Angelina Jolie's Bleaching Out the Narrative: When White Plays Black

The verdict is in (and by that I mean the bulk of the reviews of her performance): Angelina Jolie is pretty damn good in A Mighty Heart, the new film on Mariane and Danny Pearl's life together. He was murdered in 2002 while working as a journalist in Pakistan. So here's the problem: when there are so many black actors working (and not-working) in Hollywood -- particularly black women -- it's shocking to me, that Angelina has taken the part of Mariane.

Surely, we've seen this before: Indians played by whites in Westerns, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra...

This week's New York magazine writes of Jolie as, "dipped in caramel"; "Mariane Pearl is French and of partly Afro-Cuban descent -- a challenge for a Caucasian-American (even an exotic-looking one) to pull off. It's hard to forget she's who she is, but Jolie is a remarkably canny actress..." The New Yorker's Anthony Lane: "Mariane is French-speaking, with a Cuban mother, and Jolie is equipped with corkscrewed hair, tinted skin, and murmuring accent." Rolling Stone calls her performance, "strong and true in every detail".

It's so great that we've come so far that we can reduce ethnicity to these choice elements. Now, this is acting.

Please note that I said Jolie has taken that part, not was given; I'm most interested in the choices she's made, less the workings of Hollywood itself. I don't expect the industry to be fair. It's not fair to white people, I don't expect it be anything but less fair to colored people. (I'm intentionally being un-PC here; I don't subscribe to the hyphenated monikers we've been giving ourselves and each other over the years: if you're not white, you're colored in my book. Also, if you need a refresher on the industry not being fair, check out the same issue of New York magazine, "Hollywood has a little woman problem", writes Lynda Obst about Hollywood's hang-ups with strong women. )

Actually, Jolie's never bothered me until now. The evolution of her humanitarian work, child adoptions and all, I found charming in a hands-on, woman-warrior, mother earth priestess kind of way. I even liked her in that weird computer hacker movie back when I was growing up; she plays wounded butch fem bitch in a beautiful sultry way. Plus, she's jolie with her effortless style, except when she went through that black-dyed hair phase. I don't follow these things that closely.

I just want to reiterate that she's never bothered me until now. But this new twist in her career -- white woman plays black -- just rubs me. It rubs me wrong.

When I heard about the story of Mariane and Danny Pearl -- she pregnant when he was kidnapped and killed, something about the story went to my core. They all did -- Mariane and Danny and their baby: He, an American Jew, her -- a black French Cuban, their innocent baby who will never know his father. Danny seemed so kind-hearted and I felt so sad for Mariane, pregnant and alone like that, in such cruel circumstances. It's still terrible what she's been through. I've never met Mariane, I only saw a couple interviews with her at the time when the story broke. I know I'm projecting, but there are certain universals in interracial relationships: one of them is the risks both people take to cross lines and cultures. They are, after all, going against the grain -- whatever the motivations for the relationship or the reasons for the attraction. Danny and Mariane both took a risk on each other and it was heart-breaking to me to see circumstances in the world literally kill (the earthy manifestation of) their love.

Cut to Brangelina, progressive pop culture power couple du jour. Reportedly after Mariane had done her book, also titled A Mighty Heart, she was approached by Brad Pitt's film production company. And she said yes -- yes to collaborating with him and his team. Who wouldn't say yes to Brad Pitt? He's hot. He's kind. He's funny. He's good. What's not to like? He's the empathetic white man -- the anti-American psycho -- the Bono, the George Clooney good man, the irresistible. Please God make more.

Enter Angelina. She's got an Oscar. She's not a bad actor. But and here it is:

There is a kind of irony in the fact the Angelina actually thought it was okay to take this part. That she was okay with taking it -- in a sense -- away from a black woman. Now, arguably, you could say that Mariane wanted to have her play the part -- well sure: who wouldn't want one of the most famous women in American pop culture to have the role? That only makes sense. Surely the Brad team would have thought the same. The most important thing is getting the story out. Right?

Maybe. I really don't know the answer to this one. I'm just imagining a remake of Yentl played by, I dunno, someone who's not Jewish. It's okay, it's done, like the old way that men played both genders in the western theatre tradition. I know the conventions. I know what is accepted and what is acceptable. But now that we are evolving as people, I thought it would have nice if she'd turned it down.

And by evolution, I mean including but not limited to self-regulation. Colored people, for example, self-regulate all the time. We put up with stupid stuff. I just went to a seminar today and listened to the lecturer direct a Chinese woman who speaks three languages fluently, runs her own business and owns properties as real estate investments, I watched him talk to her like she was an idiot, pointing to her paper and telling her to take notes, leaning in and speaking slowly, like she might miss his words, smirking as she read back her ideas to him. She smiled, she knew what he was doing, but she ignored his way with her because he had information she wanted. This is how we live, we put up with stupid shit. (I guess we all do, all people white or colored. We just have different piles of shit.) We are very patient about these things.

So what's interesting to me about what Angelina did is that it illustrates a larger puzzle: how does a certain kind of white person struggle with being right in the world, right now: how can we be better? Are we destroying the world? Do they all really hate us and if yes, why? How can we make them stop hating us? Is there another way to be that's not at odds with the rest of creation? Are you there God - it's me Margaret (just kidding).That kind of thing.

I guess the answer starts with humility.

Let's play a game. Let's imagine Angelina, she's sitting out on the veranda divan, the kids are circling round, they're just finishing their macrobiotic meals, hyper but happy. She's got a great new script curled up on her lap. She knows she could kill this one: she could really do a Jack Nicholson with this one -- Oscar that baby out of the park. She picks up the phone also in her lap. The nanny reads the signal and takes the kids away into the kitchen, mommy's making a call. The phone rings:

Angelina: "Thandie!"

Thandie Newton: "Hey girl, what's up?"

Angelina: "I've got a part for you."

She tells her all about it.

Thandie's crying now.

Angelina: "Sure, I can do the part. But I shouldn't."

As she's talking to Thandie, she texts Brad upstairs, who's sunning in a silver speedo on the roof. He usually goes nude, but the kids --

Off the phone with Thandie --

Angelina: "Hey hun -- let's sponsor a colored actress to do this project and maybe some other ones too."

Brad: "What?! That's crazy talk."

Angelina: "Yeah -- I gotta feeling whoever she is, she's going to really bring it."

She and Brad sit in this new kind of charity, feeling good. Ohm. Brad has to get off; he's got to brown his ass now. They'll talk about it later.

(The kids return, wanting her to read a story. Their strange hands trace the lines of her tattoos. Angelina wonders: or maybe, we can just get another one: Brad and I can and feel the ink sink into our skin and mark us. See if that feels the same.)

It rubs me wrong I guess because I know the market says "a Thandie Newton type" won't bring in the same numbers as Jolie in the box office. And that's what it comes down to, not right or wrong but what the market thinks will sell.