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Enter Stage Right

February 6, 2012

Let’s talk about actors — the first and bravest of all artists…

By the way, I’ve written some movies. One was an HBO prime-time premier that Entertainment Weekly gave a B-. Another won first-place Gold at the Houston International Film Festival. As a teenager I was groomed  to go on the stage by a Broadway player, but ended up on TV instead. So, anyway, my point is, I know a bit whereof I speak.

After watching too much television and far too many recent movies, I am forcibly reminded of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis — whom I always think of as the Black Lunts — and of how they used to challenge young African-American actors back in the Civil Right Movement days of the late Fifties and early Sixties.

In person this activist couple argued that above all else what these Colored tyros and ingenues owed to the Movement was how they chose to depict their own kind. Yes, actors must work to live, and nobody wants a reputation among casting directors as being prickly. But Ossie and Ruby believed that to prolong in the public eye the demeaning stereotypes of stepin-fetchit Negroes amounted to a betrayal of, not only their own people’s human dignity, but of the highest aspirations of a serious Thespian.

I imagine a world where Brad and Angela pause to impart this same perspective to up-and-coming white actors, especially and above all the guys. Why? Because nowadays it is common for editorialists to speak solemnly of a “crisis among males.” Yet young men today are rarely encouraged. Whites, especially, are relentlessly portrayed to themselves in media as being fool, jerks, dweebs, simpletons, geeks, pansies, slackers, ignoramuses, cowards, etc. etc. ad nauseum.

And the reason Ossie and Ruby come into this is because the way white boys are written to be played today has just as much to do with a passe political agenda as ever did the coon-acting. This is, I’m afraid, a fact. And, as a screenwriter and a huge fan of actors, I wish for these dedicated fearless artists better roles in finer productions set in a recognizable world where they can at last unleash the finest possibilities of their craft unhindered by the production’s unacknowledged agenda of demoralizing men.

Sidney Poitier, listening to Ossie and Ruby and his own brilliant heart, changed the face of Black acting forever simply by refusing to depict a character, however good or bad, as being anything less than a true person whose dignity is inborn as a human, however silly or stupid or limp the character might be.

Whew! Okay, now may I suggest we all go stream Lawrence Olivier’s Henry V — the movie that brought Shakespeare to the masses — and marvel at obliteratingly great acting again. Thank God, the show must go on.


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