CREATING the CHANGE the World Needs to See

By Chase, Debra Martin | National Urban League. The State of Black America, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

CREATING the CHANGE the World Needs to See


Chase, Debra Martin, National Urban League. The State of Black America


One of the main reasons I went into the entertainment business was to create positive images of African Americans in film and television.

I grew up watching television and going to the movies. While I was conscious of the fact that I seldom saw myself in the images that were projected on screen, it wasn't until I was older that I understood what that really meant. Those images did not just dictate how I viewed myself, I eventually learned that they very clearly influenced how the outside world viewed me and others like me.

When I graduated from college in 1977,1 spent the summer in Spain with one of my best friends. This being a different time, we decided to hitchhike and were picked up by a couple of guys. Using what was then my fairly fluent Spanish, we began a casual dialogue and one of them asked where we were from. My friend told them "New York," to which he responded, "Oh, Harlem." He subsequently asked us about drugs and clearly assumed that we were selling sex and shooting drugs. (Needless to say, we bolted from the car as soon as we could.)

I soon realized that their perception of Americans-and particularly of my friend and me as African-American women-was rooted solely in movie and television depictions of the time that failed to represent the diversity and breadth of the Black experience. More importantly, they failed to represent who we were. This was one of my first experiences in realizing the true power of images and stereotypes. In a world that preceded the Internet, television and film images were how stereotypes were either reinforced or torn down, how we became familiar with people and how we got to "know" each other without ever crossing borders-whether international or simply the other side of town.

When I started in Hollywood in the early 1990s, stereotypes, particularly of Black women, were largely reinforced. We were in a renaissance of Black filmmaking and the movies being made were largely about the inner-city Black community- New Jack City (1991), Boyzn the Wood (1991), and Menace II Society (1993), to name a few. Successful in their own right and universal in their messages about courage and defining oneself within and against the odds, these movies still only highlighted one part of the African-American experience. Further, in many of these movies, the women had one-dimensional, subservient, or sexualized roles in support of a male lead. By and large, I still was not seeing the full scope of the Black experience, and I still was not seeing me.

There was also resistance and debate in Hollywood at that time about casting a Black person-male or female-in a part that was not a designated "Black" role. Think about Whitney Houston as the interracial love interest of Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard (1992); Denzel Washington opposite Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief (1993); or Denzel, again, as a lawyer representing Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (1993). It almost seems implausible today that intense, behind-the-scenes battles would need to be waged on behalf of A-list talent like Whitney and Denzel to secure roles like these. But at the time, we were indeed fighting.

Today, diverse casting has been embraced, particularly in television, and we see a tremendous difference. Most people now know the vast diversity of Black culture-that we live in all neighborhoods, that we do everything-and more importantly, are capable of doing everything that others do; that we are successful; and that we, too, live global lives.

From President Barack Obama, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ursula Burns to Kamala Harris, Ted Wells and Jay Z, there are a great number of role models and examples of African Americans who have been incredibly successful in every walk of life. So, to the extent that this is what is going on in the world, this is what we're finally seeing reflected more in Hollywood as well.

Now, whether some of the early images that we fought for here in Hollywood helped African Americans be better accepted in the world at large, or vice versa, is debatable. …

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