Currently, we have the curious cases of singer Katy Perry and filmmaker Woody Allen. While in observation of their work, for the audience members that are of color, if they were to be honest with themselves, they likely do not view or distinguish the two as full out racists. However, they might have been viewed as possibly careless when it comes to how they have interjected attributes and gifts from other cultures, or in Allen’s case, a lack of their physical presence.
In representing two aspects of celebrities culture–fandom and legacy–they are the latest names placed under the pop culture telescope for behaving badly. Neither Perry or Allen saw their turn coming and since both had proceeded for so long in doing as they please, when asked upfront about the realities of their decisions (Perry’s fondness of culture juxtaposition; virtually no black actors in Allen’s films), while yes sometimes our attempts to right the wrong leads down a path of heightened sensitivity, both responded meek and felt shoved into a corner for unfortunately being so unaware of the new societal consequences.
Katy Perry is the Miley Cyrus of 2014 as after the soaring success of last year’s “Roar”, when she got around to dropping the video for the fan favorite and trippy sounding “Dark Horse”, the Eypgtian-themed video was met with disapproval. For what could have been a short film of noir and romance, Perry chose to take her faithful slapstick approach and it may had been the first time in her career that she was largely accused of cultural appropriation. This term of the utterly plagued Cyrus in 2013 and wouldn’t leave her side like a stubborn cold, it almost didn’t matter what she did. The same is happening to Perry and she somehow always manages to perpetuate appropriation by accident or through the sake of being a free spirit (whereas Cyrus, was to an extent, trying to get your attention, even if by reckless measures). Perry experienced a precursor to the media lashes when she performed “Unconditionally” at the 2013 American Music Awards and her set was a geisha-inspired tale, which many voiced concerns about very quickly online minutes after it was being over.
Since she’s been on her “Prismatic” tour, the visuals for “This Is How We Do” also off of Prism were released and her blithe take on pop music was now being stamped as fully charged blase. Just in time for the criticism of the latter’s images of Perry wearing baby waves, stylistic cornrows and pursuing her lips as she says “I see you” with an obvious Living Single sass, as part of her cover story with Rolling Stone, she grossly missed the point of why appropriation is fine line away from appreciation. The RS reporter told her doing so was “increasingly uncool” and she exclaimed disappointment. Furthermore, concerning the generously rotund mummy dancers on her Prismatic tour, which was first noticed by online writers and they accused her of possibly lampooning the bodies of black women, she had this to say:
“As far as the mummy thing, I based it on plastic surgery. Look at someone like Kim Kardashian or Ice-T’s wife, Coco. Those girls aren’t African-American. But it’s actually a representation of our culture wanting to be plastic, and that’s why there’s bandages and it’s mummies. I thought that would really correlate well together… It came from an honest place. If there was any inkling of anything bad, then it wouldn’t be there, because I’m very sensitive to people”.
Perry’s intentions were well-intended, as they often are. It’s been a rhetoric of hers to use comedy and pretty things that conjure happy thoughts in her imagery, but this sudden turn for social commentary? While a great challenge, transpired as under-educated. “Those girls aren’t African-American”? What is African-American Katy Perry? Let’s say Perry did do her homework and came across the legend of the Hottentot Venus. Her mummies resembled just that on stage: relatively average bodies but with such a bodacious backside and often extremely wide hips to the point that the figure appears almost lopsided, thus subjected to pure amusement by voyeuers. A comment like the one Perry tried to profoundly make is a problem because she didn’t just say or imply that Kardashian or Coco possibly had work done to look how they desired. She made a big assumption that only black woman look like that, so these ladies are trying in some to emulate a black woman’s body and because of that they resorted to plastic surgery to look so, or others have followed their example. Ms. Perry , not all black woman are shaped the same despite what rappers you met might have told you or implied in the videos you’ve seen. Black woman come in just as many shapes and sizes as anybody. Considering she’s in the music industry, she’s likely come across a video vixen or two and has performed with Nicki Minaj for VH1 Divas who’s just as ample as Kim and Coco, but funny how she didn’t use Minaj as an example because according to her, the new connoisseur of what is African-American, she’s supposed to look like that. Kardashian and Coco aren’t. It just translates as a little cut and dry on what according to her how people of different racial backgrounds look, compared to white girls or whoever. Even when she appropriates, it becomes overly convoluted because she speaks on subjects she’s only half-taught on. Perry isn’t the only one that believes what she said, but this why this open door policy on discussing black people and black women without an actual black person present is not okay, not to mention the inward issue that black woman face in the black community if they aren’t overtly curvaceous, which Perry has no idea about it.
Otherwise, Perry hasn’t had much issues with black people since her pop stardom. A lot of young black people actually enjoy her music and know the lyrics to some of her biggest hits as much as the next Taylor Swift fan. Her collaborations with Juicy J on “Dark Horse”, Snoop Dogg on “California Gurls” and Kanye West on the “E.T.” remix did not seem coerced, Jay Z has a penchant for rhyming her name in his verses, and radio shock jockey of New York’s The Breakfast Club on Power 105, Charlamagne Tha God has dubbed her a “white Nubian queen”. Anyone can come to appreciate Perry’s campy appeal, but for whatever reasons her choices lately have all lined up one after the other as “really?”
This accusations have met pop stars before. As much as we love Madonna today, her performance at the 1998 Video Music Awards on MTV rubbed some of the Kabbalah and ethereal faith the wrong way. Gwen Stefani had four Japanese girls parade around her during her solo era, which was supposed to be in homage to the Tokyo’s Harajuku Girls, but comedienne Margaret Cho did not care for the fact they did not speak and somewhat behaved like minions. And yes, virtually every white rapper that tried to break the wall of “No Whites Allowed” in hip-hop. Black bloggers and online writers caught on to Katy Perry’s likeness of unintentional appropriation almost a year exact to the torpedo of Miley Cyrus’ growing pains of moving on as a Disney channel star to boundary pushing pop act. Cyrus embraced the juxtaposition of Southern hip-hop with a Beverly Hills budget and so many think pieces about Cyrus were written, an anthology could’ve been created. What is happening is another round of what Greg Tate referred to as and even named his research book after as Caucasians carrying Everything But the Burden.
Joining Perry in the Racial Politics Olympics, renowned and controversial filmmaker Woody Allen made headlines from his new New York Observer profile. In his interview, he was asked bluntly about the lack of black actors in his film which for anyone aware of Allen’s work is an inescapable fact.
In passing by the Angelika Theatre in New York’s Soho neighborhood some weeks ago, I stopped by the poster for his latest film, Fading Gigolo. The lead actor John Turturro and Allen were featured and above them written was the entire cast. I sped read the roster and once again I said to them, “Again? No black people?” I quickly shook my head and walked on. Maybe next time, I said, and I rolled my eyes.
Personally, I do like Woody Allen’s films. His written odes to East Coast neurosis and the layers of love versus lust and hate in relationships, romantic and platonic, are uniquely expressed. I’ve enjoyed Anything Else, Annie Hall, Match Point, and Mighty Aphrodite. Allen has also been praised for writing some of film’s most memorable and smart female characters, with some actresses winning their first Oscar based on his scripts. Yet despite all of his accolades for his contributions to film, vary rarely are actors of color hired and he even caught much flak for featuring no black people in the Broadway adaptation of his Bullets Over Broadway, which takes place during the Harlem Renaissance and includes the famed Cotton Club (a notable place of integration in the 1920s). Recently, only one black actor on record has had a featured role in an Allen flick which was Chiwetel Ejiofer (of 12 Years a Slave fame today)in his smaller production of Melinda and Melinda. When asked by the Observer‘s Roger Friedman as to why there have been barely any black actors, Allen responded dumbfounded:
Not unless I write a story that requires it. You don’t hire people based on race. You hire people based on who is correct for the part. The implication is that I’m deliberately not hiring black actors, which is stupid. I cast only what’s right for the part. Race, friendship means nothing to me except who is right for the part.”
Sigh. Allen’s comments are supremely disappointing because as far as he’s concerned, audiences still won’t see a Viola Davis, Denzel Washington, Kerry Washington, or Thandie Newton in his work which is unfortunate. While he has been kinder to lighter-skinned actors of Latino or Spaniard descent like Sofia Vergara, Penelope Cruz (she won an Oscar for starring in Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Javier Bardem and Antonio Banderas and did cast the Indian actress Frieda Pinto, actors of color are very few and far between, and despite being controversially married to Soon-Yi, there definitely haven’t been any other Asian actors as well.
The average black film-goer despite these reports aren’t losing sleep over the lack of black actors from this director and have probably seen a film of his or two, but Allen’s scripts are admirably nuanced and fun, and for any actor it is a dream to be an Allen film. His afterthoughts splashed onto paper are witty and true to urban life, and urban in the traditional sense of a metropolitan background. Yet he will always lose points for his lack of diversity. For someone who is so representative of New York, the deemed melting pot of America, because there are hardly any black actors, it just seems indiscreet. While not quite reaching derelict levels, it is forever disappointing.
For some months now, the Bronx-born filmmaker has had other issues to defend as his career earned him a Golden Globe lifetime achievement award at this year’s ceremony followed by child abuse accusations from family members, but artistically, he continues to create impressive films as Cate Blanchett won her 2nd Oscar for her role as the title character in Blue Jasmine. Some people are yearning to see black actors in his film because truthfully the talents of such aforementioned company deserve to be there. Why do Emma Stone, Scarlett Johansson, Josh Brolin and Alec Baldwin get to have all the fun? If Spike Lee, who’s had one of the most intense blame Whitey movements since Nat Turner’s Rebellion, can cast white actors in his film including Brolin and Turturro, when is Allen gonna turn over a new leaf? Clearly his views of New York City or any city in the world as he had done films based in London and Spain are narrow-minded, and for a cultured man, he doesn’t come across as such as a person. Racist vibes do not exude from him in interviews(normally) , so why so negligent in his actor choices? There’s no need to be obnoxiously diverse, but wouldn’t Denzel had been wonderful if he was in a Midnight in Paris? How about if he was the lead in Fading Gigolo? Allen went on to say to Friedman:
I’m friendly with Spike Lee. We don’t socialize, but I don’t socialize with anyone. I don’t have white friends either.
Perry and Allen are not racists and no one is necessarily claiming they are (or at least this writer isn’t). However, they are guilty of being negligent to what the finished results of their work means to an audience that is broader than what their outward appearance may suggest. As artists, they both have a target market and are likely aware of that, but when that market is based on urban cities and personalities, or borrows from the persona or distinctive culture of another, it means a lot to pay it forward to the people that have inspired you or at the very least deserve better in your work.