Angelina Jolie is the “new” black these days. From making Africa her new crusade to adopting an African daughter and talking about racial harmony on CNN, Jolie’s so-called altruism is her way to profit from the image of blackness. The new black is also white actors like Jolie in blackface. Jolie is currently starring in the biopic A Mighty Heart as Mariane Pearl, the widow of murdered Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl. Jolie is white, and the real Mariane Pearl is of mixed heritage. (According to news reports, her father is Dutch-Jewish and her mother was Cuban-black-Hispanic-Chinese.) In the film, Jolie’s skin is darkened to appear more African and she is wearing a kinky wig.
Some people argue that since Pearl is of mixed heritage and not dark-skinned, Jolie is acceptable in the role. However, the symbolism of blackface is not about whether a white actor takes on a dark skin tone or light. It is the implicit message being sent that black women in Hollywood–which is slow to capitalize on the bankable quality of black female stars–can be replaced by white women. This certainly isn’t because of a lack of talent.
Movies aren’t just entertainment. There are cultural values embedded in the subtext of films. Movie stars are mythologies of hierarchy created by publicists, studios, and news media. The social constructions of the star-system archetype arose from the days of slavery. Hollywood’s consistent message is that black women are less profitable than white women. The standard by which North American women of all races are measured is the white female: feminine, beautiful, fragile, and perfect. By contrast, Queen Latifah’s mammy performance in the 2002 film Chicago as Matron Mama Morton and her 2003 Bringing Down the House role portray black women as aggressive, hostile, and unattractive.
The last major dramatic film for a black actress was the interracial drama Monster’s Ball. Although Halle Berry won an Oscar, it was degrading: Berry’s character, Leticia Musgrove, was depicted as sexually loose, the aggressor in the interracial sex scene, with the line “Make me feel good” delivered with a sneer. Such scenes shattered some of the respect the black community had for Berry. By contrast in A Mighty Heart, Angelina Jolie’s character is a pillar of strength, a woman demanding to know what happened to her husband. Since Hollywood is concerned about maximizing its profits, movies must be palatable to a mass market. Jolie was cast as A Mighty Heart’s female lead because she is considered an international draw, not for racial accuracy.
Black feminist bell hooks points out in Outlaw Culture, her groundbreaking book on films in pop culture, that we are controlled by a “White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy”. Hooks believes we must be “enlightened witnesses” and be cognizant that we are conditioned to accept whiteness as the centre of the universe. Black women have a long history of being typecast in film primarily as sex objects or maids. A Mighty Heart was the chance for a black actress to shine in a film that showcased the female lead as a three-dimensional person with complex emotions.
A more serious issue is the paucity of leading roles for black women in Hollywood. A Mighty Heart also tackles the rarely portrayed interracial relationship, in this case an interracial marriage between a black woman and a white man. Jolie’s presence in the film is a hindrance as it obscures and ultimately eliminates the real Mariane Pearl altogether. (Women have also asked why Mariane Pearl would allow a white woman to take the female lead in A Mighty Heart.)
Jolie consistently portrays herself as a Hollywood liberal who is against racism. Yet her superficial insensitivity to the plight of black women suggests an unwillingness to be challenged about her own values. What will she teach her daughter about white cultural domination?