Should race-reconciliation or race-relations movies be always by, of and for blacks? They must recall racism’s savagery, celebrate black heroes, their success-struggle past and present. Must they also linger or stop there?
Shouldn’t they also be by, of and for whites? Perhaps more so? Shouldn’t they speak to, inspire – not merely indict – whites? Funnily, critics keep eviscerating films that do just that.
Sure, movies can remind audiences of racism’s horrific history but unless they also dream of – and dramatize – reformed and reforming whites on screen, it’ll become harder and harder to visualize them off it. In purging anti-black sentiment, aren’t whites the influential majority? If they don’t change, will anything?
Such critics believe they’re serving the cause of blacks. They’re not. Not if they’re dangerously implying that such movies are best left to blacks – as Tambay Obenson does in his April 10, 2019, piece in IndieWire. Or that whites will – or should – no longer “be allowed to” make such movies, or that whites apologize for their legacy of faulty filmmaking, as Greg Braxton does in his Jan 13, 2022 piece in the Los Angeles Times.
Precisely how is Braxton’s “be allowed to” inclusive or egalitarian?
Imagine historians insisting that Schindler’s List (1993) be made by a Holocaust survivor. Schindler’s resonates not because Steven Spielberg is a Jew, but because he’s a master storyteller. Or any Jewish filmmaker would have sufficed.
Yet these analysts lay down the law on race-relations filmmaking: don’t be ahistorical, don’t dwell on whites or relegate blacks to supporting roles, don’t dim racism’s true horrors or imply it’s a relic, dump the white-saviour motif. They skewer movies such as The Help (2011), Hidden Figures (2017), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri or TBoEM (2017), Green Book (2018), The Best of Enemies or TBoE (2019) for not being historically accurate.
Historicity (or stirring cinema?)
Movies aren’t documentaries. They’re meant to stretch imaginations, stir emotions, rouse consciousness by telling stories. It’s why scripts are adapted for screens – from plays, novels or histories. Truths aren’t always about what’s documented or always about “facts”!? Our most profound realities (love, forgiveness, faith, hope) aren’t any less real because they can’t be proven, let alone beyond reasonable doubt.
Sometimes, you honour history by gilding photo-frames from a cruel past, at other times by creating new possibilities in the face of a stubbornly cruel present. Slavish historicity can wreck cinematic storytelling.
Odie Henderson in his April 5, 2019, rogerebert.com take on TBoE smirks that he has “learned more” about its real-life protagonists from Wikipedia and YouTube than from the movie. But 21st century audiences already have the cursor-click tools to “look-up” history. They don’t throng theatres to “learn more” about real-life characters. They want to be moved, entertained, even changed.
Movies such as 12 Years A Slave (2013) relive racist horror through extensive violence, nudity. Will six (or 16) more such movies convey racism’s “true horrors”? Are today’s supremacists that way only because they’re ill-informed? Are today’s rapists this way because they’ve not seen enough onscreen rape or gangrape? Is revulsion or reward a better incentive to change? Don’t we need a bit of both, perhaps more of the latter?
Saviour motif: saving is the point, not who’s saving
Transformation is the holy grail, not who transforms. To a tortured or dying man, that he’s saved matters more than whether his saviour is black or white.
Isn’t it good enough that someone foils a rape? Should we demand that it be foiled only by a woman? Is rescue less desirable if foiled by another man?
Identity and the distinctiveness of identity-experience can liberate. But exceptionalism can also enslave, if it extrapolates destructively.
Critics exacerbate divides by consistently deriding a saviour motif.
There’s a white (or black) saviour in almost every black-white racism movie since the 1950s. And a male (or female) saviour in almost every movie ever made.
We’re human! We’re too dependent and interdependent, not to be saved – as a matter of routine. If critics tolerate saviours of every other hue, why single out white (or black) saviours?
Half of Spike Lee’s writing team on BlacKkKlansman (2018) is white.
White screenwriters have been integral to “race” storytelling – alongside the finest black actors, producers, directors, writers. Whites have kept breaking rank, holding up a mirror to other whites, not just a beacon to blacks. Several films use black POV or centre complex black victims, survivors; what’s so despicable about other films centring whites as equally complex perps?
Often drama can drive home what a history lesson can’t. Sidney Poitier’s films – even with melodrama – brought a sledgehammer to the race relations party. Imperfect, technically or historically, they inspired – blacks and whites.
Author of a new book Colorization: One Hundred Years of Black Films in a White World, Wil Haygood pointed to Poitier as a pioneer. By refusing to play villain, Poitier offered disillusioned blacks the possibility of dignity in a white world that tried its darndest to deny them that.
Poitier transformed the way blacks re-imagined themselves. It’d be insulting to argue that he didn’t also transform the way whites re-imagined blacks. But Poitier was often a black saviour, transforming otherwise intransigent whites, reluctantly rubbing shoulders with a white saviour.
What’s abominable about newer films centring otherwise-prejudiced whites capable of regretting their racism or shunning that of fellow whites? Aren’t they offering stunted white imaginations newer possibilities of giving and gaining respect? If many of these movies are “based on a true story”, aren’t they acknowledging – however dimly – real-life reformed or reforming whites? Aren’t they challenging, not legitimizing the supremacist status quo?
Centring: blacks (and whites)
Movies such as TBoE, TBoEM, Green Book, The Help and Hidden Figures are telling or retelling stories in the hope that they strike a chord with whites.
Odie Henderson’s April 5, 2019, rogerebert.com piece curses TBoE – “insulting malarkey, Bullshit!” He rages at “the repugnant Green Book.”
Is it? Repugnant, that is?
Granted, some of these movies deserve refinement – more plausible dialogue, more realistic scenes or character arcs, more judicious soundtracks (!), more multidimensional characters. But filmmakers are trying, in spite of flawed execution, to show whites that change, even miraculous change, does happen. That blacks aren’t sinners (or saints), but as flawed as the rest of us – whites or not. And deserve the same starting blocks. Not just freedom to succeed as gloriously as whites have, but freedom to fail as outrageously as whites have.
Shouldn’t we stop trashing films because they show how central whites are – to almost everything affecting blacks? Against that backdrop of nagging white domination, shouldn’t we welcome films showing blacks transforming influential whites, for the better? Or blacks and whites in pathbreaking, if uneasy, partnerships?
Obenson laments films centring “the transformations of white protagonists”. Is it so appalling for US screenwriters to spotlight the 86 percent majority they’re trying to change, not just the 14 percent minority who’ve been crying for change?
A. O. Scott in his April 3, 2019, The New York Times piece faults TBoE because “nearly all of its emotion and suspense depend on what the white people do”.
Don’t the most deprived blacks admit that that reflects real life? Shouldn’t films reflect that still-skewed equation and ask whites if they want to continue to consolidate sway or to leverage it, finally, to level the field? Films such as TBoE ask – and answer – with a positive role model.
Confoundingly, Scott writes that TBoE’s message is “change happens when the oppressed are nice to their oppressors”.
Owen Glieberman, however, in his April 4, 2019 piece for Variety offers a more mature reading of TBoE’s message:
“racism…is a mask for fear and ignorance…C.P (the central White character) has grown up regarding Black people as The Other. As he spends more time…with them on equal footing, his ignorance starts to fall away, despite his best efforts to hold it in place….he can’t escape seeing that his own Klan cronies are hypocrites….(Sam Rockwell’s) fine, subtle performance separates the sinner from the sin. A Klansman purging himself of hate seems unlikely (though in this case, it really happened), but some collective version of that is what this country now needs to go through. Either we destroy the hate or it destroys us.”
Why is Schindler’s List still searing? It nails the duality of good and evil, its everyday nature. Supremacists aren’t monsters. They start out as ordinary boys and girls. Unchecked they can turn quite “demented” men and women, but they never cease to be ordinary. If we lose sight of this “yeah-could-be-me” ordinariness, we’re missing a trick.
Our prejudices are the sum of our repeated, reinforced choices. They’re habits, not tablets of stone to which we swear blood-oaths as teens and stick with until death. They’re a series of choices we carry into parenthood and pass on to our children. And we don’t always express it by burning houses. Sometimes we simply grade children differently, or stall someone’s promotion or pay.
With all the shackles on their agency, brave blacks defied centuries of being oppressed by spurning their parents’ choices and eventually resisting racism.
With no curbs on their agency and little need for “bravery”, can’t whites defy centuries of being oppressors, by spurning their parents’ choices and refusing to be racist?
Here’s the thing. How will they, if all they see onscreen is themselves, their parents, grandparents as mindless, unrepentant oppressors? How will they begin to accept that they’re not ceding space to blacks but returning it?
You give power to what you focus on
Of course, newer screenwriters can start situating scripts in contemporary settings instead of defaulting to the low-hanging fruit of history or gradualism; a challenge to be thrown to black – not just white – screenwriters.
Black producers-directors and screenwriters have enjoyed “play” for years to script or fund movies of their choice. Have they been more – if not as – faithful to historicity, urgency, finesse, black centeredness, courage as critics demand of moviedom’s powerful whites? Or have their movies, on racism or not, suffered (more or less) from the same hypocrisies, opportunism and profiteering that plagues much of Hollywood anyway? If they too chose history and gradualism over contemporary settings, should they be judged by a tougher yardstick because they’re black?
Screenwriters and directors exploring race relations shouldn’t always ask, as Obenson suggests, “does my story do justice to history?”. That’s more for archivists, documentarians, schools, universities who may have, shall we say, “room for improvement” in doing justice.
Filmmakers, however, have to entertain; never mind if they educate or inform you on your way out. They should instead ask, “does my story do justice to blacks and whites?”
“Doing justice” to whites isn’t about assuaging guilt, excusing real-life reform. These movies aren’t asking whites to feel good regardless, but only if, like some characters on screen, they defy racist habits, defy themselves off screen. “Doing justice” is about truth-telling through storytelling, including the truth of the possible: what can be, what might be. Imagining or re-imagining whites (not just blacks) resisting racism.
In TBoEM and TBoE Sam Rockwell plays a see-you-in-hell racist. His scarcely believable change-of-heart plays out in less than a fifth of running time. He’s convincing. He touches hearts and minds including those of impressionable teen audiences, yet to be contorted by the wretchedness of racist parents. And wasn’t it a fiery Martin Luther King Jr. who once cried, “I have a dream!”, drawing strength not only from what was or what is, but also from what is to come, what is not yet.
Recall that scene from Crash (2004), where wealthy white Jean Cabot confesses on phone to her friend, “I am angry all the time. And I don’t know why” – that’s white screenwriter-director, Paul Haggis holding up a mirror, to other whites.
If you dwell on the oppressed, her welts, the ferocity of her oppression and what and how she overcomes, that’s a fulfilment of all the oppressed can be. It gives her power. As long as it includes power to shake off or transform her oppressor. Power in ‘the enduring of it’ loses fascination if suffering is unending. After a time, it’s morbid, self-perpetuating.
So, it’s also in holding up an empathetic, defiantly inspiring mirror to the oppressor that there’s hope for more than incremental change. That’s a fulfilment of all the oppressor can be. And it must include power to transform himself or be transformed.
Schindler’s power may lie in illuminating both oppressed and oppressor, but its enduring power lies in centring the oppressor, more piercingly than other films have. We see more underneath the swastika than underneath the star of David. We see Germans (Nazi or not) labour to find the humane in themselves, in others. The point isn’t that many fail, but that some succeed. As Roger Ebert wrote of Schindler’s, “not that it explains evil, but that it insists that men can be good in the face of it, and that good can prevail.”
Spielberg shot Schindler’s in black and white but showed that truth often lies in the grey. You don’t build a bridge across a canal by glorifying how far apart each bank is, but by first visualizing a pathway where none exists. Your bridge doesn’t – and needn’t – erase how different each bank is. It “bridges” by finding common cause, common ground, in spite of difference.
Thinking, feeling, talking, acting divisively (black/white, us/them) may be handy in levelling playing fields, fighting for justice, seeking retribution.
Reconciliation? That lies in hunting for meeting points (the grey).
A filmmaking that commends one and condemns the other is the poorer for it.