Earlier this year, Precious (which I haven't seen) received copious amounts of effusive praise and angry criticism. Those who hated the movie, for the most part, objected to the way black people were "represented," namely that the story, which focuses on a poor, obese, teenage incest survivor in 1980s Harlem reinforced negative black stereotypes.
Last week, Helena Andrews received similar treatment following a profile of her in the Washington Post (headline: "Successful, Black and Lonely"). Andrews has written an as-of-yet-unreleased book about being a single, professional black woman in Washington, D.C., called Bitch is the New Black, which is being optioned for a movie. Nadra Kareem at Racialicious writes:
Reading the article, I felt underwhelmed and somewhat irritated, as the piece tells the familiar tale of black women with MBAs and designer clothes who just can’t find a man. Move over tragic mulatto myth, you’ve been replaced by the myth of the tragic black women who’s professionally successful but is doomed to grow old alone.
Because there is so little commercially successful black art, relatively speaking, anything that achieves crossover status sparks a sort of crisis of representation, because even in this day and age, a lot of people learn what they know about black people through popular entertainment. So anything that isn't some sanitized, uplifting story of black triumph (think The Great Debaters*) is going to cause controversy. It's not enough for Andrews to write something that's reflective of her experience; she's also under pressure to do it in a way that somehow colors within the lines of appropriate black representation.
It's absurd to expect every piece of black art to reflect everyone's black experience, but that's exactly what many black artists are expected to do. This discourages black artists from taking the kind of risks that make what they're creating worth consuming, because unless you want to draw someone's ire for "making black people look bad" or "reinforcing stereotypes" you have to make something, well, boring. The paradox is that if we had more commercially successful black art, there would be less of a crisis of representation and more opportunity to make books and movies that would offer more insight into the diversity of the black experience in America. It would also mean more and better art.
Instead what we have is a vicious cycle, where black artists are generally discouraged from taking risks, both by social pressure to produce certain kinds of narratives and a general lack of interest from the entertainment industry in anything that differs from the kinds of black movies and books that have been proven money-makers. So we end up with weak romantic flicks or slapstick comedies every year instead of something, you know, good. And anything that is remotely interesting or artistic becomes "controversial."
-- A. Serwer
*The one risk TGD does take, which is worth noting, is a nod to the role American communists played in labor organizing and integration efforts, to the point where some conservatives today still associate miscegenation with having communist sympathies. But this is a drop in the bucket.