Case No. 1: You are a respected white director who makes a serious film about a grim chapter in American racial history — the 1963 slaying of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. But just as you’re dusting off the mantel for that Oscar, the reviews slam you for shoving black characters to the sidelines and focusing on a white assistant district attorney. One black critic even labels your movie the most offensive film of 1996. Adding insult to injury, in its first weekend of wide release it makes a measly $5 million.
Case No. 2: You are a respected black director who makes a serious film about a grim chapter in American racial history — the 1923 mass murder and burning of an entire black town in Florida. Once again, some critics take aim, blasting you for demonizing whites, turning blacks into cardboard saints, and propagating what one calls ”politically correct jingoism disguised as melodrama.” The opening weekend numbers: a paltry $3 million.
Talk about a no-win scenario. Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi and John Singleton’s Rosewood couldn’t be more different, but even as audiences have largely ignored both, tempers have flared in Hollywood, where a very personal debate has been raging about who should be allowed to direct what sorts of pictures. Black filmmakers, furious at what they see as a long history of industry insensitivity, have accused white directors of patronizing attitudes and even outright racism. White directors, meanwhile, feeling damned if they do and damned if they don’t, have lobbed back charges of reverse racism. ”When you deal with race, you’re dealing with a tough subject,” says director Norman Jewison, who took the challenge in his 1967 social drama In the Heat of the Night and in 1984’s A Soldier’s Story. ”It can be very treacherous.”
”Let me put it this way,” offers Singleton. ”The whole of American cinema, from the moment Thomas Edison invented the kinetoscope, has served to dehumanize black people, to make them into cartoons. White filmmakers have been remaking The Birth of a Nation over and over, except that now they do it in different ways. White directors don’t have a vested interest in making well-rounded black characters,” he goes on. ”Anyone who says they do is a liar. But black filmmakers do. If D.W. Griffith knew I was making movies, he’d be rolling in his grave. I want to keep him rolling.”
Singleton is laying it on a bit thick — after all, the last cinematic hero to wear a white sheet was Casper — but he does have a piece of a point. For decades, Hollywood films have dealt with race the same way — with a white protagonist smack in the middle of the action. Think Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, Gene Hackman in Mississippi Burning, Matthew McConaughey in A Time to Kill, and Alec Baldwin in Ghosts. One reason has been fear of alienating white moviegoers; another, that there weren’t any black filmmakers with clout. Recently, though, much of that has changed — as Singleton’s new movie makes brutally clear.