Friday, April 10, 2009

Racial police

I don't want to harsh everyone's buzz here on a Thursday with the weekend looming and all, but I do want to get a little serious here for a minute.

Now, I'm not going to sit here and say that Baby Mama is a racist movie. But I am going to say it could have worked harder to avoid appearing that way.

I had the displeasure of catching the last 20 minutes of Baby Mama Tuesday night as my wife watched it for the first time. It had been one of my least favorite comedies of 2008, and in fact, one of my least favorite films of 2008 period. Not that I want to pigeonhole actors and actresses, but Tina Fey is as far removed from a sarcastic Liz Lemon type as you can get in this movie, and what's worse, neither she nor anything else in the film is funny. The best words I can use to describe the script are "conventional," "straightforward" and "lame." If Steve Martin is the funniest part of your movie, and it's the year 2008, then that's saying something.

Oh, and then there's that uncomfortable racism.

What racism, you ask? You're saying maybe you watched Baby Mama but didn't notice it?

I'm not so much worried about the title, which is basically an unflattering, grammatically incorrect social construct lifted straight from the African American community, inviting us to laugh at the frequent occurrence of children being conceived out of wedlock. I'm also not that worried about the performance of Romany Malco as a doorman in the erstwhile Liz Lemon's building, even though Malco has better avoided slumming into "stereotypical behavior" in his other films.

No, what really concerns me is one throwaway moment near the end, during what I'll call the "gloomy montage." You're familiar with the "gloomy montage" -- it's the moment late in a film when all the characters are bummed about their current relationship to each other and the world, and they are all shown glumly pursuing their various daily activities, to the tune of some mildly soppy theme music.

At one moment in this particular "gloomy montage," the character played by Greg Kinnear, a lawyer-turned-juice purveyor, is watching in disinterest as his new employee tries to blend a juice for a customer. The employee starts up the blender, and the contents splatter all over the place. The employee recoils in horror, all bug-eyed and open-mouthed, and stays fixed in that pose for about five seconds of screen time while Kinnear absently picks the blender lid off the counter and encloses it, so it will no longer splatter. The employee isn't let off the hook by getting to smack his forehead and say "Duh, I forgot the top." Nope, he just stares in shock and confusion, like he's never even considered the concept of a splatter-proof enclosing mechanism.

Did I mention this new employee is burly and black, and has corn rows?

So what are you saying, Baby Mama -- black guy don't know how to work a blender?

What was almost certainly just a case of unfortunate casting and lazy writing ends up conveying a whole lot of bigotry on the part of this film, even if it was unintentional and unreflective of the filmmakers' feelings.

First off, it's a pretty dumb idea for a scene. Any person who has ever used a blender in his or her life -- or even seen a blender used -- knows that safely affixing the lid is a prerequisite to hitting the "blend" button. Having a blender spew fruit innards is a pretty visual way to dramatize the work-related malaise of Kinnear's character, but it just has no basis in plausibility.

Then to randomly decide to cast the character as African-American ... surely something had to go into that decision, right? I would argue that the easiest way to cast an extra whose identity is essentially unimportant is to cast as bland-looking a white person as you can find. Make them any ethnicity, and it's as though you thought about it before you did it, as though you did it for a specific reason.

Considering both of these factors, Baby Mama's "black dude who can't operate one of the kitchen's most simple appliances" looks pretty darn bad.

I grant you that this is an extremely politically correct perspective to adopt. Someone who disagrees with my point might argue, "See, this is the problem with you liberals. So what, you're saying a movie can never feature a black character who doesn't know how to use a blender?"

Well, maybe not. Maybe not if he's then shown the correct way by a white man dripping with disdain about the simplicity of the task the black guy just screwed up. Maybe not if the director tells the black actor to just stare in horror at his mistake.

But my real point is that someone needs to think about these things before committing them to film. Someone needs to review the content of a film with a fine-toothed comb, to avoid appearances of bias that aren't intended. Surely no one would consider the director's artistic vision to be shackled if the role was simply recast as a slacker with a goattee trying to operate the blender, rather than this black kid. Better yet, just write the scene in a more believable way.

The point is not whether I should be getting this impression from the film -- it's the reality of the fact that I do, and that it would have been easy to fix.

Television advertisers are innately aware of these types of racial politics. They don't need to be told, don't need to mess up and have their mistake pointed out to them. Or more accurately, they benefit from other advertisers' past mistakes, and take pains not to repeat them. Why do you think that the black guy will be the smart one and the white guy will be the dumb one any time they're paired on screen, and have a difference of opinion about the product in question? It's not because there couldn't be a scenario where a black guy and a white guy are friends, and the white guy happens to be smarter. It's that the opposite dynamic sticks out, makes us notice it, and makes us question the bedrock moral principles of the company that created the product being advertised.

I'm not saying Baby Mama should have been called Surrogate Mother or even Baby's Mama. But I do think that if you call your movie Baby Mama, you should make sure all of its black extras know how to operate blenders.


Don Handsome said...

Excellent take on this issue, Vance. I think that too much of our popular culture is careless enough that it steeps itself in racism. While one poorly conceived blender joke doesn’t condemn an entire production as racist, these things add up and ultimately eek their way into the zeitgeist. If you’re paying attention, you can see the unflattering underpinnings of bigotry permeating a lot of movie culture. In addition to examples like the one you put forth, there are the obvious offenses of the stereotypical Disney/Animation-sidekick (I think it was you, who so eloquently indicted this characterization in a stunning pre-The Audient writing sample) and in the “Caucasianification” of characters. Just last year, the true story of three Asian MIT students who count cards was made into the movie 21 which stars the definitely-white duo of Kate Bosworth and Jim Sturgess and one annoying Asian played by Aaron Yoo (incidentally, when you look it up on IMDB, Yoo’s and the other Asian character are the only main characters not given last names). I don’t think this is all due to a vast racist conspiracy – well, maybe in the Disney case it is – but there is a definite misread of the public’s preferences going on. I’m glad you wrote about this. Its not overly PC to be the Racial Police…it just says that you know that you’ve been underestimated.

Vancetastic said...

Perfect example with 21. I understand the spoon-feeding of stories to a largely white audience for greater potential box office, though it still disturbs me. What I don't understand is, as you mention, the details. What, it's important that Jim Sturgess is "Ben Campbell," but Aaron Yoo is relegated to being "Choi, that crazy Asian guy?" Might as well be.

Daddy Geek Boy said...

Don's got a great point about 21...the casting was just one of the major offences of that film. The first being to take a real life and gripping story and make it seem fake and frivolous.

But Vance...I think you're looking a little too closely between the lines here. You remind me of a lot of the racial humor of the early 90's (most from Martin Laurence, I think). "The game of pool is racist. It's about a white ball knocking all of the color balls off the table." I'm paraphrasing, but you get the point.

The entertainment industry does have a long way to go in order to tip the balance. But I really don't think that a three second joke in a dumb comedy is racist. I don't think that this extra who couldn't work the blender was playing into any kind of stereotype. At least I'm not aware of a stereotype that says that African-Americans can't work a blender.

Vancetastic said...

Daddy, someday I'll write something that you agree with. ;-)

Daddy Geek Boy said...

I agreed with your zombie post.

Vancetastic said...

This is the blogosphere equivalent of the definitive "No" that Ste -- uh, "our friend" was talking about.

I still maintain that even small decisions about who to cast must be taken seriously, because this conveys the idea that the guy is incompetent. Who doesn't know how to use a blender? It's not a specific blender-related stereotype ... that's a bit of a facile response, if I do say so. Someone DID say "Who should we cast?", and someone else DID say "Here, this guy." Whether they cared about his race or not, we'll never know, but since he doesn't do any real acting in the scene, you'd think it was one of the only character traits he was selected for.

And yes, I do consider this to be sort of the equivalent of the Martin Lawrence joke ... but that doesn't mean it's not still true. ;-)

Daddy Geek Boy said...

This isn't quite the emphatic "NO" that you're referring to. Usually that particular "NO" comes without a shred of fact to back up my nay-saying.

I just don't think that everything is about race just because there are different races involved. Yes, I know that people do pay attention to this stuff while casting. I've been involved in choices where the decisions NOT to use Latino extras as gang-bangers in a scene were made because of exactly what you're talking about.

I disagree with you here because I think that this scene is innocuous. Maybe this guy had the best blank stare of the extras available. Maybe he's the producer's nephew. We'll never know.

I think it's dangerous to look for racism in everything, because it just keeps the idea of racism going instead of working past it.

Vancetastic said...

Ah, the eternal question ... whether to eradicate racism by addressing it or ignoring it.

Agreed that it probably had no racist intent ... but I do think that racism is one of those things about which we must be extra careful, and I think this movie was extra careless.

I tried to look up this guy on IMDB to see if maybe he was in fact the producer's nephew, but as far as I can tell, he does not appear credited at all. Ha! Racism!