Deciphering Black Masculinity: An Interview with Mark Anthony Neal (Part Three)

You describe Stringer Bell in The Wire as the “thinking man’s gangster,” seeing him as a powerful illustration of the “cosmopolitan” qualities you ascribe to this acclaimed series. What is it that The Wire was able to achieve in terms of breaking with black masculinity? Some have similarly celebrated Orange is the New Black as a series which offers a broader range of alternative constructions of femininity (including black and Latino characters) than we typically see on television. Would you agree with that assessment? Why or why not?

Think that for David Simon and Ed Burns, these men were real to them—composites of folk they had interacted with in some way.  In that way, their experiences covering Black Baltimore in the 1980s made them aware of the diversity of Black men that existed.  Give HBO some credit for allowing them to fully explore that diversity throughout the five-year run of the series.  Beside opening up for  range of expressions of Black masculinity and Black femininity, The Wire and Orange is a the New Black has also cultivated a space for the performance of “Female Masculinity,” to draw on Jack Halberstam’s work.  It is in those moments that one can see the fluidity of Black identity, in ways, rarely, if ever, explored in mainstream entertainment.

Idris Elba has continued to gather public interest as he was widely promoted as a potential for casting as the new Doctor on Doctor Who (amid debates about whether or not the Doctor could be black). How have these more recent developments altered or confirmed your analysis of the performer in the book?  How might we imagine a black Doctor introducing themes of Afro-Futurism into this long-standing British series?

This is clearly the moment of the Black-Brit-Afropolitan actor.  If the question is,  is there an Afro-futurism for male Afropolitans actors, well yes, particularly if your name is Idris Elba or Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Not sure that a more “traditional” African-American or Afro-Caribbean actor, save Don Cheadle, would have those same opportunities.  Elba is really having the career that Calvin Lockhart and Delroy Lindo should have had.  Find it interesting that Ejiofor and Elba have been able to traffic in both more global and traditional African-American roles. I don’t think that is simply about their skill-set.

 

Entertainment Weekly had speculated that we might have had as many as four black actors in contention for the Best Actor Oscar this year — Idris Elba for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Forrest Whitaker for Lee Daniel’s The Butler, Michael B. Jordan for Fruitville Station, and Chiwetel Ejiofor for Twelve Years a Slave. How might we fit these black performers (and the characters they portray) in the trajectory of acclaimed black performances you traced between Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington? (This question was framed before the Oscar nominations came out)

I am happy for Ejiofor’s nomination—expected Elba to earn a nomination, especially after Mandela’s death.  Most disappointed that Michael B. Jordan didn’t get a nod, though I suspect that had much to do with his youth and the stark, un-sensational reality of Oscar Grant III life and death.  Washington had to break through the archetype that Poitier represented throughout his career.  I think this current generation, though Whitaker is a little older, has benefitted from Washington’s willingness to break ranks with roles in films like Training Day (most famously), but also He Got Game and American Gangster.

 

You end the book with a discussion of Barack Obama and Reverend Wright, suggesting the ways that the candidate has had to negotiate around assumptions about black masculinity identity. To what degree do you think Obama has been willing to explore the boundaries between Harvard and the Hood as he has responded to the politics around the Treyvon Martin Case?

Barack Obama is more of an enigma to me now, than he was at anytime during the 2008 campaign, when he was largely illegible to so many of us.  It’s not simply about how he has chosen to govern—from the Center, in reaction to the Right, largely dismissing legitimate critiques from his base of the Left—but his real silence on the ‘Hood, except as a lecturer of family values.  His calculated initial comments about Martin’s shooting—after checking for the winds of popular opinion—is the most obvious example.  I never forgot that the President took more than a week to comment on Michael Jackson’s death.  I always understood that the value of a Black President in the contemporary US was largely symbolic—albeit a powerful symbol—but what value is a Black President if he can’t even acknowledge the artistic legacy of a figure like Amiri Baraka.

 

Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of several books, including New Black Man and Looking for Leroy.  He is the host of the weekly webcast Left of Black.