Monday, July 8, 2013

Happy Dancing Black People: The White Racial Frame and the New Movie "The Way, Way Back"

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.


Black Sci-Fi said...

Another great article. I can always depend on you to get to the heart of the matter. I, like you, prefer clearly denoted racist anger to the "you don' count" but we'll include a token for marketing purposes "Friends" morality lessons in marginal black characters trying to "fit-in" without having to get their "do" wet in the opening credit fountain of frienship.

I always feel empty when compelled by peer pressure to embrace the latest offerings from an art form that has never tried to rise above being "whites only" propaganda/entertainment. I really don't see a dimes worth of difference between "Hollywood" and the racist treatment of American school books by the publishers and editors in Texas.

Netflix, although well meaning, only underscores our otherness by catagorizing/marginalizing our films. The reviews of our films are really a hoot and a study in Yahooesque critique.
I'm glad that the majority population loves them some Denzel and Will. Except, of course, when Will makes a film that go against the acceptable stereotype of the Fresh Prince being a grinnin' trickster. It's interesting that the vicious attacks on Wills production efforts (After Earth) and the inclusion of HIS son in HIS film was met with more pure hate by film critics than any of the equally empty lines delivered by the cast from the Harry Potter films. Oh Well...the film sucked..but damn...!!!

Even Tyler Perry, whose business success and sharing the wealth I applaud, creates films with just the right amount of over-the-top nauseating black stereotypes to reinforce "minstrelism" as THE only acceptable alternative to white tokenism.

Sorry for the length of my rant but even Star Trek has abandoned BLACK MEN and embraced the naggin' Hottentot stereotype and cheapened Uhura into an unrecognizable ghost of racism past, present and future. I know plenty of black people employed in the space program. I never see their stories. True Dat.
I could just scream.

guest said...

Yes. You are correct. The "other" ethnicities do not exist in the minds of white people until we need a villian or someone to blame when things dont go our way. As a white man my whole life i can attest to this as a witness to my experiences and conversations on a daily basis. As people get higher and higher up the economic ladder the less and less, or more invisable "ethnics" become. At the lower economic condition the more blacks are blamed for antisocial behavior by whites who just happen to exhibit the exact same behavior they accuse others of representing. The poorer white folks are the more they need someone less than themselves. Rich folks dont need to care.

chauncey devega said...

Is that some version of the psychological power of Whiteness or other types of in-group behavior? We do not look to ourselves as long as there is some other scapegoat?

chauncey devega said...

Lots there. How does one earn a living as a person of color in a system that is very hostile to full representations of the lives of people who are not white, straight, middle/upper class/ and male?

Black Sci-Fi said...

I think
that the use of popular culture as a propaganda vehicle is not just the
provence of "Hollywood" anymore. Rappers have established, once
again, that there are new financial empires to be built. The question is really
:"Now that we have our freedom, what will we do with it?"

The term "flip the script" comes to mind. I've seen plenty of AA
films on Netflix that, despite the negative user reviews, were
"quality" slice of life stories. Those AA actors that have gold
standard box office appeal should channel their efforts, along wiht the
financial power of the rap empires, to establish a new paradigm for AA produced

For example, A few years ago I read that Will Smith was trying to develop an
action adventure script about the famed Nubian Kingdom and the Kush
cavelry/archers of antiquity.

This epic tale would have fit the Conan/Scorpian King niche of action adventure
films but would have a message beyond the historical "whitewash" of
the Egyptian/Nubian/Kushite kingdoms and of our "African" military
prowess that has never been truly (WhiteWash Egyptians?) represented by major
motion pictures.

As described, the film would have certainly needed a $150M budget to do it
justice. Considering the box office sales figures of "comic book"
films, this would have had the potential to be a PR bonanza and a financial
success based on world wide distribution and sales.

I haven't heard anythng more about the development of this script. The
potential to tell a heroic story about the epic historical power struggles
between the monarchs of Pharonic Egypt and the monarchs of the Kush/Nubian kingdoms and cast his family as the ruling royalty, Will needed mo-money and PR

Perhaps the world wide (re:Europe/Africa/Middle East) box office revenue from "After Earth" will help Will Smith, Inc. reserect this project. Maybe the Fresh Prince
can release the script as a Kickstarter proposal. The right PR would have the
potential to raise the necessary funding an assure a pre-sold world-wide audience.
Just a thought.......

guest said...

I just wanted to afirm what you believe to be true about indifference. As to the sociological reasons i dont know, but the fact is the observations are correct.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Doesn't a variant of blaxploitation roll around in Hollywood every couple of generations? Who was John Singleton's successor, anyway.

And earning a good living in the arts and telling one's story are not exactly the same thing. The author Frank Yerby and the cartoonist E. Sims Campbell (the first black artist to have his syndicated strip in the newspapers) were black, but very little of their work was concerned with blackness.

The Sanity Inspector said...

"...and others that benefit from unearned advantages in American society..."

Old people are entitled to be bitter, but this attitude is poison when fed to young people. It leads directly to flash mob looting and assaults. If the game is rigged, why bother to try? Why not just engage in recreational crimes against The Oppressor? My leaders tell me my life is going to be big deal, let it be ruined some more.

chauncey devega said...

And was Singleton overrated...interesting but separate question.

That is the dilemma of the artist who is part of a marginalized or otherwise "oppressed" group. Is your true freedom embodied by the choice to "just be" an "artist" without having to be a black, brown, gay, female, etc. artist?

chauncey devega said...

I think that those young people learn at a very early age that the game is rigged. The luxury to lie is a luxury of the privileged.