The Public Humanist

Mammy, Jezebel, and the Neighborhood Drug Dealer

In Search of the Common Good by fellow Public Humanist David Tebaldi talks about America suffering from two anxieties, one of them economic and the other moral. I found this conversation very interesting in light of the work I do as an independent film and theater producer and the president of a nonprofit the Color of Film Collaborative, Inc., a nonprofit that supports independent filmmakers creating more diverse images of people of color in the media and performing arts. Thebottom line is the only thing that Hollywoodstudios and distribution companies are concerned with, and in meeting thosebottom lines they are constantly selling out images of people that are not onlystereotypical but racist and ignorant. Morality goes out the window when youcan sell the image of an African American playing a drug dealer and agang-banger at a higher price than that of an African American playing a doctoror a lawyer because society has been conditioned to believe the stereotypicalimages so ingrained through years of placement in the media. I once heard Anna Deavere Smith say “If you are called something long enough, you start to believe it.” This is what has happened with the images of African Americans in the media.

Repeatedly these images are created, supported and distributed all over the world so that people in other countries believe that all African Americans are lazy, slick, drug dealing individuals who are overweight and live off the government.There are few depictions of them as family oriented individuals who workhard to get their part of the “American Dream.” Just recently I co-produced a play for Roxbury Crossroads Theatre, The Trial of One Short Sighted Black Woman by playwright Karani Marcia Leslie. It examined images of AfricanAmerican women in the media. It was based on a contemporary black woman whotakes the negative images of Mammy and Jezebel to trial in order to jail themforever, because she cannot be the woman she wants to be in today’s societywhile she is constantly bombarded by these images. She finds herself working three times harderthan her white counterparts to show that she is neither of these images. In theend she realizes what a horrible existence these women had to endure at thehands of slavery; in the end she has a different respect for who they are andwhat they had to do to survive. Stories that critically examine the stereotypeswe are living with in America are what we need to be supporting, talkingabout, and teaching.

Some time ago, I produced a short film entitled HuntingIn America that looked at the issue of racial profiling. The story focusedon the moral and ethical dilemma of an African American Assistant DistrictAttorney prosecuting an African American defendant whom he knew did not committhe crime; he was obliged to try him and get him convicted for the sake of theCommonwealth. In one screening, a young woman stood up and said that this wasunrealistic because the characters of the attorney and the judge were bothAfrican American and she believed that that combination could never happen in acourtroom. She had never seen it; therefore it could not be true.

Herewe are in 2007 and we are still dealing with the these preconditioned ideas ofthe limits of achievements of African Americans, reinforced by the likes of DonImus and history books that still don’t include achievements of AfricanAmericans in science, medicine, literature and art. Why is it that people, not only in Americabut internationally, have a hard time understanding that not all AfricanAmerican people are the same, and that there is no general prototype; theypossess no one color, hair texture or body type. As long as Hollywood continues to perpetuate the myth,the lie, the world will not understand the diversity in the African Americancommunity, because the power of the media to create and sustain images isgetting stronger everyday. We live in a media rich society where morality andeconomics are blurred and people are out only for themselves. Everyone is to blame for this. Not only theboardrooms of Hollywood studios but thescriptwriters as well. We have African American creating content to fit this Hollywood model in order to cash in and get their pieceof the pie at the expense of an entire race.

Things will not change unless we as independent thinkersand independent creators challenge these Hollywoodstereotypes, not just of the African American but of all minority groupsincluding Asian, Latino, and all other ethnic groups who are constantly beingportrayed in very limited ways. As more avenues open up for the distribution ofmedia outside of the Hollywood system, we should be thinking about creating imagesthat debunk Hollywood and societal myths and honor and celebrate theachievements of non-white cultures and races and educate a new generation aboutthe rich talents of this multicultural world. These are the stories that needto be captured on tape, on paper or on video and shared with the world.

by LisaSimmons, President of the Color of Film Collaborative in Roxbury

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