Saturday, April 17, 2010


After our discussion about how Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep was an artistic reaction against the stereotypical "blaxploitation" of African Americans in the media in general, and Watts more specifically, I decided to try to find out how both are received today by American audiences. By and large, the portrayal of African Americans in the media has improved since Burnett made the film in 1977, and we did look at examples in class of movies that seemed to be improvements on movies like Superfly. As the article highlighted above points out, while the depiction of no minority is "perfect" in the media, much has changed in the shows and movies of the 90s and today, with TV shows like "The Cosby Show" and "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" showing middle class black families, challenging the stereotypes of the ghetto.
However, this article also points out that while programs like "The Cosby Show" were progressive for their time, "Critics say that "The Cosby Show" encouraged the idea that people in the ghetto could leave if they would only work hard and that those who were confined to such deplorable conditions were there simply because they were lazy (Gray, 469)." This is certainly an improvement over the usual portrayals of blacks as gang members, or foolish comedians, but it leaves something to be desired. The article mentions that things have improved with shows like "Gray's Anatomy", where several of the main characters are black doctors with power in the hospital, and are portrayed with intelligence and maturity. A very recent example, especially relating to Los Angeles because of Disney and Hollywood, is Disney's The Princess and the Frog, which critics can debate all they want over whether this is a progressive approach or a step backward: the film has a black princess, who marries a Brazilian prince--is it saying that you can't have black couples, or is it applauding interracial couples? In any case, much has changed since the prominently black world of Watts shown in Burnett's film.
For Watts in particular, though, not much seems to have changed. A quick Google search of Watts gives you either the Watts towers or some reference to the riots and further violence. While the Watts Towers are certainly an artistic contradiction to the usual violent representation of the area, they don't counter the image of violence that most people think of when they hear the term. This news article, from 2008, describes a family that had been in Watts for over 25 years, and finally decided to leave because their eldest son was shot for no apparent reason. Another site is devoted to explaining the formation of the Crips gang in Los Angeles, and has links to 8 different factions of the Crips in Watts.
Finally, if you are looking for a pleasant (and cheap) house in Watts, the CA on LA life site gives Watts a 0.5 out of 10 in ratings for both schools and safety, and warns that these figures are much, much worse than most other sections of Los Angeles. The site also has a nostalgic sub-headline: "every address tells a story", and it's clear the story that we are being told about Watts. I am certainly not implying that these figures are wrong, because I have no idea how schools or violence are in Watts currently, but it says a lot about the area and how little has changed in the region and in the minds of Americans. Though Burnett's film attempted to show Watts as a neighborhood, low income but relatively friendly, normal, generally agreeable, the economic and crime status, both in reality and in how we think of them, have either not changed much since the 60s or have gotten worse. It seems to be an unfortunate fact of society that despite the riots in 1965, Watts has not been able to really make a new name for itself.

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