Sunday, July 12, 2015

Stigmatizing Africa by not stigmatizing Africa

One of the most inept movies I've seen in a while is Hector and the Search for Happiness, a star vehicle for the usually reliable Simon Pegg, which my wife convinced me to watch last night. I had been resisting it because I thought she was talking about the Simon Pegg movie A Fantastic Fear of Everything, whose poster just completely turns me off. Hector looked a little more promising, but what concerned me about it was that it had a bunch of recognizable stars and came out only last year, yet I hadn't heard of it. I smelled misfire from the start.

It's kind of a male Eat Pray Love -- or, I assume that's what it's trying to be, because I haven't actually seen Eat Pray Love. It also seems like a possible variation on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but I've only read that story and not seen any of the film versions. (I know, I know ... I'm still desperately trying to catch up with Ben Stiller's from two years ago.) Anyway, Pegg plays a buttoned-up London psychiatrist who goes on a voyage of personal discovery intended to help him find his own happiness, which will in turn better help him figure out how to prescribe a path toward happiness to his patients.

It had the potential to be trite and wet and saccharine, and indeed it is all those things. However, it's also disturbingly patronizing to the locals of one of the stops on this journey, and that's what I want to talk about today.

One problem with Hector is that its lead actually makes surprisingly few stops on his trip. Hector's girlfriend, played by Rosamund Pike (who is back in my doghouse after a brief uptick in Gone Girl), tells him that if he's going to do this trip, he should go all out. If only the movie followed the same advice, that would be something. But Hector visits only China, Los Angeles and the second stop on his trip: "Africa."

That's right. No city name. No country name. Just "Africa."

You've seen one part of Africa, you've seen it all, right? "Okay, I've set foot on any random piece of African soil. Now I 'get' Africa."

I scoffed at this extremely tone-deaf choice as it happened, before immediately realizing why they decided not to specify a country. The reason is that the movie was going to be so broad in its approach to its "Africa scenes" that any country that was singled out would have no choice but to be offended.

What's so offensive about the way Africa is portrayed in this movie?

Well, I'll tell you. It starts by Hector having to take a flight -- for reasons that are never properly explained -- from China to "Africa" on the least flight-worthy plane ever shown in a movie, filled with goats and poor people and anything else you can imagine. Naturally, this flight is going to ride through the world's worst lightning storm in order to accentuate the sketchiness of the situation.

But that's just the start. From the first moment "Africa" is introduced into the narrative, the movie is self-consciously off-setting its negative portrayals with condescendingly positive ones.

So Hector sits on this flight next to an "African woman" who speaks perfect English and is so taken with this sop that she invites him over to her family's house for sweet potato stew. It's abundantly clear that this is setting up a moment of overwhelming cultural pandering within ten to 15 minutes of screen time, but at this point we can only imagine what it might be.

So Hector lands without incident and is met at the airport by a fellow med school colleague who is going to take him to volunteer at a clinic for a couple weeks. (One weird thing about this movie is how much he's called upon to act as a medical doctor, when that's not really what he is.) Naturally, half the people in sight are soldiers with machine guns. You see, in "Africa," every country is in the middle of a coup at any given time, and corrupt men with guns are constantly walking the streets.

So Hector does the white savior thing for a couple scenes, using his alleged affability and purity of heart to be able to connect to sick young boys, even though the last thing they need is someone to diagnose their mental health. Oh but wait, I almost forgot to tell you about the scene in the bar.

Hector wanders into his bar wearing his goofy tourist hat (he's always wearing this hat, the film's terrible shorthand for his cluelessness, which it turns on and off as necessary), and everyone else in the entire bar is a soldier with a gun. Hector stays anyway, for some reason. Oh wait, the only other European is a guy in a suit played by Jean Reno, who is actually the most dangerous guy in the bar -- he's a local drug kingpin. Because Hector is so awesome, he figures out how to prescribe the proper meds to the kingpin's unhappy wife.

Now back to that sweet potato stew scene.

Concerned that it's been laying on the anti-Africa a bit too thick with all the soldiers with guns, the movie over-corrects with the life-affirming scene where Hector has sweet potato stew at the home of his neighbor from the flight. We jump into this scene by way of Hector -- the guest, mind you -- removing a pot of stew from the oven, and then swigging from a bottle of wine as no less than 72 smiling and happy Africans cheer him. What is supposed to be accomplished in this perfunctory minute-long scene is that we are supposed to learn a) just how happy and loving and amazing most Africans are, and b) just how easily Hector becomes one of the family. Yes, it's exactly as depressing as it sounds.

The scene ends with Hector having tearful farewells with all these people who are already planning to name their next-born children after him. He gets into a cab, falls into the back seat ... and wakes up later to discover that the cab has been hijacked by two criminals who are now taking him to rot in some makeshift African prison.

That's right -- Hector spends the next ten to 15 minutes of screen time in a cell without food or water, with only the "travel candies" he has been carrying with him. Because he is such a mensch, though, he actually shares his travel candies with the rat in the cell.

Why he is in this cell is never clear, except that bad African men with guns don't trust white guys who are unexpectedly asleep in the back of the cabs they steal. My wife and I discussed that in reality, upon finding him in the back of that stolen car, they would either just dump him by the side of the road, or shoot him and dump him if they a) didn't care about him at all, or b) thought he might be able to identify them and actually cared about that. What they would not do is bring him back in a cell to rot, pending some kind of forthcoming round of questioning and/or torture. In real life, they just couldn't be assed, to use the Australian expression.

So eventually the leader of this group of criminals decides to taunt and play Russian Roulette with Hector. I mean, actual Russian Roulette. Or, whatever variation of Russian Roulette involves pulling the trigger of a gun while pointing it at somebody's head. By the time he's fired off two empty chambers, you the audience assumes that all the chambers are empty and they are just trying to scare Hector. (Again, why they care this much about a psychiatrist from England is anyone's guess.) But no, for the third trigger pull he actually kills Hector's rat companion with the next bullet. So not only was he really possibly going to kill Hector in this sadistic manner -- again, we have no idea why -- but then he actually does kill Hector's rat companion. Cruel, cruel Africans.

But wait, Africans are not cruel! Hector gets out of the jam through a dumb contrivance which involves having accidentally borrowed Jean Reno's pen, and makes his way back to the village where he's staying. The people are so happy to see him that they throw him a huge party with posters that say WELCOME HOME HECTAR. Or maybe it's WELCOME BACK HECTAR. But either way it's supposed to be childlike and innocent of the Africans to spell Hector's name wrong. And then all the nice Africans, many of whom we last saw eating sweet potato stew, come out of the woodwork to party and celebrate like it's New Year's Eve combined with, well, whatever their favorite holiday is. "Hectar" is like the best thing that's ever happened to their village.

At this point, mercifully, Hector finally leaves Africa for Los Angeles.

I guess if these scenes were shot in my African country, I wouldn't want them to name it either.

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