Sunday, 11 January 2015

Sidney Poitier, Mike Brown, and the Myth of Black Exceptionalism

          You know what’s funny? I don’t even remember the first Sidney Poitier movie I saw. What I do remember is the feeling I had watching him move gracefully on my television screen: pride. He carried himself like a king. What’s more, he looked like me. Black people in early American cinema were typically relegated to the roles of the maid, the butler, and the happy yet oblivious buffoon. But not Sidney. He could do anything--and did. He played a detective, a doctor, an FBI agent, a teacher. And he looked beyond good doing it—he more than held his own, effectively becoming the first black man that Hollywood upgraded from the lowly position of actor to the coveted status of leading man. It’s only now that I recognize the work Hollywood put in (and the sacrifices Sidney made) to mold a black man that it felt was “worthy” of this honor. 

          Being a leading man is a very intimate endeavor—it requires an element of trust between the movie-going public and the leading man. After all, we invite him into our homes, onto our television screens, into our wallets, onto our bedroom walls, and into our fantasies. In order for this to happen, he has to be palatable--nonthreatening. This is the distinction I see between leading men and character actors. While the latter play roles that are darkly nuanced and display the full spectrum of human nature, the former embody the best of humanity, practically super-human in their perfection. While this distinction does not always hold true today, the boundary between leading man and character actor was strictly enforced in 1940s and 50s American cinema. Consider that in 1941, movie studio RKO insisted that the ending of the film Suspicion, which called for Cary Grant to murder his wife Joan Fontaine, be rewritten to instead feature the couple driving off into the sunset with Fontaine resting her head on Grant’s shoulder; studio executives argued that it was simply inconceivable to have one of the biggest leading men of the day play a murderer. This need for palatability increased tenfold if the leading man was to be black. He had to be exceptionally well-educated, exceptionally well-mannered, exceptionally well-dressed, exceptionally safe. He just had to be all around exceptional.

          This is Sidney’s cue to come in. He was all of the above and more. He was eloquent, graceful, handsome; determined yet gentle. You never got the feeling that he would hurt you— on the rare occasion that he did display a temper, it seemed to stem from indignation and disappointment, not rage. Never rage. When his character, Virgil Tibbs, in In the Heat of the Night is slapped by a white man, he responds in kind. But his slap is cool, restrained. Almost mechanical. As a viewer, I didn’t worry that he would go further…I didn’t fear for the white man’s safety. I knew Sidney was still in control because he was always in control. Aside from this perceived lack of physical menace, Sidney also needed to lack sexual menace; mainstream (read: white) America had to have no fear of his sexuality. Of course he was beautiful and had an enormous amount of sex appeal. But it was always presented as being muted and nonthreatening. In 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, one of America’s first mainstream films about an interracial relationship, the only kiss shared between Sidney Poitier and white actress Katherine Houghton is shown in a rearview mirror, as if Hollywood thought showing the kiss straight on would blind movie viewers. If there is any question as to why this is notable, I humbly submit 1915’s Birth of a Nation into evidence as a visual depiction of America’s deep-rooted and violently intense fear of black men’s sexuality, particularly when it concerns white women. If a handsome, charming black leading man was going to be allowed into mainstream culture and, consequently, into American homes, he had to be kept away from white women. And if he was to be allowed near them, there always had to be a catch.

          Take Lilies of the Field, a film in which Sidney is surrounded by white women--all nuns. Or A Patch of Blue in which a blind white woman falls in love with him; Sidney’s restrained response is to suggest that they wait a year to see what happens. And then there’s the aforementioned Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in which Sidney’s character approaches his white fiancé’s parents (without her knowledge, might I add) and tells them that he will not marry her without their unqualified and complete approval. That’s what mainstream America needed in its first black leading man; his sexuality had to be something kept on a tight leash, freed only by a grant of permission from white America.

To Sir, with Love
          Aside from appearing physically and sexually nonthreatening, Sidney had to be educated and successful by anyone’s standards. America’s first black leading man couldn’t be just any man off the street. He had to be articulate, urbane, well- traveled; the polar opposite of the reigning stereotypes of blacks. And Hollywood went out of its way to emphasize this. As Dr. John Prentice in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Sidney plays a world-renowned doctor who trains impoverished children in distant lands to become medical professionals. This was necessary—white America (and perhaps even some of black America) wouldn’t buy that the lovely, white Katherine Houghton would even consider marrying a black man that was anything but brilliant and accomplished. Or what about 1967’s To Sir, with Love? In order to make the idea that a black man could teach a class of white students and transform their lives even remotely believable, Sidney had to be a cut above his white counterparts in the film. His character, Mark Thackeray, is not a teacher by trade; he’s an engineer. He takes on a teaching job in the East End of London while looking for his next engineering job. Of course he excels at teaching; of course he wins the students over despite their initial hesitation; of course he gets the engineering job offer he so coveted, but turns it down to remain at the school (he also had to be noble). Sidney’s Thackeray couldn’t be mediocre. He had to excel. At everything. Finally, let us consider Virgil Tibbs in the In the Heat of the Night. This was a tricky one. Mainstream America had to buy the notion that a racist Mississippi sheriff would not only work side-by-side with a black detective on a homicide case, but would also listen to and, dare I say, respect his opinions. How did Hollywood address this? You guessed it—it made Tibbs Philadelphia’s number one homicide expert. A reasonably good, black homicide detective would not do; even an excellent black homicide detective would fall short. No, Tibbs had to be the best. Sidney always had to be the best.

Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte
  And he played the role of America’s ideal black man to a hilt. He showed up to the 1963 Oscar ceremony in a topcoat and tails. His hair was always close-cropped and neat, his posture impeccable, and his movements exceedingly elegant. Perhaps most importantly, he wasn’t as overtly political as many of his peers. While his friend and fellow actor Harry Belafonte practically bankrolled the Civil Rights Movement and worked as an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., Sidney was more private in his support of the Movement. That is of course not to say that his contributions to it were not impactful or admirable; they certainly were. They were just made quietly. And this is completely understandable; America’s first black leading man had to be just as nonthreatening politically as he was physically and sexually, if not more so. To mainstream America, the only thing more dangerous than a handsome, charming black leading man was one who was vocal about his politics and actually had some influence. So Sidney shied away from engaging in politics publically and continued his reign as Hollywood’s crowned black prince. With every movie of his that was released, Hollywood seemed to be sending two different messages to white and black America. Its message to the former was “See, he’s not like the rest of them—he’s exceptional.” Its message to black America was, “This is how you do blackness. He’s doing blackness right.” But this business didn’t stop with Sidney. I still see black men in Hollywood receiving the same treatment today. I certainly see it in my brother’s experience as a black, aspiring actor. And, what’s more, it’s not limited to Hollywood. I, and many others, have been subjected to what I like to call the myth of black exceptionalism.

          What exactly is the myth of black exceptionalism, you may ask? It’s the notion that black people who are educated, smart, articulate, poised, and basically every other positive adjective you can think of are atypical or rarities among the general black population. So what’s wrong with this notion? Well to begin, educated, smart, articulate, poised, etc. black people are not rarities or exceptions. They may seem to be exceptions based on the biased and unflattering depictions of black people that run rampant in the mainstream media (it seems that we’ve been upgraded from maids and butlers to angry black women and thugs), but they are not. This notion of black exceptionalism also bears the underlying assumption that there exists a single and one-dimensional manifestation of blackness. A black person that does not conform to this imposed, sole image of blackness is somehow an exception to the rule. In creating this false dichotomy, the myth of black exceptionalism denies us the individuality and the full spectrum of humanity that is so readily offered to the white population in this country. When we speak or act, our words and actions are often interpreted to say something about the entire black population, either by conforming to the dominant stereotypes about black people or by diverging from them. In Sidney’s case, his constructed persona was meant to set him apart from the black masses, ensuring white audiences that he was special and therefore worth supporting, trusting, admiring, perhaps even desiring. Hollywood packaged and sold Sidney’s particular brand of blackness as the correct form of blackness. “If it could gain Sidney access to the hallowed, white-washed halls of Hollywood, think of where it could take you,” Hollywood seemed to say to black Americans.

          There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about what I’m arguing. The existence of stereotypes about black people is not a new discovery. And my black friends and I have numerous stories about being told by our white friends, coworkers, and colleagues that they don’t think of us as being black, an indication that they have a concrete and definite idea of what blackness is. I’ve even been told by other black people that I was not “black enough,” evincing to me that they had internalized this idea of a single and static form of blackness. But what I’d like to highlight is how this myth of black exceptionalism, and the stereotypes underlying it, seep into the everyday and manifest themselves in painfully real ways.

          The conversation surrounding the killing of unarmed black teenager Mike Brown this past summer is a principal example. As the country debated whether this was yet another instance of police brutality against black men or whether it was simply a case of a (white) police officer defending himself against a (black) violent suspect, both sides seemed to co-opt Mike Brown’s personhood for their cause. “He was going off to college in a matter of days,” one side declared. “No, he was a weed-smoking thug that stole from a local convenience store,” the other side claimed. Beneath both of these arguments, I heard the familiar echo of the black exceptionalism myth. Both arguments undermined Mike Brown’s inherent value as a human being by creating a hierarchy of blackness in which the lives of educated, promising, exceptional blacks were to be valued more highly than the lives of stereotypical blacks, a.k.a. thugs. But Mike Brown existed outside of stereotypes and blanket assumptions about black people and about black men in particular. He was a human being. He held all of the complexity and contradictions that all human beings possess. His humanity can neither be summed up in five-minute news segments nor put in historically created and socially perpetuated bins for “good” blacks and “bad” blacks. His humanity is what makes his violent death at the hands of a police officer sworn to protect and serve atrocious and despicable. Yes Mike Brown’s death speaks to America’s violent racial past and carries weighty social and political implications. But that should not obscure the inherent value that he had as a human being—value that was not increased by the fact that he was going college nor decreased by allegations that he smoked pot or stole cigars.

Mike Brown
          Amidst the fury surrounding Mike Brown’s death, I heard many call for police officers to be viewed and treated as individuals. What’s incomprehensible to me is that this is exactly what has been denied to Mike Brown since his death. There has been no room for him to be an 18-year-old boy with the fears, hopes, and nuances encompassed therein. This same “privilege” of individuality has also been denied to black Americans since…well forever. But this denial has blatantly been put on display following Mike Brown’s death. For example, several individuals claimed that the rioting and looting by some black people in Ferguson, MO perpetuated negative stereotypes about black people, essentially using the behaviors of specific black individuals as evidence of a characteristic shared by all black Americans. The people making these claims are saying that the behavior of a specific group of black people in a particular section of America at a particular time in history in response to an event that took place in that community says something, or could be interpreted to say something, about black America in general. Ummm no. For so many reasons, no. When a majority white crowd rioted in San Francisco following the 2014 World Series win by the Giants (that’s right, a win), I heard no sweeping claims made about white America.  When white people rioted in California’s Huntington Beach following a 2013 surfing and skateboarding competition (a far more reasonable reason to riot than the loss of a human life) I again heard no claims made about the entirety of white America. And if you think that these rioting examples are exceptions, let’s throw the Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut mass shootings into the mix. The perpetrators of both of these heinous acts were white males. Yet I never heard anyone say, “These tragedies just prove that all white males are______.” The truth is that white people are just not as subjected to and impacted by stereotypes as nonwhite people are. Negative narratives have not been constructed around whiteness based on the wrongdoings of white individuals. These wrongdoings are considered to be just that…acts by individuals. And when a white person acts (or reacts), he doesn’t carry the weight of how other white people will be perceived on his back. For non-whites that is a luxury. It shouldn’t be.

 So what am I trying to say? Well, a number of things. First of all I’m saying that black people are individuals and should be viewed and treated as such. It’s troubling to me that I even have to make such a statement because this should be a given. But the past few months have shown me that I do, indeed, need to declare the individuality of black people in this country, so there it is. Secondly, smart, educated, talented, poised, etc. black people are not deviations from the norm because there is no norm of blackness. The fact that America seems to believe otherwise shows me that there is still an astonishing amount of progress to be made when it comes to race in this country.  Along these lines, I emphasize that black exceptionalism does not exist; it’s not real. It’s not real because black exceptionalism requires that there is a standard or a baseline that exceptional blacks have surpassed, thus making them exceptional. But as I’ve stated, this concept of a standard or baseline of blackness is absurd just as it would be in the context of whiteness. Intelligent and capable black people are not curiosities or freaks of nature; they are underrepresented in many top universities, corporate boardrooms, and positions of power because, by and large, they’ve lacked the access and opportunity that their white counterparts have had. I’m not saying that talent and work ethic do not play a role in this; I’m just saying that we cannot minimize the role that America’s history and institutional structures (which have been shaped by this history) play in all of this. Finally, I started this paper by looking at this myth of black exceptionalism through the lens of film because I believe it is both a product of its time and a medium that has the power to shape its time. By unpacking this myth of black exceptionalism through Sidney’s rise to prominence, I aimed to show its absurdity by placing it in the context of an old-fashioned and outdated film industry. But this myth did not die out with the advent of color-film and CGI technology. It’s very much alive and shapes the lived experiences of many in this country; and there’s no director to yell “Cut” on those.

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