Pop culture's eye on blacks

October 25, 1998|By Paul Delaney

A REPORTER at the New York Times once called Imiri Baraka, when the black poet and writer was still known as Leroi Jones, to ask if he would comment on some black anniversary, perhaps of the Newark riots, the reporter was working on.

Mr. Baraka refused, instead, barking insults into the phone about the New York Times' celebrating its own Negro week.

Occasionally, pop culture turns its attention to African Americans in a serious way, though sometimes leaving the impression of living out Mr. Baraka's asperity. As timely as Halley's comet, perhaps, we are witnessing such a phenomenon now, given "Beloved" on the big screen and "Africans in America" on television.

Remember "Roots"? Enjoy it while it lasts, I say.

So far, the two new offerings, in general, have received rave reviews as artistic achievements. Deservedly so. As should have been anticipated, both have prickled the sensitivities, and sometimes sensibilities, of a few whites, people who would have poked holes simply because of the racial theme.

As terrific as "Africans" is, "Beloved" is more significant because it raises greater questions and issues. As a product of American capitalism, "Beloved" has gone from Pulitzer Prize standing, which it won in 1989, to the madness of modern marketing, thanks to its producer, Oprah Winfrey.

Coveting an Oscar more seriously than Rodney Dangerfield craves respect, she has poured millions of her dollars, along with body and soul, into unbelievable advertising that could backfire on her: The picture and others in it may receive nominations, but she won't.

Nevertheless, it took courage to go with the millions to transfer Toni Morrison's brilliant but complex novel to the big screen. That is a most important contribution. Would that other African Americans and nonwhites were inspired to similarly invest more heavily in artistic endeavors that show their own side of history and artistry.

There should be many more "Smoke Signals," the Native American-made movie, as well as films by Asian Americans and Latinos. "Men in Black" they are not and shouldn't be; the world can live without another "Lethal Weapon" or "Beverly Hills Cop."

Ms. Winfrey took a very serious work of literature by a no-nonsense writer, who does not make prose easy for her readers, and turned it into a film that defies several Hollywood standards and taboos.

A few examples follow:

* The movie is saddled with what I call the Joe Louis Syndrome: when he was heavyweight champ, he carried the burden of the entire black race into every fight; for white Americans, his victories over foreign fighters were blows for freedom, however much of it denied to nonwhites.

* "Beloved" is a test case to see how white audiences will receive it and, more significantly, how it does in overseas markets. As much as Europeans, for example, accept black artists and love our music -- witness jazz festivals at Montreaux and Juan les Pins -- they shun our movies.

* It is a test also of how producers will handle heavy material. The success of "Beloved" would be a sign for them to take more chances.

* It is the most expensive movie ever with a racial theme, more than $53 million, plus $30 million more to promote, mostly Ms. Winfrey's money. Hollywood nowadays is reluctant to finance movies with purely racial themes.

* Will whites, particularly the same white women who are Ms. Winfrey's biggest boosters of her television show, support her most ambitious cinematic project? The answer, so far, is no. The reasons are all over the field.

Most whites do not want to bother with a racial subject if it is going to make them feel guilty. They want nothing to do with serious black topics, and instead prefer black comics and comedies. Many whites -- and blacks -- prefer noisy, action-packed, violent, blunt no-brainer, technology-driven drivel than anything serious; and, many whites fear attending movies with predominantly black audiences.

"Beloved" is an example of how far we have come since the days of blaxploitation films, from the even older, deliberately demeaning days of eye-bucking Mantan Moreland and slow-dragging, slow-talking, shuffling Stepin Fetchit -- and worse, from highly offensive whites in blackface to "Birth of a Nation."

In those days, Toni Morrison and Oprah Winfrey were not anticipated.

For me, Ms. Morrison supplies the missing literary link to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, fictionally connecting dots. Beyond that, she and Ms. Winfrey embody the real potential of black power with their influence. As more nonwhites acquire wealth, there will be more examples of that power.

If Ms. Winfrey had not made "Beloved," it most likely would never have been turned into a movie. It can still become a box office hit if her white female supporters can park their fear, and prejudices, by the popcorn machine and embrace the movie as enthusiastically as they did the book, at her constant urging.

The movie is a test of that crossover audience, which will determine its box office success. Another powerful segment is the white youth audience. A recent report notes the growing influence teen-agers have on television programming; they are prominent in the ratings game and are now the driving force for some networks. The belief is, the kids are not about seriousness, either.

However, crossover is not occurring in large numbers. "Beloved" draws better in downtown urban movie houses than in larger suburban mall theaters. That will not make it a success.

But, as indicated, the novel is a tough read and the movie subscribes closely to the book, thus, making demands that moviegoers are not used to wrestling with. Coincidently, "Teen Read Week" aimed at enticing youngsters to read for fun, ends today.

More power to Ms. Winfrey -- and Ms. Morrison and Orlando Bagwell, executive producer of "Africans." May multitudes follow.

Paul Delaney writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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