BLACK ACTORS WHITE AUDIENCE

Why not putting the cat among the pigeons! Even with this metaphor I risk to bring over me the wrath of the black community in the US. White doves, you know.

So a little critical text among my lyrical little essays – a bit of aesthetics.

When black director Spike Lee throws the Oscar Awards into the arena of the presidential election campaign, I get a bit nervous. What have these to do with such elections? For two years I lived in The States; I studied the prison conditions over there and wrote a little book on this; I am a ‘war veteran’ in the movement against the Vietnam War – so do not expect of me anything but a reasoned rejection of American ‘society’.

But Spike’s shit I simply do not dig. Nor the shit of the American feminists, who saw and still see ghosts everywhere. Let Spike speak:

“How is it possible that all twenty candidates for the Oscar in the actor category are white, this for the second consecutive year? Can we not act? Just go to hell!” [Spike Lee quoted in the Dutch paper De Volkskrant, 02/27/16]

What struck me most was the little passage ‘Can we not act?’ As if it is impossible that for two years in a row the best actors that year are white or – for that matter, if you want, that is – violet or yellow. This is very much possible. This question can only be answered by studying the arguable differences in quality between the actors nominated.

So indeed: An overdose of death among black soldiers in Vietnam; an overdose of black prisoners then and still now; an overdose of innocent blacks killed by the police; et cetera. But, please Miiiister Spike, not this kind of phraseology about art and actors.

In addition, I would like to throw in a second cat in that loft with the pigeons, an aesthetic cat. Could it be that blacks are indeed less likely to be good film actors than whites, this because a black face allows fewer nuances of facial expression?

It can also be that ‘us whites’ may possibly not be able to perceive actually present nuances of black facial expression, accustomed as we are to a daily environment dominated by whites. If this were the case, you would almost have to argue for separate black Oscars, with a separate black jury and perhaps even special black films for black audiences…

In the transition from theater to film, at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a phase in which theater actors started to act in front of the film camera. Literally acting, as though they were using their facial expression on the Bühne. On stage such histrionics is necessary, that combination of exaggerated, accentuated facial expressions which are needed to have the actor convey the various ‘emotions’ his part demands even to spectators in the 30th row.

In front of a camera, by contrast, good acting depends upon the visible play with eyebrows, cheek movements, little wrinkles here and there – and so on. Perhaps, a black face on a big screen is less capable of this than a white face. Morgan Freeman, one of my movie greats, could act a magnificent Othello – on stage that is. On the white screen and in close up, however, I fear that his variation of set expressions might seem limited.

Watching Chinese movies, time and again I have the impression of seeing masks instead of ‘faces’. Beside my possible incapacity to observe yellow faces’ subtleties, this is certainly also the effect of the always identical color of eyes and hair – and especially of the eye fold which reinforces the effect of a mask.

I am an avid film fan and watch at least four movies a week. In my personal, rather extensive video library I have, for example, a separate section with Forest Whitaker movies. However, I must confess that in my top ten, top twenty movie actors [M / V] no black actor occurs, not even Whitaker.

Thus, having my questions in mind, I am not surprised at the limited presence of blacks on the nominees’ charts. This is not necessarily a matter of racism, which is what Spike Lee claims.

Notate bene: All questions raised above are serious queries of a hypothetical kind, demanding a reasoned and factual investigation.

February 2016

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Author: rjsiersk

contact: rjsiersk@xs4all.nl Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats. He would not ind being a cat.

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