Changing Movie Stereotypes
June 18, 2009
I really don’t think out of a population of over 300 million people, I am the only one that notices such things. But somebody has got to write or speak about what most people would rather die than do. And what is that, my dear reader?
That is something that the new attorney general said a few months ago. Do you remember what Eric Holder said? In part here is what he said on being nominated to be the attorney general of the United States, Mr. Holder said we were “a nation of cowards because we were afraid to talk about race.” Of course, it depends on who is doing that talking and what his or her objective is.
We white folk are accustomed to hearing the Jesse Jacksons and the Al Sharptons who are constantly whining about how racist and unfair America is. Both of these gentlemen live much better than most Americans, regardless of race. They travel first-class wherever they go; they stay at the best hotels, eat at the finest restaurants, wear the most expensive attire, and can command a national audience on a moments’ notice. They can play on white America’s never-ending guilt and whether people really feel a sense of guilt or merely pretend a sense of guilt, only the person himself knows how he or she truly feels.
I have no sense of guilt personally. Even though historically I know the past is something not to be proud of, and certainly this nation from colonial days until the last few decades was guilty of a racist mindset that today seems incredible, I myself never owned a slave. However, I do know that my grandparents and parents felt the pain of bigotry because of their Italian background.
I, myself, was told by CBS when they hired me to go on the radio, many years ago in the city of Chicago, that I would have to “Americanize” my name. I remember almost blowing my job before I even started, saying, “Well, maybe we should change the name of the country since America is named after Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian.”
The man who I said this to was apologetic and seemed a little embarrassed, but he explained they had a policy, and well, in show business a lot of people take “stage or screen names.” This man’s real name was Morrey Alswang, but he went by the name of Al Morrey. Without saying too much, we both knew you couldn't have an obvious Italian name or Jewish name or Polish name, but there were many Irish names on the announcing staff. But that was OK since most of the heroes and “good guys” in the movies at that time had Irish names.
We didn’t really object. After all, I was just happy to be on the biggest CBS station in the nation west of New York! My father, being a musician and conducting a “cocktail band” (as they were known in those days) thought that taking “performance” names went with the territory. His pianist and arranger was a kid named David Rosenberg, who became famous as David Rose, one of the greatest musical composers and bandleaders of the era.
But getting back to the present, you surely must have noticed the preponderance of African-Americans in commercials, and most of all, maybe you noticed that African-American actors are invariably the good guys in movies. They are the judges, the cops, the district attorneys.
That goes for motion pictures as well as television. So it is no surprise that the remake of the film, “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” which was first released in l974, has been recast. Back in l974 in the original production, Walter Matthau (a white actor) played the intrepid hero, and Robert Shaw (also a white actor) played the evil, vicious villain.
But in the 2009 edition, John Travolta is the bad guy, and guess who the good guy hero is? Why, of course, it is Denzel Washington! And by the way, in real life, Denzel is one of the “good guys” who supports our troops, visiting the wounded in Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. He also made a substantial donation, a few years back, to the Fisher House Foundation that houses the families of the wounded during their treatment there.
Why am I not surprised at the new stereotyping in the movies? I am not surprised for the same reason you are not surprised. There is seemingly an unwritten law in the theater, motion pictures, and television. I will let you word that unwritten law however you wish.
It goes without saying that there is a great abundance of gifted, talented African-American performers. But, I wonder if any of them ever thought of auditioning for the role of a villain?