“They Like Us As Slaves… Not Fully Formed Human Beings!”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced its nominations for the 2020 Oscars Presentation. Once again, there were hardly any Black people nominated for awards. Actually, only one Black actor was nominated for an award—Cynthia Erivo, for the film “Harriet.”

The thing that strikes me about Erivo’s nomination is that the role for which she is nominated is for abolitionist, freedom fighter, and formerly enslaved person Harriet Tubman. Apparently, the Academy likes Black folks in slave roles. They liked, “12 Years a Slave” enough to award it “Best Picture” and Lupita Nyong’o “Best Supporting Actress” and writer John Ridley won for his writing in a screenplay for the film. Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor was nominated but did not win for “Best Actor.”

One of Denzel Washington’s Oscars was for his role as a formerly enslaved soldier in the Union Army in the film, “Glory.” The first Black winner, Hattie McDaniel won “Best Supporting Actress” for her role in “Gone with the Wind.” If not a slave we seem to catch the Academy’s attention as servants. Octavia Spencer won a “Best Supporting Actress” award for her role as Minnie Jackson in “The Help.”

I am not suggesting that these artists are not worthy of winning their awards. However, I do wonder why Black actors who take on more complex versions of humanity are regularly overlooked in the Oscar balloting. This year, “Just Mercy” the film about Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative’s battle to exonerate Alabama death row inmate, Walter McMillan was completely overlooked. In addition to telling a compelling story, Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of McMillan was riveting! Without the use of high-speed car chases, sex, gratuitous violence, or CGI (Computer Generated Images) the dramatic film takes you on an emotional rollercoaster and tugs at your heart and sense of injustice throughout.

Walter McMillan is not offered as a perfect man but he is depicted as a real man—fully human with faults, fears, concerns, and emotions. He is a husband and father. He is loved by his community. He is also a realist. He knows the system is inherently unfair and his chances of release from death row are slim. Even with a Harvard educated lawyer (played by Michael B. Jordan) who is passionate and willing to take his case pro bono, he is not hopeful.

“Just Mercy” is a story White American really does not want to hear. When you are deeply invested in a system you don’t want to think of it as wholly corrupt. The average White American believes that those in jail or prison belong there. It does not understand that the current (in)justice system operates as a way to profit off of inmates. States generate goods and services by putting inmates to work to manufacture goods, clear fields, and clean highways. They also use the prison system as a vehicle for employing Whites with low skills and limited education. It is no secret why most newly built prisons are in rural areas despite most of the inmates being from urban areas.
When you watch “Just Mercy” you have to ask yourself one of two questions—“Am I that ignorant about what’s going on in the society?” or “Am I that indifferent to institutional racism and systemic injustice?”

Walter McMillan is not someone we can push into the recesses of history with a “That was a long time ago” excuse. He makes you realize just how vulnerable certain portions of our citizenry are. The film makes you realize that the notion of “White privilege” is not merely about who has money and status. It is about who pays an inordinate price in a police state.

Foxx’s acting in this film is superb. It is nuanced and poignant. You want to root for him at the same moment you understand his hopelessness. His performance has you crying one moment and laughing the next… just like with any real human being. Unfortunately, Hollywood does not want to imbue Black folks with humanity. They like us better when we’re slaves!

Stay Black & Smart!

The NFL? …. Uh, That Would Be a No!

I am what might be considered an “uber” sports fan. I enjoy NBA and NCAA Men’s and Women’s basketball. I love the build up to the World Series. I get excited as we experience the Olympics. I love World Competition in figure skating and track and field. I can sit glued to the TV during Wimbledon and the US Open. And as the Bowl Championship Series comes to a conclusion on Monday I am anxious to see whether LSU or Clemson will be crowned the College Football Champion. However, since 2017 I have not purposely watched one down of the National Football League (NFL). Clearly there have been times when I have walked through an establishment and a game was being broadcast but I do not tune in on my own. I did not even watch the Super Bowl when my beloved Philadelphia Eagles won! I got calls from friends and family in Philly and when I went to Philly on business the following week I could see the joy and exuberance that flowed through the city. I was just not a part of it.

I stopped watching the NFL when Colin Kaepernick was effectively banned from the league for taking a knee in silent protest to the ongoing police brutality that plagues the Black community. For that one citizen act the league and its owners colluded to ensure he would never play in the NFL again. Proof positive that this happened is the fact that the NFL settled with Kaepernick for a reported $10million rather than have their unscrupulous behavior see the light of day.

Lots of my friends and family insist that my “boycott” of the NFL is meaningless. Indeed, data suggest that NFL viewership is at an all time high. But, I don’t boycott with the idea of hurting a multi-billion dollar industry. I boycott because my conscience will not let me enjoy a game that reflects a willful indifference to the suffering of Black people. When Botham Jean, a 26-year-old Black man accountant was shot and killed by an off-duty White woman police officer (Amber Guyger) his mother asked the Dallas Cowboys to honor her son at a game the Sunday after Guyger’s trial by conducting a silent protest. The team refused!

The latest insult came this week as the NFL playoffs got underway. As is true every year, unsuccessful teams decided whether or not to keep or fire their coaches. They call it the “coaching carousel.” In 2003 the NFL instituted the “Rooney Rule” (named after Dan Rooney, former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers). This rule requires a team looking for a head coach or senior football operations personnel to interview at least one ethnic minority candidate before extending an offer for a job. This rule is not affirmative action. There is no quota of ethnic minority candidates to be hired. Teams are just required to offer an interview to a candidate of color.

The coaches that were recently hired included a veteran coach (Mike McCarthy, former Green Bay Packers Coach hired by Dallas Cowboys), the Carolina Panthers hired Matt Rhule, a former college coach who has never coached at the professional level and the New York Giants hired Joe Judge, the former New England Patriots wide receiver and special teams coach. He has never been an offensive or defensive coordinator—jobs that seem to be prerequisite positions that Black candidates must have. It is also important to point out the work former coaches like Tony Dungy did to build a pipeline of Black coaches—Herm Edwards, Lovie Smith, Jim Caldwell, Mike Tomlin, and Leslie Frazier. We know there are and were successful Black coaches—Ray Rhodes, Dennis Green, Marvin Lewis, and Doug Williams to name a few.

The NFL is 70-75% Black but somehow Black coaches are not seen as cable of coaching them. It is virtually a plantation system and I cannot bring myself to support it. Some might claim I’m being hypocritical by supporting college football on the one hand but boycotting the NFL. The big difference for me is that college football at least offers the promise of an education (whether student-athletes complete their degrees or not). The NFL can be a lucrative career but the average tenure of an NFL player is 3.3 years (not as long as a collegiate who plays out his full eligibility). Contrast that with the tenure of NBA players. The average NBA player will make $24.7 million in his career. That is based on an average salary of $5.2 million and an average career length of 4.8 years and is $18.6 million more than the career earnings for the average NFL player ($6.1 million) (https://www.businessinsider.com/chart-the-average-nba-player-will-make-lot-more-in-his-career-than-the-other-major-sports-2013-10).

I realize I am missing out on all of the fun and trash talking that accompanies the NFL season. I am missing out on sensational plays and dazzling runs, hits, throws, and catches. But, I put my head down on my pillow each night with a clear conscience. I just can’t with the NFL!

Stay Black & Smart!