Back in the day, in my former life I was a working actor. Looking back at my life to that time so long ago, it does seem like it was a former life. I am certainly a much different person than back then.
Anywayzzz… when I was making my living as an actor in Toronto Canada, the experience was fulfilling in many ways, but it was mainly very frustrating. When it came to film and television roles, they were primarily U.S. based productions, so all the main characters were already cast with American actors. My first few years were working as an “extra” … basically in non-descript roles making up the background scenery. It was grueling work and somewhat demeaning. I remember many times when as an “extra”, I had to wait off to the side during meal breaks until the lead characters and the crew had eaten, before we were allowed to get our lunch and/or dinner (i.e. leftovers) from the meal table. After some time I was able to get an agent and I got cast in “better” roles in these productions. As a Black actor, I was primarily offered the role of “Black thug on the right”, or “Black thug on the left” … or if I was really fortunate, I got cast as “Black thug in the middle” , who got arrested by the lead “white” cop character and got to say a variation of the line: “hey man… I didn’t do nuttin!” After a number of these roles, my sense of self-respect couldn’t handle it, so I told my agent I wasn’t going to do them anymore and to try to get me auditions for roles that were not “race” specific. I think I went on 2 auditions after that before the agent dropped me.
When it came to theatre productions, things were a little better. There was certainly more “artistic-license” taken by producers and directors when it came to “non-traditional” casting. I played a variety of roles in numerous productions. I was given the opportunity to play “Benvolio” in a summer stock production of Romeo and Juliet. It was a fantastic experience and it led to an audition for the artistic director of the Stratford Festival. This festival is the premiere Shakespearean festival in Canada and it is world renown. I had known a couple of my peers… and I literally mean two Black actors, who had been cast in minor roles at the festival. However they were cast as background figures, non-speaking roles… “spear carrier on the right” or “servant on the left”. As a part of the festival’s training program, both were given the opportunity to “understudy” minor roles. From conversations with these friends about their experiences, it was obvious (to me at least) that the festival only hired Black actors (and other “actors of colour”) in an effort to appear to be inclusive, so as to ward off any criticism that they were racist or discriminatory in their casting.
So I decided that instead of doing a “standard” audition where I would recite a monologue and then stroke the artistic director’s ego and claim how it had always been my lifelong dream to work with him and be a part of the festival, no matter how small the role, and that I would be forever grateful and in his debt for the opportunity… I decided to put him on the spot and ask him why I should want to work at the festival? What was the advantage for me? What role(s) did he have in mind for me? I informed him it wouldn’t be worth it to me, to go there and play insignificant background roles. Needless to say, he wasn’t impressed. He gave me an exasperated lecture on the importance of respecting the auditioning process and “paying my dues” . He then ended the audition. Not surprisingly, I didn’t get an invite to work at Stratford… but strangely I felt a certain amount of pride for my stance.
I then made the decision to do low budget independent films and theatrical production dealing with social issues, primarily those relating to the Black and African community. I also worked with a collective of Black artists doing our own productions. However it became increasingly difficult to work on a continuous basis as there wasn’t much community support and the government funding for what was termed “non-traditional productions”, went primarily to ”white” film production and theatre companies that had submitted proposals to do “ethnic-based” productions. I worked for a couple of these companies and found that they were very eurocentric in their perspectives on social issues, as well as blatantly condescending and patronizing in their ethnic-based” productions. Although I worked for approximately another year or so in the arts before I decided to do something else, my most rewarding efforts during this period were the productions I did with other “artists of colour”. I didn’t feel like I was a slave to the whims and self-promoting generosity of “white” producers and directors.
I related the above story as a preface to this. I have been following the war of words between Spike Lee and Clint Eastwood, in regards to the lack of any Black soldiers depicted in Eastwood last two films on World War 2: “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima”. Spike stated:
“He did two films about Iwo Jima back to back and there was not one black soldier in both of those films. Many veterans, African-Americans, who survived that war are upset at Clint Eastwood. In his vision of Iwo Jima, Negro soldiers did not exist. Simple as that. I have a different version.”
Now I am a huge Spike Lee fan and one of the things I like about him is that he pushes against the Hollywood establishment. However I believe one should pick and choose one’s fight and be wise enough to pick ones that are worth the fight. This one is not worth the time and energy! I honestly believe that we would be much better served as a community, if Spike Lee and other Black producers and directors make films telling the stories of Black soldiers in WW2, than to expect that Clint Eastwood would ”pepper” his films with Black actors to be inclusive. Spike is right when he stated that both films “were whites-only affairs”. White director. White producers. White writers. White perspective. So there should be no surprise that it was not their primary concern, nor their second… nor third concern, to ensure that Black soldiers were represented in these movies.
I saw both films for I am also a Clint Eastwood fan, and although I found them somewhat interesting, they were forgettable. The storylines just didn’t resonate with me in the long-term. As a Black man, it wouldn’t have made any difference if there were Black soldiers in these films. The stories weren’t about them or their experiences. Sure it could have added a more realistic element to have Black soldiers in the background, but to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have noticed and it wouldn’t have added anything relevant to the storyline.
We have our own stories to tell and we should produce them ourselves. One of my favorite movies is “A Soldier’s Story”. Although directed by Norman Jewison (a Canadian.. I had to add that!), it was written by the Pulitzer Prize winning African American playwright, Charles Fuller. There is also the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. I am looking forward to the Spike’s next film, “Miracle at St. Anna”, the story of an all-black U.S. division fighting in Italy during World War 2. I am sure there are many more of these stories about the experiences, trials, tribulations and heroic feats of African-American Black soldiers in any era. “Glory”, another excellent film comes to mind. We can also take a global perspective and make films based on stories concerning those of African descent, apart from the African-Americae experience, such as “A Long Way Gone”, the incredible story of Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone. “The Last King of Scotland” about Idi Amin, the former President of Uganda, was a critical and commercial success, earning Forrest Whittaker an Oscar.
I am sure all this got started when Spike was asked by the media at Cannes… something like: “what was the inspiration for your new film?”, and he answered honestly that Black soldiers and their contributions weren’t being represented by Hollywood, and he referenced Eastwood’s films to make his point. We are all aware of how the media feeds on controversy and they ran to Eastwood and asked him to respond… and now it’s on! Spike shouldn’t allow himself to be manipulated by the media and let his work do the talking!
There are enough commercially and critically successful Black producers, directors and actors in Hollywood to join together and create there own production companies to feature our stories… the historical and contemporary tales of those of African descent. We have a rich history and culture to draw upon. Looking at the creation of both United Artists and First Artists are examples of how this can be done. By forming our own production companies, we can have the ability to tell our own stories… from our own perspectives… and break the chains of expecting and/or begging the “white” man to remember to include us in their stories or their depictions of history.