How the Entertainment Industry’s Selective Use of Black Culture Hurts Us All

Film and TV prefers black artists to be seen and not heard, or heard and not seen

This spring, Steve Bannon’s script for a hip-hop reimagining of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus leaked. Titled The Thing I Am, Bannon’s version sees Bloods and Crips battling it out in South Central Los Angeles in the aftermath of the 1992 Rodney King verdict. The play features characters by the names of “Gangsta Voice” and “Mack Daddy,” and the exact dialogue one would expect from someone who seeks to re-enact The Birth of a Nation by masking it as Boyz n the Hood. As Rob Corddry, an actor and comedian who participated in a reading of the play, remarked to The Washington Post, “it seemed like, to me, if anything, a white guy, with a chip on his shoulder, saying, ‘I can talk about this, I can say these things this way, because why not? Who are you to say I can’t?’ It almost seemed a way to indulge himself in being racist.”

Narration is key here. By narrating the experience in what Corddry described as a “black urban vernacular,” the play believes that sounding black — and in this case, a particularly stereotypical attempt at it — is the same as engaging with blackness.

The play believes that sounding black — and in this case, a particularly stereotypical attempt at it — is the same as engaging with blackness.

Bannon’s is a spectacular example of a long tradition that has sought to commodify black lived experience and turn it into a marketable product, without doing anything to challenge the continued inequalities — cultural, social, economic, political, etc. — and governmental violence that shape it. In Bannon’s case, of course, the picture is especially dark. He has actively worked to further shore up white supremacy, making his voyeuristic cultural voyage into blackness all the more remarkable. Why hip-hop? His desire for black visuals and sound through a white voice cannot be seen separately from the cultural capital, the alleged innovativeness that is automatically assigned to productions that tackle otherwise cookie cutter narratives, emblems of the status quo, through unusual forms. A production of Coriolanus is perfectly respectable, but add hip-hop to the mix and you have the hot ticket in town for, as Larry David said after he saw Hamilton, “white people looking to solidify their liberal bona fides.” Of course the two cannot be compared: Hamilton is a brilliant, truly inclusive and diverse hip-hop musical that, unlike Bannon’s, uses the genre to masterfully rewrite white-centric notions of belonging and Americanness. It was also written, produced, and staged by artists of color.

An excerpt from “The Thing I Am”

But David’s observation — even if somewhat tone-deaf given his own track record of overwhelmingly white productions — is on to something: the way in which the lived experience of people of color and the attendant culture is divested of all the physical and psychological violence that comes with it, and propped up as a cultural marker of sophistication. It’s nothing new. As Norman Mailer observed in his 1957 essay on the rise of the hipster—or “The White Negro” as he called this new class of disaffected young people—it was the “cultural dowry” of blackness, and in particular jazz, that came to define what it meant to be cool or hip. Mailer was himself problematically invested in hypermasculinity and its racial connotations, but his remarks record a significant shift. The essay chronicles the transformation of sonic blackness from something to be erased to something that should be included to attract white audiences — still a defining goal for many productions.

The tensions between erasure and inclusion, the visual and the sonic, are visible everywhere. On the soundtrack of 1954's Carmen Jones, an all-black adaptation of Bizet’s Carmen, stars Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte are overwritten by white voices, even though they were both accomplished singers. Dandridge and Belafonte lip-synched to music recorded by opera singers—in Dandridge’s case a white woman—in keeping with the idea that opera was a genre of whiteness. The result is a disorienting and confounding disconnect between visual and sound. In this year’s HBO hit Big Little Lies, a series that I loved, the opposite is true. There is a near-total absence of actors of color, but black musical performers play a central role in setting the mood.

While Carmen Jones and Big Little Lies present inverse sonic scenarios, they both share one thing; whiteness prevails and determines — literally — what can be heard.

The arc between the two may seem like a leap, but let’s consider some of the cultural coordinates that lie in between: the whitewashing of jazz in La La Land; white writers and voice actors developing and recording Amos ‘n Andy for the radio before it became televised; white voice actors speaking in black vernacular on The Cleveland Show and other cartoons; the general glee over Natalie Portman and Anne Hathaway rapping with exaggerated gesturing; characters like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch (also in the TV show Bosch) whose eclectic and rich jazz collection is used to somehow mark him as not just any detective; rapper Iggy Azalea’s quick ascent to popularity through use of black southern vernacular; the many instances of hip-hop music accompanying scenes that are intended to show white women devolving (like in this spring’s Rough Night, where Scarlett Johansson and co work themselves into all sorts of trouble while Khia’s “My Neck My Back” and J-Kwon’s “Tipsy” play). I could go on. What all these instances share is that black sound is invoked and appropriated to signify something about whiteness, thereby ignoring the very context and lived realities that produced it. As one of the high school students in my summer class wrote poignantly in a personal reflection, “ultimately, white people are far more appreciative of black culture than they are of black people.”

In Carmen Jones, whiteness exerts its omnipresence by aurally taking center stage in an all-black production. Directed by Otto Preminger, the all-black adaptation of the eponymous Broadway show by Oscar Hammerstein, set to music from Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen, follows Carmen (Dorothy Dandridge), a spitfire worker in a parachute factory who seduces a newly-engaged soldier (Harry Belafonte) tasked with transporting her to jail. His infatuation drives him into ruin and eventually into fury, as he strangles Carmen for leaving him. As with Bannon’s musical, the “Negro dialect” was authored by a white man, musical mogul Hammerstein. As James Baldwin wrote in his scathing and brilliant review of the film, “the result is not that the characters sound like everybody else, which would be bad enough; the result is they sound ludicrously false and affected, like ante-bellum Negroes imitating their masters.”

But there was an added level of intrigue that ultimately reifies whiteness as the aspirational standard of worthy cultural production: the songs, though lyrically similar to the rest of the film’s dialogue, were dubbed by opera singers. In stubbornly tethering the mode of delivery to its source text (opera) while radically redrafting the narrative to reflect a new demographic (black and working class vernacular), the film set itself up for tension. As Jeff Smith observes, “the frequent reference to operatic voices served to reassure audiences that Carmen Jones remained closely tied to the Bizet opera,” a move that generated a double standard surrounding white participation in black cultural production.

Besides its two stars, the cast also included well-known actresses Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, and Olga James. However, despite this all-star and all-black cast, Carmen Jones erased the voices of its black performers in order to preserve its operatic qualities — a genre synonymous with respectability, high culture, and whiteness. Even though Dandridge had been a successful singer for twenty years by the time Carmen came along, and Belafonte had a record deal with RCA Victor for his forays into folk and calypso, they were not allowed to sing their own parts. Preminger and the studio maintained in the film’s pressbook that while the production would be executed in “Negro dialect,” the film required “young romantic leads with operatic voices. The two don’t often go hand in hand.”

Dandridge was a well-known singer when Carmen came out

The result was predictable. As Marilyn Horne, the white opera singer who dubbed Dandridge’s songs, remarked in her autobiography, when Fox put out the call for singers “there was no color barrier either — whites could apply.” One does not need a lot of imagination to conclude that the opposite—a black singer applying to be the voice of a white actress—would never fly at a time when Jim Crow laws continued to segregate most public services. Horne’s excitement at the opportunity to audition shows that she was far removed from both the realities that curtailed opportunities for actresses of color like Dandridge and from the subject material — domestic violence, urban black culture, poverty, and wartime segregation—that Carmen asked her to vocally embody. As Horne recalled, she worked closely with Dandridge, listening to her speaking and singing voice to match the “timbre and accent” so that “when I sang I had a little bit of Dandridge in my throat.” This included the lyrics in “Negro vernacular,” with songs like “Dat’s Love,” “Dat Ol’Boy,” and “Dere’s a Cafe on De Corner.” Dandridge sang first, after which Horne mimicked her in the proper key. In an unprecedented move, the film therefore included Horne in the opening credits for voicing Dandridge’s songs, and LeVerne Hutcherson for Belafonte. Horne was white, Hutcherson black, but what the two shared is that they possessed the required operatic register, measured by white-centric standards.

The LP cover for Marilyn Horne’s recording of “Carmen Jones”

While the production company maintained that the arrangement “worked beautifully,” in no small part due to Belafonte and Dandridge’s facility in lipsyncing, the result is disconcerting to say the least. This is outside of its actors’ fault. As Baldwin wrote, “I am not trying judge [the cast’s] professional competence, which, on the basis of this movie — they do not even sing in their own voices — would be quite unfair to do.” In erasing Dandridge’s voice, the producers applied one further white filter on content that was already marked by its unnatural dialogue and its opera origins. Yet, besides Baldwin, there were few complaints; it was so rare to see blackness on screen, let alone a film with an all-black cast and a high production value, that no one questioned the implicit racialized value system underlying producers’ insistence on narrating the adaptation through an operatic structure over a “swing version,” a genre seen as inferior. Blackness was seen, not heard, but no one seemed to mind.

In contrast, in HBO’s Big Little Lies, a drama about a set of incredibly rich white women in Monterey, California, the music interrupts an otherwise overwhelmingly white visual. It is, admittedly, a gorgeous and seductive series, featuring an all-star cast with a sublime Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, and with Laura Dern and Zoe Kravitz in supporting roles. It also offers a very real look at abusive and tangled dynamics that lead to domestic violence, bypassing cliched narratives that associate violence against women with working class or alcoholism. Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) is an all-too real monster, a man impossibly charming to the outside world — and often also to his wife, until he isn’t.

Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and Reese Witherspoon in Big Little Lies (HBO)

Based on Liane Moriarty’s book about a similarly privileged set in Australia, and adapted for the screen by David E. Kelley and director Jean-Marc Vallee, Big Little Lies uses recurring panning shots of a volatile ocean to suggest to the viewer some truths about human nature. It explores this nature through a mostly white cast; Zoe Kravitz is the only performer of color with significant screentime and dialogue.

Music takes on a life of its own — what the ocean does visually, its soundtrack does sonically, by using carefully selected songs to build characters and fashion tone. Fans have embraced the soundtrack, leading to the release of an official CD, and music supervisor Susan Jacobs received an Emmy for her work on the show’s final episode. Director Vallee and Jacobs mostly incorporate music diegetically; the characters play music for their spouses, their parents, their friends. Madeline’s daughter Chloe, for example, has an iPod that brings on much of the musical action.

But where the show opts for racial homogeneity on-screen, it elects to flesh out its characters by employing a much more diverse palate of cultural markers, communicating heartbreak and pain via historically (and distinctly) black genres.

But where the show opts for racial homogeneity on-screen, it elects to flesh out its characters by employing a much more diverse palate of cultural markers, communicating heartbreak and pain via historically (and distinctly) black genres. We get Irma Thomas, Charles Bradley, The Temptations, and Leon Bridges foreshadowing some of the most pivotal developments.

Celeste deeply feels the heartbreak of Thomas’ “Straight from the Heart” and the loneliness of being unable to leave of “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is,” both melancholic soul songs from the 1960s, the start of Thomas’, known as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans,” career. Jane’s son grows obsessed with The Temptations’ “Pappa Was A Rolling Stone” in his own quest to find his father, whereas Madeline’s daughter plays Charles Bradley’s “Victim of Love” and “Changes,” both vintage soul offerings, at various points in the series. We also get Otis Redding, Naomi and the Gospel Queens, and contemporary soul singer Leon Bridges. The latter’s song “River,” seen by full title on the car radio display and later on an iPod, receives special acknowledgment when Reese Witherspoon’s character says “this is such a beautiful song.” The lack of on-screen diversity makes the musical score, rich and eclectic, even more noticeable.

“River” by Leon Bridges plays in Madeline’s car (screenshot)

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It’s an undeniably great soundtrack, but the terms of its inclusion raise some questions. In an interview with Vulture, Jacobs remarked of the music that “we have these new soul singers that have incredibly beautiful voices, and they offer diversity. There are songs here that no one had ever heard of before, and then mixed together with Neil Young. You can’t beat it.” It is a point well-taken in terms of the wide array of songs included in the show. But the observation that the soul songs “offer diversity” is a little more troubling — at which point does the sonic diversity become a stand-in for real, on-screen diversity, a way of performing the air of inclusivity without actually being committed to it? Big Little Lies contains several moments that suggests that the pendulum has swung firmly in this latter direction, as the characters’ musical tastes are celebrated as a mark of culture or sophistication, or of an existentialism divorced from its musical roots in black genres. It is ironic that the theme for the culminating party is “Elvis [Presley] and Audrey [Hepburn],” as Presley was among the first to stoke an appetite for “black” music and was one of the originators of a performance aesthetic that gave a white man’s vision on what black male sexuality was imagined to look like. As Eric Lott helps recall, Presley straddled the boundaries of fakery and racial theft, critiqued as “a performer who got more from black culture than he gave.” In the words of Flava Flav and Chuck D, of rap collective Public Enemy, in their song “Fight the Power:”

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Motherfuck him and John Wayne

To see Adam Scott and James Tapper, Madeline’s husband and ex-husband respectively, fight to establish their masculinity by imitating Elvis’ performance style, gyrating on stage, in this context emerges as another moment at which Big Little Lies musical allegiances encounter unexpected racial and class scripts.

Adam Scott performs as Elvis (image credit HBO)

While the characters’ infatuation and identification with music most often remains unaddressed, the limits of this sonic inclusion of blackness are exposed at a dinner party. When Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) puts on Sade’s “Cherish the Day,” Madeline is mesmerized. “I love this music, is this Adele?” she asks. “Uh, no, it’s Sade actually,” Bonnie replies. It’s a moment of honesty that dares narrativize some of the disconnect that exists between the series’ often diegetic soundtrack and the rich white women that inhabit its world. Of course Madeline would not know Sade. Her main reference point for the blend of smooth R&B, pop, and soul that she believes she is hearing is its most popular incarnation, Adele, the woman who through the sheer melancholy and longing in her voice managed to get away with bypassing soul’s time-honored techniques of improvisation, of swaying, of call-and response. That it is Adele, a white British superstar, who first comes to mind for Madeline is telling. It’s the whitest imaginable referent for music deeply rooted in the black experience.

That it is Adele, a white British superstar, who first comes to mind for Madeline is telling. It’s the whitest imaginable referent for music deeply rooted in the black experience.

The genre of soul itself, and the subgenre of quiet storm — another blend of jazz fusion, pop, and R&B that “Cherish the Day” is most often classified as — emerged as part of a larger movement in the 1950s through 1980s that sought to express pride in blackness. The song choice befits Bonnie — soul’s “aesthetic of upward mobility,” and quiet storm’s targeting of upscale black audiences, as Jason King explored, make Bonnie, a wealthy yoga instructor, the perfect embodiment of the polish and elegance associated with it. What matters here is why Big Little Lies has Madeline thinking it was Adele.

White performers of soul are nothing new. As with any musical style, a wide array of singers has been attracted to its sound. The 1960s saw the blue-eyed soul of Dusty Springfield; the 2000s inaugurated Adele’s reign. In a way, then, Madeline’s mistake is merely set up to mark her as ignorant. As Vulture wrote, “what better rich white mom joke is there than the fact that all white moms think everything is Adele?” However, seeing it as a mere joke — which is possibly how the producers intended it — ignores the larger issues with the series’ score. Adele’s popularity is both a function of her sheer brilliance and the palatability of white expressions of historically black genres, evidenced also in her much-discussed triumph over Beyoncé at the Grammys.

The inclusion of Madeline’s error in Big Little Lies is as close as the show comes to exposing the women’s penchant for black musical artists as merely another marker they use to solidify their class status, to read as sophisticated. It’s a brilliantly self-aware scene. Yet the moment is quickly undone when an undeterred Madeline pats her audiophile husband Ed (Adam Scott) on the arm to tell him “we should get this, honey,” and an annoyed (and embarrassed) Ed responds that they already do. If Madeline is not cool enough, Ed is. The fact that the pair think they can acquire an air of cool or navigate awkward social settings through their possessions is a theme carried throughout the scene; Madeline compliments Bonnie on her unusual place setting (“especially the tiny little forks. I just want to use all of them”) and on her Mexican clay wine glasses (“I really love these creative little cups”), continuously solidifying that while it is Bonnie who deviates from the norm, they are down with this otherness. Madeline even seeks to recoup some of the credentials she lost to her husband in music taste by remarking that “Ed prefers more traditional glass cups for wine, but these are [nod of approval].” The complex and muddled ways in which blackness, or foreignness, come to connote coolness persist throughout the show.

Art Must Engage With Black Vitality, Not Just Black Pain

The main non-diegetic song in the series, its opening theme, is also of note here. Michael Kiwanuka’s “Cold Little Heart,” a soul fusion song, is intercut with picturesque views of Monterey and the protagonists parading in Audrey Hepburn garments, and edited to emphasize the emotional hollowness of its characters (“I believe if I just try/ you’d believe in you and I”). Thematically it’s not a leap. However, the video that the Nigerian-British singer made could not be more different than the softly-filtered luxury of Monterey. Set in what Stereogum called a “bleary urban environment,” the video stars Keith Stanfield (Get Out, Straight Outta Compton, Atlanta) in a tale that director David Helman said depicts grief and “the loss of a father figure.” The video shows Stanfield in a variety of ordinary situations with a black teenager; teaching him how to drive, playing basketball, etc. The majority of the video, however, is devoted to the boy giving bodily expression to the raw pain of losing Stanfield through dance. We never see another soul; he is truly alone in the world.

A still from the video for Kiwanuka’s “Cold Little Heart”, starring actor Keith Stanfield

Kiwanuka’s first single of the CD that spawned “Cold Little Heart” further suggests that the deracinated, universalizing edit applied by Big Little Lies obscures how much the music was shaped by an experience in which race assumes vital importance. “Black Man In A White World” repeats its title forty-four times in its 3.5 minute runtime. The effect is sobering. It begins to make tangible the pervasiveness of race when it comes to how one is seen in society. The video, bringing up the specter of police brutality, was directed by Hiro Murai, a director known for his work on FX’s Atlanta, the television show that, more than any other, set out to make people “feel what it’s like to black,” to use creator Donald Glover’s words. While the inclusion of Kiwanuka’s song in Big Little Lies has undoubtedly exposed a new audience to his music, it is once again the terms of engagement that feel hollowed out here.

By not saying anything, Big Little Lies just replicates the colorblind logics that are bred in the communities like the one it depicts.

Zoe Kravitz may be the only prominent character of color, but the show does not show Monterey as homogeneously white. (image credit: HBO)

Ultimately, what’s so puzzling about the discrepancy between Big Little Lies’ visual and sonic diversity is that it could have so easily been different. Nowhere does the show suggest that Monterey itself is homogeneously white; law enforcement, lined up at a press conference, including a black female detective in charge of solving the murder that structures the show, is predominantly non-white. Some of the other parents, attendees to the school fundraiser where the murder occurred and therefore questioned by the police, are also black and Asian American. It would have been easy to include one of these as a main character. However, they are nothing more than bit players to the unfolding drama that centers predominantly on Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), and Jane (Shailene Woodley). Race, in fact, is never mentioned. Zoe Kravitz herself said that “her [character’s] race is just not a thing,” whereas some critics interpreted the absence negatively and have accused the show of whitewashing. At its heart, by not saying anything Big Little Lies just replicates the colorblind logics that are bred in the communities like the one it depicts.

Baldwin with a statue of Shakespeare at the Albert Memorial

There is no inherent issue with people appreciating music that has its roots in another race or class experience. Taste is not bound by such metrics, and the last thing we need is people policing what others can or should enjoy. But the danger lies in the fact that this enjoyment sometimes comes in lieu of engagement, when people want the culture but not the people borne of it. Spectacular examples like Bannon’s screenplay obscure that similar impulses can be found in many mainstream productions. In Carmen Jones whiteness was audible, in Big Little Lies it is silent. The norm does not have to announce itself. Seeing the arc between the two can help us understand that it is the simultaneous precarity and omnipresence of whiteness that shapes most mainstream cultural production, and that’s exactly why it is so important to visually challenge it. As Mailer wrote towards the end of his essay,

What the liberal cannot bear to admit is the hatred beneath the skin of a society so unjust that the amount of collective violence buried in the people is perhaps incapable of being contained, and therefore if one wants a better world one does well to hold one’s breath, for a worse world is bound to come first, and the dilemma may well be this: given such hatred, it must either vent itself nihilistically or become turned into the cold murderous liquidations of the totalitarian state.

In silencing blackness, or evoking it only culturally, white liberalism — even if sometimes with all the right intentions — has kept alive the illusion that maybe race doesn’t matter as much, or that reason can be used to convince reactionary voices that more humane policies are needed. However, we are at a juncture where the totalitarian state Mailer cautioned against has nearly arrived. It seems increasingly immoral to divorce culture and lived experience, to consume and relate affectively to music without even a second thought for the black and brown bodies that face daily violence or without doing anything to offset the vast representational imbalance that keeps the status quo feeling comfortable.

In silencing blackness, or evoking it only culturally, white liberalism — even if sometimes with all the right intentions — has kept alive the illusion that maybe race doesn’t matter as much.

Of course Big Little Lies is not the main offender here, but it does raise the question of when incorporation becomes appropriation or fetishization. If POC listen to traditionally white cultural forms, like country music, they are accused of aspiring to whiteness, yet white Americans can take anything without ever surrendering their whiteness or being questioned for it

Ironically, in Mailer’s case this also meant that he replicated some of the very commodification of black culture he described. As James Baldwin wrote of “The White Negro” in an essay for Esquire,

Why should it be necessary to borrow the Depression language of deprived Negroes, which eventually evolved into jive and bop talk, in order to justify such a grim system of delusions? Why malign the sorely menaced sexuality of Negroes in order to justify the white man’s own sexual panic? [..] The really ghastly thing about trying to convey to a white man the reality of the Negro experience has nothing whatever to do with the fact of color, but has to do with this man’s relationship to his own life. He will face in your life only what he is willing to face in his.

This is where the difference between inclusion and representation surfaces. The time for euphemisms is over. It is not enough to either see or hear, or to embrace culture while discarding people. Representation demands that everyone gets to show and voice their own truth.

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