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Denzel Washington, The Flight, Racial Stereotypes, etc.

November 3, 2012 by  
Filed under Ent., News, Opinion, Weekly Columns

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( The best thing about the South Side of Chicago is that it’s nothing like the stereotypes you see on TV.  Everything we see in the media about black men killing one another left and right, with gang bangers everywhere, is directly contradicted by the tree-lined streets and neighborhood fellowship that you see more often than not.  Sure, the bad stuff is out there, but there’s a lot of good stuff that is never going to be shown on Fox News.

Denzel Washington’s latest film, “Flight,” (which I happened to see in Chicago this week) makes me think about the South Side of Chicago, because it reminds me of how black folks get the most attention from whites when we behave in a way that conforms to their preconceived notions of who we are.  Denzel Washington, being the brilliant actor that he is, played a serial liar, irresponsible father and alcoholic/drug addict to a tee.  His performance in this film, like many others, is worthy of the Oscar buzz that he’s been receiving.

But if the Academy does decide to honor Denzel Washington with an Oscar, I’ll admittedly find myself a tad bit annoyed.  It’s so interesting how black  people tend to be recognized the most when we play roles that fit into inaccurate stereotypes that fit white America’s vision of what it means to be “authentically black”:  They don’t recognize Denzel Washington for his brilliant performance as Malcolm X, but they fawn over Morgan Freeman’s role in “Driving Miss Daisy.”  Halle Berry gets no Oscar Buzz when she plays Dorothy Dandridge, but they love her skankily-depressing performance in “Monster’s Ball.”  The bottom line is simple:  If a black person does a good impression of a thief, drug addict, prostitute, maid or athlete, you’ve got yourself a touchdown.  The worst thing you can do, however, is play a role that communicates intelligence, integrity or courage….that’s “not realistic.”

Denzel Washington’s Academy Award for Best Actor came after he played a corrupt cop and flat out horrible human being in “Training Day.”  This was yet another case in which the Academy suddenly noticed that this Hollywood veteran has acting talent.  The fact is that Denzel Washington is every bit as impressive when he plays an honorable man as he is when he plays a menace to society.  I’d rather see him in roles deserving of an NAACP Image Award than to have to stomach the site of a black American hero portraying the very worst that we can be as human beings.  Of course these roles all lie within the range of artistic freedom, but much of that so-called artistic freedom is actually the vision of greedy corporations seeking to sell movie tickets in  racist society.   So, in many cases, artistic freedom is merely an illusion and excuse to succumb to degrading behavior and poorly chosen imagery (see commercialized hip hop as exhibit A).

In the video below, I explain my thoughts more directly.  Again, I am not one to say that Denzel Washington doesn’t deserve an award for this performance, but I grow tired of seeing black actors forced to debase themselves and play to racist stereotypes in order to be recognized.   In fact, they should boycott the Academy Awards altogether, since they really don’t mean a thing.

[youtube VF3-XEW2H-U]

Staff Writer; Dr. Boyce Watkins
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the founder of the Your Black World Coalition. For more information, please visit


14 Responses to “Denzel Washington, The Flight, Racial Stereotypes, etc.”
  1. Sojourner says:

    Black hero saves passengers despite being drunk.

    People lived. He did what no other person could do.

    But, he was drunk. That’s illegal. Put him in jail.

    He has an addiction. Put him in jail.

    Black man in jail now. He is redeemed. Literally says,” I know this sounds crazy because I’m here in prison, but I finally feel free.”

    End movie

    Beware of what message you are being programmed with these fine actors.

  2. JC says:

    Black people earn every negative stereotype ever given to them – daily.

  3. lucibelle says:

    Well, I know that this is a little late (ok, so I’m just now seeing it in mid Jaunary), but the one thing that no one seems to be able to admit when critiquing or analyzing Denzel’s role in “Flight” is this; the ONLY reason that this movie got produced in Hollyweird is because African Americans don’t have an Anti-defamation league. Say what you want to, I co-sign Sankofa.

  4. Kat says:

    The Dorothy Dandridge film was a made for TV movie by HBO in 1999. Of course, it was never an Academy Award contender. Berry would never have been able to have been nominated for that role, but she did win an Emmy for it.

  5. We wouldn’t be having this conversation, if we didn’t have to rely on Hollywood for the roles Black people have to take in order to get work. I didn’t see the movie and I agree it might not be as the author meant, but my point is that with all the money we spend outside our community, to keep others wealthy and happy, we could have our own Hollywood and Oscars, and produce the films we want while at the same time creating job opportunities for people in our community. When are we going to wake up from this nightmare and realize, you can’t keep complaining about the problems in our community, while at the same time supporting the people who created them, and expecting a different result. That’s insane and why we will continue to have these conversations until we come together.

    Black Unity means financial independence and happiness

  6. C Johnson says:

    First, I look forward to seeing this film as I love to see Denzel NOT playing DENZEL. The man is often a brand rather than an actor. Denzel the Brand has been on display in probably 70% of his roles since Malcolm X. He’s been unable to disappear inside of a role the way Jeffrey Wright or Don Cheadle is able to do. He’s IMPORTANT the way Ali was to black people. But we must remember that Mr. Washington is an actor who is probably very hungry for multi-layered roles. Should we deny him that? One of the greatest films of the last quarter century was Scorcese’s Goodfellas. Not one character had any “positive” characteristics. They were all raw thugs–but the filmmaking was mindblowing. Dezel in American gangster was forced to transform Frank Lucas from an illiterate mass murderer to Sort of a Mahogany era Billy Dee Williams with a pistol. Missed opportunity. I’ll let our community leaders “uplift” us if they’re able. I’m not waiting for Hollywood to save us.

  7. pam says:

    Denzel just got filled with Holy Spirit ( GQ has the article ) he will change many lives . I dont know about this movie but I was praying for him after Tony Scot committed suicide

  8. sankofa says:

    Y’all miss the authors point. IF Hollyweird had actually portrayed African people as human with ranges from honorable to dishonorable and honored them and their craft accordingly, then one could see this movie solely on the merits you all speak off. But just like training days and American gangster, Washington, perhaps the best of this generation is regulated to a stereotypical place and then rewarded thusly. Besides Malcolm X, who remembers John Q, Who remembers The Ike and Tina turner story and how Larry and Angela turned that out? When was the last time Angela got meaningful offers, besides Monsters ball which she turned down? We have a tendency not to make truth interfere with our recreation, but that’s how they keep us dumb down and sheep like.

  9. Carlo says:

    Dont worry!! I LOVE…. Denzel….. BUT …there is no way under Gods blue firmament that he will beat Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln. TRUST!

  10. A Irvin says:

    As much as I know some movies are pretty bad about enforcing stereotypes (Madagascar anyone?), I don’t think that Flight is about an African American man. I think it is about a man who happens to be black going through his life and doing stupid things and making mistakes. I doubt the writers were sitting there thinking “This should definitely be a black man playing this part”. I think it was more like “Denzel smoked that audition and I think he’ll do a great job.”

    Seriously, you want to complain about black people not getting parts in hollywood, but when one gets a complex role and does a great job that is actually more a part that white people tend to play, you freak out and get all hurt over it. Nothing about this part was about black stereotypes. It was about a man who made mistakes and did some stupid things and struggled with addiction just like any other man can. instead of giving the role and screen time to a white man, they gave it to a black man. How *horrible* of them.

  11. Jose says:

    This movie in no way seemed like a stero type towards Denzel being a african america AT ALL. i have to totally agree with Tim this represented a person in a high position thinking their actions are above the law. I find this article to be offensive and seem to be someone who always looks into the smallest things just to argue something about being a african america. Im a minority from hispanic decent and in 2012 america is really not seen as white anymore, everyone has the opportunity to do anything, be anyone and win a oscar for their great acting. One message i want to get accross is stop argueing everything in a black or white issue and maybe point of view might get accross in a respectful way.

  12. Judith says:

    Valid points. Well-delivered. Received. While I respect the perspective, I loved the movie on so many other levels because it addressed real aspects of addiction, The role that Denzel played could have been played by a male or female of any race and the messages of the impact addiction has on society is real. We often see addicts depicted like the Caucasion female in the movie. In reality many are functional, they work every day, they hold meaningful jobs and their co-workers, colleagues and even friends either don’t know – or chose not to speak of it!

    There were so many real messages, issues, and opportunities for meaningful discussion about real issues that affect us all that I hope once again a great movie doesn’t get derailed due its obvious predictable and to some racists overtones.

  13. Phu? says:

    this movie was just a way to put black men with white and non-black wimen. denzel is a sell-out along with so many other black men. period.

  14. Tim says:

    Loved Washington’s performance and happened upon your post while searching for commentary on it. You make a valid point and my second reaction to it, after surprise, was “of course” – there is an obvious and continuing danger in perpetuating that racial stereotype.

    However, my first reaction to your response was surprise because the stereotype that I took from Washington’s character in the movie was was the stereotype of the privileged person: The man (usually a man) who because of his special talents does not have to worry about the rules. They don’t apply to him; he’s not held accountable.

    This is very often a stereotype of pilots and doctors, and it is consistent in the film: it seems like everyone who knows him knows that he is a mess and does things that are absolutely morally outrageous, but who look the other way because they know he is a gifted pilot.

    I think you could argue that Washington as the pilot and Cheadle as the obviously skilled (and, within the limits of his required advocacy, moral) attorney would have been marked thirty years ago as breakthrough roles with regard to race.

    Today roughly fifty percent of marriages are said to end in divorce, and if anything, the portrayal of Washington’s character was more about that cliche than the racial stereotype of the disappearing father. His ex-wife and son live in a nice home and a nice neighborhood, the son attends a private school that Washington’s character is paying for (grudgingly, just like the ex-husband cliche), and it is they who have abandoned him. He wants a relationship with his son, but his behavior has made that unacceptable to them.

    Anyway, I very much see your point, but it is possible that from another perspective, this was about a whole different set of stereotypes. While many of the people wearing “Put the white back in the white house” t-shirts at Romney rallies look at the film and see the racial stereotype you identify, I do think it is possible that many people look at it and see a privileged alpha male coming to terms with his problems – not a stereotypically flawed African-American.

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