So, last week I took my 8-year-old to see Shorts, the new movie by Robert Rodriguez. (He also directed Spy Kids, and its two sequels, which we watched on three consecutive Family Movie nights. Ah, the sacrifices we make for our children!)
Half-way through the picture, it struck me as it often does when I take my boy to the movies, and I asked myself, "Where are the black people?" Oh, late in the picture there were a few in a crowd scene, but they didn't have speaking parts and were gone as quickly as they'd come.
This paucity of speaking roles for black actors reminded me of Stormy Weather, James Gavins' flawed new biography of the great Lena Horne. Roles for black actors were limited when Horne became the first black to sign a long-term movie contract in the 1940s. At best, they were allowed to play maids and Pullman porters. At worst they were the kinds of clowns and buffoons typified by Stepin Fetchit or Mantan Moreland.
Understand that I'm not calling for a return to those not-so-good old days, but as bad as those stereotypes were, at least there were black characters in the movies. Now, alas, blacks seem to have virtually disappeared from pictures. And when they do appear (as in Shorts), they've been silenced, which I suppose could be considered an improvement over that time when black actors were forced to speak dialect that bore no relation to reality because it was how white screen writers thought black people should speak.
So, coming home from Shorts, I talked to my boy about some of my concerns, and together we came up with the Black Star Movie Rating System. Here it is:
Zero Stars: No black characters in the picture. None. Nada. Zilch.
One-Half Star: Black characters in the background, but no speaking roles.
One Star: Black characters with minor speaking roles.
Two Stars: Black characters in supporting roles such as sidekick.
Three Stars: Black characters in major roles playing a pivotal part in the action of the picture.
Four Stars: Several major black characters, with one or more playing a pviotal part in the action.