Saturday, February 26, 2005

Hollywood Ho-Cakes & Star-Bellied Sneetches

While working the entertainment beat in Los Angeles, I've rubbed elbows with lots of people in "the business" at press events and the like and I can't help but notice the dearth of brown faces whenever I go to one of these functions. Most of the time reality begins to feel like fiction. Like something I've read or seen onscreen and sometimes I feel like I'm in some crazed play where the script is edited and I'm the only actor on the boards without the spruced up dialogue in hand; sometimes I can go for weeks without seeing another minority -- aside from the one's opening doors or clearing tables, that is.

I become mildly perturbed and want to shriek "We're all journalists here, doesn't anyone else see this?" Of course they do but in an industry town as small as L.A. -- and believe me it's a Petri dish -- one should never expect to take on issues such as this in mixed company because the squeaky wheel gets replaced with a spare. And nobody wants to get the "you'll never work in this town again," rant thrown at them from on high -- lotsa powerful people around here, folks. I guess I'll have to walk on over to the edge and stick my big toe in it so, with the latter in mind, let's dive right into the belly of the beast by following the premise of a movie, Hollywood Shuffle, Robert Townsend's 1987 send-up of the state of affairs on the scene in mainstream Hollywood at the time vis-a-vis black actors. Sadly, the times they ain't-a-changed that much since.

Robert's character, Bobby Taylor, is an aspiring black actor chasing the dream of film stardom while he pays his bills by working at the Winky Dinky hotdog stand that appears to be a seedier version of the Pink's franchise on La Brea Melrose but in the ghetto. In short, Taylor's job is crap-tacular but he's got high hopes just the same. Throughout the film's storyline, Bobby imagines himself in dream sequences that put him in soap operas, action films, talk shows and a film noir short, each one features an all-black casts -- he's dreaming, remember. As a whole the film is heavily infused with biting satire of the difficulties that were, no doubt, bitter fruit reaped from revolting personal experiences the film's screenwriters (Townsend/ Keenan Ivory-Wayans) endured on studio casting sessions and cattle calls for the paltry few stereotypical roles offered to blacks in Hollywood (then as now). Same bat shite. Same bat channel; on and on.

Why this movie, you ask? Good question because it brings me to a dream that Townsend's character in the film has that strikes/ struck a chord in me and in my experiences as an aspiring writer/journalist working within the confines of the premise and geographic setting of that particular movie. When all is said and done, Bobby's dream was just to be able to do what he wanted to do as a man (just like everyone else in the world) and not have to jump through the racial hoops of being a black man in a world filled with historically short sighted mooks who just aren't trying to hear it. Many white people whether university graduates, educated at the school of hard knocks or otherwise sensible human beings in every other respect, swear [hand to the heavens] that institutional racism no longer exists but if Trent Lott has taught me anything, it's that we still got a ways to go, even out here in "liberal-ass" Los Angeles. Remember, Aldous Huxley thought we'd be at the George Jetson flying car stage by 1984 and he was wrong...and also dead on about societal/ cultural shifts that would take hold in future times -- seen Fox News Channel lately? What world are those people living in? Sometimes life imitates art...but I digress...let's circle back to Townsend.

In the "Shuffle" dream sequence, Bobby returns to the Winky Dinky Dog shop years later as a made man; he's a star in every way. The old crew who had offered nothing but scathing criticism and wise-cracks earlier are at the end of their ropes. Their once crisp paper hats, aprons and monogrammed shirts are grease-stained and full of holes. Donald, played by Keenan Ivory-Wayans, who'd once informed a then no-name actor Bobby that "he'd never amount to anything, so he'd better get with the McJob program" now unctuously grovels for handouts while his boss Mr. Jones, John Witherspoon, serves up imaginary hotdogs to invisible clients queuing up to a grimy box on the ground; he's obviously gone mad from his failed business venture and prattles on and on about Ho- Cakes because, as he succinctly puts it, "ho's gotta eat too."

Cut back to Townsend sitting in the waiting room of a casting office waking up from the daydream. As the story holds, Bobby's auditioning for the role of Cookie-Head, a pimp who's out to avenge his brother's killer in a blaxploitation film. The casting agents in the other room are all white and make short shrift of any attempts Taylor makes to bring a little humanity to his character reading. They keep asking for less acting and more stereotypical buck dancing* that eviscerates any self respect that the actor might've had for himself beforehand. He scores the role but at what cost?

*Buck dancing: that "shuckin' and jivin' style of overly animated dancing that black slaves would do to entertain whites; blacks acting in a derogatory manner that quantifies racist stereotypes.

Based on personal experience, the premise/setting of that audition sequence rings true on so many levels but more importantly, it begs a question that I've asked myself years before I came to this town as a kid back on the East coast in VA: are white people inherently mean to non-whites? Rather, do some whites even know when they're being snide, condescending or outright bigoted? I mean, everyone catches hell these days just trying to make it with as few of their principles intact as possible; Richard Pryor once said, "It's bad enough just trying to get through the day without killing [somebody]...then you got to throw in that 'nigger' shite in there...that's just [wrong]." Amen Daddy Rich, it's all kinds of wrong.

After thinking about this for quite a while, I've come to hypothesize that many white people don't even realize when they're acting this way. Maybe the mouth-breathing, sheet-wearing, rebel flag wavers are on message with their consciences but I do believe that, based on their inter-racial demeanor, many Triscuit-eating, suit-and-tie Caucasians don't even realize they're dyed-in-the-wool bigots -- based on their actions, mind you. Prove it? Okay, but it ain't pretty. I'll present you with exhibit A:

I worked as freelance content writer for an entertainment company known the world over for big budget movies, music and cartoons, etc...For months I worked remotely from home and sent in my work via e-mail and jiffy bag drop-offs. Whenever I had questions about a project I'd talk to my boss or his assistant on the phone, through instant messages and e-mail. I did more work at my computer by 9AM [ in my underwear with pop tart crumbs all over my t-shirt] than most people did all day; it was sweet I tells ya.

Over the course of time my boss' secretary, Maria [who's white before you ask] left for maternity leave and a lady from the temp pool, Katie, took her place. I continued to converse with the office in my usual ways and all was fine for weeks without a hitch until the day I came in for a last minute PR meeting. When I got to the building I went to several departments to visited with colleagues in the flesh, PR people and others I'd known for years, until the meeting. As meeting time drew near I made my way toward that part of the building and when I got there I just asked the receptionist, whom I'd also known for a minute and white also, to buzz me into the beehive and she did. As I walked down the corridor with my proposals and notebooks toward the elevators I fell in behind this snappily dressed blonde woman with tightly-pursed lips who instantly began to project an aura of hostility that the rock band In Living Colour and Public Enemy once referred to in song: "No I'm not gonna rob you...no I'm not gonna rape you...so why you wanna give me that Funny Vibe?!

Inured to this whole dynamic, I felt relieved when other people, mostly white, began to enter the elevator as we went up but soon we were alone again and the tension returned like a fog. When the elevator dinged on my floor I, I exited and began to walk toward the meeting rooms; so was Ms. Master Race -- "just a coincidence," I thought. As I approached the waiting area I spotted my boss talking with some other people from our dept and made my way toward him. We made small talk and joked for a minute and then he mentioned that he wanted to introduce me to his temporary secretary who'd be taking minutes and notes for our portion of the presentation and then he turned to find her. "...I'd like to introduce you to Katie, who's working in Maria's stead for a few months" he said to me as my eyes met hers and I reached to shake her hand. Unfuckingbelievable! Katie, the lady who would be taking notes for me in the meeting, was none other than Ms. Funny Vibe, herself.

Suffice to say, I was gobsmacked and Katie began to blush profusely which told me that she was fully aware of what she'd done; she just didn't know or care to whom she was giving the business to back there on the Oswalt lift. I know I wasn't just imagining that shite and her reaction when we met corroborated my suspicions. Mind you, I'd joked with Katie via email/ IMs and even on the phone for weeks prior and everything was itty-bitty flowers and patches of sunshine -- I'm guessing it was because she couldn't attach a skin tone to screen name or my voice; but I'm just spitballing.

The elevator encounter was a different story altogether, hell, we never spoke once during our ascent but hindsight, 20/20 & all that -- I doubt that it would have mattered. Miss Thang probably had me pegged with a rap sheet a mile long irrespective of the fact that one would have to had cleared five separate security checkpoints to have gotten that deeply into the building in the first place. All of this clearly points out the weak-as-water, illogical behavior triggered by racism both de facto and overt. Not to put too fine a point on it but racism makes normally sentient, compassionate individuals -- people who love their babies and blue-haired grandmothers -- do and say things that call into question the depths of said cognitive intelligence and Katie was no exception.

Sure, we've all heard the "urban myth" about the old white woman in a Chicago who ran from an elevator and through the lobby of a four star hotel to tell security about the two "dangerous looking" black men lurking in the building; when security swarm in on the two "thugs," the officers on the scene quickly realize that the two "hardened street toughs" turn out to be Eddie Murphy and Michael Jordan on their way to a charity benefit of some sort. Yeah, yeah - sure, sure, I thought aloud when I heard that one but now I'm not so cynical. I now believe they do know, and continue doing so because they're not called out on it by their progressive peers who have chosen to adopt a cultural/world view consistent with the century they exist in and know it's bad form to think that way.

The latter makes "cool whites" an accessory to the [hate] crimes committed by modern day Boss Hogg- Bull Connor types -- you ever see any of that 60s-era news footage with pot-bellied rural types drawling "we don't have no problems with the 'good nigras' 'roun heah." Man, they really sounded as if they believed they were being diplomatic, didn't they? Stanislovsky and Stella Adler had nothing on those guys! While claiming to be 100% pro equal rights and change, those "antebellum idealists" would "Russian smile" for Northern TV cameras by day but that was the chrysalis stage. After a couple of shots of 'corn squeezin's' they'd hulk-out like werewolves bathing in the rays of a new moon, slip into bedsheets which would complete their transformation from genteel store clerk/ mill worker into cross burning night riders come nightfall - one of the oldest Southern traditions of them all, if you're from the region, as is yours truly, then you know what I'm talking about. You've heard the stories, even if it's not particularly subject matter you'd talk about at parties...

Although it's become more difficult for minorities to point out the bigots-in-the-closet among their colleagues and neighbors, when they pull a "Katie" on you, everything becomes crystal clear; right as rain. It's almost a relief that you've sussed them out and you flip through your mental transcripts of everything you've said to and around them in the past to see if you've revealed any of your deepest thoughts in their presence -- see? It drives us batty too. After we "met," Katie became the polar opposite of the ice queen on the elevator but out here that's de riguer. You can't spell "myopic ass hole" without L.A., you know. The damage was already done and her name was buried deep within the pages of my "bitch book." The rapper/ activist/ lecturer Chuck D once said "these days you can't see who's in cahoots 'cause now the KKK wears three-piece suits," which admittedly is a sweeping generalization but you get the point, you really can't tell anymore until it's too late and it's making everybody crazy.

I've always savored the irony of lifelong bigots, who, while laying in their deathbeds, suddenly get the zap on their heads, realize that we're all human beings and find God -- just before they think they're going to meet him. Essie Mae Washington's revelation to finally come forward and tell the world that her biological father was Strom Thurman sent ripples through the mainstream media for about 15.5 minutes (outside of the Southern states). Thurman had built his entire [and extraordinarily lengthy] political career, keeping the "coloreds" in their place. Despite the fact that he had "Jungle Fever" in his youth, with a teenaged maid no less, the real world ain't a "Spike Lee Joint.

As quietly as it's kept in mainstream groupthink, the whole American melting pot ideology has been put into play since the arrival at Jamestown, VA and it should tell any card carrying member of bigots-R-us that all that "inferior race" dreck is a truckload of hooey. They know what they're doing in those restaurants, hotels and elevators; it's tired and oh so stale - I call it the Krinkelbine Syndrome. Ernest K. Krinklebine is the duplicitous sideshow carny in Dr. Seuss' short story "The Sneetches" who sold the "star-making" machine to the plain-bellied Sneetches who wanted to swim on the segregated "Star-Belly Only" beaches. Once they bought in, he sold a "star-removing" machine to erase the stars from stomachs of bigoted birdies and on an on it went until all of the Sneetches, plain-bellied and starred, ran out of cash at which point Krinklebine packed up his machinery and rolled out of town a wealthy man and therein lies the rub: racism [and classism] has always been a tool to benefit a few, often monied, individuals who got that way by keeping the bigot-ball rolling amongst the poor -- through obfuscation, political misdirection and statistical red herrings -- with no basis on reality as they ran to the bank.

It's been said that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it and this is one of those cosmic truths that continues to resonate within the human experience but there is definitely a time to move on. and this, gentle reader, is one of them. We can't kill them all and let God sort 'em out, we got to deal with them, one by one if necessary. There's more than one way to skin a cat and [insert time-worn get the job done colloquialism right here]. Being a racist, white or black, is a cop-out; an intellectual short-cut that burns up synapses that you might need later on in life when the jackals of Alzheimer's start circling in the darkness around your once brightly burning mental fires.

Where did it all begin? Where does it end? I'm certain that if we don't start taking ownership of what's wrong with with our world and start acting like we're all in this together, we're all going to continue getting pimped by unseen forces that have everything to gain from the intellectual laziness of thinking along the lines of "it wasn't me, that was hundreds of years ago." Maybe so, but many are still reaping the rewards of those colonial culprits set into motion and remember: when you stick your head in the sand, you're still leaving another important orafice unguarded and wide open for conquest. So the next time you catch one of your cohorts ranting about "the nigra problem" or "those crazy-ass crackers" you tell them "talk to the hand Krinklebine, the world's gotten too small for all the Star-bellied Sneetching."

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