Why Hollywood Tells Troubled Stories About Blacks

Watching the comedian-actress Mo'Nique receive a standing ovation for her best supporting actress Oscar win on television Sunday night was something akin to déjà vu for me. Instantly, I was taken back to 2003 where I sat in the same Kodak Theater watching both Denzel Washington and Halle Berry win best actor and best actress. Whoopi Goldberg was the host and the king of any ball, Sidney Poitier, was holding court upstairs—seemingly pulling all the right strings for things to go perfectly.

What a night. Berry became the first African-American woman to win the best actress Oscar and Washington became only the second African-American man to win best actor, after Poitier. Berry won for portraying an angry black woman with a husband on death row and a child so overweight she beat and chastised him before his death. Washington won for a playing a crooked, thuggish cop—but still, a new chapter in black history had begun: African-Americans were finally being recognized and awarded for their work in film.

A more diverse selection of "our stories" was sure to follow right?

Not so much.

This must be said: Mo'Nique and Gabourey Sidibe gave wonderfully flawless performances in Precious, a touching but incredibly disturbing film about an overweight, young inner-city girl abused by her mother and molested by her father. They both deserved every nomination and award they received. Lee Daniels directed the film, as he has with many others, with the skill and compassion that guaranteed a best director nomination. My issue is not with them or any minority performer, save for being a part of only the stories Hollywood deems interesting enough to tell.

Defenders of the film have rebuffed the criticism of Precious. They argue that attacking its stereotypes and mainstream popularity is unfounded, given that the story is very much a reality in many inner-city African-American homes across the country. Unfortunately, it is a story that is all too familiar—but it's also one that's well known to all American households, thanks to its ubiquity in pop culture.

But my question is this: who decides what truths should be told on the big screen and just how many times that particular truth should be visited and revisited? There are a lot of realities in the African-American community, as my colleague Raina Kelley argued last year. Though you might not know it by visiting your local movie theater, a good deal of those stories don't revolve around poverty, crime, illiteracy, or abuse. Shocking, I know. Consider: the other big award of the night was given to Sandra Bullock, for portraying a mother of a family that takes in a homeless, somewhat awkward African-American high-school student born into—guess what—an abusive home.

Bullock's win for best actress in The Blind Side was indeed deserving, but why must the same exact story with different actors play itself out again and again in Hollywood?

Yes, The Blind Side was based on a heart-tugging true story and a book released in 2006. True, the movie glossed over a lot of the nuance and complexity about race, interracial adoption, and class that the book discusses. But hey, that's Hollywood. Always a sucker for a true story, especially if it's true. But guess what other book was based on a true story, that was equally fascinating and moving but never made into film? Dreams From My Father written by Barack Obama in 1995. That book detailed the powerful story of a young man struggling with his white and African identities as he tried to make sense of his father's absence and his place in life and politics.

It was a story that would go on to fascinate the world and launch a political movement a decade later. So what makes the true story of a young black man abused by his black family and cared for by a loving white one more filmworthy than the journey of someone who would go on to become the president of the United States? And since both stories happened in America, shouldn't there be room for both at our local theaters?

Not in Hollywood, it appears. Perhaps that's related to the fact that African-Americans still don't have the clout to get a film greenlighted. In Tinseltown, where dreams are supposed to come true and magic is supposed to be made, only the comfortable, the obvious, and the familiar make sense when it comes to African-Americans. And there's certainly nothing precious about that.