Sunday, October 31, 2010

Seeing in black and white

In case you didn't know it, I'm a white guy.

It's true. My first and last name are actually both names that appear commonly in the African American community, so I sometimes wonder if I'm mistaken for a minority in contexts where people only see my name. But I'm definitely not a minority. Well, at least not for another 40 or 50 years, when Latinos are supposedly going to become the largest demographic group in the United States.

But it wasn't until recently that I started thinking about how my race plays a role in what films I like.

You see, I have a relatively new co-worker who is black, though his name sounds a lot more white than mine does. One of the first things I learned about this guy -- on his first day, in fact -- was that he loves movies. Naturally, this was a man I was interested in getting to know better. I stopped short of telling him that I a) write film reviews and b) write a film blog, because I don't talk about either of these things at work -- I don't want anyone to get wind of the fact that I sometimes do both during business hours. (Only during genuine down time, I swear.) I assume people are still generally ignorant about that, or they would have busted me on it by now.

But we did return regularly to talking about films we liked in his first few days on the job, after which the discussion thread kind of faded into the background. This was a good six months ago.

This past week, I stayed late on Monday night, as did he. No one else was around, so we shot the shit about movies for the last hour we were both here. You've been in movie discussions before ... you know how that can happen.

I should tell you that this guy is not a movie fan the way you and I are movie fans. He loves movies, but he doesn't worship them -- or maybe he thinks he does, but he's fooling himself. He doesn't have the commitment nor the breadth of knowledge you and I have. He's not familiar with the names of a lot of directors, he mixes up the names of relatively famous actors, and he hasn't heard of some movies that I thought most people who describe themselves as movie fans would know. In other words, he's an amateur movie fan, not a professional movie fan.

To his credit in this regard, he was bemoaning the fact that he didn't have a good way to get exposed to obscure titles, titles he would certainly seek out if he knew they existed. So I told him I'd loan him movies from my collection that I loved. He seemed excited about that prospect.

Where our different races come in to play is in the movie titles we discussed. And I quickly realized that this guy is not necessarily a fan of all movies -- he's a fan of movies that feature at least one prominent African American character.

This caught me by surprise. Which is probably because I tend to have this idealized concept of what the great movies are, thinking that all people who call themselves "film buffs" would have many of the same films as common references, and would be conversant about the same films that are widely considered to be great.

But just as I probably seek out similarities to my own frame of reference in the films I love, he does the same. I don't know why I should expect him to relate as easily as I do to films featuring all white faces, any more than I would relate as easily as he does to films featuring all black faces.

The problem is, there are a lot more films that feature all (or mostly) white faces, than films that feature all (or mostly) black faces. And therefore, my co-worker inevitably lives in a smaller cinematic universe than I do.

It was when he started to ask me about a series of films with black casts -- a series of films that I hadn't seen -- that I started to feel really bad about this.

"What did you think of The Great Debaters?" he asked.

"I haven't see that one," I responded.

"Okay, what about The Secret Life of Bees?"

"I haven't seen that either."

"What did you think of Ray?"

"You know, I never saw Ray," I admitted.

"Really?" He gave me a funny look.

It was then I started to worry this guy might think I'm a film racist.

Of the 55 films nominated for best picture between 2000 and 2009, there are only two I haven't seen. One is Ray. The other is Capote. So, maybe I'm a film homophobe as well.

What Ray and Capote also have in common is that they are both biopics -- Ray more so than Capote. As luck would have it, I had already told this guy that biopics are not my favorite type of movie. So I used that as my excuse for why I hadn't seen Ray. What the actual reason is, I don't know. I missed it when it was in the theater, and never prioritized a viewing after that. Fortunately, he doesn't know that Ray makes up half of the 3% of best picture nominees from the last decade I haven't seen.

I felt particularly bad because Jamie Foxx was the star of Ray, and I had already mentioned -- twice -- a bad piece of acting by Foxx in another movie he had asked me about. On two separate occasions he asked me if I liked Miami Vice, and I told him I didn't. When he asked why, I couldn't conjure anything meaningful -- in my own head, I know that I thought it was uninspired, long and boring. But I thought I needed to give him a specific, so both times, I talked about the scene in which Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Foxx) are walking away from a building that's about to explode. A split second before the building explodes, Foxx reacts to the explosion. It's like that scene in North by Northwest when the kid covers his ears before the gun goes off. The gaffe is probably as much Michael Mann's fault for not noticing it as it is Foxx's fault, or perhaps Mann was stuck with that one take because they couldn't blow up the building a second time. But my co-worker doesn't know Michael Mann from a hole in the ground. He knows Jamie Foxx, and that's the part of what I said that probably sunk in with him, even when I tried to back-pedal and blame the director. (To make matters worse, I had also previously criticized Collateral, Mann's other collaboration with Foxx.)

My co-worker then helped me out by asking about a different biopic and whether I liked it: Malcolm X. I breathed a sigh of relief and proceeded to heap praise upon Malcolm X, explaining that Spike Lee brought something to it that made it more than your typical biopic. I then told him it was one of my three favorite Lee movies, the others being Do the Right Thing and 25th Hour. He had never heard of 25th Hour and wrote the title down. Unfortunately, as he may soon discover, the cast of 25th Hour is almost all white.

The next day we had another moment that wasn't so great. He asked me about The Hurricane -- another biopic -- and whether I thought Denzel Washington really deserved to lose out to Kevin Spacey in that year's best actor race. When he talked about Spacey and American Beauty, he had a kind of disgust in his eyes and in his tone that suggested American Beauty could not possibly have offered anything to anyone. It was at that moment that I saw the movie through his eyes, and understood how it might not have spoken to his experience.

I tend to be honest to a fault when discussing films, so I told him I didn't think The Hurricane was all that. Which was a shame, because the way he introduced the topic was in a manner that suggested "Here at least is something we can agree on." (Funnily enough, I had a discussion with someone soon after I saw The Hurricane in which I told him I thought it was good. He told me that it was totally standard and not very interesting. I ended up being swayed by his argument.) But I also said that sometimes there's a groundswell for movies that everyone is talking about that year, and that's probably why Spacey won the Oscar. (Even though I probably do think Spacey was better in American Beauty than Washington was in The Hurricane.)

Other movies with mostly black casts he asked about, that I hadn't seen: Hoodlum and Takers. At least with Takers, when he mentioned T.I. and Chris Brown, I was able to tell him that I'd really liked T.I. in ATL. He hadn't seen ATL. So there's that.

The weird thing is that I actually think I've seen more movies with black casts than almost anyone else I know. I've reviewed a ton of movies that fit this description on the website I write for. And one of the reasons I request these movies is that I don't want them to be given the short shrift, just because other white critics at my site are not that interested in seeking them out. I've seen most of the movies directed by Tyler Perry and most of the movies directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans, plus a dozen other directors toiling in relative anonymity. But these were not the films he asked me about. (And by the way, do I sound yet like I'm listing the number of black friends I have to prove that I'm not a racist?)

But even in the previous paragraph there's an unfortunate kind of condescension. I'm basically acknowledging that many white critics who choose their assignments don't seem that interested in reviewing Stomp the Yard or Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns, and I'm positioning myself as some kind of "white savior" who's going to swoop in and make sure these films get reviewed. I'm not, you will notice, saying that I actually want to see these movies because I predict that something about them will speak to me or be especially interesting to me. That's certainly true in some cases, but in other cases, it's just work.

Like anyone, I think I just want to see stories I haven't seen before, executed in an interesting way. And I think the unfortunate problem with Hollywood is that there are few risks taken on unique stories of any kind, particularly with predominantly African American themes. When a movie like Precious does come out, however, I'm first in line. I saw it in the theater and I ranked it third out of all the films I saw in 2009. (There I go, making those "see how I'm not racist?" excuses again.) The reason Precious interested me was because I had never seen a movie in which the main character was a 300-pound teenager of any race. I thought it would/should be interesting, and you better bet it was.

I've strayed a bit from the point, so why don't I get back to it.

So the result of Monday night's conversation was that I said I'd bring in some films from my home collection for him to take a look at. However, I was busy that night and forgot. The next day he said "Oh man, I was looking forward to watching something tonight!" So I made sure not to forget again.

But I had another busy night and had to kind of choose the movies on the fly. I knew he liked action, suspense and sci-fi, but I also knew he liked period pieces (he mentioned specifically the Harlem Renaissance -- sorry, can't help you there). If I had been able to do a full scrub of my collection, I'm sure I would have come up with better choices. But in the interest of not disappointing him two days in a row, here's what I grabbed:

Donnie Darko

Glengarry Glen Ross
Code 46

Not a black character in any of the three casts.

On my way to work, I realized these choices may have made my cinematic world view seem all the more limited to him. So I offered them to him almost apologetically, though I certainly didn't indicate what reason I'd have to feel apologetic. I did tell him I'd chosen them sort of quickly and would do better next time. He hadn't heard of any of them (not even Glengarry Glen Ross?) and so didn't have any reason to think I'd done poorly. Yet. He did notice Al Pacino in the cast of Glengarry Glen Ross and seemed excited about that. I told him not to watch the movie with his daughter in the room, because of all the f-bombs.

While I think the machismo of Glengarry Glen Ross will be enough to please him, it does feature his nemesis, Kevin Spacey. And of the other two films, well, one is about a depressed white suburban teenager in the 1980s who hallucinates rabbits, and the other is about a star-crossed love affair in the near future between porcelain-skinned Samantha Morton and Tim Robbins. At least Tim Robbins is known as a good champion of liberal causes. Then again, my co-worker is a registered Republican.

Given his stated preferences, what do I expect him to get out of these films? They're indisputably good films -- but maybe they're only indisputably good from the perspective of a white film buff who sees the cinematic universe a certain way.

Plus, will I do better next time? I'm ashamed to say that my collection does not get much more ethnically diverse. Ashamed because I don't think of myself as a person who gravitates toward "white" movies. I just gravitate toward good movies. Whether they feature a large quantity of whites is not something I usually think about -- though maybe the point is that it's totally unconscious.

In fact, as I went through my movie library on Wednesday (read that post here), I made some startling discoveries about just how white my collection truly is. Of the 84 movies we own, only two have primarily black subject matter, or even a significant number of black characters. And which ones they are are telling: Get Christie Love!, a blaxploitation movie given to me as a joke (which I still haven't watched), and the aforementioned Precious, which I loved, but which we received as a free screener copy, and therefore didn't choose to own per se. There are a number of black characters in 8 Mile, but tellingly, the main rapper is white, and I actually got this movie through passive means as well -- it was among the leftover belongings of a former neighbor of mine, who skedaddled in the middle of the night because he couldn't pay his rent. (For the record, this guy was white.)

Because I've already gotten myself pretty deep into this soul-searching, let's continue.

Why don't I own the movies I love that star blacks? I love Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, as discussed previously. But I have never thought of buying either of them. (That could be because they are both pretty heavy, and I don't have the desire to repeatedly revisit dark subject matter, no pun intended on the word "dark.") And speaking of movies about rappers, I love Hustle & Flow, which I ranked #1 out of all the movies I saw in 2005. At least half the cast is black, and it's heavy in ways that invite repeat viewings, rather than discourage them. But, I still don't own it.

Just because I'm stopping now doesn't mean there aren't more examples. (Jeez, I sure hope there are.)

I really hope this is coming off as earnest self-examination, and not some kind of pandering to black cinema. I hope it doesn't seem like I think I need to fill some quota of black movies in order to be a well-rounded movie buff. I believe you should watch what you watch because you want to watch it, not because you feel like you should watch it. (Unless you're getting paid, then at least the word "should" has a financial incentive attached.) If you follow my label for "racial politics" on my blog, you'll see that the way race and the movies interact has been an interesting topic to me over the years. I've just chilled on it a bit in 2010, because last year, some people thought I was finding racism against blacks everywhere I looked.

I also don't want to appear to be pandering to my co-worker, who will probably never read this, but who I want to represent fairly anyway. He's a smart guy with good taste. I am specifically calling attention to the films he mentioned that have majority black casts, because a) there were an overwhelming succession of them in this particular discussion, and b) it fits into the thrust of my current argument. But he also talks regularly about other films he loves, such as The Matrix, which just has Laurence Fishburne and a bunch of white folks. (Oh, and a black oracle I guess.) I think he's also probably conscious of trying not to appear too black-centric, the same way I'm conscious of trying not to to appear too white-centric. He has twice told me that he "cried like a baby" at the end of The Notebook, which is about as white a movie as you can get. This is probably his go-to example of his own cinematic diversity, the same way I might tell people how much I like Precious.

I do think it's invaluable to explore these things in ourselves, because all I really want is to live in a world where film fans can find common ground in the movies they love, regardless of what race they are. I just want to know how to get there.

Maybe I'll know a little bit more about the road to that cinematic paradise on Monday, when my co-worker returns to the office, and is sure to have watched at least one of the films I loaned him. Maybe he'll find value in at least one of them. Heck, maybe he'll love all three.

And maybe, to do him the same courtesy, I should do something I should have done a long time ago: Rent a damn copy of Ray.

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