Chris Rock is right – Hollywood has a race problem. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for BET
Show Hide image

Why Hollywood needs to listen to Chris Rock about its race problems

On screen and off, Hollywood is terrible at giving opportunities to anyone who isn’t white, and one of the US’s biggest stars is calling them out on it.

In a scathing editorial in the Hollywood Reporter, Chris Rock has confronted some issues that though obvious, are being blatantly ignored. He quite rightly points out that Hollywood is an exclusive, white industry that is terrible at giving opportunities to black and Latino people other than as the janitor. You only have to open your eyes to see this, but nobody, whether it be studio executives, producers, directors, other actors or critics, has been proactive in changing things. It’s OK to say it – Hollywood doesn’t care about black people.

In Rock’s piece, he references a scene that was cut out of his upcoming film Top Five. The line goes “I'm the only black agent here. They never invite me to anything, and these people are liberals. This isn't the Klan.” It cuts to the heart of the bullshit that is liberalism – they don’t think they’re racist just because they don’t wear white hoods and call themselves “Grand Wizard”. You can count on one hand the number of black actors who are currently genuine stars in Hollywood: Denzel Washington, Will Smith and Samuel L Jackson. Halle Berry got relegated to television, Eddie Murphy’s career imploded, Jamie Foxx isn’t quite “it”, Tyler Perry’s an embarrassment and the likes of Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kerry Washington, Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie are mostly kept to supporting roles which wouldn’t be the case if they were white.

As Rock states, you can go for weeks without seeing a significant black character on screen. Change doesn’t happen on its own – it has to be pushed and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight. I don’t know what the solution is or even if there is one aside from making it mandatory for you to have a certain amount of speaking roles for minorities in films. But I do know that nobody apart from racists would care if Batman was played by Idris Elba or if Seth Rogen’s loveable sidekick was Kevin Hart, even though black actors never even get considered for these roles. Every man and woman in the western hemisphere was under consideration for the two leading roles in Fifty Shades of Grey, except for black actors and actresses. What would be the difference if Christian Grey was black? There wouldn’t be one. What they’re saying is that people don’t find black people sexy, but as Rock puts it: “More women want to fuck Tyrese than Jamie Dornan, and it’s not even close. It’s not a contest. Even Jamie would go, ‘OK, you got it’.” It’s so absurd it’s almost impossible to comprehend.

The key decision-makers in Hollywood are all white: every studio head is white, all the significant producers are white. Only Will Packer, responsible for things like Think Like a Man, Ride Along, No Good Deed and Takers is a notable black producer working on mainstream projects. All black talent needs is an opportunity and it’s not really getting one. Steve McQueen gave Chiwetel Ejiofor the leading role in 12 Years a Slave, which resulted in one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. Ejiofor  has been waiting his entire career for a leading role and he proved all those people wrong who thought he “didn’t quite fit the part”, and would do so again if he ever gets another one.

Chris Rock, probably the leading stand-up comedian of the last twenty years and second only to Richard Pryor at his craft, is right. Nobody wants to admit it, but he is. Race has always been integral to his stand-up act but he hasn’t attacked the medium he works in quite like he did in this editorial.  An optimist would suggest that because such a high-profile figure has attacked the industry, change will follow, but I’m not an optimist and the fact is Hollywood is a white industry that doesn’t even pretend to care about black people. Of course, the irony is that Hollywood’s ignorance and discrimination is costing them millions – they’re alienating a massive demographic that could have helped out the worst US box-office in over a decade. You listen to Chris Rock and you’ll usually be in hysterics, but for once, he is being entirely serious. He’s speaking the truth that Hollywood doesn’t want to hear.

Getty
Show Hide image

Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories