by Patrick A. Howell, Guest Contributor
There seem to be three basic tropes of African American caricatures recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (read: gatekeepers of American culture and the ultimate taste makers of world popular culture), based upon over 50% (like 85%) of the Academy’s performance awards handed out during its illustrious 87 years of existence:
3. The Mystic-Enabler or, basically, Black Savior
What a stunning lack of creativity and imagination! No. 3 isn’t so bad, I guess. Listen, my objective is not to demean the black artist and pioneer in Hollywood. Because the body of their work has been masterful, if not ferocious, particularly given the conditions of employment in their industry. Denzel, for example, has also reincarnated Malcolm X, Hurricane Rubin and Steve Biko during his illustrious and indefatigable career. It is the Academy’s taste makers who have used their selections to design a caricature of Black no different than the minstrel or blackface of America’s 1920s. Oh, the Reaganites like to reminisce, the good old days. Tea Party! Tea Party!
The industry is the complex culprit, yeah? It elected to celebrate Mr. Washington’s charismatic if not masterful Alonzo Harris portrayal in Training Day and his role as an ex-slave in Glory. I guess Steve McQueen has a right to make 12 Years a Slave. And Lupita Nyong’o is certainly a divinely-inspired vision on the red carpet as a historic award accepter. But how will the conversation go with our daughters when they announce they want to be just like Lupita, and ask what she accomplished? “She’s amazing! She won an Academy Award for playing a slave!” or “Why darling, she graduated from Yale Drama program just last year!”
The Academy has elected, as a systemic body, to keep the harness on our collective humanity with a stilted and narrow vision of we folks darker than blue—even after Barack Obama has been elected president and First Lady Michelle Obama redefined the role with uncharacteristic grace, energy and black woman realness.
To me, as a father, more disturbing than the mind-altering violence, perverse sexuality and psychologically-stilted adult content Hollywood pedals to our youth is the Academy’s overt retro-racism. We folks are powerfully projected in Tinsel Town as … some… thing. Not someone.
So rather than participate in the minstrel show of Oscar buffoonery, we geared up for Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos. (The show aired March 9 and 10 on FOX and the National Geographic Channel.) Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, is a tour de force celebrity scientist and frequently cited authority on astronomy in the popular media.
Both my wife, a biotechnology executive in San Diego and a disturbingly enthusiastic fan of deGrasse Tyson, and my son Christian geared up for Science Fair at his school, and deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos was just the elixir they needed for inspiration. She and my son worked on the poster board and she purchased the Glow Germ UV light, a kit that turns the invisible into “germs you can see!” I’ve taken on a proud supporting role, agreeing to chaperone on his forthcoming field trip to the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.
And you know something? The seeds we parents plant and germinate can take on extraordinary lives of their own. We’ve got way more juice than Hollywood.
In fact, Christian has recently advised me that his life’s work will be in space, the so-called “Final Frontier.” He has no clue that this year’s winner for Best Director is the director of Gravity, a movie with its backdrop set unimaginably, beautifully in outer-space. His mother and I listen intently to the details, affirm masterfully, and add to his dreams. They are the vision and details of a life to be lived. Effortless.
Before he falls asleep, groggy with a day in the school zone, an afternoon of driveway basketball and some heavy duty YouTube Disney Daffy Duck on his iPad, my son says, suddenly animated:
“And you know what Daddy? Can I tell you something?”
“Then I can see God’s face from another galaxy, and tell him I love Him.”
“That’s really cool, dude.”“Yeah.”
He drops off into sleep like a narcoleptic dream dog. Dreaming realities like this takes work. Ask Dr. Mae Jemison, if you didn’t know.
In the days that follow, he begins to share details of an intergalactic mining operation from which he will harness gems for humanity, profit, his family and private collection. I cannot express the excitement that bounds from my heart as he lays out details of his venture on Mars, Pluto, “the coldest planet in the galaxy” and the “diamond planet.” My disbelief at Hollywood’s charade is quelled to zip. We plan further, together, adding an expensive business lexicon to his quest.
He imagines astronaut “cool gloves” for hot planets like Venus or the Sun, or a fleet of drones for far away galaxies as exoplanets or “extrasolar planets,” or mining equipment similar to the machines we see performing federal projects on the freeways. At this rate, by the time J.J. Abrams’ new installment of Star Wars debuts in 2015, Chris will be sky-walking the universe. Christian is our golden statue.
What I believe is the basis of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s thought process: a universe without limitation. He speaks to our children like a Pied Piper, far more convincingly than the conniving cabal of naysaying sycophants in Hollywood.
C’mon, ladies and gentlemen. It’s the 21st Century. As producers of the world’s living opulent imagination, surely you can celebrate roles that affirm our dignity, redemption, faith, hope, humanity and power… and not be afraid of a Black perspective.
Or as Dr. Tyson has more affirmatively stated: ”Our molecules are traceable to stars that exploded and spread these elements across the galaxy. If you see the universe as something you participate in — as this great unfolding of a cosmic story — that, I think should make you feel large, not small … Any astrophysicist does not feel small looking up in the universe; we feel large.”
I guess Dr. deGrasse Tyson definitely will not be participating in any Oscar award productions. He doesn’t fit the typecast.
Patrick A. Howell is an award-winning banker, business leader, entrepreneur and writer who lives with his wife and son in Carlsbad. Mr. Howell is a frequent contributing writer to MyBrownBaby.com, TheGoodmanProject.com, TimesRealtyNews.com and other topical blogs and e-zines, and has coined the idea "Global I AAM" as representative of the Global International African Arts Movement. A former contributing editor to the Quarterly Black Review, Howell’s book, “Yes, We Be” will be published by the QBR book Imprint this year. Check him out on Facebook or tweet him at @PatrickAnthony.