Syriana is a fantastically entertaining and important film. There’s really no other way to put it. It’s great to see so many big names stick their necks out to bring attention to such a controversial and complex set of issues.
It’s a bit sad, then, to see the way the only African American character in the movie is portrayed. To be fair, one of the most fascinating things about Syriana is that none of the characters are good or bad — they are all shades of gray. Still, the black guy is a deeper gray than most and the darkness of his character is only deepened by the fact that there are no other black characters to soften him (save a quick interlude with a Condoleeza clone).
Damon’s character is ambitious to a fault and ends up not the great family man, but ultimately figures out what is important. Clooney’s character has trouble managing his relationship with his kid because of constant deep cover and he does questionable things, but does them for the right reasons. Cooper’s character a fairly one-dimensional oil big-wig, but that’s okay because he’s balanced by all the other white guys (not to mention our lifelong cultural training). Jeffrey Wright’s character (token black guy Bennett Holiday) is also one-dimensional, but with no similar balances.
Holiday is myopically focused on work and has an alcoholic father, with whom he is frustrated to the point of (verbal) mistreatment. In the corridors of power, he appears something of an Uncle Tom as he’s manipulated (everyone in the film is, but racial politics say something more when you’re the only black guy in every room) into a difficult situation and finds his own way out. For him, though, there is no reconciliation, no doing the right thing because it’s right, no moral outcome beyond survival. And back to the pathetic, empty home life in the end. Of the main characters in the film, Bennett is the least complex and has the fewest redeeming qualities.
That said, I don’t blame Wright for taking the role and I don’t really blame the filmmakers for writing his character the way they did. (After all, a character is a character and I’m as sick of black spiritual guides as anyone.) Taken by itself this instance, while annoying, isn’t so awful; it’s when this instance is placed in broader context that it becomes truly aggravating.
Here’s the problem: when it comes to portrayals of African Americans in film, it doesn’t seem like we’ve come very far in 10 years. In fact, we may have regressed from the black film renaissance of the early 90’s. (Observation only here, no stats — though I’d like to run them.) As always, there still aren’t very many quality roles for black folk and those that exist go to a select few. When Denzel becomes the first black best actor for playing a character as evil as they come (he’s had so many oscar-caliber performances, why this one?) and Halle earns the first black best actress when she reveals the crown jewels having sex with a white guy, you gotta wonder what kind of message the Hollywood establishment means to send.
We desperately need high profile and arthouse dramatic films (not comedies, not gangland) that feature a variety of black characters (not hustlers, not spiritual guides, not token). White directors are for the most part afraid to touch it (has Tim Burton ever cast a black person in one of his movies?) so we have to do it ourselves. And that leads to the following question: where are the envelope-pushing black directors — the Spike Lees, the John Singletons, the Hughes brothers — of today? Sadly, it seems black directors have fallen into step with the status quo set by their white peers. And perhaps that says more about the ugly state of the industry than anything else.