blaxploitation

“Sweet Christmas.” If you haven’t yet streamed Luke Cage on Netflix than you are missing out. Marvel’s newest show is a hit, and a refreshing take on a character that was once more two-dimensional than the pulp pages he was printed on. Luke Cage first appeared in 1972’s Heroes for Hire. Originally the character of Cage was a man of unlimited violence and limited vocabulary that punched his way through Harlem encountering every situation and trope that the blaxploitation movement had to offer. Though Cage was a breakthrough for black comic characters, much like blaxploitation itself, the original Power Man comic was fought with missteps and offensive stereotypes.

Sweet Sweetback Badass History
Blaxploitation was a movement in the movie industry that began in the 1970’s. It was a direct reaction to several forces, but to understand the movement’s origins you need to go back to a much earlier time. At the start of the era of motion pictures the only roles available to African Americans were that of the slaves or buffoons. Even positive roles, such as the butler or the “mammy,” still emphasized the inherent idea that blacks were inferior to whites. Movies like Gone with the Wind put forth a world view that the proper place of a black man or woman was at a social position lower than a white man or woman. This idea continued well into the 1950’s and 1960’s, but then things started to change.

The Civil Rights movement ushered in a new racial landscape. All black casts began to put on productions of their own, financed on their own dime. This was how in 1971 Martin Van Peebles was able to put together a movie called Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song. It was the story of a black protagonist fighting against white power and the violent forces of ghetto life. It was all set to a soundtrack by Earth, Wind, and Fire. Van Peebles made the movie on a shoestring budget in two weeks, but it went on to gross 10 million dollars. It was an incredible success and black audiences found a hero who looked more like them and struggled with some of the same things they did. Much like Luke Cage it was a milestone for black protagonists, and it started a movement.

By the late 1960’s the movie industry was struggling. The Golden Era of cinema was over, and the rise of TV as well as several Justice Department lawsuits had broken up the monopolies of the the old major studios. Many places -like MGM- were struggling just break even with each movie they made. Yet, the success of Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song exposed Hollywood to a potentially new revenue stream, black people. So in 1971, MGM released Shaft. If Sweet Sweetback forged the genre of blaxploitation than Shaft sharpened and refined it down to a formula. It grossed 12 million dollars, won Isaac Hayes an Oscar for the soundtrack, and inspired every studio in Hollywood to make its own Shaft. Blaxploitation was born.

The Angry Black Power Man
Marvel -never one to be left behind- launched their own title in the genre of blaxploitation. Heroes for Hire -later re-titled to Power Man- was about Luke Cage, a tough talking, ass-beating, ex-con, with super powers. Like the cinema movement Luke Cage embodied all the elements of blaxploitation: violence, themes of anti-establishment, and negative stereotypes of inner cities and those that lived there. Many criticized the comic’s protagonist as nothing more than a jive-talking angry black man, and that original characterization is pretty spot on. He was nothing more than a caricature. After all, it is hard to forget that he was created by three white men, Archie Goodwin, John Romita, Sr. and George Tuska. However, if we are going to talk about the negatives of Cage’s original depiction and its roots we also need to examine the positives as well.

Luke Cage was the first African American to star in his own comic book. -At the time Black Panther was not American and the Falcon only played second-fiddle to Captain America- Cage, despite his initial flaws, was the first black American superhero to have his own book, and that is incredibly important. It is also worth noting that Cage’s struggles were real. He fought gangs, thugs, corrupt police, and a power structure designed to keep black men in “place.” Those were all themes explored in blaxploitation movies, and there is a reason they resonated with some African American audiences at the time. Cage and his writers often showed that the law is not equally applied to everyone, and though the comic and its depictions were often simplified and relied on stereotypes, they did -at least in part- reflect the struggle of many black Americans. Having someone like Luke Cage -who had the power to fight back and be a hero- was empowering, even if it wasn’t always the most flattering of depictions.

As the blaxplotiation movement faded in the mid to late 1970’s so did the popularity of Luke Cage, but he never went away. Later writers went on to fix a lot of the more questionable elements of his character. His vocabulary was expanded, the jive-talk was dropped, and he found a best friend in Danny Rand, Iron Fist, -who himself was initially an exploitation of the popularity of kung fu movies. Luke Cage eventually married Jessica Jones and they had a child together. He became a member of the Defenders and the Avengers and evolved into a much more nuanced and three-dimensional figure. All of this has culminated in the depiction we receive in the Netflix show, an intelligent and complicated character. Similarly, Harlem and its people are also depicted in various ways, not just criminals or victims, but as neighbors and friends. The world and Luke Cage have come a long way, but it is worth looking back and remembering those beginnings.

Getting the Shaft
Blaxploitation had its fair share of critics and supporters. The NAACP and the aptly named Coalition Against Blaxploitaiton lodged protests against the films, claiming they were centered around negative stereotypes, black men as violent and angry criminals. They also criticized the movies’ use of language and it depiction of life in inner cities populated only by drug dealers, hit men, and pimps. Thus, even while blaxploitation movies were breaking down barriers they were also reinforcing others, casting black men as thugs. It also didn’t help that movies like Shaft were written by white writers, most of which who had no real experience in inner city areas. In fact, Ernest Tidyman a white writer from Cleveland is the man who created Shaft. He also wrote the screenplay with the help of a man who most famously wrote for Star Trek. That’s hardly the “ghetto experience.” Blaxploitation was not exactly a shining moment in cinema history, but like Luke Cage, it wasn’t entirely without merit.

More than anything blaxploitation movies started a conversation in America about race and depictions of African Americans in stories. It also helped give black directors -such as Gordon Parks– a break they may not have ever received, and for the first time it gave audiences a chance to see non-white heroes in starring roles. We would also be remiss not to mention the memorable soundtracks and songs of these films, many of which came to define the 1970’s as a decade. Maybe, these are all things worth remembering, even amidst all the elements of exploitation and the overwhelming number of negative stereotypes. By the mid to late 1970’s Hollywood studios stopped producing blaxploitation movies under pressure from groups like the NAACP and CAB. They claimed that ultimately the movies did more harm than good through eroding positive black role models in favor of vengeful and violent depictions.

The movement ended as quickly as it began, but its legacy continued. It is possible that without these movies and heroes like Luke Cage, the mainstream black actors of the 1980’s would not have been possible, people like Eddie Murphy or Denzel Washington. Thanks to the movies of the 1970’s leading black men no longer seemed so impractical or unmarketable. Luke Cage’s roots will always lie in the era of blaxploitation, but as this most recent Netflix show proves they do not end there. Cage has evolved into a thoughtful and positive role model, much like how the modern movie business evolved from the 1970’s. Nobody is saying that either are perfect, but it is worth reflecting on how far we have come, even as we acknowledge how much is still left to accomplish.

Blazing Saddles

With the recent loss of Gene Wilder, we have been doing a lot of reminiscing about the comedies of yesteryear, and the one that always rises to the top is Blazing Saddles. The interesting thing about this Mel Brooks classic is that -by far- it is not politically correct and yet it is still a classic. Mel Brooks has gone on record saying that he believes such a movie would never be able to get made today in Hollywood. In fact, even when it was produced in the 1970’s the studio was giving notes to Brooks saying things like, “Can you reshoot Black Bart with a white actor?” and we can understand why. The N-word is used enough to qualify the movie as a gangsta rap album, and it leans heavily on almost every stereotype and joke one might be able to think of when it comes to racism, sexism, and even homophobia. So why is it still such a classic? Is it wrong they we enjoy it so much? Is this a question that is too big for us to accomplish?

Oh Lord! Do we have the strength to pull off this mighty task in one night…or are we just jerking off?

On the Nature of PC
We here at The NYRD pride ourselves on being inclusive and progressively minded, almost to a fault. We believe that everyone should be treated equally and that the artificial boundaries of race, religion, and sexuality should not limit people’s potential or affect how they are treated by one another, but by-god if it isn’t funny when the mayor says “to extend a laurel and hardy handshake to our new… N*****” See, we can’t even write the word because it a foul and terrible expression of centuries of oppression and bigotry. Yet, we laugh. So what is going on? Are we terrible people for laughing at the very un-political correctness of this movie, or are we just having fun? Should we be taking comedy so seriously, or are we just bad people?

Blazing Saddles is the type of movie that a lot of people point to as the very reason political correctness is wrong. “People care too much about offending each other today. Back in my day we laughed at one another. Look at Blazing Saddles,” these imaginary men might say. It is true that if Mel Brooks had limited himself to being “PC” this classic movie would have never been made. A racist Western written by two Jewish men and Richard Pryor does not exactly sound like it would be a marquee moment in civil rights. And yet, does the inclusion of Pyror make the script acceptable? Does the fact that the movie won three Academy Awards and is listed as Number 6 on American Film’s Institute of 100 Years… 100 Laughs make it okay to laugh?  After all, we want to be inclusive and fair to all people, but sometimes funny is funny. This is all so confusing…

Maybe the term Political Correctness, itself, has become part of the problem. Over the years it has transformed into an almost derogatory phrase. It has become a sort of clarion call by those on the more conservative side. It has become the bigot’s excuse for why people take certain actions. If Obama apologizes to a foreign country it is political correctness, as opposed to just fair-minded diplomacy. If a black person gets a job over a white person it must have been because of political correctness, as opposed to just one candidate who got a job over another candidate. If a Christian baker is forced to make a cake for a gay wedding it is seen as political correctness, as opposed to just a merchant fulfilling a job they were paid legal tender to accomplish. Ultimately, being “PC” has become a word that allows people to avoid dealing with deeper issues of society and race. It is a cop-out phrase that some people use to label certain actions they see as offensive to their good-old-boy sensibilities, but then again…

You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.

Beside a Brooks near a Stone in a Parker
Regardless, it is hard to argue that Blazing Saddles is politically correct, but maybe that’s not a bad thing. For our best contemporary comparison we need to turn to Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the minds behind South Park. The cartoon about four foul-mouthed children from a small town in Colorado is usually both political and correct, but it is not politically correct. The genius behind Stone and Parker’s work is that -like Brooks- they lean on stereotypes, but they often subvert them or turn them on their head. They do not shy away from making fun of people, even making fun of those who make fun of the very people they just lampooned themselves. South Park is a landmark show because it goes after everybody: black, white, gay, Christian, Jew, celebrity, Hollywood, small town folk, big city folk, Canadian… etc. It is an equal opportunity offender painted in the form of outlandish comedy, and that is something they have in common with the master, Mel Brooks.

Being politically correct means making all interactions equal and colorblind, which is a noble goal, but also fails to acknowledge and even joke at our differences. Comedy is a contract that allows us all to enter into a safe space where we can acknowledge and laugh about the idiocy of the cultural norms we have constructed around ourselves. Blazing Saddles and South Park are ways for us to look around at the absurdity of the social cage we have built and laugh as equals. In Blazing Saddles, the black men are called the N-word, the Chinese are called the Ch-word, but the white people are morons. The politicians are cross-eyed idiots, the townsfolk are inbred Johnsons, the male-dancers are all gay stereotypes, and even the Native Americans speak Yiddish. We’re all idiots, and that is the real reason why we should enjoy this movie. Mel Brooks doesn’t want us to laugh at one type of race or one type of religion or sexual identity. No, he is asking us to laugh at humans and our absurd ideas. In essence, we aren’t laughing at black characters but at the concept of racism.

This is different than movies that put white actors in black face and ask the audience to laugh at the wild hijinks of the “negro,” or use the only gay character as the “weird and funny” one. Those are offensive and -quite frankly- lazy jokes. Those moves are deserving of our derision. However, that does not mean we should wash away all our differences, or stop joking about them. In fact, comedy is an amazing arena that often allows everyone to come together to laugh at our flaws as human beings. Mel Brooks accomplishes just that with Blazing Saddles. It creates a world where not one type of person is ridiculed or made to feel inferior, but where everyone is made to see their own flaws and find the humor in them. Thus, despite what critics think maybe Blazing Saddles is more PC than anyone realizes. It is about finding the funny in the absurdity of humanity as a whole, and not just one single human.

Men, you are about to embark on a great crusade to stamp out runaway decency in the west.

The Big Finale
Just look at Bart, the main character of Blazing Saddles. He is the smartest man in the picture, a Bugs Bunny type transported to the absurdly backwards racist West. Much like Mark Twain, Mel Brooks is not showing us a black character worth of ridicule, but instead a moronic world that cannot see the sense and rejects him simply because of something as arbitrary as the color of his skin. The movie even addresses the overly simplistic labels of black and white

Sir, he specifically requested two “n*****s”. Well, to tell the family secret, my grandmother was Dutch.

So maybe, Mel Brooks is right. A film like Blazing Saddle with its outstanding and offensive story will probably never get made again in today’s Hollywood. Maybe we have become too PC, but that’s also not as bad thing. Equality, justice, and love are not concepts to be avoided, but they also should not negate the humor of our stories and differences. Being PC is fine, but we also can’t be afraid to laugh about ourselves, so long as we do so fairly and equally. After all, the real humor of race, religion, and division is not so much in the differences between people, but that those differences exist at all.

Race

You may have heard people say that “Race is a social construct,” similiar to language, national boundaries, or Hogwarts’ Houses, and much like Hufflepuff, the concept is one mired in identity, economics, and power. Understanding the history of the labels that we wear and assign is about understanding the history of shifting social classes, politics, oppression, and even slavery. Make no mistake -in the end- race is and always has been a social construct, but it is one of the biggest and most heavily reinforced collective ideas in the history of humanity.

A Slave to History
Slavery was not a new concept in the world by the time Europeans settled on the American continents. Ancient Romans, Greeks, Sumerians, Egyptians, and others had kept slaves for centuries and passed their tradition onto the cultures that followed. However, slaves in these times were not delineated based upon the color of one’s skin. Instead, being a slave often meant that you were a prisoner of war, captured by pirates, or just in any circumstance where you were not recognized as a “citizen of the nation.” In fact, wealthy Romans often kept Greek slaves as highly sought-after tutors and house servants, because in antiquity slaves were also valued for their intellectual abilities as well as their physical attributes.

At the time, slavery also existed in similiar forms for the native populations on some Pacific Islands, Africa, the Americas, but especially white Northern Europeans. Warring tribes would often take prisoners from their defeated neighbors and force them into varying degrees of servitude. The word “Slave,” even comes from the word “Slav,” because during the Middle Ages -when the English language was taking its modern form- some of the most common slaves were prisoners from the Slavonic tribes captured by the Germans. They were often sold to Arabs, meaning that it would not have been uncommon for Middle Easterners to have white slaves. The French Crown even enslaved its own people, filling their war-galleys with French Protestant rebels who were forced to row the mighty ships into battle. However, all that changed with the introduction of colonialism.

By the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Portugal had begun to open up trade with the nations of Sub-Sahara Africa. Initially, Europeans were more interested in African ivory, diamonds, and other riches, but also purchased the African prisoners that were captured during wars between African nations. Thus, when the Portuguese began building the colonies of São Tomé and Principe and setting up Caribbean sugar plantations it was the African slaves they relied on to do the bulk of the work. The Native Americans populations often died of illness or were able to escape and disappear, knowing the land and the local tribes. African slaves were ideal as they were immune to European disease and were strangers in the New World. This led to an influx of African workers in the Americas not just for Portugal, but for England, Spain, and other growing colonial powers.

However, this also led to a growing moral dilemma for the Christian nations of Europe. Originally, slavery was justified because Africans and others were non-Christians. In Spain it started with the Inquisition, where non-Christians were determined to be less than human. Others rationalized the practice of black slavery by using a passage in the Bible about Ham who committed a sin against Noah. His black descendants were condemned to be “servants unto servants.” However, as more and more missionaries and pastors converted free and enslaved Africans alike the religious rationale found itself on shakier grounds. After all, how could one be expected to enslave another human who worshiped Jesus? In 1667, Virginia created a law that stated that Christian Africans could be kept in bondage, not because they were heathens, but because they had heathen ancestry. It was believed that God had marked them as “mongrels.” From that point forward slavery started to be about race, not religion. Blacks became something less than human in the eyes of powerful whites. Where once indentured white servants worked side-by-side with black slaves -often intermingling and marrying- after the 1600’s laws were created that prevented white and blacks from intermarrying or creating mixed “race” offspring.

White Makes Right
We are not claiming slavery was ever okay, but before the age of colonialism slavery was a more of a local matter. Yet, with the discovery of the New World, it became big business. Suddenly, the dehumanizing of Africans was a matter of profit and that meant governments, businesses, and the powerful white men of the world had a vested interest in making sure the myth of race became solid fact in the minds of all Europeans and Americans. It was a matter of profit that white people thought of African slaves as entirely different biological entities, beings who were unlike them or their wife or their child. After that it became only a matter of time before classifications were applied to anyone else who was not “white,” such as Asians, Natives, Indians, Muslims, Jews, Italians… wait what?

The term “white” is a purposely nebulous term. It does not actually define any type of ethnic or national group. “White” was created basically to mean “Normal.” Anyone who was non-white was the “other.” They were not normal by the standards of the established white power structure. Jews, for instance, -despite being light-skinned- were often considered as something less than white. As far back as medieval times, Jews were demonized as witches and forced to flee countries in the face of Christian prejudice. Before the 1800’s most immigrants to United States were from Northwestern Europe: England, Ireland, Spain, France, Germany, etc. By the end of the Civil War and well into the 20th century, American started seeing more immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe: Greeks, Italians, Russians, Polish, etc. These people despite their complexion were still seen as non-white. They had odd customs and spoke different languages. Italian Americans were even lynched in 1891 in New Orleans. Despite initial antagonism, Italian Americans and most European immigrants have since been accepted into the “white” power structure. This is partly due to their assimilation but also partially due to the mass of Latin American, Indian, and Asian immigrants that arrived during the mid to late 1900s. In comparison, Italians and Polish no longer seemed so strange, so they became “White,” which at least was a more generalized and benign classification than the word some Americans used for white people before… oh… 1940 or so.

We don’t use the “Aryan” anymore due to obvious reasons, but we did. In fact, to a lot of European Americans it was a source of pride and a bestselling 1907 book. Make no mistake the word was very much tied with racial superiority even before the Third Reich. Funny enough, we do still use the word “Caucasian,” which is less “goose-steppy” but no less self-aggrandizing, inaccurate, or meaningless. Caucasian comes from the Caucasus area that borders Europe and Asia. That is not where all white people live nor where all white people originated. In 1795, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach picked it as a term to represent white Europeans because he wanted to underscore the beauty of the white-skinned. It also has a lot of mythological intonations, featured in aspects of Jason and the Argonauts. So, really it is just another way to say that “white” people are better than the rest, but that idea of biological superiority is as scientifically false as the myth of Caucasus.

The Science of Prejudice
Science is not bigoted, but scientists and thinkers can be, and that has played its part in the myth of race. The idea of polygenism, started with philosophers in the 1700’s, like Blumenbach or Immanuel Kant. Pseudo-science like phrenology developed around the same time as a way to prove that other races were intellectually inferior to white people. It was also used to justify the subservience and “timidity of black slaves.” Pieter Camper in 1770 measured faces and declared that Greco/Roman statues -the “ideal” human- had a 90-degree facial angle, Europeans an 80-degree angle, Blacks a 70-degree angle, and orangutans a 58-degree facial angle. Thus, he believed that he had established the hierarchy of mankind.

After phrenology was debunked, the 20th century turned toward eugenics. Once again, pseudo-science became popular as the rich and elite white population justified their own status through biology. It also use to explain why white people could never be allowed to “pollute” their gene pool with black DNA, lest the children inherit undesirable genetic traits like “criminality” and “pauperism.” Apparently being poor or crooked were a genetic trait in the 20’s and 30’s. It also led to sterilization of undesirable populations. Those who were believed to be mentally impaired, black, Mexican, and Asian were coerced or forced to be sterilized in the United States, so that their genes could not corrupt the “American race.” Thankfully, eugenics and sterilization fell out of favor after a man named Hitler became the poster child for the movement. Yet, even up to the 1970’s as many as 25% to 50% of Native American women had been sterilized.

For the record, most individual humans vary from each other genetically by .1%. 85% to 90% of that variation has to do with your family and genetic heritage. Only 10% to 15% of that variation has to do with what continent your ancestors originated from. That means an Irish American could be more closer -genetically- to a Kenyan American than they could be to someone in Ireland. “Race” does not exist, biologically speaking, and even if it did how do you differentiate between “Black” and “White?” After all, most African Americans have at least -on average- 16.7% of European DNA. At what percentage does someone stop being “Black,” and start being “White?” 40%? 50%? 80%? Or does it really have to do more with our social perception than any actual biological makeup?

Fade to Black
The ideas of “Black” and “White” are so impossibly vague. The only difference between the two is that out society values one over the other. For instance, it is common for people to point out that Barrack Obama is half-white, but would that get pointed out so frequently if he was a convicted drug dealer? No, because we have been conditioned by centuries of social reinforcement to believe that “race” exists, and since we cannot define it in precise biological terms we instead define it socially. Black is associated with “criminality,” “pauperism,” and “low intelligence.” Yet, the idea that one complete subset of the population is preconditioned to be, act, or do certain things is, scientifically and ludicrously untrue. If you don’t think so, than talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson and see what his take on the stereotype of black intelligence might be.

Race is such a deceptive and insulting word. It implies something biological that is not true. Elves, Dwarves, Faeries… these are races. They have night vision or +2 Strength, but humans of varying skin color have no different advantages or disadvantages over one another, besides the normal delineations between one human individual and the next. “Race,” plain and simple, is a social construct. It was created by wealthy white men to justify an economic system of slavery and reinforced by bad science and a prejudicial power structure afraid of losing social and economic status. It only has the power and truth that we chose to award it, which means much like Faeries, if we stop believing in it, maybe it will finally lose its power.

It is that time of the year again, the super bowl of the film industry, the Oscars. It is when the stars and starlets of Hollywood come out to pat each other on the back and congratulate themselves for all the hard work they accomplished over the past year. We all watch as the names are called and the nominees sit fidgeting in their seats, a sea of nervous and expectant and very much white faces. For the second year in a row, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated only white actors for the actor categories, and though we here at The NYRD are not big on award shows -mostly because we have never been nominated for anything- we feel it is time we explore this trend in more depth.

The Nominations for Best Statistic in a Historic Context
One in 10,000. When the Economist looked at the demographics of actors who are members of the Screen Actors Guild they found that roughly 30% of the SAG members are minority actors. so, if all the guild members were equally likely to receive Oscar nominations then each year -statistically speaking- minority Guild members would receive 12 out of the 40 available acting nominations. Yet, for 2016 and 2015 that was not the case, but just by shear numbers alone the odds of no single minority actor being nominated in back to back ceremonies, even during a 15-year period, are around 1 in 100,000. However, both you and that racists guy on the subway know that Oscar nominations are not handed out based on the statistical analysis of  sample groups.

The first black actor to win was Hattie McDaniel for Best Supporting Actress in 1939. She portrayed Mammy in Gone With the Wind, and accepted the award at a time when black people were not even allowed to be guests in the hotel that the Oscars were being held in. Yet, this milestone was not as historic as you might first think. McDaniel -herself the daughter of two former slaves- won for portraying a sassy black slave in a white-led picture. That was one of only few “acceptable” roles for black people to play in the 1930’s and 1940’s, let alone win an award for, but at least we have moved beyond that… right? Well, it was 27 years until Sidney Poitier won a Best Actor award, 73 years until a black woman, Halle Berry, won for Best Actress, and the most recent black actor to take home an award was Lupita Nyongo in 2014 for her stirring portrayal of… you guessed it… a slave woman. Only 15 African American actors have ever won an Oscar since the Academy began giving out awards in 1929.

Of course, the statistics get even more depressing when you move from black Americans to other racial minorities. African Americans make up about 12.6% of the American population, and since 2000 10% of Oscar nominations have gone to black actors. Latinos make up 16% of the American population and have only nabbed just 3% of nominations. Only 1% of actors with Asian backgrounds have received any nominations, and only 2% of actors from other heritage groups have ever been nominated. No one from those last two categories has ever won. It is even worse if you a woman or a member of the LGBTQ community.

Behind the Scenes
So why does this happen? Isn’t prejudice over in America? The answer to that, by the way, is a resounding, “No.” Like Hattie McDaniel, minorities are still finding themselves saddled with new but “acceptable” roles. They may no longer be the role of the sassy slave -even if some of them still are- but they exist. For African Americans it is the role of the rapper or the sports star. For Asians it is the role of the buffoon or the dragon lady. For Hispanics the role of the gang member or cleaning lady, and the list goes on and on. All of this happens, while white actors continue to get roles meant for minorities, such as casting Emma Stone as a Hawaiian, Ben Afleck as Latino, or Johnny Depp as Native American. Studios will tell you that these decisions are made for financial reasons. It can take over $100 million to get a movie off the ground and most studio executives are not be willing to risk that kind of cash on an unknown minority lead, which is sort of like saying you never want to risk trying asparagus because you’ve never tried asparagus before. It becomes a slow self-perpetuating problem.

Yet, surely Hollywood -the bastion of liberal America- has moved beyond institutional racism by 2016? The answer again, is a resounding “No.” Hollywood is much like any other industry in America, and despite the left-leaning views of its actors, the establishment is still very much entrenched in the racial notions of the past. The majority of the current membership of the Academy is still white and over 50, with an average age of about 63. Many of the people who are doing the nominating and decision making in Hollywood are still very much old, rich, male, and white. We here at The NYRD are not saying these gentlemen are overtly racist, but they are overtly stuck in their ways. Anything in the entertainment industry moves at glacial speed and change doubly so. When it comes to the movies themselves, they have become about opening box-office weekend profits, or chasing the current movie trend whether it be video game nostalgia, superheroes, or Chris Pratt. So studio executives will claim they are only following the trends set out by movie-goers, and that brings us to our next problem.

The Seat-Fillers
According to the LA Weekly, 61% of people in California who give their money to the entertainment industry are non-white, and yet even with such an overwhelming number of minority viewers and movie-goers Hollywood still chooses Jack Black to voice a kung-fu Panda while Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan have about five lines apiece in the same movie. So, what do we do as the viewing audience, protest? No, we go and see the movie anyway. We give our money to studios and say, “Ehh whatever, it’s just a cartoon. It’s just a movie.” It’s just a fictional representation internalized by society and subconsciously perpetuated everyday in America. Movies are not mindless entertainment, they are art imitating life imitating art.

Yet, we continue to support films that cast white leads as opposed to minorities. Even majorly minority movies, like Glory still prominently feature Ferris Bueller in the lead, because studios fear audience will not show up to see the movie otherwise, and in a way they are right. Selma has a 99% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and yet it was beat in the box office by -in no particular order- a terrible movie about a kid with spider-powers, a story about Matthew McConaughey in space, a story about giant robots destroying our collective childhoods, a story about Jennifer Lawrence looking for her pita bread, and the list goes on. Of IMDB’s top 50 movies for 2014, only one of them stars a minority lead, and its a wacky comedy. In fact, compare Selma, a historic account of the Civil Rights movement, to 2014’s American Sniper, a historic account of a Bradley Cooper killing brown people and you start to see some disheartening numbers. Selma made $66.8 million, American Sniper made $547.4 million. Most of us cannot vote in the Oscars, but we do vote with our feet and our wallets.

When a child in a minority group looks up at a movie screen and sees no one who looks like themselves, they may not necessarily think, “I’m the weird one,” but when they see that same whiteness spread out across several movies and TV shows, then at least part of them begins to see that as “normal.” It is a problem when the things we pay hard earned money to entertain us also gives us subtle messages that white is normal, and non-white is the “other;” or that white equals the hero while black equals the gang member, Middle Eastern equals the terrorist, or Indian equals the IT guy. This is a trend that is not entirely the fault of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but it most acutely represented by the Oscars. All we can say is that maybe it is a time we took a good hard look at both Hollywood and ourselves. Change needs to come from theater seat, because right now it is not coming from the nominator’s or the director’s seat.

I watched the pigeons gather on the roof across the way, white, grey, black, brown, a rainbow of foul huddling on corrugated rooftop, flitting here and there. I often imagined them chatting, speaking as they hopped along on legs too thin to convey their bodies. Sometimes they would take flight, circle around the group as if to demonstrate they could, only to land moments later among the flock. Flight was always temporary, everyone had to come back down eventually.

The door to the main corridor opened and I turned from the tiny barred window to watch whatever entertainment was arriving. My cellmate was almost oblivious to the break in our monotony. Cray-zee sat as he always did, facing away from the bars, gazing into the white oblivion that was our perfectly polished walls. He lived in a world that no one else could see, never talked, never joked, but no one was fool enough to mess with him either. Some people claimed it was an act, but I had been shacked up with Zee for six months and I knew it was genuine. I knew because I was the only one in whole damn place who ever heard him talk, but I’ll get to that.

“Attention prison block 453D, prepare for a new arrival. Step back from your cells. Prepare for a new arrival.” The voice that played over the loud speak was computerized, not that you would know it. She had a soft and plain-spoken voice, the kind you would find in the girl next door. The inmates had nicknamed her the RILF. You know, Robot I’d Like to… well you get the idea. Some guys often fantasized about it, computer or no computer, the nights in a cell could get lonely, well figuratively speaking anyway.

All the inmates knew they were never truly alone, and as I stepped up to the bars to watch the show I kept a wary eye on the floating metal ball that hung above my own little piece of the world. A floating eyeball, never blinking, never ceasing. It monitored everything that went on, body temperature, heart rates, the integrity of the cell walls. It was more than just an eye, it was a judge, a jury, and even an executioner. It was God, and like the Almighty it was more than ready to strike down the wicked with an array of tasers, gas, and other nasty surprises.

The entire cage could even be electrocuted. So, I stayed as far away from the bars as I could, even as I tried to catch a glimpse of the new arrival. Zee, of course, never even glanced back.

It was the ominous heavy thuds of the tank-like prison droid that first drew my attention. Like a mix between a linebacker and a refrigerator it moved slowly, walking heavily in the wake of the prisoner it was herding. A thud both, loud and muffled, clanging like a heart beat as it methodically moved down the block. No one was going to mess with it, especially not the kid it was leading in.

I recognized him, of course. He was a repeater, most of them were. In the joint for a year or two, then back out on the street for six months only to be back in their cell before Christmas. Jackson was his name, but that’s not what everyone called him. He was skinny, with shifty eyes, skin as dark as night. He walked with a cocky swagger, like someone who thought they were tougher than they were. I knew he was wrong, and he was going to find out soon enough. The robots were good but the system had blind spots, and every prisoner knew the dark zones. They knew where business could be conducted away from the eyes of our digital overlords.

Some thought that those blind spots were intentional, part of some psychology game that the bots used to keep us inline. I don’t know anything about that kind of botshit, but I do know that if you were a man like Jackson, you made sure to avoid the dark zones at all costs.

“You’re dead, Twig,” said a familiar face from the cell across the way. “I still owe you from the last time.” The bold speaker had a swastika tattooed on his neck, marking his affiliation.

“Unlawful threat detected,” said the RILF. “This is your final warning.”

“He didn’t mean nuthin by it,” said his cellmate, some kid younger than the rest of us, with skin as black as Twig’s. Part of me almost felt sorry. He was new and had no idea what was in store for him, but he would learn quick enough.

“Initiate punishment protocols,” The air hummed, signing with electricity. The plates inside the walls of the prison cell exploded to life and both men screamed as the electricity pulsed through their body.

I had only experienced the shock once, years before. It kept me from being knifed by my cellmate, but it also burnt off most of my arm hairs and left me walking funny for a week. Humane was the word they called it, but really it all just seemed like a cruel joke.

The black kid was the first to rise, mistake number two. “Remain calm,” said the pleasant sounding female computer voice. The small floating eyeball opened up and fired off a dark projectile. It pierced the kid’s skin, and he dropped again, convulsing on the ground.

His roommate started laughing. I knew the man, he was a sick son of a bitch named Freddie. He was the kind of person who enjoyed causing pain in others.

“Alright,” said the black kid, “I’m calm.” He never moved, still it was a mistake.

“Remain calm, please.” More volts of electricity  and the kid flopped around like a fish out water. The big white man next to him only laughed that much harder.

I looked down at the swastika tattooed on my own wrist. I didn’t really hate the blacks or Hispanics, hell my own cellmate was a darkie, and Zee seemed like a nice enough guy. I mean at least he never bothered me. I joined the brotherhood for protection. Everyday there seemed like there were more of them than us. The damn prison was so filled with their kind that sometimes it felt like Africa in here.

When I returned my gaze to the scene beyond the bars, I met eyes with Twig. I never had a problem with the man. We even shared a cigarette on an occasion or two. He liked to talk, about his kids, his ex-wife, his mama, his homies, anything. He just liked the sound of his own voice, and I never hated the company. It was all that talking that did him in. He had said the wrong thing to the wrong person, and now the Brotherhood had a bullseye on his back.

We shared the briefest of looks, but in that moment I knew what he was planning. All the cocksure attitude was just swagger. We both knew he’d be dead before the end of the week. In his eyes I saw his decision, maybe even before he did.

He ran. The door to the cellblock was still open and he took off. He ran for his life, but not in the way you probably think.

“Prisoner 45-678, halt your forward progress.” That was the only warning Twig would get. He was gone from my sight, the walls of my cell blocking my view. Some people were yelling, egging him on or begging him to stop. Then there was more sounds, the pulse of electricity, burning flesh, and ionized ozone, as men convulsed on the floors, like the kid across the way. The world erupted in yells and screams, but it all stopped with the gunshot.

Even the cries of pain died away as the walls of our small block echoed with the thunder of that shot. Suicide by bot, they called it. I just called it dumb, and for a moment I was in another place and another time.

Hands bound above my head as two robot cops, RoPo, bound them tight. The contents of a cash register were sprawled out in front of me. It was barely a grand, hardly worth anything. It scattered in the rain after I had been dropped by the taser. My partner, Eddy, was just looking at me from where he lay on the ground, blood falling from a gash in his head. The scarlet streaked by rain drops ran down his face like paint on ebony. It was the same look as Twig. The same shared moment. It was his third offense.

I shook my head but he stood and reached inside his pocket. He had no weapon, neither of us did. Two idiot kids from the same block in Queens. We could barely afford beer let alone a gun. Two shots rang out that night. The RoPo were quick and precise. They never missed and their pre-programmed reflexes were faster than any human. I watched my best friend as he crumpled to the pavement, rain washing away the blood and again I met his eyes, this time they were dead and cold. Suicide by bot.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” The voice was raspy and quiet. I didn’t even realize it was Zee till I turned around and found him looking at me. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

“What was it supposed to be like, old man?” My eyes felt cloudy and I turned away.

“I designed them. I designed them all.” When I turned back in shock he was still staring at me with a look on his face I could no longer understand. “I designed the system.

“After all the riots, and the shootings, and the killings. We thought that if we took the human element out it would get better. People were racist. It is part of who we are, but not machines, not droids. They are cold and follow the facts, but it didn’t get better, at least not for people who look like me.” He examined his own hand as if seeing it for the time. He was lighter skinned but still darker than me.

“Yeah, so what the hell happened?” I knew he was right, it was hard not to see it. Nothing had changed from the time of flesh and blood prison guards and flesh and blood cops. The bots always seemed to go easier on guys that looked like me, less shocks, more warnings, and swifter punishment for anyone who messed with us. It was a sort of unwritten rule that not many people spoke about.

Zee was ranting, getting louder. “We were wrong. It wasn’t the people that were the problem. It was the system. We forgot. The bots are just machines. We forgot that they were not without prejudice, because we are not. They may be machines, but they are our machines, programmed by flawed creatures created in a system that began before you or I were ever born.”

“Remain calm,” said the RILF, her voice booming in our cell. “This is your final warning.”

Zee just nodded as if he expected it, but he continued anyway. “We thought that if we fixed the man we would fix the system, but you can’t change the man until you change the system. We forgot.”

“Initiate punishment protocols.”