Thursday, October 11, 2018

Black Like Who?

Casting announcements for upcoming projects tend to generate a range of reactions. Recently I was scrolling through my Twitter timeline and saw that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson was slated to star in and produce a project for Netflix on the life of John Henry. The reactions I saw were mostly negative based on the opinion that there were better (darker-skinned) actors more suited for the role.

The Busy Black Woman has a LOT to say about all of that.

First, Dwayne Johnson is Black. His Daddy is Rocky "Soul Man" Johnson, a former World Wrestling Federation tag team champion. His Mama is Ata Maivia Johnson, daughter of famed Samoan wrestler High Chief Peter Maivia (and in case you are color-blind, Samoans are brown-skinned). So why are there questions about his racial identity? It isn't like he made up some clever portmanteau to disguise his ethnicity, like Blamoan...

Second, now that The Rock is retired from wrestling, he is acting and producing and generally doing what famous people in Hollywood do which is to use his star power to get projects made that might not otherwise see the light of day. If folks had bothered to read the article, they would have seen that he is also going to produce this project. Thus, he will probably be putting a lot of black folks to work.

Third, John Henry is a folk legend. Which means he might not have been a real person. And that means every past depiction of John Henry is based on what someone thought he looked like. So the animated John Henry project that was released by Disney in the 2000s is the standard we're using? Seriously?

We are quick to proclaim that 'Black is beautiful' in all of its various shades, until we are confronted with a person of mixed ethnic heritage, and then we start to judge how black we perceive him/her to be. We've done this with plenty of famous people: Halle Berry, Mariah Carey, Barack Obama, Meghan Markle, Tiger Woods, Soledad O'Brien, and now Dwayne Johnson. We judge their upbringing, we judge their speech, and we judge their partner choices. Then we make arbitrary pronouncements based on these criteria.

But who are we to determine how black someone else is?

A similar circular firing squad cropped up a few weeks back when culture critic Luvvie Ajayi made the mistake of dissing Tevin Campbell on Twitter. At first, it was funny because she has made a career of dragging folks, so when it was her name tied to that cart she went radio silent. When the tone changed to full on attacks of her blackness because she was born in Africa, I just shook my head. She wrote about the backlash and I am still trying to understand how all of that devolved so rapidly into something so mean-spirited.

And that wasn't even about colorism. Both of my parents are black, yet as a lighter-skinned black woman, I have had my blackness challenged because my parents were married, we grew up in single-family home, and I didn't speak with a discernible DC accent. I am already dreading what my daughter will face as an Afro-Latina (so y'all are on notice that asses will get kicked).

The problem with the who-is-black-enough-for-this-role discussion is that it never ends. There will always be questions: was Will Smith the best choice to portray Muhammad Ali; was Denzel Washington light enough to be Malcolm X; or did Diana Ross look anything like Billie Holiday? I'm sure a lot of Africans who saw The Black Panther wondered why half the actors were American, which came up in the alternative with Selma and Twelve Years a Slave (because half the actors were Brits). Everyone is entitled to have opinions about casting decisions, and maybe some of y'all are right that Winston Duke would make a better John Henry, but this isn't his project (and if you had to click on that link to know who he is, that tells you that he isn't a big enough star...yet).

The better question is whether The Rock is good enough to portray John Henry, which is best judged by his body of work (all puns intended). Chadwick Boseman doesn't look anything like Thurgood Marshall, but he's an actor so his job is to make us believe that he could be Thurgood Marshall. An actor is supposed to so embody the character s/he is portraying that we focus on the performance. So, just asking for a friend--why isn't a light skinned Black man Black enough to recreate a fictional Black character?

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