely painted as jezebels, sapphires, and mammies and never fully actualized human beings with names or multi-dimensional identities of our own. And quite frankly, it is offensive, and I am sick of seeing it.
But in spite of my personal disgust of watching a Black woman once again be demeaned in the most violent of ways for the entertainment and enjoyment of mostly White America, the question always remains: Why do we keep taking these roles?
This question becomes an especially poignant one as I read the article from Indian Country about Native American actors who decided that they had enough of how White Hollywood portrays them.
According to the publication, a dozen Navajo Nation actors and actresses, as well as the Native American cultural advisor, walked off the set of Adam Sandler’s newest film production called The Ridiculous Six. The film, which is being produced for Netflix, is supposed to be a parody of 1960 Western classic The Magnificent Seven, however, the Native American actors and actresses just saw it as another example of mostly White Hollywood exploiting and mocking their culture. As the paper writes:
Among the actors who walked off the set were Navajo Nation tribal members Loren Anthony, who is also the lead singer of the metal band Bloodline, and film student Allison Young. Anthony says that though he understands the movie is a comedy, the portrayal of the Apache was severely negligent and the insults to women were more than enough reason to walk off the set…Anthony says he was first insulted that the movie costumes that were supposed to portray Apache were significantly incorrect and that the jokes seemed to get progressively worse.
Actress Goldie Tom would go on to say that poor treatment from production and crew was the final straw.
The consultant, Bruce spoke to the crew and told them we should not have braids and chokers and he was very disappointed. He asked to speak with Adam Sandler. We talked to the producers about other things in the script and they said ‘It’s in the script and we are not going to change it.’ Overall, we were just treated disrespectfully, the spoke down to us and treated everyone with strong tones.
The Gawker-run website, Defamer, has a copy of the script, and in addition to getting the Native American clothing all wrong, the film is also filled with jokes like “Beaver Breath” and “Sits-On-Face,” which parodies Native American traditional names.
Now, some folks may want to shrug their shoulders and claim that the Navajo actors and actresses decision to walk off set is just the result of an overly-sensitive people being upset over what is supposed to be a comedy. And I’m certain that some folks have been this dismissive. But we see white Hollywood do this to the culture of people of color all the time in ways that it will not do to cultural and historical events that are of importance to them. In particular, Black culture — how we dress and our use of certain mannerism down to our sexual prowess — is turned into fodder for their entertainment. And rarely is it funny. To the contrary, the best way to devalue a culture is to “other” it as something other than normal. This cultural othering, through mockery, is not only how White culture defines itself, but it is also how the culture retains its domination by further perpetuating that there is an inherent “right” way to be a civilized human being.
Unfortunately, many of us buy into this. And no, I’m not talking about those who personally embody the stereotypes in real life. I’m talking about those of us who know these roles are offensive and dangerous, but will accept and play them in film and television anyway. Black actors regularly discuss their frustrations with playing drug dealers, prostitutes, maids, butlers and other domestics. And yet, there are very few Blacks in Hollywood who do not have a couple if not more, of those characters on their professional reels.
I get it: There are not a lot of options available for a working Black actor or actress in Hollywood. Therefore, beggars can’t be choosers. But the same could be said for the Native American actors and actresses. Heck, the only time we ever see them on screen is when a film has to do with the past. Yet, these actors and actresses were willing to put their careers on the line and never work again for a bigger cause, one that may seriously alter how we showcase Native Americans in future films.
Now, I don’t expect that tomorrow there will be a massive boycott in Hollywood over these demeaning roles – although it would be nice. However, I do hope that when material in a film is super questionable and outright offensive, some of us will also be brave enough to walk away.