We began recitation by watching a clip from Rocky (1976), showing part of the climactic battle where little white Italian Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) fights with muscular black Apollo Creed for the boxing championship. The argument to be examined is a simple one: the Oscar-winning movie’s central conflict is one in which we cheer for the white man to defeat the black man. Rocky’s putting Creed “back in his place,” so to speak.
Next, there was a presentation on the representation (try saying that ten times fast!) of African-Americans in 1980s cinema. An extremely small percentage of movies had blacks in a leading role. Those that did would more commonly be comedic – colored stars of the period tend toward Eddie Murphy/Chris Rock style acting. (Interestingly, we tied both concepts together with a clip of a Murphy stand-up routine regarding race in Rocky.) This leads right back to Do the Right Thing, a movie which directly tackles questions of racial relations. It was later pointed out that Sal’s Wall of Fame could be seen as a symbol for Hollywood.
The next presentation discussed more abstract symbols of race. For example, we discussed how Batman is a vigilante hero who must stoop down to the level of the streets – in essence, becoming “black” – in order to stave off the criminal underbelly beneath Bruce Wayne’s aristocratic world. Finally, we watched the beginning to another Spike Lee film, Malcolm X, in which a young Malcolm X tries very hard to assimilate himself and become “white.”
We finished the class with a lengthy discussion of Do the Right Thing and black cinema in general. We thought about Mookie’s reasons for throwing the garbage can – did he want to incite a riot as an act of vengeance, or was he actually redirecting the crowd from Sal to a non-living persona easily replaced? – and it was brought up that, since Spike Lee himself played Mookie, this action could be seen as the director’s true intention if only we could make sense of that action.
At one point, I recall, I myself tried to raise a small counterargument, beginning by asking if Rocky was based on a true story. However, failure to answer this question shot down my argument before I even began. Regardless, I would like to throw in some personal perspective here, even though I’m not sure if that’s typical of a blog summary and I am sure that no one will ever read but Jaap anyway.
If the parts in Rocky were swapped – if Rocky was black, and Creed was Italian – would it still be about race? Probably, I think, even more people would read into it as being a race relations film. In this case, it would seem that the only way to make this film without bringing race as a question would be to make both contenders one race. And, since Stallone’s screenwriting credit had him attached from the beginning, this would mean abandoning any main black characters. Of course, this would just make it a typical trend-follower – in my personal opinion, it’s better to make the “villain” black (and I might add he is not really a villain as much as simply an opponent) than to have no one black.
Rocky is not about race. This was not the intention of the creators, this is not the belief of the fans, and to spin it in such a way is simply overanalytical and irrational. My former roommate called Rocky one of his all-time favorite movies. But this is not because of the significant racial tensions it portrays, it’s because it perfectly exemplies why he loves sports so much. I, on the other hand, absolutely hate the movie. But I don’t find it racist – I just find it boring.
The Joker, also, is not meant to be a black stereotype. He was created in the ’40s, and he is meant to be a clown. Perhaps there are similarities between black stereotypes and clowns, but this is hardly at the fault of Batman’s creators. In fact, I would argue based on my admittedly sketchy knowledge of history that black stereotypes were much more inspired by the clown than the other way around – the white upperclass sought to view their slaves as something innocent and happy, and what better portrait than the age-old image of happy bliss?
I am not trying to say that racial relations are never present in movies. Obviously, Do the Right Thing directly speaks of race, and yes, it is definitely about race. I am also not saying that blacks aren’t misrepresented in movies even still today – three major black actors come to mind, and those are Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, and Morgan Freeman. Compare this to some fifty or so white stars, and the statistics speak for themselves. Of course, this is another question to be considered: How many times can we reuse the same three colored stars before we get sick of them? To bash a film for not using enough colored actors is like bashing a film for not using anyone who attended NYU. It isn’t a good thing, no, but there are many factors to consider, and racism is not at the top of the list.
What is at the top of the list? Well, whenever I make a movie and I’m asked about what race a character is, I have to ask, “Can I get away with this?” In other words, if I decide to make my main character black, or even just cast a black actor, is this going to suddenly add racial themes to the movie? The answer, a lot of the time, is yes. And I think that’s a problem. YOU CANNOT CAST A BLACK ACTOR UNLESS THE MOVIE IS ABOUT RACE. The fact is sad, but true.
As an example, I’ll turn to an older movie, Night of the Living Dead (1968). This movie has nothing to do with race whatsoever. It was written, to my knowledge, without even considering the question. However, Duane Jones, a colored actor, reportedly gave the best performance, and thus got the part. He was a colored lead in the ’60s. I have heard multiple people interpret the movie with racial undertones. They’ve read specific actions as lynching references, race struggles, etc. All because a black man got the part.
I dream of the world where people don’t overanalyze these things. A world where a director can cast a colored actor, or a woman, without running the risk of entirely changing the scope of the movie. A world of color-blindness.
I apologize for the tangent, and that it went on so long. (Disclaimer: I didn’t do any additional research outside my own personal experience and what I’ve read in the past.)