Last month Jennifer Hudson announced that she will play Winnie Manikizela-Mandela in the Equinoxe Film WINNIE (due out in 2011). The Creative Workers Union of South Africa (CWUSA) promptly issued a statement to South African newspaper The Citizen protesting the fact that a South African was not cast in the role, and locals haven’t been sought to star in or work on the film. The union is composed on South African creatives, including filmmakers, actors and musicians. Renowned South African theater actor John Kani pointed out that, “the problem was not Hudson playing Madikizela-Mandela, but the lack of respect and acknowledgment for local creatives.”
Ms. Hudson’s casting also highlights a recent trend toward casting entertainers and singers as actors. Actress Nia Long –in response to Beyonce Knowles starring in yet another film– even went as far to state, “It’s just not about how talented you are anymore. It’s about, ‘How much box-office revenue will this person generate?’ ” But Ms. Hudson is not alone in the push toward entertainers, especially African American entertainers. She’s one of many in a long line that includes Ludacris (CRASH, GAMER), Alicia Keyes (THE NANNIE DIARIES, SECRET LIVES OF BEES), Ice Cube (FRIDAY, BARBERSHOP), Eve (BARBERSHOP, TRANSPORTER 3), and a host of others.
This brings up several issues that have been plaguing Africans/African Americans in film: 1) The right to accurate representation, 2) the dearth of roles for Blacks, and 3) trivializing the “craft” of acting. The movie industry in the United States is focused on the business of show business, and rarely do African Americans have the luxury to present “art” that doesn’t “make money.” If African Americans in film can’t bring in an audience, then Hollywood –and some Blacks in film– will not bother to cast them in other films, or back films starring them. This is part of the reason why Hollywood continually brings in entertainers, and not actors.
Middle-America more readily recognizes Ludacris than it does Ruby Dee.
However, the entertainer-as-actor is not new to Hollywood. Many films have starred “entertainers” in non-musical films just to attract audiences. Nat King Cole in ST. LOUIS BLUES, Diahann Carroll in CLAUDINE, Eartha Kitt in ANNA LUCASTA, etc. Granted, all of the aforementioned –other than Nat King Cole– were also stage performers, and have starred in plays. Some will argue that Ms. Hudson received an Oscar® for DREAMGIRLS. Others will argue that the role wasn’t a stretch since it was about an R&B singer who doesn’t fit the mold of a successful lead singer of a girl group.
In regards to representation, African Americans have been battling Hollywood for decades. How we’re presented in film impacts how we’re received in public. Image and media strongly impact perception. A “repeated” image can destroy self-esteem, social gains and cultural acceptance. Starting with such films as D.W. Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION, Blacks have understood the power of the moving image. Many of the roles in BIRTH OF A NATION were white actors in “blackface” –a demeaning and intentionally hurtful practice of “blackening” an actors face with burnt cork or shoe polish and acting out Black stereotypes for entertainment. It was in part due to the lack of accurate representation that such filmmakers as Oscar Micheaux and Tressie Sauders filmed their own films starring Black actors in human, believable –and even comical– stories.
When the Civil Rights Movement gained steam in the United States in the 1960’s, African Americans took representation even further. Diversity in how actors looked was pushed (no more “paper bag tests” for Black actresses), and “authenticity” was expected (see Abbey Lincoln and Ivan Dixon in NOTHING BUT A MAN).
During the Black filmmaker renaissance in the late-1980’s and early-1990’s, the deluge of Black directors, actors and films, were the norm.
Children raised, or born, during this time period have always assumed that’s how Hollywood looked. Jennifer Hudson is one of those young adults. She would have been an adolescent when the Black filmmaker renaissance blossomed. In regards to her role as an actress, it will require her to look deep and dark into the recesses of human indignity and violence to truly understand the impact of apartheid-era South Africa. Hopefully, she’s grown beyond her comments that she “didn’t know who the BeeGees” were when she was asked to sing their songs on “American Idol.” The Bee Gees? Really? I also hope that she breaks the acceptance of many young adults to totally disregard any history that pre-dates their adolescence.
Growing up, I was always aware of things that pre-dated me–including music, performers, film, etc. It wasn’t something I considered as “old,” and, therefore, negligible –like clothing. If she and Hollywood are going to stand by their decision to cast her in the role, then let’s hope that she takes the role seriously, and makes a concerted effort to improve her craft by researching Ms. Madizikela’s history, her life, and the era (and country) that produced her. And most importantly, let’s hope that Hollywood and Equinoxe Films respect Black actors in South Africa enough to heavily involve them in the process.