Calendar Feedback: Directors should honor African Americans by hiring Black Americans to play them
Black Americans should play African Americans
Regarding “I Have to Do This” by Greg Braxton [May 17]: Director Barry Jenkins tells The Times, “We’ve been shirking the responsibility of honoring these folks [slaves who escaped by the Underground Railroad].” But Jenkins is the latest in a long line of African American directors who have rejected African American actors in casting the central characters of their movies or television series.
Instead, they have chosen actors from other countries in the English-speaking world, actors who did not grow up with the legacy of American slavery and Jim Crow and our uniquely American brand of police brutality.
In the last five years Jenkins and fellow directors Regina King, Ava DuVernay, Shaka King and others have given us the following African American historical figures, played by actors of the following nationalities: Dr. Martin Luther King — British; Harriet Tubman — British; Malcolm X — British; Muhammad Ali — Canadian; Fred Hampton — British; Aretha Franklin — British; and Cora (the runaway slave in “The Underground Railroad”) — South African.
Is that a good way of “honoring these folks”? What message are these directors sending to African American actors? Are they telling general audiences, again and again, that our own American actors aren’t good enough to portray our African American heroes?
This is more than a matter of injustice in casting. All the performances I’ve seen, by British and other imported actors, are lacking in depth, authenticity, warmth and humor. We are not seeing our heroes on the screen. We’re getting empty, technically polished imitations.
In Barry Jenkins’ hands, the enslaved emerge as the ancestors they are: We can sit with their pain because he is invested in them. And so are we.
I haven’t seen any part of the series “The Underground Railroad” but I was mystified and saddened by the article about it. While Jenkins wants viewers to “see beyond the violence,” the first episode shows a captured runaway slave being whipped before being burned alive. A scene of whipping is horrifying enough, and would be true to the treatment many slaves experienced. But killing a runaway slave by burning? This is a scene from a modern horror story. If Jenkins wishes to be truthful about what slaves experienced, as he states later in the article, he could have shown the runaway being “sold down the river” after being separated from her children and her community. This exile would have been a deep and lifelong injury to her heart. Read one of Frederick Douglass’ autobiographies for his insight that killing a slave’s soul was far worse being killed.
Further, after the importation of slaves was banned by Congress in 1818, the sale of slave children and young adults became a booming business that added to slaveowners’ profits. Slaveowners rarely killed their slaves, no matter how many times they tried to escape or otherwise struggled, because they were valuable “property.” Beatings and sometimes torture of recalcitrant slaves was part of the truth of slavery, but treating slaves like property and denying their humanness was even more so.
I understand that Barry Jenkins’ series is meant to be a multileveled horror story, with a focus on their struggles and triumphs, but in this article and many others printed in The Times, the depictions of extreme violence seem foregrounded. It’s not until the second half of this article that we are told of Jenkins’ intention to show that slaves’ resistance sometimes succeeded.
How to solve homelessness
Regarding “Imagining Density, Done in the L.A. Way” [May 17]: Times columnist Carolina A. Miranda did an excellent job presenting the challenge of the “Low Rise: Housing Ideas for Los Angeles” architectural competition led by Mayor Eric Garcetti and the city’s chief design officer Christopher Hawthorne. This initiative, featuring the work of landscape architects, architects and urban designers, could become reality with the support of the governor and the extraordinary state surplus.
Very few cities in California can afford to fund the kind of design/site review required to implement housing design sensitive to important local features. Developers would rather ignore neighborhood context and scrape the parcel of land, including any magnificent trees, rather than incorporate these place-making features in new housing.
Thoughtful, place-based design and construction requires the approach featured in Mayor Garcetti’s initiative. The state must establish a trust fund to give all California cities design/site resources that would result in these well-conceived outcomes: The matter of design review should not be confined to a few wealthy cities, or the mayor’s initiative, but must be made available equitably to all of California’s neighborhoods.
Emily J. Gabel-Luddy, FASLA
I think most Angelenos can agree that housing affordability and homelessness in Los Angeles County have reached epic proportions. Contrary to Miranda’s conclusion that “we’ve been doing density all along,” we actually have not been for about five decades, hence thousands living on the streets.
What no one seems to agree on is how to fix the problem. Here are five ideas that could have a meaningful impact:
1. Repeal the city of Los Angeles’ 1986 Proposition U to bring back baseline zoning limits on our mixed-use commercial boulevards.
2. Eliminate height restrictions on our commercial boulevards so that the first idea works effectively.
3. Remove land-use and zoning approvals from the political and litigious control where they currently sit and update planning and zoning.
4. Incentivize, and allow as standard, new models of shared and inclusionary housing.
It is time to stop thinking small and implement big visions.
Mental health conditions are not demons
Regarding Christi Carras and Angie Orellana Hernandez’s online article “Lady Gaga Says She Lived in an ‘Ultra-State of Paranoia’ After Rape Left Her Pregnant” [May 21]: I found this piece on Lady Gaga’s terrible trauma to be handled very sensitively and with care to the seriousness of the incident.
However, I would challenge your use of the word “demons” to describe mental health issues. Describing mental health with this cliché contributes to stigma. You would not say a person with high blood pressure is “fighting demons” or that the black dog (Winston Churchill’s nickname for depression) was upon a hyperglycemic diabetes patient. Those people have potentially life-threatening conditions that are treated with medicine.
The same can be said of mental health issues, which can be treated with medicine and therapy. Mental health is not an invisible monster but a simple malfunction of brain chemistry sometimes caused by trauma and sometimes for no reason at all.
Mental health is a health condition, nothing more and certainly nothing less.
I write not to criticize or demean but [to encourage] one of the few remaining outposts in the dying craft of journalism to use its weighted words to push for a more accurate and less stigmatizing description of mental health.
Daniel P. Finney
Des Moines, Iowa
A comic actor’s most memorable performance
Regarding Michael Ordoña’s “A ‘Cranky Comedic Genius’” [May 19]: In all the remembrances of Charles Grodin I haven’t seen any reference to his appearance as host on “Saturday Night Live.” His was the most unique show of that series’ long run.
Befitting his quirky persona, the writers fashioned the entire episode as one discomforting skit. To quote then cast member Bill Murray, “You’re not a host, you’re a parasite.”
Film critic hits home
Justin Chang’s writing shows a depth I’ve seldom seen in any writer in The Times, regardless of subject matter.
He paints a picture with words that, to me, indicates someone with high intelligence, combined with an erudition that results in the use of language very few achieve. For example, when is the last time you saw “bourgeois-flagellating” [“Director Doesn’t Like us Either,” May 21] used anywhere?
Review hits all the right notes
Regarding Mikael Wood’s review of Olivia Rodrigo’s album “‘Sour’ Knows Exactly How It Feels” [May 21]: Wood could not have been more correct than when he said, “[S]he sings like an actor and writes like a screenwriter...”
When I read this I was immediately in full agreement. It was as if Wood were in my mind and pulled the words I couldn’t think of right out of my brain.
I also strongly admire the use of vernacular and how it complements the tone of the album so well, while still maintaining a sense of professionalism as a critic.
They way he described “Jealousy, Jealousy” by saying, “This preoccupation with perception and identity makes sense for a member of Gen Z who grew up amid social media where even non-celebrities have to learn to navigate an endless projection of selves.” This perfectly phrases the way I feel as a Gen Z with the pressure of society with social media and its obsession with being perfect all the time.
Everything in this review is phrased and written perfectly. I wouldn’t change a thing.
The award for getting vaccinated goes to...
Re: “Want a Show? Get Vaccinated,” by Charles McNulty, May 20. McNulty nailed it. Finally a real voice of reason. I’ve been waiting for tough-talking politicians to do this.
I’m taking his column to my 99-year-old neighbor who’s been on pins and needles for 14 months. She will feel so good reading this.
Kudos for theater critic Charles McNulty’s commentary. Thanks for spelling it out so succinctly.
I’m sure he’ll get some blowback but I agree with, and support, everything he wrote.
Time for TV times
This is my second request to ask you to return the prime-time TV grid. I do not have a computer, nor a smartphone. It would be gratefully appreciated.
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