|This, of course, is #6|
I know these posts have been a little less frequent and substantial than we all would like, but sometimes life (specifically employment) gets in the way, as was the case the last couple weeks here at Movies By Bowes™. So, in the spirit of this unintended delay, today's topic is unintentional racism.
Nothing gets a more affronted reaction out of people than bringing their unintentional racism to their attention. They immediately (and melodramatically) deny it, and may huff and puff about the fact that they have a black friend and how absurd it is that you could think they're a racist. Part of this is because the popular definition of racism has gotten so narrow that nowadays you're not a racist unless you call a black person the n-word to his/her face while wearing a Klan robe, and in the absence of all those criteria if you bring someone's racism to their attention they'll tell you you're overreacting. At which point forget explaining institutional racism and privilege to the person in question, you won't even be able to convince them that it's okay that we don't have a White History Month.
Even worse, in a way, than the dumbasses, are the people whose hearts are in the right places who try and make tone-deaf noble gestures without thinking through the implications, or simply working from the wrong set of assumptions. These people, when you point out their fuckup, tend to be more hurt than pissed off, but still are probably just as beyond convincing.
Both these types of bumblefucks make movies. The number of intentionally racist movies in the history of cinema is greatly outweighed by the “derp, I had no idea anyone could be offended by that” genre; for every Birth of a Nation there are twenty movies where when you stop to think you realize “whoa, fuck, that may be subtle but that's not good.” So what I'm going to do is highlight five of the most prevalent tropes. I should be clear about the fact that some of the movies mentioned below are ones that I like as movies and think are well made. And I don't think any of them are racist on purpose. But, as the man said, shit happens. Let us to the list:
5—“Wait, just because there are no black people in the movie doesn't mean it's racist!” Example: Hoosiers.
This is, admittedly, a Hoosiers-specific category. And most of the queasiness wrought by Hoosiers is basketball-related rather than being anything in the movie's text. I'll keep this as brief as I can (and non-ball fans bear with me, there's a point to the following), but basketball is a game whose practice is almost exclusively influenced by black players and whose theory is just as exclusively influenced by white coaches. By most reasonable and objective measures, the five greatest players in the history of the sport (Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, and Magic Johnson) are all black. The two white players who crack the top ten, Larry Bird and Jerry West, are both extraordinary talents, to be sure, though the way the game is theorized and coached is built entirely around their skill sets: passing, jump shooting, and an ineffable quality most frequently called “heart” and attributed almost exclusively to white players. Michael Jordan, in spite of being able to do everything Larry Bird could just as well or better with one exception—outside shooting—and who was possessed of a competitive spirit and desire to win that almost no human being in any other endeavor has ever possessed, in or out of basketball, is remembered primarily for his athletic skills. Or, at least, until two white coaches, Phil Jackson and Tex Winter, “taught” him team play. Which is infuriating bullshit, but it's the accepted wisdom in basketball, to wit: hustle, desire, and old-timey strategy will always win out over superior athleticism. Make no mistake, those opposing forces are code words. The former means “white,” and the latter means “black.” And this ethos has never had a more popular expression in cinema than Hoosiers.
Hoosiers is undeniably a very well-made movie, and Gene Hackman is fucking awesome in it (a redundant statement if there ever was one, but what am I supposed to say? He's fucking awesome in it.) As a movie it has a genuine passion for basketball, but an extremely specific variety thereof. When Gene Hackman assumes control of the Hickory High basketball team, he has to deal with a couple mild cases of fuckheadedness and a general feeling of defeatism stemming from the school being so small and even by early 50s Indiana standards in the middle of fucking nowhere.
The principal complicating factor is that the team's best player, the transcendent Jimmy Chitwood, has ascetically resigned from the team for personal reasons. Philosophically, Hoosiers is torn between idealistic old-time-y “teamwork and hustle” hokum and the pragmatic reality that in order to win a goddamn thing, a basketball team needs to have one spectacularly talented gravitational center. (Also, in one almost certainly accidental touch, Jimmy Chitwood is the only white person in the movie who shoots modern-style jump shots; one fascinating bit of 50s basketball esoterica I learned recently was that, at the time, jump shots were considered extremely, shockingly, terrifyingly “black.” Having Jimmy Chitwood be the impetus by which Hickory shocks the world and wins is thus a gleefully unintentional confirmation of the very thing the movie purports to oppose philosophically within basketball, in accidentally proving that having a flashy “black” guy score all his team's points while his teammates stand around and watch is the way to win. Jimmy Chitwood is Allen Iverson. This makes me deliriously happy.)
But note: it took me 25 years to catch all those weird accidentally subversive subcutaneous signifiers in Hoosiers. Its intent is to be a movie about a how a bunch of (white) underdogs prevailed through pure grit, hustle, and purpose over the prohibitive favorites. Whose big stars were black. The fact that the audience is supposed to get caught up in Hickory High's triumph is, in intent, independent of the fact that they're all white and the big favorites from the big city are all black. But, as the great Rasheed Wallace once said “Ball don't lie,” or in other words, evidentiary reality trumps intent. And with that, we move on from basketball.
4—The movie that's all about black people but needs a white protagonist. Example: The Help, Mississippi Burning, Glory, numerous others.
This one is a little more straightforward. Take The Help. (Please.) It sets out to be a look at the lives of domestics in the Deep South, and the shit (get it?) they have to deal with. And you know what? Fine. I can't speak to the experience of only seeing people who look like me in a movie when they're playing maids, so I can't speak to the resultant “not this fuckin nonsense again” feeling that nine out of every ten black people I ever heard talk about The Help had. That baggage gives a movie on that subject a bit of a difficulty curve, but it is theoretically possible to make a good movie on the subject. Casting Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer helps too, and I'm damn glad their respective profiles as actors have been raised so this awards season. And I'm rooting for them both on Oscar night.
Only . . . why the fuck's Emma Stone gotta be the lead? Sure, the movie begins and ends with Viola Davis narrating, which is all fine and good because she's the most interesting character, but I swear like four hours of the two-and-a-half hour running time are Emma Stone dealing with office politics and sexism and her sick mother (though I'm never going to complain about getting to see my celeb fourth cousin Allison Janney thesp, just as I'm never going to get tired of flogging my extremely tenuous relation to her) and that douchebag guy she dates and wait a minute here he is again for another nine hours and huh ok he's not a douchebag after all and wait holy shit they're dating and seriously why the fuck is any of this shit in a movie called The Help that's supposed to be about the help?
Because white audiences need a white person as a POV character in order to maintain interest. Or so the conventional thinking goes. This presents the issue of, why black stories are perceived as being such a snore, or so alien that there's no way of comprehending them without a translator. It's not The Matrix where you need to have Keanu's perpetual befuddlement as an impetus for Morpheus and Trinity to explain all the complicated SF stuff to him. Black people (I'm focusing mainly on black people because it's Black History Month, but you can substitute “black” with any other race, conceivably) are right here. If you pay attention, you'll find they're people. They have stories. And in those stories, they play the leading roles.
I should state that this is not Emma Stone's fault (side note: I adore her in everything else I've ever seen her in), nor is it even the fault of the woman who wrote the book or the guy who directed the movie. That's the story they wanted to tell, and there was no apparent malice involved in the creation thereof. It's just, y'know, the white people are kinda taking center stage even though the title and a great deal of the intent points to it not really being about them. There's a bit of “look at me”ism involved, unintentionally. But it's still there.
3—The Black Guy Always Dies First Trope. Example: seemingly every fucking shitty movie ever.
This is specifically a genre movie thing, and good fucking God is it omnipresent. I've thus far reviewed two movies for Tor.com this calendar year, The Divide and Chronicle. In The Divide, a bunch of white assholes (the noun being operative and the adjective incidental) and Courtney B. Vance are trapped in a basement, and Courtney B. Vance gets called a faggot 95 thousand times and then dies first. In Chronicle, three high school seniors, two white guys and Michael B. Jordan. When they start realizing their powers are a little beyond their control, who's the one who's got to eat it for dramatic effect? RIP Michael B. Jordan. (During the funeral scene they used a couple still photographs from when he played Wallace on The Wire, which of course cued “Where's Wallace, String? WHERE THE FUCK IS WALLACE?” in my head, because I'm retarded.)
So, yeah, small sample size. But I got X-Men: First Class from Netflix a few weeks ago and guess who the fuck dies first? Edi Gathegi! And to really stick it in and break it off, he dies nobly, to save the fuckin white people. Come on. Even if I didn't like black people, even if I went a step further and was actually an evil little shit openly rooting for them to get killed whenever they showed up in a movie, this would be fucking boring. It's ridiculous enough that it's easier to count the genre pictures where the black guy doesn't die, and usually first. Or where it doesn't count because everyone gets killed, like Predator.
The absurdity of the institution's prevalence is such that some actors have even turned it into a kind of performance art. Case in point: Samuel L. Jackson. As we now know, Samuel L. Jackson is a dual-function cyborg who makes two to four genre pictures per year and plays golf, to the exclusion of all other things. The first function is what's led to his having been in many, many movies where he gets killed. All kidding aside, though, he may be in a lot of shitty movies but Samuel L. always finds a reason to be playing each role, and no matter how shitty the movie is, his performance is impeccable craft. And his deaths are always awesome. Two in particular stand out. The first is Jurassic Park, when at one fateful point, plot expedience dictates that Samuel L. go out and get eaten by the dinosaurs (because that's what real motherfucking dinosaurs do: they eat people). Awesomely, Samuel L.'s character in the book was both (inferentially) white and did not get eaten by dinosaurs. For the movie, both these characteristics change. What makes it memorable is the way Spielberg sets up the revelation that he's been eaten: for no other reason than it's awesome, they leave one of his arms so that it can accidentally come to rest on Laura Dern's shoulder, only to have her turn around and realize it's just his arm. This is why it actually kind of rules that PG-13 Spielberg directed Jurassic Park, because R Steven Spielberg, like the Saving Private Ryan Spielberg, would have just had the velociraptors turn him into sashimi. The off-screen offing was a good touch, and I would not be at all surprised if Samuel L. had some input into it. He's not shy, and I can totally see him being like, “Steven, let's talk, I think it'd be cool if this is how it's revealed that this movie falls into the Black Guy Always Dies trap.” And Spielberg, as a good progressive, could very easily have been like, “Well, that might offset the lameness of killing him for no reason . . .”
And then there's Deep Blue Sea. Wherein Samuel L. gets eaten by a shark, in one of the worst shark effects ever outside of that one shark movie where the guy says he wants to eat the girl's pussy. (Seriously, that's a real movie. And that's the only good thing in it.) But leave it to Samuel L., once again, to be like, “Yeah, it's a genre trope. But fuck it! If I'm gonna be a part of this bullshit, I want to go out big.” Go ahead, say that quote in your head in his voice. QED.
Sadly, Samuel L.'s attempts to turn it on its head aside, this is a pretty annoying and sad thing to still be going on to the point where literally every American movie I've watched for the first time in 2012 has had the black guy die. This is bullshit, and it has to stop, and I don't care that it's a statistical function of a unique quantity standing out from the pack and being more likely to have the writer go “oh, okay, this is who I'll kill” and not outright racism. STOP THE FUCKING MADNESS. If I go see Prometheus and Idris Elba is the only one who dies I am going to find Damon Lindelof, throw a drink in his face, and tell him the last episode of Lost sucked and then cruelly stand over him and nourish my soul on his bitter tears.
2—Jar Jar Binks, or “Hey, they're aliens, it can't be racist.” Example: Jar Jar Binks.
Actually, in spite of the fact that a few hundred words ago marked the 80 billionth time I've ranted about The Help, this was the inspiration behind this post. The original trilogy was actually pretty progressive, in that there may have only been one black person (Lando Calrissian) in the entire empire, but he was fascinatingly complex, and presented a moral alternative to the rigid Manichean Light side/Dark side spectrum in that he was ultimately one of the good guys, but if presented with less advantageous circumstances (like, say, not having a Luke Skywalker or a rebel alliance to throw in with) he'd do what he had to do. That's a lot closer to a realistic human being than you'd expect from a guy who lives in a city in the clouds, and being the most realistic person in the known galaxy makes up for his being the only black person, even if despite looking like Billy Dee Williams he has an Armenian name.
Somewhere along the line, though, George Lucas must have fallen down a flight of stairs headfirst or something because what the fuck was he thinking when he came up with Jar Jar Binks? When I first saw The Phantom Menace, I was like “ok, this only seems this bad because I'm high.” Then a couple years later I watched it straight and realized, “Oh no . . . this is . . . wow . . .” It doesn't read as deliberately minstrel-y. And lord knows Ahmed Best, the actor who voiced Jar Jar and mo-capped his physicality, is sick of taking shit for it; for actors, the “I was just following orders” line isn't an excuse, it's a reason. You have to be irreplaceable (or at least be reasonably sure you can get subsequent work if they fire you or you have to quit) before you can start making choices, and that's a truism that crosses racial lines. But holy hell. Half his dialogue sounds like he's saying massa. He shuffles. And the “but it's an alien language” thing only gets you so much slack. You can have your alien say stuff that doesn't make him sound like Mantan fucking Moreland. (Ed. Note: I'm not holding Moreland responsible, but the people and circumstances that forced him into that niche.)
Tellingly, George Lucas is apparently, to this day, confused as to why Jar Jar Binks is so unpopular. Lots of fans have different reasons. The above paragraph is the one that bugged me. It's no good getting up in George Lucas' shit about it, though. He simply won't understand what the big deal is.
1—The Magic Negro
Perhaps the most written-about type on this list, most often by black writers offended by the type as being unrealistically perfect, and how that unrealistic perfection pisses them off. Sometimes white racists will bitch about the Magic Negro, and how it's unrealistically perfect. Clearly, when two groups as opposed as these agree, something's fucked up.
The thing that pisses me off about this type is that it's so fucking boring. All the classic Magic Negro characters do is sit there smiling beatifically, saying wise things that take you a second to wade through the thick accent to understand, and even (and especially) when it goes against their self-interest, they go to unbelievable lengths to help the white people, against whom they bear no ill will at all (except the occasional villain).
Maybe it's because I'm not burdened with guilt, but the fact that this character archetype so blatantly exists as a means of assuaging guilt irks me. It's like, “Hey, here! This one likes me! I and my people are off the hook for slavery, segregation, and institutional racism! Except I deny that institutional racism exists! Gosh, that Will Smith sure is swell in Bagger Vance.” I'd have more respect for this bullshit if it was conscious. But it's a function of “oh, I don't want to seem racist, so I'm going to make him perfect.” Which ends up, irony of ironies, being the thing avoided. When creating a character, take care that that character resembles the world in which the story is set. If the movie you're making absolutely requires that your character be perfectly wise and perfectly compassionate, and act against his/her own interests for someone else's sake, you're making a bad movie.
My favorite subversion of this type is Scatman Crothers in The Shining. We're introduced to him as a literal Magic Negro: he can communicate telepathically with the creepy little kid. Taking it to that extreme is funny enough, but then when he shows back up later in the movie, he's sitting watching TV down in Florida like a totally recognizable regular old guy. In other words, like a non-magical real person. And then when he talks to the snowplow guy in Colorado, there's this perceptible tone of “Stupid white people are fucking up the haunted hotel again” to their interaction that's awesome, and further makes him seem like a real guy. He's totally not a Magic Negro at all anymore! So Scatman Crothers heads on up to the Overlook to save the day, and what happens . . .? He gets axed in the fucking chest by Jack Nicholson, thus making him trope #3. Godfuckingdammit. Just can't win in this game.