Men of Iron Can Have Tears Too

[originally published on March 21, 2013]

My Dear Readers:

Can a Real Man Express Emotions other than Anger?

     One of my favorite actors is Ving Rhames. I have enjoyed his real life hard-hitting spoken lines in the action movies in which he has been featured.  He is currently starring in the drama series, Monday Mornings, as Dr. Jorge ‘El Gato’ Villanueva, the chief of trauma surgery at a fictitious Portland, Oregon hospital.  Ving Rhames plays the role of Dr. Villanueva with the same intensity and strength he is known for in his other roles.  However, after viewing a recent episode, Rhames’ portrayal of Dr. Villanueva left me significantly disturbed.
     In this episode Dr. Villanueva’s son appears at the hospital with a butcher knife protruding from his stomach cavity.  The trauma team members immediately go into action to save his life.  The scene that sent off my alarm occurred in the intensive care unit while Dr. Villanueva’s son is recovering after many hours of intense surgery.  This is the first time Dr. Villanueva has an opportunity to see his son, after a butcher knife was removed from his stomach and the surgical team worked to try to save his life.  A potentially monumental scene if you consider all that had just come before it.  However, upon waking up from surgery to find his father standing over him, Dr. Villanueva’s son, a young adult male, simply tells his father “don’t cry, okay?”  In response Dr. Villanueva stands there silent, emotionless and staring back at his son until the program breaks for commercial.
     Wow!  What a powerful scene.  Can you imagine?  One’s child hovering between life and death following the surgical removal of a huge butcher knife from his stomach, and no emotions are expressed?
      What a strong portrayal for an African-American actor.  No doubt there are many African-American men who would be praising Ving Rhames for his portrayal of Dr. Villanueva in that specific scene.  Just closing my eyes and listening I can hear the echoes of men, old and young, saying “I want to be like that; hard, strong and silent.  A man of iron. Now, that’s what it is like to be a man, a real man.”
     Really? A man of iron?  Or just another stereotype of African-American men created by scriptwriters?   In a way the portrayal reminds me of Shaft, Superfly and other “cool brothers” being portrayed on the screen in the 70’s & 80’s.  Strong, tough, silent and cool.  The difference being that the African-American actor has been “promoted” from private detective or drug dealer (violence) to chief of trauma surgery (educated and professional).
      We have much to thank the scriptwriters for.  In casting Ving Rhames in the role of chief of trauma surgery, the African-American male character although still menacing and feared by colleagues and patients alike is a “good guy.”   Times have changed.  Or have they?  The role taken on by Ving Rhames is a combination of (a) that which is expected and predictable by some, i.e., menacing, strong and fearsome and (b) that which is desired by others, i.e., professional, competent and educated.
      Stereotyping is as “old as water and twice as young.”  A stereotype can be defined as a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.   Realistically speaking stereotyping only serves to reinforce the fears that are maintained by the “larger group” i.e. family, community and society.
      In the dramatic scene with Ving Rhames’ characters’ son, the dialogue and lack thereof reinforces in African-American men that despite whatever horrifying circumstances (what could be more horrifying than surgery to remove a butcher knife protruding from your child’s stomach?) a “real man” does not cry.   No, as stated in the scene, a “real man” stands there and “takes it.”   Takes it?  Takes what?  What the hell does that mean?
      A “real man” stands his ground.  To express tears is to be weak.  A real man does not express his tears nor expose his “weakness.”  Wow!  That was a powerful scene by Ving Rhames.  That was a powerful message that is being sent to African-American men and the young male adolescents following in their footsteps.
      Let us not minimize the power of visual and words as both can strongly impact human behavior.  In recall of the sensational role of Sidney Poitier as Detective Tibbs in the 1967 dramatic movie In the Heat of Night when Detective Tibbs is being questioned by the racist police chief Bill Gillespie (played by Rod Steiger), when asked by the police chief, “what do they call you boy?” In defiant and assertive response, Sidney Poitier replies, “they call me Mr. Tibbs.”
       Living in the segregated South during the time of the film’s release, I recalled how life was during those solemn times.  The racism that African-Americans endured was within itself humiliating and overwhelming.  That one short statement in my opinion served as a lighting rod and energized a disempowered community.
       I recalled grown men speaking among themselves with a combination of tears in their eyes and grins on their faces when speaking about that specific scene in the film.  That one sentence gave hope to those who felt there was none.  That one sentence confirmed and echoed the downfall of segregation as it was known at that time.   The film and its powerful dramatization went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
The point being, once again, to illustrate the visual impact on the consciousness and sub consciousness of the viewer.  A powerful message can serve to persuade others of specific behaviors not only to be desired, or wanted, but most importantly, to be expected.
      As I stated earlier, Ving Rhames is one of my favorite actors.  It is unlikely that he performed the scene with the thought in mind of setting the “bar or standard” as to how African-American men are suppose (or not supposed) to respond to their emotions.  I have no doubt that he may be an excellent role model.  He cannot be held accountable for the choices of others to place limitations on their own emotional responses.
      It is my concern that the dramatic expression by Rhames (and similar other examples) will be used as a justification, excuse or affirmation as to why we as African-American men are or should be aloof from our emotions.  It is unrealistic to believe that if this had really occurred that Ving Rhames would have been as stoic and tough in the scene as the scriptwriters were portraying Dr. Villanueva.
      The scene is so hard, tough and stoic.  No doubt Ving Rhames will receive lots of positive feedback for the strength in his betrayal of an African-American man in a professional role.  Yet, I would have wished him to appear at the end of the episode to remind the viewing audience that this was merely a script and not the way he would have reacted or responded had it been a real life situation.
      However as we know, this is “entertainment” that cannot risk being compromised with a dose of reality at the end of the show.  Fat chance.  Having Ving Rhames appear at the end of the episode stating “it’s all part of the act” would defeat the purpose of the scriptwriter’s portrayal of the emotionless African-American man and likely confuse those from the viewing audience who have already unconsciously accepted the stereotype as true.  Professional and educated; yet, menacing and intimidating.  Controlled fury, yet stoic.
      Yes indeed.  Stereotypes are old as water and twice as young.  We as African-American men will continue to be stereotyped as long as a dollar can be achieved in the maintenance of a “fearful viewing public.”  Sad and yet, true.
It is therefore up to the individual man to choose for himself the type of person he wants to be as well as to be okay in expressing true emotions such as fear, loss, sadness and tears.  It is for the “real men” to advocate for self and model for others, especially younger males, the true qualities of being a man and in doing so give breath and options to the Iron Men being casted before us on television and Hollywood.  We must want to define ourselves and openly respond to those images, which clearly do not represent us.
       By the way, to answer the question, yes, real men do cry…. I have had the opportunity to do so in recent days and it feels damn good.
Until the next crossroads, the journey continues.
Dr. Micheal Kane

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