Covering Cinema From All Across The African Diaspora

A Referendum: More Sex Scenes For Black Male Stars?

This just hit me suddenly after reading a recent article in which Will Smith explains his lack of interest in onscreen love scenes.

2 of our biggest African American male celebrity actors have, whether currently, or previously, acknowledged an aversion to performing in love scenes on camera. First, Denzel Washington did so some years ago (I'll have to look for a quote online), with his reasons seemingly being to honor his wife, or something to that effect. And now Will Smith - whom I only just realized hasn't really done any love scenes. Sure, he's had a few fleeting flirtatious moments with his female co-stars - whenever he does have a comparable one - and he's exposed his torso from time to time... but he hasn't done much else!

What's up with that fellas?

Not that I'm exactly dying to see either of them in a no-holds-barred romp on screen, but, when you compare them with their Caucasian counterparts - those white male superstars that dominate our screens (Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, George Clooney, et al) - Denzel and Will are severely lacking!

I think there's something at work (and at play) here that needs to be brought to light - specifically, the subjugation of black male sexuality in American mainstream media. There's no reason why 2 of our most prominent African American actors - both with global appeal - rarely have love interests in their movies, or express themselves sexually on screen, especially when one considers that their Caucasian pals seem to be falling into bed with some damsel (in distress or not) on screen, more often than they don't.

Granted, both men claim full responsibility for their lack of onscreen sexuality, giving their own individual reasons; however, I simply can't help but feel that there might be something - some idea, or some person or people, of greater influence partly responsible here.

I think the longer each man holds out, the more awkward-looking any love scenes they eventually do will be, simply because, we haven't become accustomed to seeing them in that manner, and might actually giggle more than gasp in those instances.

Then again, I suppose Will Smith has never really positioned himself as the proverbial "sex symbol." He's played it safe for the most part, and I think that's one reason for his global appeal.

Denzel Washington on the otherhand was at one time considered a sex symbol, and I think he still is thought of in that way, but I could be wrong.

His reason for shying away from sex scenes, from what I gather out of all the material I've read about him, are mostly an expressed discomfort with them, but also his belief that they, in some way, dishonor his wife.

I just read an article in which Will Smith gives reasons why he is rarely involved in a sex scene on screen, telling reporters last Friday while promoting his new film, Seven Pounds,

My grandmother was really firm about how men are supposed to treat women... So for me, my worst nightmare is for an actress to... feel like I'm taking this opportunity to get a little quickie feel – you know, some legal cheating going on! I just need, specifically women, to feel comfortable around me... I just don't want to feel like I'm that dude.

Apparently, in Seven Pounds, Smith has an intimate moment with co-star Rosario Dawson, one which he expressed discomfort with; that is until his wife, Jada, gave him the green light to go for it, stating,

Jada said, 'Listen, I know you're uncomfortable, but you better not embarrass me... She said, 'When you do that love scene, you better show 'em what you're working with!'


So, one thing that's become clear to me after all this is that the wives of both men are of heavy influence on their decisions! Whoulda thunk it?

Come on fellas! Give the people what they want! Not only do we need to see more black faces on screen, we also could do with more expressions of "black sexuality" within the medium - especially in the mainstream.



  1. SolShine7 said...

    I actually like the fact that Will and Denzel prefer not to do the raunchy drawn out sex scenes. The old saying "less is more" comes to mind.

  2. UK Black Chick aka Wendy said...

    Hmm... Interesting point, Tambini, but I thought that Denzel's implicit refusal to do love/sex scenes was the basis that it dishonoured, not just his wife, but black women in general.

    Basically, the implication was that he didn't want to do any sex scenes with white women because black people are rarely seen on screen in love/sex scenes with each other. I believe the issue of him not wanting to do sex scenes came about during the filming of The Pelican Brief. Apparently there was meant to be an intimate moment between Denzel's character and Julia Roberts'. Denzel refused to do any such scenes and, from what I can recall, it wouldn't exactly have added anything to the story. Sex might sell, but if you have a tight story to begin with, why cater to the lowest common denominator?

    And it's OK for white actors to romp as freely as they want with anyone they want because their sexuality has never been subjected to the same scrutiny, or been stereotyped as being overly rampant. If anything, white actors are oversexualised in films to counter the underwhelming sexual reputation of white men.

    Also, I am reminded of a scene from a Toni Morrison novel, I don't recall which one at the moment, in which young black lovers are caught in a field by a group of white men and made to 'perform' for them. The black woman was humiliated and objectified and the black male objectified, emasculated and ridiculed. So the instance of black love as entertainment might even be an issue here.

    Taking control of how their sexuality is portrayed on screen has hardly harmed the success of Denzel or Will and I don't think that seeing them pretend to have sex will add to their careers now.

  3. The Obenson Report said...

    Solshine - I wasn't implying that they do "raunchy drawn out sex scenes;" how about just doing A sex scene once in awhile - 30 seconds even.

    Wendy - I do recall Denzel's famous refusal to perform in love scenes with white women, in the 90s. But he also expressed some discomfort in doing general love scenes, regardless of who he was doing them with. I remember reading that in "Mo'Better Blues" for example, he refused to strip, or even show his torso, in each love scene he was in, even though both women he performed with were fully exposed. And one of them made a bit of a splash about that later on - I think it was Cynda Williams.

    Also, I'm not implying that by suddenly including sex scenes in their movies, their careers would in any way benefit (although, that's debatable).

    I'm actually surprised by both of your responses!!!!

    I would have expected to read the opposite for various reasons. So, this is a little bit of a shocker coming from 2 black women.

    However, I wonder if my core point is getting lost here - and that is the idea that black sexuality (or more specifically, "black on black" sexuality, if we can use that term) is suppressed in mainstream movies, whereas white sexuality is flaunted (much like everything else "white") - so much that it's actually to our detriment.

    And when black sexuality is put on display in mainstream cinema, rarely is it "black on black;" and more often than not, it's a white man objectifying a black woman. God forbid we see any other color combinations.

    And so when films like "She's Gotta Have It" or "A Good Day To Be Black & Sexy" are produced and distributed, critics everywhere gush at the unapologetic displays of "black sexuality" within those films, calling them "groundbreaking" and "landmarks," which actually annoys me, because it's as if "black on black sexuality" is some novel thing that's never existed - because, rarely do we get to see 2 black people having sex on screen - or even just kissing passionately, intently, or even just lying around in bed naked...

    We're not allowed to be sexual on screen, and the few times we are, it's in a controlled environment.

    Which is why I say to mega stars like Will Smith and Denzel Washington: let it all hang out... so to speak :o)

    That's one of the things I liked about films like "Sweetback." It's as if Van Peebles just gave a big "fuck you" to the entire white corporate motion picture establishment (one that had ignored, degraded and exploited our sexuality for decades prior), by including those really explicit sex scenes with white and black women in his seminal, although poorly made film.

    I'm not calling for Will and Denzel to be that radical - absolutely not. But a little onscreen "nookie" every now and then can be a good thing, and will go a long way towards demystifying and normalizing black sexuality - especially black male sexuality for our non-black comrades.

  4. UK Black Chick aka Wendy said...

    @ TAO: "We're not allowed to be sexual on screen, and the few times we are, it's in a controlled environment."

    I'd agree. But in this instance, it's the black men in question who've decided to control their environment and sexual image. It was their choice, and they're probably the two most highly paid black actors in Hollywood, so I'd maintain that it's doubtful that showing skin would have enhanced their careers.

    Maybe mainstream Hollywood isn't ready or willing to show black people in loving or consentual sexual relationships with each other - so they don't.

    Maybe Denzel and Will were offered one too many "black buck" roles when they were up and coming. We both know that, even now, struggling black actresses have an excess of sexually stereotypical roles offered to them. Maybe you should get around to having the long overdue black actors round-table on your podcast so you can pose the question to them.

    And as to your surprise at SolShine7 and my response: maybe Denzel and Will are more acutely aware than yourself that women don't need to see a man having faux sex for him to be considered sexy - in other words, they don't need to be sexually objectified by women. Yes, Denzel certainly was (and still is, to some) considered a sex symbol - and this despite the fact that we haven't seen him naked, sweaty and writhing.

    And whether they have sex onscreen with black, white, or purple women, it's always the women who'll be more gratuitously objectified, so what's in it for female audiences, anyway? Specifically, what's in it for black women? A black woman being objectified? A black man lusting after white (or non-black) women?

    As things stand, both actors appeal as much to men as to women, probably due to the fact that they haven't taken on the 'sexy' mantel.

    Yes, it would be nice to see black couples being portrayed in a more rounded manner but, given the stereotypes that have plagued black sexuality for centuries, maybe this isn't the area in which some actors choose to display their talent.

    And maybe you're missing my point, Tambini, that "it's OK for white actors to romp as freely as they want with anyone they want because their sexuality has never been subjected to the same scrutiny, or been stereotyped as being overly rampant. If anything, white actors are oversexualised in films to counter the underwhelming sexual reputation of white men."

    As black people, I've no doubt that many of us would like to see images of ourselves in sexually revealing (I mean insightful as opposed to graphic or gratuitous) stories, hence the success of the recent screenings of A Good Day to Be Black and Sexy, hosted by yourself and ANF. However, do you really think that 'Black n Sexy' would have received so much media buzz at Sundance if it wasn't for the sexualised content (of not the title alone)? Congratulations to Dennis Dorch on getting into Sundance and getting a distributor as a result. You've seen the film, I haven't. Was it really a cinematic marvel? Or is it just that, sex sells, but black sex drives the imaginations of white folks into a superlative frenzy?

    From what I've heard, the film isn't about black people fvcking like bunnies, so it doesn't surprise me that despite being picked up by a distributor, it's not exactly being given the theatrical release one would expect from a Sundance success.

    So I'd have to end this comment the way I started it... I agree, the mainstream have always controlled the image of black sexuality on screen. So if a couple of black actors decide to take some of that control back, kudos to them.

  5. The Obenson Report said...

    What I question is whether this notion of them "taking control" of their onscreen sexuality is actually a truly noble and individual choice, or whether it's influenced by some external force or forces, consciously or unconsciously, as both have simply expressed a "discomfort" with performing, and not necessarily given any explicit reasons why.

    Yes, I won't argue that they certainly have the right to reject sex scenes in their movies; but these guys don't only reject sex scenes; they also seem to practically avoid romance flicks altogether, desexualizing themselves almost entirely, which I think could be indicative of something more at work here than just a decision not to participate in any sex scenes.

    So, let them continue on the path they are already on. It's certainly worked for each of them, and shows no signs of faltering.

    But, I'm not ready to completely buy the argument that they are acting solely on principle.

    I'll make this a podcast topic for early 2009. It's certainly controversial enough, and I'm sure to get a variety of opinions.

  6. Brandon said...

    I think it's very troubling that these gents seem to be willingly putting themselves into the chastity belt that Poitier was forced into in his day.

    And again, no one is saying that they have to show the meat in every movie, but romance used to be part of the movie star's job requirement. It's very startling considering what a rabid female following both men have- their (perceived) sexual allure is a huge part of their respective careers.

    I think the ghost of Poitier's career looms large, and I think both men have bought into the idea that being seen as romantic/sensual/sexual beings is at cross purposes with their place as Black men in an increasingly de-sexualized Hollywood.

    Clooney and Pitt also seem to have much more on their minds than doing love scenes, but they have done some good ones in the last ten years (Out of Sight, Fight Club, Mr, and Mrs. Smith).

  7. UK Black Chick aka Wendy said...

    @ Brandon: If you're going to compare Denzel and Will to Sydney Poitier, I think it's more troubling that, having decided to not engage in onscreen sexual intimacy (whatever their reasons), they're not taking on more challenging roles instead.

    Sydney Poitier may have been forced into a chastity belt in his day but, espeically given the time, he at least took on roles that challenged the social mores of his day, particularly with regard to race relations (A Patch of Blue, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, To Sir with Love...). There may not have been any onscreen sex, but there was a lot of heavily implied black male sexuality going on.

    Hollywood is prone to either ignoring blacks altogether or stereotyping them, even in this day and age. So why should we decry the fact that two of Hollywood's most successful black men have chosen not to do scenes which, by the mere fact that they're black, will very likely be deemed sexually explosive/loaded - particularly if these scenes are with white women or non-black women (which is most likely to be the case - because black men and women seemingly rarely have happy, consentual sex with each other in Hollywood).

    I'd like to see the human complexity of black people being protrayed more often but, let's face it, Hollywood has rarely portrayed black people as being particularly complex (or even human, come to think of it - super-human, perhaps, sub-human...). But I don't expect it so much from Hollywood or any of it's players (including black actors/ actresses).

    So I guess I have to look to independent film-makers like yourself and Dennis Dortch for diverse, complex or alternative images of black sexuality.

    Once films like The Man Who Couldn't and A Good Day to be Black and Sexy become more common fare, and they become more commercially successful, it'll only be a matter of time before Hollywood decides that it wants a piece of the pie and then black actors in Hollywood will have more culturally informed and diverse roles to choose from... And they may even want to kit their kit off for them...!

  8. Geniusbastard said...

    Wendy: I think there are two different issues in your last missive. Yes, Hollywood bungles (or just refuses to even try) complex portraits of Black folks. Yes, Black male sexuality is powerful stuff and not something Hollywood is likely to handle well. And yes, it is a shame to think that Washington and Smith aren't going further than Poitier was able to do in terms of broadening the possibilities for Black men in major motion pictures. But I don't see how you can defend their decision to totally refuse to be seen in any kind of sexual way. I don't think self castration is a necessary, brave, or interesting response to Hollywood's nullifying agenda. It may even be advancing their agenda for them.

    In fact, what you wrote only proves my point more. We should decry the fact that these two men have eschewed making their sexuality/sensuality a part of their personae because that was the undiscovered country Poitier's trailblazing career stopped short of, and it was up to his successors to blaze that trail into that admittedly daunting territory. It says so much about how far we have to go.

    And yes, I will humbly continue to do my part in that process.

  9. UK Black Chick aka Wendy said...

    Maybe what I'm defending is their right to make that decision.

    Having gotten as far as they have in Hollywood, I don't imagine that they had a particularly easy row to hoe. But somehow, against the odds, they've managed to succeed in a (very?) racist industry and, no doubt, this has meant some compromises on their part.

    They may have taken their decision too much to the extreme for some, but I wouldn't describe their presence, or success, in Hollywood as altogether nullifying. If we can see it, then it should be quite obvious to them that Hollywood can't adequately portray black people in a complex manner. It seems to be either saint or sinner, black or white, with only very mottled shades of grey in between - and if they've decided to err on the side of sexual puritanism...

    In the meantime, you, Brandon - Genius Bastard that you are - and the likes of the Tambays and Dennises, and a whole slew of independent filmmakers, can humbly do your part. It's from the likes of you (by appropriating what you manage to make popular/successful) that Hollywood will take its lead.

    What we have to do is stop looking to Hollywood for solutions, and to stop trying to take our lead from Hollywood. Denzel and Will are, after all, part of Hollywood... and have the right to define themselves as best as they can within Hollywood's narrow parameters.

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