Are there enough mixed-race movie characters to merit a book about them?

It’s time to revise the brand and meaning of Wright’s Words; part of this entails changing the raison d’être for this blog. I’ve been wondering about the increase in racially ambiguous characters on-screen for some years; presumably they are mixed-race; why has almost no one written a book about their roles and presence in film history? Finally an opportunity arose that made me wonder whether I should stop waiting for that, and begin to write it, instead.

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There are a number of bi- and multi-racial characters in movies; The characters may not mention it, nor might the story. In 1992’s One False Move the female lead Lila/Fantasia is mixed Anglo and black. In 1990’s Q & A Hutton’s long-lost girlfriend, Nancy Bosch, is black and Hispanic. In 1971’s Billy Jack the eponymous character is Anglo and Native.

The politics of identity are fascinating and multifaceted, and in films those are magnified to a point beyond the screen’s size. One question: Just because the person is light-skinned, are they mixed? And no matter the reality, do they identify that way?

Maybe the answer to this and other equally provocative questions this calls for a book proposal? One book, Mixed Race Hollywood exists, but that title is a misnomer.

Is it Wonder Woman vs. Hollywood (and the men who run it)?

Wonder Woman. The movie. Finally. People have been talking about it and the politics of it production for many months and then some.

This is a case where the movies marry feminism, and the 2010s feminist zeitgeist has a role; Katniss Everdeen became a heroic movie icon (although not on-purpose), Sheryl Sandberg exhorted career women to Lean In, and Emma Watson, as a Goodwill Ambassador for UN Women, launched the He For She initiative with a memorable speech.

The righteous Wonder Woman!

The righteous Wonder Woman!

That’s not all; if you paid attention to C-Span (yeah, that’s probably a stretch) then you saw the book discussion in November about Wonder Woman, called The Secret History of Wonder Woman, and the man who created her, William M. Marston! Yep. A woman didn’t birth her. But one, Jill Lepore, wrote that book.

Got your attention? Without reporting on or monitoring the following the news of the film’s production, and the inevitable politics, it’s hard to avoid comment when the bias and even misogyny are clear, and clearly backward in this era.

According to Scott Mendelsohn’s piece in Forbes magazine, Move Over Katniss, Wonder Women Can be the Feminist Superhero We Crave, as exemplary and charismatic as Katniss Everdeen is, girls and women deserve an iconic hero who is one because she chooses to be one. Girls and women deserve an on-purpose-hero. He makes valid and provocative points.

And Wonder Woman is that action hero. It’s strange though that, Lynda Carter is the lone woman to have brought her to live-action life. Unless Millennial women dig vintage TV shows, they may have heard of her Wonder Woman, but not yet watched her. Clearly she belongs on a big screen!

Men run Hollywood. For some reason there’s been no Wonder Woman on-screen since Lynda Carter’s left in 1979. Men don’t want to see her? Are female production chiefs afraid to explicitly support female-led films? The politics and machinations behind gender equity are often complex and confusing.

It’s hard to understand why they would say no. But sometimes its easy to forget how fragile men’s often large egos can be. Are the men who run Hollywood timid or insecure about or afraid to see self-sufficient women leading their own lives? You have to deduce that the answer is “yes”.


From the point of view of a male feminist, who believes that stories about full-faceted females are welcome, and too few and far between, the image of Wonder Woman vs. Hollywood connotes a dissonance.

A great story is a great story. If it provides girls and women with or reminds them of a high-profile superhero and a mentality and framework where they see themselves as being equally as capable as boys and men, that’s good. If they don’t need to shrink from or hide their wits or other virtues in order to comfort men then what, then it’s a success. Yes?

Comic books and the movies about them seem to be littered with kick-ass and bad-ass heros. They are overwhelmingly male. What about the idea of women having female role models on a big screen threatens men’s senses of self; the idea that women mustn’t have one candidly feminist superhero to themselves; one that’s known nation-wide and even world-wide?

Well, Patty Jenkins, who directed a disparate and indelible film, Monster, will bring Wonder Woman to a cineplex, soon…

The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, and Japan’s Miss Universe reveal biracial realities

Thanks in part to the changing of the guard at The Daily Show, biracial experiences and related politics have made headlines, and snuck into our minds. South African, Trevor Noah, once a correspondent for The Daily Show, has been named to host it, succeeding Jon Stewart. His immediate family tree seems about as strange to Americans as Senator Obama’s did when he began running for president; Mr. Noah’s mom is a Xhosa South African and his father Swiss.

But his mixed heritage is not the only one being discussed. If you pay attention to headlines about mixed race folks (who doesn’t, right?) then you’ve felt shockwaves from Japan’s Miss Universe contestant.

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Miyamoto-san stuns her native Japan by winning its Miss Universe pageant.


Clearly she’s Japanese. And to them she clearly isn’t; Ariana Miyamoto’s dad is a black American serviceman and her mom Japanese. She was born is Japan, resides near Nagasaki, and speaks native Japanese. Their word for mixed is hafu.

That’s not enough for the most vocal Japanese some of whom wince at the image of her representing the country in the pageant. While her skin seems fairer than Alicia Keys’, some Japanese call her dark-skinned.

It’s amazing how much a different oceanic boarder changes your perception of both color and culture.

Not looking the way you’re supposed to has been a matter of fact and of life for America’s mixed-race folks, and a thorn in the side of Americans for who knows how many generations. Mixed-race people are often told “you’re not____________ enough” or “you don’t look ____________”.

Just like there’s no one way to be black in America, because there are too many kinds of black people and black families here, there is no one way to be mixed or biracial. For example, being South African and Swiss, Mr. Noah jokes about watching a marathon of black movies on the plane from Johannesburg to New York City. He was eager to know black culture and fit in – But soon after arriving he was mistaken for Hispanic.

Hey, when American eyes find your racial features vague…

Jon Stewart teases Trevor Noah's tired joke until...

Jon Stewart teases Trevor Noah’s tired joke until…

Miyamoto-san occupies a stranger situation because while the US is racially diverse, Japan is not. And it has made it clear to her that it likes it Japanness that way; that is fair-skinned.

Americans concentrate on the starkest contrast among America’s ethnic mixes; the binary of black-American and white-. Obviously, that’s the most dramatic. It carries the biggest taboo. Mr. Noah shows us that isn’t the only black-and-white combination; Swiss culture is very different from and much older than American; and the black South African experience of bigotry is different from black Americans’ under slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow.

Ms. Miyamoto shows us that less common mixture, between a Japanese and a black American. But she was not born America. Instead she was raised in her native Japan. The difference: Japan is far less diverse.

As Trevor Noah’s individual story makes clear, when you’re made to believe that you have nothing to lose, you feel comfortable pushing boundaries put others off. He and Ms. Miyamoto are both public people and, given how eager TV shows and movies are to leave racial ambiguities well…ambiguous, their respective notoriety might move the needle of acceptance and candid conversation closer to something which progressive minds would call progress.

In April provocateurs Marvin Gaye and Gil Scott-Heron were born

Two extraordinary musical artists were born this week in history within a day of each other, and helped to disrupt and define ways of being black in America, and ways for others to understand them. On April 1, Gill Scott-Heron was born in 1949. And on April 2nd Marvin Gay was born 10 years prior in 1939.

Marvin_Gaye_1966More than 20-years-ago Henry L. Gates wrote a compilation of essays called Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, about the many ways in which you can see and understand black men. Messrs Gaye and Scott-Heron were omitted, though without malice. You could say that if he omitted them via his editorial scalpel, then of course, so might the dominant media. And that may show the extent to which those artists’ provocativeness was a thorn in the establishment’s collective butt. (And probably remains so.)

Not withstanding that book, you probably know Marvin Gaye. If not by his name, Mr. Gaye is surely known by his beats and words. His music: you know about Sexual Healing, Mercy, Mercy Me, What’s Going On, and a dozen others.

Michael Eric Dyson’s book Mercy Mercy Me: The Art, Loves and Demons of Marvin Gaye describes Gaye as someone “…who transcended the boundaries of rhythm and blues as no other performer had done before.” That is sufficient reason to push your play list beyond his greatest hits, and thusly expand your knowledge of his craft and consciousness.

And, while lots of people have heard that the revolution will not be televised, they probably struggle to name who said that, and the consciousness behind it. While disputable Gil Scott-Heron’s riff about Black History is more pithy, more incisive, and more provocative than the one about the revolution will not be televised. It’s more lyrical in its poetry than the other.

Here is video of that lesser-known one, which might be new to Marvin Gaye’s fans:

This week with the opportunity to commemorate Messrs Gaye and Scott-Heron’s meaning and messages, the main regret is that those who buy into the charms of the dominant media arguably need those artists’ insights most urgently, and don’t know or appreciate their most provocative works.

It’s a politico-cultural crisis that black Americans, men in particular, are known to the Americans masses by the lowest common on-screen denominator: the stereotype. But Marvin Gaye and Gil Scott-Heron, and their crafts and consciousnesses, stand well beyond those obvious stereotypes and even the less obvious ones.

How does the centennial of The Birth of a Nation show in 2010s media and other biases?

This year marks the centennial of David Wark (D.W.) Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation. If you’ve heard of it and you don’t have grey hair then while the story is vague in your mind the bigotry is not. The primitiveness of Mr. Griffith’s masterpiece storytelling is as obvious to Millennial viewers as is its odeous bigotry; it represents a problematic page in our nation’s history of entertainment, and artistic innovation, marking American culture as much as it reflected it.

That problem from 1915 and its relevance in 2015 raises a question: How much of American culture, America’s capacity to embrace all has changed when the same bigotry and message expressed in 1915 seems to be shown and repeated in 2015? The last two years of police and zealous civilian attacks on unarmed black Americans in Sanford, FL, Ferguson, MO, Long Island, NY, and a seeming lynching in Mississippi, as well as locations that are far less publicized, presses Americans to ask some questions.


A scene from “The Birth of a Nation”.


In the Millennial era when content is beamed into homes and onto smart phones, which resemble science fiction magic 100-years-ago, the film’s aesthetics are bluntly outdated. But, without would have been established movie artistry. The Birth of a Nation did not reflect that actual birth, it effected the birth of a new, powerful medium; it established the elements of film style.

Movies rarely mark America’s culture; most of them are forgettable, which is a waste; and fodder for a separate essay. Movies rarely mark or reflect America’s history. Movies rarely affect how America sees itself or is seen either within its borders or without. National Public Radio ran a piece commemorating the centennial, which makes its own contemporary comparisons.

The Birth of a Nation changed that. Film students and work-a-day movie geeks grab bragging rights by discussing the manner in which Citizen Kane marked a artistic mile stone. But if that marked a mile then The Birth of a Nation was the first mile & first paved road at once: it was the first feature length film, before that film there was no such thing as a close-up shot, or a transition between scenes, or shooting scenes with more than one camera, and other grammatical elements that movie goers take for granted.

That is why as much as Mr. Griffith’s hateful message churns people’s stomachs, cinephiles have not choice but to hold their noses while they praise his technical and artistic talent. As embarrassed as your Millennial mind may be by how this era responds to the 19th century limits to the techniques and technology it’s amazing to consider that movies were born when horses and buggies were the norm for personal and public transportation.

So in 2015 how shocking is it to see news headlines about a streak of violence that seems to harken to the 1910s when Americans were stricken sad but not surprised by it? According to various polls that viewers will see used on TV newscasts most Americans cannot see themselves as bigots and cannot see their own bigotry. Clearly American culture has a sort of identity crisis. It is probably a compound crisis. A piece from Deadline reflects that.

Too few Americans are confident, humble, introspective enough to confront simple questions without intimidating people or stepping on toes, much less those questions which try men’s souls. The hardest question: How much progress has America made against bigots in the 100 years since the film wrote America’s history in lightning?

Wright’s Words doesn’t exist in order to incite or stir anger. But when you consider the centennial of a film that reflects one person’s notion of social justice you expect to smile or even grin at the progress that has come. And yet, as with the opening voice over to Casablanca, “we wait, and wait, and wait,…”.

How the Irish Became White just in time for St. Paddy’s Day.

If you’re progressive enough then you wonder how the Irish American became “white”. They suffered about as much bigotry after they fled Ireland’s potato famine in 1847 and later, as black Americans did and after the Civil War were considered about as dirty as blacks.

When you imagine Irish or Irish Americans, you picture Michael Collins, literature, Roddy Doyle novels, the Potato Famine, Catholicism, drinking, or Good Will Hunting. You picture white Irish drinkers. The typical thumbnail for Irish. And a stereotype. There’s even a movie by that title; it’s remarkable and more profound with its wit than Good Will.

Guinness_Storehouse_St._Patrick's_Day_signIn rare moments you may think of the black Irish, which surprisingly has nothing to do with blacks or blackness as Americans understand them; But instead them mixing with the Spanish. If Spaniards, who are fair-skinned, are considered black in comparison to them then, oh my, what would they call an African Irish mix?

As “white” as the Irish-Americans are today, as American immigrants they were anything but: Noel Ignatiev wrote about How the Irish Became White describes, in its second chapter, the common trials and tribulations of them and blacks. They were the most expendable of America’s workforce, and occupied arguably equal pegs on the totem of American power.

Here’s a teasing excerpt from that book about their collective coziness.

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 1.34.18 PM ran a piece by Noel Ignatiev, author of the book, mysteriously without acknowledging that it was an excerpt from his book. This leaves a seductive question open: when is “white” not white in America?

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day. But consider that Irishness or Irish-Americanness is less simple than most folks are happy to believe.

Is Cookie Lyons and her “Empire” making women’s history this month?

March marks Women’s History Month. Wright’s Words usually concentrate on movie matters. But who’s ignoring Cookie Lyon from Fox’s Empire? You could opine about the character, its meaning and substance, and attack it. But, with more content than ever on more screens of every kind, if you remember any character these days, then that actor (and the writers) have done something right!

Why is Cookie important to Women’s History Month? Well, let’s pose a different question or rather remind you of one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s truisms: Well-behaved women rarely make history.


Taraji Henson’s is that kind of character. Her Cookie Lyons is not forgettable: She leaves an impression, and commands attention. Ms. Henson’s interpretation and portrayal of her might well be historical, making it easier and more likely that similarly lived-out-loud characters will be created for women.

Women want equality, and don’t want to have to fight for it. But since they do, presumably they appreciate seeing Cookie Lyons. She’s a singular character; hers is not the skin many women feel comfortable wearing. Instead, as Desmond Llewellyn, who played Q in the first James Bond movies, said “he’s the kind of man every man wants to be but knows damned well he can’t”! Well, Cookie’s the kind… you get the point.

Cookie provides a hero and catharsis for those who know that discomfort. In some ways she conveys a strength that rivals that of men. No. Perseverance. Very few such characters are found in movies, especially not in middle-aged women. She exemplifies a fully drawn character, which every actor wants to play, but women in particular.

An example

If Cookie doesn’t embody that virtue, even if not virtuously, then what female character does? You may not love her character. But you love to watch her.

The best known such characters in movies may be Thelma & Louise in 1991. But if you’re too young to remember and revere their story arc, then maybe Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady in 2011 is recent and relevant enough. Prime Minister Thatcher’s story also informs young viewers, especially females, of how much harder the realms of politics and business were for females two generations ago, and how negotiated between them. A more recent, better known but less apt example is Ree Dolly from Winter’s Bone, which was a brilliant break out indie film from 2010. If that’s new to you, then look it up. she’s a great character with a great story.

As someone who finds women’s stories as interesting as men’s even if it’s because of the novelty, it’s disappointing to see characters as distinct as Cookie seldomly. But, in appreciate women’s history, it’s vital to likewise appreciate those who make it on-screen, by comforting & exciting some as well as discomforting others.