from Tyler Perry's For Colored Girls (2010)

Q: Why were the Academy Awards this year such a total white-out?

A: Because films by/about people of color just aren’t good enough. Did you see Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls? Gawd.

Replace “race” with “gender” and we get the same answer — except using Jennifer Aniston’s The Breakup as evidence — and, with that, we all die a little inside. You’re just not good enough. In this conversation I feel like I’m talking to a film critic version of Stephen Colbert: someone who claims “not to see race” (or gender) and is solely concerned with the merit of a good film. The reason why Hollywood keeps rewarding films by/about white dudes, we learn, is simply because the rest aren’t good enough. This is the flip side of Natalie Portman’s “I just want to be perfect” line from Black Swan that I wrote about in January (most viewed post ever!) — isn’t it interesting that wanting to be perfect and not being good enough are the fates of women and minorities, not white dudes?

from Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Us (2010)

This subject has been on my mind for a while, since reading a thoughtful lament by Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott in the New York Times, but even more after seeing the tepid Oscar tribute to Lena Horne by Halle Berry. Berry is the first and only Black actor to have won an Oscar for Best Actress (for 2001’s Monster’s Ball), yet her lines for this tribute didn’t mention race at all (and let me note that I doubt Berry had a say in writing those lines). “Lena Horne blazed a trail for all of us who followed,” she said. “Thank you, Lena Horne: we love you and we will never ever forget you,” she said, blowing a kiss to the screen. Ah, Hollywood, your racial anxiety is showing. By us did Berry mean people of color? And where exactly is that trail for Black actors in a year of all-white winners? 

from Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck's Sugar (2008)

One might argue that this is a problem of metrics: it’s not that Hollywood is racist, but viewers are. The Wire was the best show ever on TV but it never made much money for HBO because, reportedly, shows about African Americans don’t sell well either domestically or overseas. And if you think it’s tough to sell films about American Blacks, just imagine trying to find an audience for a film about Black people who don’t speak English. Which leads me to Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s extraordinary film Sugar (2008) — which is secretly where I’ve been going with this post. Tracing the career of a Dominican baseball pitcher, Sugar (Algenis Perez Soto) who arrives in the US with the hope of making it into the major leagues, this film is really about how hard it is to believe you’re good enough.

Algenis Perez Soto in Sugar (2008)

At first it seems that Sugar’s future is golden. He stands out in his Dominican baseball academy and gets plucked to participate in spring training with the (fictional) Kansas City Knights, where he’ll have the chance to prove his worth to the big club. He begins to glimpse there the uphill battle before him:  many terrific players who lose their confidence or get injured orjust aren’t good enough. So when he again moves up the ladder to the Knights’ Single-A feeder team in Iowa, he has to face those pressures in a lonely, rural environment where few speak Spanish. “All the players here are really good,” he tells his mother on the phone to keep her expectations realistic, to no avail. Even the kindly white family who take him in bark rules at him in that patronizing tone: “NO CERVEZAS IN THE CASA,” they say. “NO CHICAS IN THE BEDROOM.” It goes without saying that there’s also no familiar food, salsa dancing, or girls to flirt with without cultural pushback. It’s horrible — and what if he’s not good enough?

The fact that Sugar’s a pitcher makes his plight all the more believable. More than virtually any other position on the team, pitching is a lonely, mental game: when you stand on the mound you feel the other players’ expectations, the coaches’ critical judgment, the powerful need for precision and self-control. When it all comes together, he feels like the golden boy he was in the Dominican Republic — but tug at a loose thread and suddenly it starts to come unraveled. One bad game can bleed into another bad game. Add to that the language barrier and Sugar starts to become a different guy than he used to be.

It’s a beautiful, smart film. Boden and Fleck earned a pile of prize nominations for this film, fewer than for their magnificent Half Nelson (2006) but then, that was mostly about a while guy who speaks English (and is played by Ryan Gosling). Most of their nominations for Sugar came from indie festivals — because, perhaps, it just wasn’t good enough for the Oscars? At RottenTomatoes.com it has a whopping 93% approval rating, yet David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (with only a 72% approval rating) edged it out for an Oscar nomination for Best Picture? Benjamin Button was better?

Race in Hollywood is the flip side of gender in Hollywood — god forbid you try to film while being Black (or female), as we’re still worshipping at the altar of the white male teenager and his penis, as Helen Mirren put it. But rather than deal with the implications of that prejudice, let’s just stick with our pronouncement that women and people of color just aren’t good enough. In the meantime, can someone please tell me why Paul Giamatti keeps getting so many roles as despicable shlubby men who score fabulously beautiful women when I don’t even want to think about him, much less watch him on the screen?

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This is a wholly random collection, as you’ll see — aren’t they always?  It’s partly inspired by my wish to see a wider range of female parts get handed out, but these actors have stuck in my mind for ages, and I think Hollywood needs a nudge.

  1. Shareeka Epps.  She played the watchful, thoughtful middle-school kid in “Half Nelson” (2006) alternately inspired and disturbed by her self-immolating history teacher (Ryan Gosling). I can’t imagine what it must have taken for a 15- or 16-year-old  to step up to Gosling in that film, but she did — earning piles of awards nominations and several wins, including Breakthrough Performance from the Gotham Awards.  I’ve been watching and waiting for more from her ever since — but she’s suffered like so many young black actors by a Hollywood single-mindedly focused on white dudes.
  2. Michelle Forbes.  It’s not just the time she put in earning paychecks as Ro Laren in the old “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (or her utterly delightful turns in “Battlestar Gallactica” and as the psychopathic Maryann on “True Blood”), although any one of those performances might be enough for me to want more of this willowy, wicked-eyed, sharp-tongued, iconoclastic actor.  But it was “In Treatment” that nailed it, as the miserable wife of the psychotherapist Gabriel Byrne — her exasperating sessions with a man who’s simultaneously too smart and too deluded to change his destructive path to show her he cares.  Of everyone on my list, Forbes has gotten the most work during her career; and she might be perfectly content with her wide range of parts.  But I want more.
  3. Sandi McCree.  I’ve found myself several times defending her performance in “The Wire” as Namond Brice’s mother — some saw De’Londa as so hard-edged as to be a stereotype of the ghetto woman.  If anything, it was brave; but in truth I thought she did some of the best, quiet work of season 4.  De’Londa was dedicated to playing a particular role as the wife of a good soldier in Baltimore’s drug wars, and this wasn’t an easy role.  While her husband had sacrificed himself and was ticking away the years of a life sentence in prison on behalf of his bosses, De’Londa was left to 1) keep her husband’s memory alive in the streets; 2) enjoy the lifelong financial payouts from the bosses; and 3) raise their son to be just like his father.  Except that the payouts ended, and Namond was sort of a wuss.  No wonder De’Londa was angry a lot of the time.  I loved her then and want more of these unexpected portrayals of black women onscreen.
  4. Molly Shannon.  When she was on “Saturday Night Live” she was given a lot of the broadest comedic parts, like that of a spastic cheerleader; and she’s still used in bit parts for her knack for that style of sketch comedy.  But a few years ago she showed in “Year of the Dog” (2007) that she’s really good in bittersweet, subtly funny parts as well.  So now, whenever I catch her making a brief appearance — on “30 Rock” as Jack Donaghy’s sister; on “Glee” as a nutso teacher; and on SNL’s massive Mother’s Day/Betty White/women’s reunion extravaganza — I keep seeing the fine actor in her being blunted by the writers’ short-sighted demand for broad comedy.  There’s been an odd conversation in the media during the last year about funny women — at one point, Margaret Cho suggested that the funniest women were gender bending and/or gay, while others rationalized the lack of women writers on TV comedies by suggesting that women just aren’t as funny as men (I’m calling out Stephen Metcalf of Slate’s Culture Gabfest for an uncharacteristically bad moment).  Then there was the kerfuffle over “The Daily Show” and its dearth of female correspondants.  Anyway — my point is that there are lots of funny women and a few with the subtle talents of Molly Shannon, and that they’re under-used.

As soon as I post this I’ll probably think of more people — but I’m racing to the airport for one last short summer trip before the semester takes over my life.  Bon voyage, all!