With “Central Intelligence” hitting theaters this weekend, starring Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart, a conversation worth having…
I’m sure we’ve all privy to all the chatter about how we’re now living in a so-called “post-racial” society. Though I think most of us would respond to that with a “Yeah right!” But things are changing, albeit slowly. And it dawned on me, with Johnson becoming one of Hollywood’s most dependable actors today, starring in blockbuster after blockbuster, and carrying some of them almost alone, that he’s the one person who could be an example of this “post-racial” utopia we’re supposed to be living in.
It should be very obvious by now that Johnson has been positioning himself to become a major movie star. He easily could have gone on to be a B-movie actor, content with taking supporting roles in action/exploitation films, and starring in direct-to-video movies, like some of his former WWE cohorts. But Johnson has much higher aspirations. And it’s not just the film projects that he’s attached himself to; either by design or by happenstance, it’s also how he’s been perceived racially by the public. He has become a “race shifter” for lack of a better word.
Through his obviously ethnic, but not clearly defined looks (he’s black Canadian/Samoan), he has managed to become “identified” as it were, by different audiences, as different things, and has used that to his advantage, whether intentionally or not. I should say that, of course, we identify him as a black actor here on S&A, or else we wouldn’t be covering him at all. And Johnson has never obscured, or refused to acknowledge his bi-racial heritage, unlike let’s say Vin Diesel, who has seemingly gone out of his way to not publicly acknowledge his mixed heritage, preferring to instead let people think he’s, perhaps, Italian.
But in “Snitch,” Dwayne Johnson was clearly identified as a white man helping to save his white son who is in trouble with the law. However, in “G.I. Joe,” he’s clearly identified as black. His character in the film has two young black daughters he dearly loves. Yet, interestingly, the mother is never seen in the film, and there’s no explanation of why or even a reference to her. Is he a widower, or did she happen to be elsewhere during the scenes in which he’s with his girls? And perhaps one can argue that the mother is purposely not seen in the film to keep Johnson from appearing “too black.” However, later in the film, Johnson, on the run from enemies out to kill him, goes back to his old obviously black ghetto neighborhood, where his old “homies” still live, looking for a hiding place and finds it there. So he is definitely clearly identified or “coded “ as a black man in “G.I. Joe.” Not quite the same in “Snitch,” and other movies he’s appeared in.
And coming up for Thanksgiving you can also add Johnson doing the voice of Maui, the Polynesian character in Disney’s big holiday animated film “Moana” which would be the first time that Johnson played a character close to this Pacific islands roots.
Yet the fact that Johnson can smoothly switch from “white” to “black” to even “other,” without any reaction from audiences, or even any indication that they notice, is intriguing. Possibly one key major factor for this phenomenon, if we can call it that, is simply because Johnson has an incredibly charismatic and likable persona. Like any genuine movie star, he pulls you in with his talents, and his personality, and it’s easy to succumb because he’s just such a likable guy. As the old saying goes, when Johnson is on the screen, Johnson is on the screen. He has a humorous self-awareness of his physicality, and effectively uses it to even mock and send up the whole macho man image, which makes him instantly likable. It’s almost as if he’s saying: “Look, I don’t take myself too seriously, so why should you?”
And that fact may have influenced audiences’ perceptions of his racial identity. Johnson can be whatever he wants to be because he’s somehow larger than life – a fantasy as it were – and, therefore, transcends any labels that can be put on him. He’s human Teflon.
But is this “racial shifting,” as I call it, a good thing? Is it a genuine sign of progress, or is it just an easy way to avoid dealing with the serious issues of race, racism and intolerance that still linger? It could be easy for some say: “Look at Dwayne Johnson. He doesn’t make race an issue, so why do ‘you people’ still have to?”
What do you say?
Add “Central Intelligence” to the 20-something feature films he’s appeared in (whether in supporting or lead or starring roles since the early 2000s), which have collectively grossed around $6 billion worldwide. It opens this Friday, June 17, 2016, via Warner Bros.
Teaser trailer for Moana