Black Bankability

Alyssa muses on the deeper meaning behind Beyonce’s and Willow Smith’s respective remakes of A Star Is Born and Annie:

These are stories that originate not just with white stars, but from within particular kinds of whiteness. Annie starts out as an urban, white ethnic orphan who ends up rescued by a titan of American industry—and who ultimately becomes a symbol of American innocence threatened by crime despite her coming-up in rougher environs. In the original version of A Star Is Born, Vicki Lester is from one of the whitest parts of the country, North Dakota, and she retains a kind of Midwestern womanly purity even when she becomes a star, something she almost gives up to devote herself to her husband, a devotion that precipitates his suicide.

It seems almost fitting that the progression of these eternal American stories would eventually expand to include black women. We live in a world where African American women have only won acting Academy Awards for playing a prisoner’s wife, a slave, a con-artist medium, a woman who becomes a star only after she has to take a fall into single motherhood, and a hideously abusive mother. Annie and A Star Is Born are much less complex stories than either of those roles. But maybe equality means not having to struggle against the burdens of history on-screen, just to embody a straight trajectory towards victory on the virtue of good nature that knows no color.

While I do think that equality should mean black actresses get recognized for taking on roles that don’t rely on a uniquely “black” (and often negative) background, I don’t think Beyonce or Smith’s new films signal that at all.

Barbra Streisand’s remake of A Star Is Born — with her Brooklyn Jew background — didn’t mean anything for other Jewish actresses. Streisand was simply a huge star pursuing a vanity project. For that matter, it was all about a comeback for Judy Garland, whose star was waning when she did a remake of the 1937 version. And Garland was about as far from midwestern purity as possible — she’d grown up in Hollywood. Today, Beyonce Knowles is the biggest star in the world, and this, like Dreamgirls, is her attempt to become an actress who gets taken seriously. It’s just another vanity project, backed by studio execs who know that the combination of Knowles and Clint Eastwood will pull in millions.

As an aside: I wouldn’t even categorize Knowles as a “black actress” (when I think of younger black actresses, women who have been toiling for years with a breakthrough here and there, I think of Kimberly Elise, Teraji P. Henson, Nia Long, Kerry Washington, etc). She’s just a huge star, though her blackness will probably bring some novelty to the film.

Similarly, Willow Smith is literally the most famous person her age in the country. I can’t think of any other nine-year-olds who could play Annie. It’s likely that the film chosen was an afterthought — it’s merely the vehicle that will deliver Smith to more people. It just makes sense to put her in an iconic role that lots of kids already know; and again, with there being a slight novelty that she’s black.

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