The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, September 28, 2006


Taking off in a few hours for San Francisco, to teach the first 2-Day Path workshop with my buddy Scott.  Wow.  It’s been almost ten years since I taught a two-day Lifewriting-style workshop.  Am I nervous?  No…really more like, curious. You see, I genuinely think that the technologies we’ve gathered together are kinda breakthrough (George Leonard tried it a long time ago…he’s an incredible man, but the movement tech we’ve got is superior).  I want to know if I’m wrong, and the only way I can possibly know is to perform the actual experiment of teaching, say, a thousand people and then correlating their results over the course of, say, a year.

One data point at a time…
Someone asked what a “Turkish Get-Up” is, and I’ll tell you.  It is one of the most vicious whole-body exercises God ever let live.  Basically, you lay on the ground, and hold a weight at arm’s length over your head.  Straight arm.  Now, get up from the ground, keeping the arm straight over your head.  Get up any way you can, using the opposite arm, whatever.  While standing, switch arms.  Lay back down.  Get back up.  Repeat.

It uses virtually every muscle in the entire body.  In Pavel’s terrific “Enter the Kettlebell” he suggests doing this continuously for five minutes as part of his “Program Minimum”—a total fitness workout in only 34 minutes a week!  Note: don’t try to go quickly.  This is a “Low Gear” exercise that will work your legs, back, abs, shoulders…and all your deep stabilizer muscles.  Excellent for grapplers!
Is it petty for me to be pissed at Adrian Brody for kissing Halle Berry at the Oscars?  Probably, but to understand why, you’d have to be willing to look at it from my point of view.  Berry has transformed her career by making herself (cinematically) sexually available to white men.  Can anyone even REMEMBER the last time she was romantically paired with a black man?  She is channeling Dorothy Dandridge in that sense, the beautiful black actress who had to have an affair with Otto Preminger in order to promote her career.

Over and over again, for decades, I’ve watched black men minimalized sexually—even in their own movies (I’ll never forget Ice Cube in “XXX” just getting out of prison, having a seductive blonde ask if there is “anything that he wants” and him replying “a cheeseburger.”  Dear God.)  at the same time I’ve had to watch white guys promote themselves as the sexual gods of the universe.  That’s their right, of course.  But that exclusion—specifically the exclusion of scenes of what I call “breeding behavior”—I believe to be one of the quantifiable measurements of racism in society.

The fact that I can actually statistically measure the difference in audience acceptance of such imagery (as measured in box office results.  Take the average movie in which a given white star has sex as opposed to a film in which he does not.  The box office stays about the same.  Take the average film in which a black actor has sex as opposed to those in which he does not.  If he has sex, the box office goes down.  Exit poll data suggests that the difference is that white males don’t enjoy such scenes.)

And I believe that this cultural disconnect will show up everywhere a subjective impression determines the outcome of a situation: jury trials, jobs, loans, housing, who a traffic cop pulls over, who a white cop will instinctively/reflexively shoot.

For the entire history of blacks in America, white males have had sexual access to our females.  First during slavery (and no, it wasn’t all rape…although considering our current opinions of sexual harassment and coercion in the workplace, it is impossible to consider such relationships entirely “voluntary”) and then afterward.  We all know that power is the greatest aphrodisiac…I  sincerely think that one of the  road-blocks to social equality was this cultural advantage—that just by being white, a man had a competitive advantage socially, because by dating or being seen with him, a black or Asian woman was “moving up.”

Why would any sane person want to give up an advantage like that?  So when I see Adrian Brody presume that to give the biggest black female star in history a big wet sloppy kiss—on television—in front of her husband, no less, who sat in the audience with a smile grimly stitched onto his face—it was an insult, a reminder of the degree of social privilege he inherited just by having white skin.  Like I said: NO black actor would have done such a thing to, say, Julia Roberts.  Never.  Three hundred years of aversive conditioning have guaranteed that.

But Brody just instinctively knew it would be all right.  Sorry, but unless America would have reacted as enthusiastically if Wesley kissed Brooke just as passionately, this is just salt in a wound.

I’ve had to watch this play out countless times.  When I talk about the differential in sexual scenes in movies, white guys will usually ask one of the following questions, all of which, to me, indicate that they REALLY don’t want to understand what I’m saying.

1) ”Well, there are more white people in America.  Of course there’s more sex scenes.”  I’m not talking about raw numbers.  I’m talking about the percentage of such scenes in movies starring whites as opposed to blacks.
2) “Well, there was a kiss.  Why doesn’t that count?”  Because we’re not measuring kisses.  I’m measuring love scenes.  If I said “notice that no one eats steak in movies?” would you say, “well, they’re eating hamburger, why doesn’t that count?”
1)     “Well, they woke up in bed together.  Why doesn’t that count?”  Suppose I said: “notice that there are no car chases in Hitchcock movies?”  would you answer: “well, you get to see parked cars.  Why doesn’t that count?”
2)     “Well, why does sex matter so much anyway?  I don’t even like sex scenes?”  Obviously, for the statistics to be so skewed, sex matters a LOT.  Whether it does to you, or to me, is irrelevant.  SOMETHING is going on here.  If I said: “Ever notice that you never see Asians wearing green in movies?” would you say, “Well, who likes green anyway?”
3)     “Well, maybe black actors don’t want to do love scenes.”  Sorry.  We’re just like you.  No differences I’ve ever been able to see.  My wife actually did an article for Essence magazine on this issue, and interviewed several actors.  Over the years, I’ve had the chance to ask several more.  They all say the same thing: the studios discourage them because over decades, they’ve seen the data.  White guys turn off if they see anyone but another white guy having sex onscreen.
And finally, after realizing that I’ve really done my homework on this one, they usually fall back on: “well, things have gotten better, haven’t they?”  No.  They’ve gotten worse.  The 1970’s was the time of “Shaft” and “Superfly” and so forth—films made by major studios for a black target market. These films had strong, smart, sexual heroes. To this day, there's never been a black male more overall competant and fully human than Richard Roundtree in "Shaft In Africa."  Jesus, that was thirty years ago!

Then the market shifted, so that there are fewer studios, fewer theater chains, and corporate decisions are made at levels far removed from the day-to-day realities of film production and distribution.  A few black stars: Denzel, Will Smith, etc.—can now make as much money as major white stars.  But they have to appeal to a general audience to do it, and to do that, they have to keep their clothes on.  Again, if you want to see how this works, look up a list of the top 300 boxoffice films, and note the difference in levels of sexuality.  The data is there.

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