02-20-2019  1:35 am      •     
Darryl James
Published: 01 March 2006

If you really want to know what scares America, don't fool yourself into thinking it's the Black man with a gun — this nation put them there. The scariest Black man or woman is the one with knowledge and a plan.

But the most dangerous Black man or woman — to other Black people — is the man or woman who has the power to assassinate the AfricanAmericanimage. Unfortunately, some of the most vicious assaults on the Black image have come from our own community.

In the movie Hollywood Shuffle, filmmaker Robert Townsend attempted to deal with Blacks who play demeaning roles in films just to get paid. Townsend's character admonished the "sellouts" with the tagline: "There is always work at the post office."

That statement is very true indeed. The defending line for every demeaning role in the history of film, from Hattie McDaniel all the way to the new "Blaxploitation" era of today, is that for many Black actors, these are the only roles available. Yet, no one is forced to take a demeaning role in film, or to work for wages not to scale and, in fact, there have been Blacks participating in the independent side of film for a very long time.

The difference between African Americans and nearly every other ethnic group in America is that we have done a poor job of controlling our own image. We can take control of our own image by taking control of the image that is bought and sold in modern film.

It is weak to claim that demeaning roles are all that is available, and it is particularly weak when the option of making our own films has been available for a long time.

For all the ranting and raving I do about Black-owned businesses and how integration hurt us in many ways, I always get confused looks and questions from the people who have no idea that we were making things happen in a real way when we had real Black communities with real Black commerce.

One such shining example was a Black man from Metropolis, Ill. named Oscar Micheaux, who in 1919 made his own full-length feature film from his novel called The Homesteader. He was the first African American to do so, and he served as inspiration for Townsend, Spike Lee, Tim Reid and Carl Franklin, among other filmmakers.

Thesonofformerslaves, Micheaux worked in Chicago as a shoeshine boy while pursuing his dream of being a writer. He moved to South Dakota, where he penned several novels, formed his own publishing company and sold copies of his books door-to-door.

During Micheaux's era, most of the films made were silent, and for the most part, Blacks were silent as well as invisible — save for the buck-dancing, shuffling, demeaning images of self-effacing actors such as Hattie McDaniel and Lincoln Perry, also known as Stepin' Fetchit.

Actors Ving Rhames, Keenan Ivory Wayans and other confused Negroes have been outspoken about calling Stepin' Fetchit a hero, claiming that the shuffling, foolish actor from the early days of film opened doors for today's Black actors. What doors were opened by an embarrassment who claimed his fame by bucking his eyes out of his head in childlike fear, or by speaking in a slow, dull-wittedcartoonishvoice designed to provide comedy relief to racists?
Micheaux understood the film game and as an entrepreneur, knew that he would have to start his own film company to get his stories to the silver screen. He did just that and launched a successful film business with more than 43 movies to his credit.

Today,generationsafter Micheaux's revolution in filmmaking, it makes no sense for anyone to say that they are taking a demeaning role because there is nothing else. Micheaux was not a rich man, but he was able to accomplish his dreams by relying on resources found within his own community.

Micheaux wanted to make Black films with positive roles for Black actors. Think about that the next time you are in front of the television when the new House Niggers make everyone laugh on television, or when the latest film featuring Blacks over-exaggerating their own behavior for a punchline rolls through Hollywood.

If we were controlling our own images, we would not have to worry about what anyone thinks about us. We would be the heroes as well as the villains, the lovers as well as the thieves — and defining those roles ourselves.
If we wish to move beyond our present, we have only to revisit our past. Let's make Black history a part of the Black future.

Darryl James is an author and filmmaker. His first mini-movie, "Crack," will be released this month. He can be reached at [email protected].

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