I want to continue with our earlier conversation about race, questions of representation, and identity in mass media that we began here about The Lone Ranger.
Last weekend, I also saw the coming-of-age movie The Way, Way Back. The movie is a predictable exercise in crowd pleasing tropes about family, divorce, parental dating, road trips, vacations, and teen angst. The acting is solid.
Moreover, I will see anything with Steve Carroll. I also enjoy Sam Rockwell's work. Maya Rudolph from Idiocracy also makes an appearance. She is sincere and welcome in her role.
The Way, Way Back is also an extraordinarily "white" film. The movie is common in that respect. Hollywood functions as a dream factory for the fantasies of white people. Such a claim is not empty conjecture. As the book Screen Saviors details, white men are about 20 to 25 percent of the United States population. By contrast, white men constitute 95 percent of Hollywood executives, writers, editors, show runners and other decision makers.
The United States is also a highly segregated society along lines of race and class.
Given these dynamics, Hollywood, more often than not, results in an insular group of white men projecting their misunderstandings of black and brown personhood onto the screen for the public to consume as accurate depictions of reality.
"Coming-of-age films" exacerbate these challenges of how to best represent a full range of human experience and identity across lines of race, class, gender, and sexuality. The Way, Way Back is a tale about upper middle class whites who are vacationing in the Hamptons (or some approximation of it).
Just as Moonlight Kingdom did the same thing, just much more honestly and transparently, the nostalgia of the selective remembering and forgetting that is at the heart of our own personal coming-of-age stories involves both intentional and unintentional acts of remembering and forgetting.
Because of segregation, for whites, people of color are often not present in these worlds as central intimate figures, or in the memories which are subsequently produced. This is the quotidian outcome of centuries of racism and contemporary institutional white supremacy. Government policy that created Apartheid America manifests itself in racially segregated social networks.
Excluding Maya Rudolph, I counted three non-white actors, mostly extras, in The Way, Way Back. At this point, I was worried that a black or brown character would suddenly appear in the film, and that he or she would fulfill a stereotype while also allowing the writers of The Way, Way Back to claim that they were "inclusive."
The Way, Way Back followed through on this trope. Because they apparently like to hang out at water parks, a group of horrible black "b-boys" and "break dancers" are inserted into the plot in order to provide the white protagonist a rite of passage moment wherein he becomes a "real man".
Historically, white masculinity has been fulfilled by "standing" up to "menacing" and "disrespectful" black and brown people. We are in the Age of Obama. Yet, tired centuries-old tropes still resonate in "post-racial" America.
The Way, Way Back reinforces its investment in the normativity of Whiteness by later introducing a "black buck quasi-thug"--another standard character from Hollywood's depictions of the Other--who exists only to help the white characters solve a problem.
Here is the puzzle and dilemma. There is no overt and overwhelming malice towards people of color by the writers and directors of The Way, Way Back. This is not virulent white racism or white supremacy--although it does do the work of reinforcing white privilege.
Coming-of-age stories by white writers and directors are personal journeys. "You" have no place in them. These writers do not care about "your" feelings or desire to be included. I have come to realize that many people of color want to believe that racists are actually invested in thinking about them. Except for the virulent and pathological White Supremacists, most white folks could care less about people of color. The latter are good, decent, kind folks for the most part. Non-whites, and their feelings and sensibilities, are simply not matters of practical concern.
Why should they be?
Many black and brown activists (as well as other anti-racists and social justice types) want to find malice, emotional investment, and engagement towards them from hostile and exclusionary Whiteness.
I offer a painful truth: indifference is worse than anger or hate. The vast majority of white folks who enjoy racial privilege--as well as men, heterosexuals, the rich and upper class, the "able bodied", and others that benefit from unearned advantages in American society--do not care or think very much about those who are in the out-group. Why? Because the luxury to be indifferent and ignorant about the life experience of the Other is the very product of privilege.