Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.
Ishmael Reed: Robert Redford says that he is against a boycott of the Oscars. He says that he is a member of the Academy and he’s not going to turn his back on them.
Armond White: That sounds sensible to me. He is a member of that organization and has been for a long time. I think he ought to support it based on his respect for its principle. Ishmael Reed: Well he said that he had Sundance and he was trying to express himself that way, but Sundance gave us “Precious.”
Armond White: Well, it was going to be made anyway. Sundance was just a place where it showed. I don’t blame Robert Redford for “Precious.” I mean the people who made “Precious” and who rode that bandwagon, I blame them. Sundance is just a video, it’s just like everything else, except that it presents a certain type of thinking about movies and American film, a certain type of thinking that I find embarrassing and offensive. I don’t blame “Precious,” though. “Precious” is its own problem. It sounds like a sensible position to me, probably a position from someone (Redford_ who is older and wiser, who is not a hot head about the current fashion. Ishmael Reed: So are you saying that those proposing the boycott are hot heads?
Armond White: Yeah, I think those who are proposing the boycott are self-serving children and racist, frankly. I think they are misusing the problems of racism and they are also abusing the great history of African-American boycotting, because the awards are not worth boycotting. They are not worth taking seriously. The people who are proposing the boycott of the Oscars have a very shallow sense of what is important in life. They’re not really critical and they are just being self-serving. Ishmael Reed: Black writers have complained that there are few of them in The ScreenWriters Guild. You see that as a problem?
Armond White: I don’t really. You know Ishmael, I have to say the rapper, actor and producer Ice Cube came up with probably a perfect expression of what is going on at the Oscar’s. Did you hear his response? Ishmael Reed: No, I didn’t.
Armond White: They interviewed him about this boycott talk, and protest talk, and Ice Cube said he didn’t think it was good and it sounded to him like crying because there was not enough ice cream on the cake. Ishmael Reed: Okay, what about the Board Of Governors of the Oscars. I wrote a piece a few years ago responding to “Precious” that I found that there were very few blacks on the board of governors and I got a fan letter from one of the prominent right wingers who said that they (Hollywood) are always accusing the right of racism. Has that changed any?
Armond White: I can’t say. I don’t really know who the personnel are at the Oscar’s. Ishmael Reed: I think it is probably mostly middle aged White males and I think the same group probably do the Grammies and the Emmies. They just move around the country. There’s also has a charge that they don’t even look at the movies.
Armond White: I have got to say this, though. My observation of the Academy Awards over years and years is probably one of the most liberal organizations on the planet. I mean primarily White liberals who bend over backwards to show how much they care about underprivileged people and particularly how much they care about the Negro. It’s always been the history. For people who complain about how much it’s a racist or a racially unfair group do not understand the history of the Academy Awards. They’re not. They are the most liberal people of America. They want to do what’s right by people of color, they always have, and the people who complain that now all of a sudden, that they’ve become racist, are really ignorant of that group’s history and really it’s kind of a petulant idea started by people who think that black people should get prizes not because they are good but because they are black. The Academy Awards are supposed to stand for excellence and merit. To believe that a group is not giving awards of excellence to black people these days is kind of nonsensical to me because they’ve given awards to black people often in the past, particularly, even in the recent past. It’s just not fair. Ishmael Reed: Well Hollywood has given us, “Gone with the Wind,” and “Birth of the Nation,” and westerns where the Confederates are seen as the oppressed like “Shane” with Alan Ladd that are pro-Confederate.
Armond White: Well you can’t confuse the complicated history of Hollywood with the complicated history of the Academy Awards on that basis. The Academy Award is the good face that has always tried to do the right thing. It’s not perfect. Ishmael Reed: Well in the 1930s Hollywood collaborated with the Nazis. Have you read those two books where Hollywood producers collaborated with the Nazis in the 1940s?
Armond White: Yeah. Ishmael Reed: Well, there are two books about that. Hollywood and Hitler,1933-1939, by Thomas Doherty and Ben Urwand’s The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler.
Armond White: I am not denying that. I’m saying that the complicated and racist history of Hollywood cannot be put on the Academy. The Academy exists within the history of Hollywood, but it is a part of history that does good and tries to be good and tries to look good and do the right thing. Any complaints anyone has about the American film industry, fine, but you cannot put complaints on the Academy. The Academy is Hollywood’s good face and always tries to do the right thing and it is really ineffective to correct Hollywood and change Hollywood through the Academy because that’s not where ideology is created. That’s simply where people express their likes and their preferences. It’s not where business decisions are made, it’s not where people get hired or fired in the making the films. That’s anyone’s fight. They have to go the studios but not to The Academy. It’s a waste of time to tend those complaints, those protests on the Academy. It’s a waste of time. That’s not how to effectively create change in the industry. Ishmael Reed: So what about change in the Academy? It doesn’t need to be diverse?
Armond White: The Academy doesn’t mean anything to me. It doesn’t need to change. Let it be what it is. They give out awards. They give out trinkets. It’s unimportant. It’s essentially unimportant. I think, sadly, somehow, our culture, our Black American culture, has gotten to a place where they think they are entitled to prizes. That’s so silly. That’s so unimportant. People have rent to pay. People have health to look after. Not prizes. Stop complaining about prizes. They don’t matter. If you want more people to make films in the Hollywood industry go to the studios and not the Academy. It’s a waste of time. Ishmael Reed: What’s happening with your relationship with the people in New York? Thw New York Film Critics Circle.
Armond White: I’m out of that. Ishmael Reed: You’re out of that?
Armond White: I’m out of it. I’m not part of that. That’s over. Ishmael Reed: I talked to Woodie King. He said that black actors in Hollywood resent the fact that people from England and Africa getting all the roles playing African Americans in movies. We just did an anthology called “Black Hollywood Unchained” where one of our writers, David Henderson, complains about Martin Luther King being played by an actor with a British accent. What is your opinion on that?
Armond White: You know…I’m not really sure what to say, Ishmael. Ishmael Reed: But I mean I thought your comments about this, I’m getting a slavery overdose, all the books and movies I’m just tired of the chains and everything, and I thought your comment about “Twelve Years a Slave” being torture porn, a matter of fact I borrowed that idea, torture porn, I thought that was apt, are you still getting reprisals for that or criticism for that remark?
Armond White: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. Not that I’m aware of. Behind the scenes, who knows, but not that I’m aware of. I got to say, you bring up Woodie Kings, which makes me thing about black theater, because he’s a great example of that, and that just makes me wonder about actors like Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson who came out of New York theater and who they both see content now to let black theater die. Ishmael Reed: I agree with that.
Armond White: I don’t understand why black people are complaining about what Hollywood won’t do for them when people like Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson know where theater starts, how the art of theater starts in the community and they’re not doing anything to help it grow. Ishmael Reed: I don’t understand why they don’t get together and do their own films.
Armond White: They get money from the Hollywood system. Ishmael Reed: Why don’t they do their own films?
Armond White: People like Samuel L. Jackson and Denzel Washington aren’t doing their part. I am really bored with people who say, “Hollywood isn’t doing enough for black people.” Hey, go to the two most powerful black actors in Hollywood today and have them do something. Ishmael Red: Why don’t they do their own film?
Armond White: That’s what I’m saying. Do theater. You got to do theater. That’s where you nurture the idea of acting and telling stories through even bodies so that the community knows what theater is and how to respond to theater instead of responding to violent movies all of the time. Then the people like Denzel Washington and Sam Jackson drop the ball and yet you have another group of black people just want to complain about what whitey does and what Hollywood aren’t doing. Well black people with money and positions aren’t doing anything. They’re not doing their part. Ishmael Reed: Well, I’ve put thousands of dollars in black theater, but when it came to one of my plays, “Mother Hubbard” was done at The Black Repertory Theater, and The Nuyorican Poets Café.It was done in China a few months ago. I have a better opportunity to get my stuff done in China and places like that than here and as a matter of fact I had a play close in Jan.2015 that was staged by The Nuyorican. Not a single review from the mainstream media, yet because of word of mouth in the black community and black media, it did well despite the cold weather.
Armond White: Hey, hey, let me make a presumption, I’m not supposed to presume, but I’m going to presume that you don’t make as much money as Denzel. Ishmael Reed: I certainly don’t.
Armond White: Hey, hey, they can start community theaters anywhere in Thompson, in Harlem, in Brooklyn, anywhere they want to. They don’t wanna. I’m not necessarily trying to tell people what to do with their money, but they came out of the black and theater and they’ve seem to abandon it now that they’re rich. Ishmael Reed: Let me ask one more question…yeah, go on.
Armond White: They make one trashy movie after another. Ishmael Reed: Yeah, you’re right about that.
Armond White: If Denzel Washington and Sam Jackson made good movies about the black experience that would be fine by me. I would say, “You have done your duty,” but they don’t do that. They are busy making money. So, I think that other black people should think about and look at and try to change instead of complaining about what white people have and haven’t done. Ishmael Reed: I did a piece on “Django Unchained” and said that Samuel Jackson played himself and got into trouble with Tarantino. In Esquire he said I was out to make money by criticizing his movies. I was paid $75 by The Wall Street Journal. Lots of money.
Armond White: Yeah, it’s hard out here being a writer.
Armond White: We let too many artists die on the vine without recognition all of the time and that needs to change. Ishmael Reed: I agree with you.
Armond White: One of the things that upset me most last year about this Oscar talk, which is happening every year now, is that all the talk was saying the movie “Selma” was overlooked. I think “Selma” is a mediocre or worse film. Ishmael Reed: It was pretty bad. It was pretty bad.
Armond White: Yeah, but all the talk on “Selma” was overlooked and that was only because the publicist for “Selma” was driving that discussion. Nobody was talking about how the actor Chadwick Boseman was overlooked for the film “Get on Up” where he played James Brown. I thought it was a good film and that Boseman’s performance was extraordinary. But nobody was complaining about that because that discussion was not driven by publicists. The whole thing is driven by publicists. It seems like to me. The whole thing is driven by white liberals who know how to play black folks like puppets and how to rile them up to nonsense. It’s not about excellence or about the content of the film. It’s about, “Give me prizes, give me prizes.” Ishmael Reed: Who are the white liberals who drive this?
Armond White: All of them. The Washington Post, The New York Times, all of the major white owned media are driving this discussion about diversity in Hollywood and that’s because they’re controlling the discussion and manipulating black people into getting upset about something that’s not important. Let me underline that. Ishmael Reed: Have you seen the musical “The Color Purple” on Broadway?
Armond White: I saw it. Ishmael Reed: Do you have any opinions on it?
Armond White: I wasn’t digging it, frankly. I loved the movie, but I wasn’t digging the Broadway show for a variety of reasons. One of them being Jennifer Hudson. God bless her. She’s doing what she can. She’s doing the best she can. But she’s not good. She’s not good. But she is one of the people the white industry has propped up in front of us and she’s not good enough. She’s working hard. She’s a nice girl. I’ve met her briefly. She’s a nice woman. But she’s not good enough. She sings everything. She’s not good enough. But she’s overly propped up in front of us by the white institutions as someone we should esteem. Well, there are a lot of great black artists who we don’t know to esteem just because for whatever reason. So that’s part of what I found to be some a problem of the staged production of “The Colored Purple.” Ishmael Reed: I was asked by a Jewish magazine called Tbe Tablet to respond to Alice Walker’s boycott of Israel. I took the opportunity to challenge Steven Spielberg to make a Jewish Color Purple, some of the women in that magazine complained that Jewish producers give roles intended for them to gentile actresses that I propose that Nicole Kidman can play the Jewish Celie or one of the blonde Rhine maidens in Woody Allen’s movies, and they had a fit. The guy said they liked it but the women turned it down. So what about that? Here’s Bell Hooks, a feminist who said that in the hands of white producers, directors and scriptwriters said that the black bogeymen in these fictions can become worse on the screen. Alice Walker objected to the way Steven Speilberg treated “Mister.” She even objected to it in a book she wrote in the book The Same River Twice. Then we have a Scotsman John Doyle doing the musical The Color Purple. Do you think it’s fair to ask him to do one on how Scotsmen treat women?
Armond White: You are more of a provocateur than I am. Ishmael Reed: No, I’m not. I’m no like. No, no. You’re the provocateur.
Armond White: Everybody can tell everybody’s story. I think we have to realize the common humanity. I am cool telling anybody’s story just that you have to bring sincerity and honesty and truth to it, that’s all. I’m fine with that. It doesn’t bother me at all. Ishmael Reed: Thanks a lot, Armond.
Armond White: Thank you.