The Role Models That Win Oscars

Despite the hopes of some observers, "Boyz N the Hood" was bypassed at the Oscars. "Silence of the Lambs" swept up the gold. It had already swept a lot more at the box office, which brings up a question:

Where were all those folks who beat up on Spike Lee, Warrington Hudlin and Mario Van Peebles over the violence and abusive relationships in their movies when young black Americans were lining up to see "Silence"?


Anthony Hopkins created a surpassingly evil Hannibal Lecter, and he justly won Best Actor. Will all those who attacked Mario Van Peebles for "glorifying" drug dealers in "New Jack" now come forward? It would be fun to hear y'all explain standing in line to rave over Mr. Hopkins' tour de force, then failing to cry out: Doesn't this film "glorify" violent madmen?

Moving right along, Warren Beatty's "Bugsy" drew at least some criticism for departures from the accepted wisdom on the gangsters' role in Las Vegas. And it didn't make the laureled list. It would appear, however, that few of the critics attacking Mr. Beatty's film did so on the basis that it presented poor role models for impressionable, inner-city youths, though many inner-city kids did go to see it.


Speak up, gang. The makers of "Juice" want to hear what you have to say.

It's not that the complainers have no real points to score. Hollywood does offer repetitive renditions of urban violence but very few portrayals of the strong-family, struggle-against-the-odds stories to be found all across black America.

But beating up on the current crop of black film makers is not the answer. That strategy during the 1970s caused Melvin Van Peebles, Mario's father, and his generation to be shut out of the film business. Once the label "black exploitation" was applied, Hollywood backed away. The would-be leaders who raised the criticism were happy, but a legion of black cinema professionals bit the dust.

It was arrogant in the extreme to call their films "exploitation" anyway, but New York critic Clayton Riley was almost the only one who pointed that out. While other Hollywood films ignored black culture or, worse, parodied it, Gordon Parks, Mr. Van Peebles and others were trying to explore it. It should surprise no one that black audiences identified with such films; not only did they offer better cultural representations, they presented black women as beautiful, intelligent, worthy of love and respect. Black men were decisive, in charge, winners in the end.

But only if they were Good Guys, or turned away from criminal lives by the end. Good Guys always win in the end, no matter how bad the Bad Guys are in the early reels. Black films, while exploring the pull of the underworld in urban black communities, could not ignore that rule and succeed with Hollywood-trained audiences.

"Superfly," ambushed by a huge outcry when it came out, was no different. The complaint was the same as today: This film might teach young blacks to revere the hustler's lifestyle.

The fairest answer is that inner-city youths do not need films to teach them how to behave like hustlers. Real-life hustlers do that well enough. Drug-selling has become an embedded, underground economy in many of the poorest communities, a national shame supported by an army of watchers, runners, dealers and enforcers as young as 11 years old who often do not themselves take drugs. Yuppie "recreational users" bring in much of the money they make. "Stick-up boys," kids armed to the teeth to take money from the teen-aged drug dealers now on the streets, join in to complete a very violent circle.

They didn't get the idea to do such things from the movies, nor buy their weapons at the ticket booth. With 200 million handguns in circulation, they wouldn't need to. What's happening is that today's black filmmakers are struggling to master the craft while subjecting the action on the streets to a long-overdue examination. It's painful to see, but the problems they portray cannot be corrected without some pain.


Left to do what they do best, these filmmakers will eventually broaden their outpourings, as Hollywood learns to accept their artistic vision and audiences keep buying their work. It's worth waiting for, while they build the bankrolls that might one day support productions of the classic opus on Chaka, on the real Hannibal, on an ex-slave's-eye-view of the Civil War.

They'll never get there if the labelers beat them down. That crowd, which never troubles a Jonathan Demme, ought to go review its lines.

Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.