Oh boy. It must be Oscar season. Daily newspapers are publishing profile articles that show the difficult imaginative off-camera work that actors put into big-budget Hollywood productions. That means we can expect a menagerie of the fucked-up fantasies actors have to live out in order to get themselves into character. And in a season with at least two films pertaining to slavery, it would seem that people seeking Oscar buzz are saying too much. And ya know, sometimes I just like to sit back and listen to see what kind of shit comes out of their mouths.
Being Calvin Candie"[T]he world has more than one way of keeping you a nigger, has evolved more than one way of skinning the cat..."--James Baldwin, No Name in the Street
Kerry Washington and Leonardo DiCaprio have been held up as models of actorly commitment to craft for their recent work in Django Unchained.
For the moment, let's consider DiCaprio, who reportedly cut his hand while the camera was rolling and kept going with the take. Anyone who has studied introductory acting in the USA recognizes this as an example of something that the guru of American realistic acting, Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski, would have called "living the part." It's almost exactly like a moment in Stanislavski's first English translation, An Actor Prepares, when the actor (accidentally) transforms his physical discomfort (the heat from the stage lights, the heaviness of his robes, etc.) and says his lines more truthfully than he did before. "Living the part" was, for Stanislavski, "the highest form of acting," the moment when the actor (the person playing the character) responds to real, genuinely felt impulses and transforms those impulses to do something that serves the goals of the character. It's not that DiCaprio's cut hand substituted for his work in developing the part, but it might have helped him go a little more ballistic and his willingness to just go with it might have helped him reach the ballistic pitch called for in the moment.
In this same vein, then, DiCaprio also let Samuel L. Jackson cuss at him to act more like a slave master because, as Jackson reportedly said about having to endure racism and the repetition of the epithet "nigger," "this is just another Tuesday for us." Jackson reportedly said this to DiCaprio to encourage him to really invest his energies in a role (Calvin Candie) that DiCaprio reportedly found abhorrent to play. Jackson was there for DiCaprio-- and, as film critic Armond White points out, for Quentin Tarentino-- in a way not so different from the way that his character, Stephen, was there for DiCaprio's: getting him to treat Black people like "niggers," and giving DiCaprio the license and support he needed. Imagine a world in which a Black person says to a white person, "Please, pleeease call me 'nigger!'"-- and remember, as Baldwin said, that this can happen in multiple ways-- and you've just thought of what a Black actor goes through on "just another Tuesday" working in a play or film telling the story of Black life and history in slavery. That is, in fact, considered a basic professional courtesy that a generous actor just does if she or he is acting opposite a white person who says things like "Buddy, I’m having a tough time with these words," as DiCaprio reportedly said. It's just what a "good actor" does. And, again, to push Armond White's point just a little further, it's also what a good house slave did. Be sure to notice, of course, that a cut hand is probably not a routine occurrence for DiCaprio, whereas being called "nigger" is such a defining aspect of Black life (circa 1858 and circa 2013) as to be "just another Tuesday" for Jackson.
And then there's Washington, who actually subjected herself to torture to such an extent that she feared for her sanity if the shoot had gone any longer than it did and, as it was, had to take the unusual move of bringing her family to the set just to get through the whole ordeal.
Now, I can't claim any insider knowledge of the Django set (although I invite actors and others to speak up about what goes on). But, speaking as a Black person who has worked professionally as an actor, I can say that Washington's willing subjection to beatings and other forms of torture in preparation for playing Broomhilda are examples of how the professional/artistic ethic of psychologically realist acting works. It is a mode of control that social theorists have called disciplining. We'll say more about that in a moment. Stay tuned...
The Only Good Actor Is a Disciplined Actor"Being a body that desires to be seen, the black body lives on a fine line between Absence and orchestrated Presence. …Since its problem is that it exists, its efforts to justify its existence always miss their mark."— Lewis Gordon, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism
Now, I don't give a shit about the outcome of the Oscar race. What I do care about during Oscar season are these kinds of revealing off-camera profiles. Oscar season is a moment when corporate media outlets are spewing these kinds of profiles left and right. Why? Probably because the Oscars are a horse race. No, of course, actors are not horses. The work of actors is much more subjective to judge than simply observing whose nose crossed the finish line first. But observers of the Oscar race are invested in who wins to such a degree that they have little regard for the physical or psychological health or ethical integrity of those doing the work to get the win. People speak less guardedly when at the tracks, and, in the Oscar race, people divulge details about how actors work, showing that most actors do in fact work very hard. A common saying among actors goes, "The worst insult someone can give you is to tell you that you did a good job of acting." That's because acting is supposed to just look like being. If you look like you're acting, you probably need to keep doing (practicing) it until it looks seamlessly like being.
These backstage/off-screen profiles show how much doing goes into being without distracting from the illusion that what happens on screen is "real." Even the master illusionist Hollywood apparatus can afford to share little off-camera peeks at how it "makes the magic." Details that might otherwise be restricted to trade journals show up in the LA Times. Stoking interest in the horse race-- I mean Oscar race-- media outlets encourage us to think about actors as being more than just bodies. They appear as intellectual, learned, inspired, disciplined.
"Good actors" are "disciplined" actors, and for Black actors this rule is no exception. But--and this is a big but-- when you're expected to play a slave-- a nonbeing, a "nigger"-- the stakes of doing the things that help you create a being (a character) are quite different from the stakes that other actors face in building any other kind of character. After all, you are a nonbeing playing a nonbeing and expecting to be recognized as a professional for doing so-- by beings. Gaining that quasi-recognition involves subjecting yourself to modes of discipline because, otherwise, things might get out of control and you might get swallowed up by the role, or perhaps even go all Nat Turnery on that ass.
By "disciplining," I mean that, rather than explicitly punishing you, forcing you, or twisting your arm into doing something as extreme as Washington does, the protocols of professionalism routinely instruct Black actors to do this same type of thing as a model of what it is to be a "good actor." And you can't say anyone put a gun to your head and told you, "Let me whip you and lock you in a box, or else!" if you are the one who asked them "Will you please help me get into this role by calling me a 'nigger' with your mouth and your whip and your chains and your locks and your body language--on camera and off camera?" in the first place.
That's what "disciplining" means in Michel Foucault's sense of the word described in the book Discipline and Punish (1977):
[I]t dissociates power from the body; on the one hand, it turns it into an 'aptitude', a 'capacity', which it seeks to increase; on the other hand, it reverses the course of the energy, the power that might result from it, and turns it into a relation of strict subjection. (Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, NY: Vintage, 1977, p. 138)In other words, the disciplined worker no longer has to be beaten into doing something as in slavery; when "disciplining" is how power operates, the worker just does it so that she can be "good." She feels it adds something to her, say, a certain skill needed in acting, while at the same time it is subjecting her to the uses of powerful institutions, say, like Hollywood.
To speak of "good acting" is to speak regardless of whether it's "good" for you. And that's where Washington's concerns about her sanity become a way of talking about how our day-to-day lived experiences with disciplining mirror the contours of the antiblack paradigm we live in. I mean, why would Washington need to worry about her grip on reality if she didn't have anxiety about how close slavery is to modern-day black life?
In the backstage/off-camera context, this disciplining often bears more than a passing resemblance to slavery. For example, I once worked on a set of a cop show in Los Angeles. A gang of heavily armed off-duty cops (two white, one black) tortured my character and his partner, both of us Black Jamaican drug dealers, and forced them to drink each other’s urine out of the toilet. Between takes, as the producers decided what to do with us, I stood there and watched the three cop actors plus the white, Asian, and Latino grips, camera ops, and others (a few women but mostly men) pointing at my and my partner’s bodies. And then they did it all over again.
Of course, slave masters and overseers back in the day, like teachers, bosses, and prison guards today, knew the same thing Foucault knew: It is easier to use the slave who self-regulates and is intrinsically motivated to "be good" at something than one who has to be punished and forced into doing everything.
What Foucault didn't quite understand was how very adaptable slavery was. Antiblackness is so powerful that not only can it reconstitute slavery after the Emancipation Proclamation and 13th Amendment as sharecropping, convict leasing, wage slavery, and prison slavery; but it can even extend unique and under-appreciated modes of slavery into the coteries of the Black elites, so that even studied, disciplined, acclaimed actors who graduate from college, speak at the Democratic National Convention and star in an ABC series and drive Range Rovers and have Louis Vuitton clothes can be enjoyed like...well, any old slave. (Remember what Malcolm X said about a Black person with a Ph.D.?)
In Washington's case (as with that of Jackson and Foxx), self-regulation is subjection to torture. For Black actors, our on-camera lives as slaves bear much resemblance to our off-camera lives. That's not because we can't get over it or because everybody goes through the same thing; it's because that's still where we as Black people are-- still getting pushed out of jobs and neighborhoods to make room for white people; still getting sodomized, battered, and shot by those who are supposed to "protect and serve"; still getting blown away by civilian white people who deputize themselves to be our overseers, vigilantes who are getting protected by the police. Being well-spoken graduates of competitive higher learning institutions does not relieve us from the demands that the slave estate has for our bodies-- to brutalize, enjoy, experiment on, and destroy our bodies. Dressing in expensive clothing does not render us safe. Walk on the set; you're a slave. Walk off the set; you're still a slave. Asking someone to subject us to slave treatment almost seems redundant, except that we are expected to do it in the name of being "good actors." Torture and discipline, abjection and professionalism go hand in hand.
Actors are taught in acting classes and directed on sets to see behavior like Washington's not as masochistic but, rather, as something that demonstrates an admirable level of "commitment" to the craft. We are taught to aspire to it. And while I've never been instructed explicitly to do what she did, I've often been told, "You know, the really committed actors are able to get over the painful legacy of slavery, imperialism, and genocide and just do the work. Those are the ones who get jobs. Do you want a job?"
"My pride became my affliction. I found myself imprisoned in the stronghold I had built. The day came when I wished to break my silence and found that I could not speak: the actor could no longer be distinguished from his role."--Leo Proudhammer in James Baldwin, Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968)
Most Black actors playing slaves cannot fly their parents to the set and get themselves mentally back in balance. Many Black actors don't have their parents, or any people who help them get back on balance. Most Black actors will play a slave, then turn around, and hit the temp job or a night shift at the diner, if they even have jobs, where their bosses and coworkers routinely treat them...well, you know...like slaves. Much of Black life isn't really balanced. If it ain't one thing, it's another. All of which is to say that, if we think of slavery as a set of circumstances in which one is defined by an external marker (say, skin color and facial features) and in which one is available to uses that abuse the body and mind for the purposes of other people's gain and pleasure, for most Black people, it is difficult to distinguish day-to-day life from slavery. "This is just another Tuesday for us" indeed.
And that's why Washington's experience and Jackson's reported words, seemingly intended to reveal something about how much they sacrificed for the craft, end up showing something that is much more revealing-- something that perhaps all of us Black folks can relate to: that whether backstage/off-camera or onstage/on camera, the life of the Black actor, like the lives of most Black people, is still unshielded from the violence of slavery. You can replace whips with pink slips. It does not change the position of your Black ass in relation to all others.
So how is it that the reality of "living the part" means losing touch with "reality" for Washington but is "just another Tuesday" for Jackson? Maybe that's a project for a comparative biographer. Several of Washington's other roles display a toughness that really can't be faked, so it's not that she's somehow less able to take it than Jackson. And Jackson, of course, has had weak moments in his life. But maybe both are true. Maybe all of it is that same aporia, the old ambivalence, the unbearable blackness of nonbeing, the oxymoron of "Black life": "Just another Tuesday for us" is enough to drive you clean out of your mind.