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Saldana and Simone: The Significance is Deeper than Skin Tone

Saturday, October 6th, 2012

The Zoe Saldana and Nina Simone controversy reveals that most African Americans still don’t understand the business and mission of Hollywood in America. For some odd reason, some African Americans feel that Hollywood has a responsibility to educate through film, market the beauty of Blackness, and make black biopics that reflect real and authentic Black life-stories. Like Hollywood, this is unrealistic, since the most of Hollywood’s success and profits has been strictly entertainment and fantasy, not biopics. For example, according to the Hollywood Reporter article “20 Top Grossing Movies of 2011,” the top three movies were Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 which grossed $1.3 billion, Transformers: Dark of the Moon which grossed $1.1 billion, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides which grossed $1billion. In reality, African American biopics can’t compete with the profits made from mainstream entertainment and fantasy films. For example, according to the IMDb All-Time U.S. Box Office hits, out 527 movies, the only movie regarding the life story of an African American that made the list was The Blind Side, and it was number 64 with $300 million in sales. This makes me wonder: was this a “behind the scenes” reason for Sandra Bullock winning an Oscar?  Like Saldana, Bullock is an outstanding actress, and her stellar performance should not be discredited because of the business of Hollywood.  In fact, Bullock’s Oscar may have sparked Hollywood’s growing interest in funding Black biopics (e.g., The Help and Red Tails). In this light, Bullock’s performance on screen may have created the opportunity for Zoe Saldana to make Black biopics a blockbuster hit, and ensure the legacy of Nina Simone will never be forgotten. Both are a win-win for African Americans.

According to the AMC film site, biopics “depict and dramatize the life of an important historical personage (or group) from the past or present era. Sometimes, historical biopics stretch the truth and tell a life story with varying degrees of accuracy.” In this light, Hollywood’s interest in the movie Nina is not to show accurate accounts of her life story or color the screen with the physicality of Nina Simone.  In fact, in the New York Times blog article “Stir Builds over the Actress to Portray Nina Simone,” Ms. Mort, who is white and the director, said the film was not intended to be a biography in the strict sense, but instead “a love story about an artist’s journey unto herself.” She added, “There’s a difference between telling a story that includes and involves emotion and experiences and doing a biopic— she was born here, she did this, and she did that. That is also a great story, but that’s not what we’re telling in that kind of linear fashion.”  So, this reality makes me wonder: what is the purpose of telling the Nina Simone story?

First, Hollywood has to change the color-ism on the screen because the screen aesthetic of maintaining the ‘All American’ beauty ideal is changing. For over 70 years, Hollywood’s color-ism has always favored the image of tall, blond-haired, extremely thin, and blue-eyed Euro-Americans, and will exclude or veil any visual image that they can’t transform/Photoshop to fit that ideal— not to mention that this ideal is hard to live up to even for Euro-Americans. Essentially, all human beings are being held to the unattainable standard set by the non-reality of Hollywood. In other words, the world is viewing a distorted reality that is based on oppressive ideals of whiteness. In the CNN blog article “Can there ever again be an ‘all-American’ beauty?”, Allure Executive Editor Kristin Perrotta said, “There was a dramatic shift in what people considered the beauty ideal in America now. We went from the blond hair, blue-eye, typical all-American girl like Christie Brinkley in 1991, to this dark, sultry Angelina Jolie ideal in 2011. It just was not what you would have imagined the Hollywood ideal being, which is also this tall, thin, blonde ideal that we are sort of used to.”  The article sheds some light on interesting statistics from a poll Allure magazine conducted in 2011, that could be beneficial to Hollywood investors and influence corporate advertising.

It appears that women are speaking out about what they feel the ideal of beauty is in America. Out of the 2000 people who responded to the Allure magazine poll, “73% of women said they find curvier bodies more attractive now than they did over the last 10 years. People polled said they wanted larger lips, butts and hips, an Allure editor said, and 70% of those who want to change their skin color said they want it to be darker. The same survey said 64% believe women of mixed race represented the ‘epitome of beauty.’”  Could this be the real reason behind Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone?  If so, Saldana is the perfect business choice. She will have massive appeal because she represents the new ideal of beauty in America. As African Americans, we must be honest that ‘mixed raced” people who identify with their blackness have played a significant role in our fight for racial equality. I think the Black-Latino mix on screen is beautiful on so many levels, and could spark huge changes in Hollywood.   Although this sounds great, why is this significant to Hollywood? Well, the visual exposure of Saldana, and the appeal of the storyline among African Americans sets the stage for Hollywood to get Black and Latino dollars at the box office.

There’s an African American elite in Tinsel Town. The “Men in Black,” Tyler Perry, Spike Lee, Salim Akil, Will Smith, Tim Scott, with “Help” from Maria Brock Akil, Jada Pickett-Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Oprah, means that Black movies and TV can generate major profits.  Out of the darkness, African American producers, directors, Oscar winners, investors, and African American financial support of movies “For Us By Us” shines like a beacon of light.  This FUBU approach to Hollywood is opening so many doors, and is impacting the way Hollywood does business. With Netflix, HD TV, and the Internet, Hollywood has to search for new talent, appeal, and storylines that attract African American and Latino dollars.

A NPR blog post entitled “Minorities at the Movies Fills Seats, Not Screens” revealed that blacks go to the same kinds of features as their white counterparts, but with one difference, according to Matthew Barnhill, senior director of marketing at BET: “We see movies 21 percent more often than the general market, and we’re 22 percent more likely to have multiple repeat dealings of a movie.” According to Marlene Towns, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, “blacks spend more money on movies. We consume what the mainstream consumes, as African-Americans, but we also consume things that are particular to us as a segment.” Towns also states that “a good story will pull in black viewers regardless of the stars’ ethnicity.” The article goes on to say, “Several recent studies also have shown that Latino audiences buy a lot of movie tickets.”  The article concludes with the statement that “Blacks and Latinos do buy more movie tickets than their white counterparts, but studio execs are going to have to better school themselves on how to reach these important, lucrative audiences. If Hollywood manages to do that, it might profit from those ethnic audiences that are going to be discriminating about how they spend their movie money.”

So, I believe the real issues behind this film are an attempt by Hollywood to capitalize on the “new standard” of beauty in America, and the millions of dollars Black and Latino movie-goers spend at the box office. These factors make Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone very significant in the fight for a Black power structure in Hollywood.   I believe there is more at stake than the color line.  In fact, for me the real issue isn’t whether Saldana is black enough to play Nina Simone.  Before I make a decision if Zoe Saldana is right for the role, I would like to ask the following: If Zoe Saldana’s role as Nina Simone is a box office hit, how will that further the African American presence in Hollywood?  Will this film, convince advertisers and investors to financially support movies about Black life? Do we want Black biopics to cross over to mainstream Hollywood?  Will the Simone Estate benefit from the story of Nina Simone? If not, why? If so, how?  What role should Hollywood play in the fight for racial progress in the 21st century? As African Americans we really need to think this through. Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone could create many opportunities for many more African American life-stories in film.   The harvest is here— the Nina Simone story is everybody’s story of color! So, let’s not draw the line on skin-tone alone. Let’s look at all the options and consider the best strategy to color the screen in Hollywood.  If we protest the film based on the color-line, then, in the words of Martin Luther King, “Where do we go from here?”

Aundrea Matthews
Ph.D. Candidate, Religious Studies
Area of Study: Religion & Theology of the African Diaspora, Race and Identity/Culture

Artists’ Altruism: Apathy or Shifts in Activism

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

For decades, societies have debated the social responsibility of artists, in general, and African American artists, in particular. It appears in America, when faced with economic disparities, immigration issues, poor education, and debauched government and political leaders, African American artists are encouraged to “speak up and out.” In the fight for black liberation, artists took a leadership role in the Harlem Renaissance and Civil Rights Movement, and high-profile entertainers played a vital role. Well, history is repeating itself, and in the 21st century we seem to be faced with similar issues of the past. As a result, the internet is abuzz over the recent comments by Harry Belafonte concerning the “lack of social responsibility” of high-powerful African American artists with special emphasis on Jay-Z, and his wife Beyoncé.

In August 2012, Harry Belafonte was being interviewed by the Hollywood Reporter regarding the Golden Leopard Honor Award, which was bestowed on the legendary singer and actor by the Lacarno Festival. The prominent actor/activist “spoke out” against leaders in both the political and entertainment realms, for their apathy and inability to inspire change. The respected entertainer stated, “I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility,” he accused. “That goes for Jay-Z and Beyoncé, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he is black.” This statement “speaks up” for a black consciousness that Mr. Belafonte bestows to Bruce Springsteen. The statement suggests that Bruce Springsteen is “more black” than high-profile African American artists. When I read this, I wondered, was this statement made for “shock value?” Was this a strategy to gain media attention, in order to spark a reaction from African American artists and their fans?

As a strategy, I found that in 1912, W.E.B. Dubois started dialogue in the Crisis magazine regarding the use of the arts in propaganda and advocacy for racial progress. During this time, Dubois and other activists touted that music was “the highest achievement of the race.” Dubois was adamant about delineating what was “good” and “bad” art, as well as criticizing artists for not utilizing their influence for social change-democracy, social legislation, education, and civil rights. So, Belafonte’s approach has an historical precedent in the fight for racial progress for African Americans. In this light, it appears that activists like Belafonte and others have used this strategy when the fight for liberation of African Americans is in jeopardy, and/or tensions and anxieties are high due to mainstream white Americans attempts to strengthen and promote white racist views in America. This revelation inspired me to ask in the 21st century, is this still an effective strategy for racial progress?

Interestingly, immediately following Belafonte’s article, researchers at University of Illinois at Chicago released results from their study about artists and altruism. The report found that, “people with an active interest in the arts contribute more to society than those with little or no interest in it. Whether you’re the performer or the spectator, your interest in the arts means you’re more than likely to have an altruistic streak.” To this end, history and current research suggests there is a connection between art, artists, art enthusiasts and altruism. This could explain why cultural critics from Dubois to Belafonte have felt that the social responsibility of major African American artists is to “speak up and out”. As powerful celebrities, it is their duty to use their influence over this altruistic segment of the human population for racial uplift. So this led me to ask, what are African American artists using their influence for?

Entertainers like Russell Simmons, Danny Glover and others were active in “Occupy Wall Street.” Jay-Z and Beyoncé have spoken up for Gay rights. Will and Jada have spoken out against violence in Philadelphia, Oprah Winfrey is building schools in Africa, and on August 23, 2012, NASA announced via press release, that the song, “Reach for the Stars“ by will.i.am would beam down from Mars Curiosity rover to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. According to NASA, ‘Reach for the Stars’ deals with will.i.am’s “passion for science, technology, and space exploration.” These examples reveal that high-profile African American artists are speaking up, out, and beaming down social issues. In this light, maybe their social responsibility has expanded or changed to address diverse areas of social concern. So, is it apathy or a shift?

In the past, white artist’s altruism for racial justice and civil liberties were at a whisper. Today, we have Bruce Springsteen. In fact, in 2005, Penn State held a conference entitled, “Glory Days: A Bruce Springsteen Symposium.” There were several academic papers presented about Bruce Springsteen’s activism and his ability to inspire his fans to action. Over forty years ago, African Americans were “outside the hedges” of Rice University. Today, Rice is celebrating their centennial year with an art exhibition, entitled, “Tradition Redefined: The Larry and Brenda Thompson Collection of African-American Art” that runs September 13 through November 18, 2012. Rice University President David Leebron said, “Art is one of the important ways to seek to understand our society and express human experience, and this exhibition is part of Rice’s increasing commitment to bringing important works of art to our campus. We welcome the Houston community to Rice to enjoy this unique and remarkable collection, along with all our other public art.”

Historically, African American artist’s primary focus has been racial justice and equality. Today, high-profile African American artists are addressing gay rights and equality, violence in urban cities, unemployment, issues in Africa, and science education. In this light, maybe we need to redefine high-profile African American artist’s social responsibility. As America moves forward, African American communities may need to take another look at the activism of powerful celebrities. In fact, maybe we are in the “dark” regarding the shifts in altruism among high-profile artists, and their fans. It should be no surprise that high-profile African American artists would expand their influence, and alter their responses for racial progress. Instead of speaking out, they are creating corporations that hire people, working with NASA, building schools in Africa, and producing commercial products. So, maybe the issue isn’t apathy like Belafonte is suggesting. Instead, the issue is the lack of awareness of the shifts in altruism among powerful celebrities. So, the question of the day—Apathy or Shifts in Artists Activism? What do you think?

Aundrea Matthews
Ph.D. Candidate, Religious Studies
Area of Study: Religion & Theology of the African Diaspora, Race and Identity/Culture