Thursday, November 8, 2007

Zora on Film: Gone Baby Gone and White American Pathologies

I had very high expectations for Ben Affleck’s new film, Gone Baby Gone. In my opinion, he is an artist who has yet to realize his full potential. With his most recent effort, he is behind the camera and thus better able to exercise his intelligence and creativity. My expectations were also supported by the fact that the film’s script was based on a novel written by Dennis Lehane (also the source of Eastwood’s Mystic River). Lehane is a master at describing the intricacies of “poor, white trash” in urban America.

For me, Gone Baby Gone joins other great films like The Grapes of Wrath, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Fargo, Raising Arizona, and A Patch of Blue in addressing and exploring white American pathologies. While not acknowledged as such, these films serve an important role in highlighting the types of white behavior that our media and mainstream society tends purposefully to ignore.

Poverty, drug use, criminality, welfare abuse/fraud and broken families are phenomena that are inevitably given black faces. These associations are so ingrained in the American psyche that black people themselves often believe them to be true. During Ronald Reagan’s last presidential campaign, I was struck by how effectively he was able to wield the image of the African-American welfare queen to gain support for his conservative politics. I recall watching a television interview with a poor, white woman sitting on a broken-down porch discussing the failures of African-Americans and their dependency on welfare. The reporter later commented that the woman herself was a third-generation welfare recipient.

Gone Baby Gone tells the story of a little girl who is stolen from her home in a working-class, largely white Boston neighborhood. Because she is white, beautiful and vulnerable, the media pounces on the story to add yet another chapter to the old American narrative of white women in peril. The girl’s mother revels in the attention and takes every opportunity to share both her tears and her story. It turns out, however, that “her story” isn’t entirely accurate – it rarely is in these cases. The mother is a cold, pathetic woman who is more interested in finding a man and getting a fix than in taking proper care of her daughter – she knows it, her family knows it and even police investigators know it. The reporters outside of her house, however, are completely uninterested in knowing or reporting on anything that the public may not be able or willing to easily digest.

Ben Affleck plays on our sensibilities as American viewers and presents us with a likely villain in the form of a dark-skinned, Haitian drug dealer. With him surrounded by his Asian and white prostitutes, I am sure that most viewers will have no problem envisioning him as someone capable of coveting a vulnerable, blond baby. But just when I was about to throw my popcorn at the screen, Affleck gives us a twist. “America, don’t be so quick to consume stereotypes,” he urges. “Use your head. Scratch the social surface to reveal the true ills beneath.”

The resolution of Gone Baby Gone is a bit far-fetched. It is difficult to imagine that Morgan Freeman’s character would take the risks that he does. It is even more difficult to imagine that working-class whites in south Boston would allow him, indeed beg him, to take those risks. I can only explain the ending by attributing it to Affleck’s personal vision of a better world. We are not there yet Ben, but I applaud you for at least giving us a snippet of our racial world as it currently is.

1 comment:

Kitty Glendower said...

For me, Gone Baby Gone joins other great films like The Grapes of Wrath, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Fargo, Raising Arizona, and A Patch of Blue in addressing and exploring white American pathologies.

I would like to add Faulkner to this list. He does an extraordinary job illustrating those very white American pathologies especially the pitting poor whites against blacks (all blacks rich or poor) and in the process revealing how the perception of superior/inferior roles play out. I have not seen Gone Baby Gone yet. I recall Mystic River bothering me to the point of irritation but I cannot remember what it was, I will have to watch it again one day.

Excellent post.