Friday, 3 June 2016

To see someone like yourself on the screen

Belle (Amma Asante 2013) is a conventional British period piece set in the 1780s, among rich people in a stately mansion. Conventional except for one thing. The main character is black.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido in Belle

At first I was annoyed by how conventional it was but after a while I changed my mind and felt that this was actually a good thing, as this underlines the message that it is the black character that stands out here, not the form, and that there is no reason why a conventional period piece could not have a black actor as its lead. This is what I meant by the title of this post, to see someone like yourself on screen might be a liberating and fulfilling thing if you are not used to that, or not used to doing that in such a setting or in such a character. That Belle is based on a true story and the people in it are actual historic figures made it easier to make it perhaps but it does not have to be based on a true story. Casting might be colour-blind as it is sometimes called. Kenneth Branagh cast Denzel Washington in his adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing (1993) for example and especially in a Shakespeare adaptation anything should be possible. Although, and here the trouble with colour-blind casting appears, having a white actor play Othello, even if not in blackface as was the case in earlier films, would not really wash. Or maybe it would if for example that was the only part played by a white actor.

Robert Sean Leonard, Washington and Richard Briers

When I saw 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen 2013) I was impressed by the first part, when Solomon Northup lived a good life as a happily married man in 19th century New York. I had never seen a period piece from that time before in which black characters were portrayed in such a joyful and prosperous situation. I had on the other hand seen several films in which they played slaves. I do wonder whether it would not be a good thing if there were some films that also captured that kind of good life, as it too is a historical fact. It would be the unexpected and bring more visual reference points, and it would be a step forward in terms of equality. I can understand if some would consider it wrong. That since slavery was (still is) such a monstrous thing it should always be the focus, and by showing black characters who are actually enjoying life in 19th century America we might de-centre the institution of slavery, similar to how Stanley Kubrick allegedly disliked Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg 1993) because it was a film about the few Jews that survived the Holocaust. I seems unclear if and when Kubrick actually said that, and in any event it is unfair because Spielberg were not denying the extent of how many were killed, he only chose on particular story among many others, and the story of Oscar Schindler deserves to be told. By the same token you might criticise 12 Years a Slave because it is about a slave who survived and it has a happy ending. But that is obviously not my view.

These are important discussions to have, to think about representation and portrayal of various groups and minorities in our films. But sometimes calls for equality of representation seem to not have been thought through. For example, word is spreading that James Bond should be played by a woman. I find this something of a paradox. Either the woman plays James Bond, a male character, which would be highly unusual and probably not be taken seriously. Or she would play a female character, perhaps called Jane Bond. But then she would not, in fact, play James Bond, but a different character. Therein lies the paradox. So it is difficult to know whether those who are advocating that a woman should play Bond mean what they say or are just having some fun. The symbolic meaning of having a woman at the centre of this lengthy, immensely successful and trendsetting series is however considerable so it is worth considering, and an obvious alternative, which would not be a paradox of any kind, would be to upgrade Miss Moneypenny to a 00. She showed her capabilities in the field in Skyfall (Sam Mendes 2012) and M had probably meant for her to be a field agent had things not taken a bad turn. But as Bond (and Daniel Craig) seemed to be wanting to retire after Spectre (Sam Mendes 2015) and Miss Moneypenny clearly unhappy behind her desk, there is no reason why she could not be put into training again and eventually given the license. Everything else in up-coming films could remain as it has been for so long, only M would be sending Miss Moneypenny on missions instead of Bond. She could just take over the franchise, and Naomie Harris could stay on to play the part for a few years. That would be really exciting.

Harris as Moneypenny in Skyfall

Sometimes discussions about representation become ungratifying. I was once interviewed on radio on that topic and the approach they had was angry and ignorant. "Why are there no films about people with disabilities or queer characters?" was basically their question. There are of course a lot of such films and I mentioned perhaps 20 to 30 different films. Their response was usually "Oh, I had never heard about that film." to which I resisted to urge to reply "Well, whose fault is that?" If they actually were so concerned about it they might at least have googled "films about people in wheelchairs" and other similar questions, instead of assuming that:

a) if I do not know about it, it must be because it does not exist 
b) nobody has thought about this before, I am the first. 

That is just narcissism masquerading as progressiveness, and I have often encountered this, I have even heard people burst out "Why are there no female directors?" even though there are hundreds of female directors. This has puzzled me before but that radio interview explained something. When questions about queer films came up Rainer Werner Fassbinder was mentioned and the reaction was "Oh please, who wants to see old German films?" The problem for them was not so much that there were no such films, the problem was that there were no such films that they could be bothered to watch. If it was not a Hollywood action film then no thanks. So the beef is not necessarily "Why are there no films with queer characters?" The beef is "Why are there no films with queer characters shown at my nearest cinema and which have a lot of explosions and people fighting robots?" These two questions are not the same, and alas the people who are asking the first question but are really asking the second question often come across as narrow-minded and lazy, rather than enlightened and progressive. It is like when people ask "Why are there so few films with other than white actors in the leads?" The answer to that question is that in fact the overwhelming majority of films being made any given year do not have white actors in the leads because most films are made in Africa and South and South-East Asia. The question is actually Eurocentric (or westcentric).

Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das in Fire (Deepa Mehta 1996)

But. This does not mean that there is not a legitimate case to make against mainstream Hollywood concerning, for example, whitewashing, as when films based on true stories change the ethnicity of the characters so even though they might have been Hispanics or Asian-Americans in real life, in the film they are white, or for the lack of original parts for other than white actors, or for the lack of LGBT characters and so on. Since mainstream Hollywood films have such a global reach it is fair to highlight their deficiencies. But these are not easy questions. What is a fair representation? Should each group of people in the United State, such as African-Americans, Native Americans, Italian-Americans, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, gay, lesbians, transgender, senior citizens, people with disabilities and so on, all be represented by the same percentage as their prevalence in society at large, including, say, clammers or morticians? I suppose not. But even though most would agree that things are not good enough now there will never be a time when everybody are satisfied. There will always be some who feel left out or forgotten or under-represented. This is not a problem to be solved, this is a perpetual struggle, as it must be, since people change all the time and our demands and expectations also change all the time.

Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard in Passion Fish (John Sayles 1992)

At the same time, it is also important not to forget that we are talking about art, and art is not real life. It is not the business of art to satisfy each and every one or to follow some official guidelines when it comes to representation. Art must also be cut some slack, otherwise we would never have had any art to begin with. We should not be complaisant, we should call out racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia and such when it appears, but we cannot demand of art that it be better than us humans who make it. And we should always be mindful that our own interpretation is not the only one to make, not the "correct" one. What one feminist thinks is trash another feminist might feel is empowering and liberating. Some find this ambiguity scary and it makes them uncomfortable, but such people are frequently afraid of art as such and should not necessarily be trusted. 

Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung in Happy Together (Wong Kar-Wai 1997)

A recent article in New York Times about Asian-American actors taking a united stand against whitewashing. 

Representation is not only about issues with the body (skin colour, gender, illnesses), it can also be about class for example, but I limited myself in this post, it is already long enough. 

By saying that art must be cut some slack and not be ruled by official guidelines regarding representations some might suggest that this is just me showing off my privileges, as a white male and all, but that is not really an argument. It is also a reminder that prejudices come in all shapes and forms. Sometimes person A will lambaste the alleged privileges (white, male cis-person and whatnot) of person B, oblivious to the fact that person B is actually a woman, or black, or gay. The thinking there is that "Since you have that opinion you must be a white male." which is, well, a prejudice. Engage with the argument, not the sexuality or skin colour of the person making it.


  1. To be honest, I managed to permanently piss off a well-known film critic when I criticized him (a straight male) for saying that BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN wasn't authentically gay and suggested that such debates are best left to actual gay people. I do think that white people, for example, are probably not in the best position to describe certain African-American actors or directors as "Uncle Toms." I'm not sure if this contradicts your final point. I did find it odd when a straight acquaintance apologized to me for disagreeing with an article I wrote on James Bond films which called SKYFALL homophobic. I had no problems with his disagreement, and his apology struck me as identity politics taken a bit too far.

    1. Personally I think discussions as to whether anything is sufficiently authentic or not are best to be avoided, as it such a complicated issue, and primarily a philosophical one, unrelated to the film or musician or book or politician or whatever it might be that is being discussed. But are you saying that a straight person has no business commenting upon the gay aspects of Brokeback Mountain, whether to celebrate it or criticise it?

      Calling one another Uncle Tom's or similar epithets is not necessarily something anybody should do...

    2. No,I'm not saying that a straight person can't comment on the gay aspects of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, just that they're not the best person to judge their authenticity (or lack thereof.) This issue came up again with the lesbian sex scene in BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR.

    3. What was that critic's argument? I mean, in what way were they not authentic to him?

    4. It was pretty simplistic. He didn't like the film, he thought its portrayal of the difficulties of being gay pre-Stonewall was overly melodramatic and borderline homophobic, and because the director, screenwriter, two lead actors and author of the original short story are all straight, he laid these problems at the hands of the "inauthenticity" caused by the lack of gay men involved with the production.

  2. It seems like American culture still hasn't reached the point where one of the Avengers could be openly gay or lesbian, or a group of characters as sexually diverse as the cast of THE FAST AND FURIOUS is racially diverse can headline a blockbuster. If you're looking for queer characters, you have to look elsewhere. I can understand why someone would be frustrated that they have to watch TANGERINE or the Web series ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK if they want decent (IMHO) representation of trans characters, played by trans women. But Roland Emmerich's STONEWALL was an attempt to make a relatively mainstream gay film, and it was an aesthetic and commercial disaster.

    1. Considering how quickly the situation for gay and lesbians has improved, not least legally, in the US it might soon improve in Hollywood as well. Unless having gay and lesbian characters will kill a film at the box office overseas... When it comes to transgender people it seems to be evolving more slowly put there certainly are movements there too.

  3. Your comment on Shakespeare mirrors my thoughts on modern animated cinema (for children) and its perspective on gender. In a majority of these films there is still an active male character in the lead and they are supposed to be these whimsical pretend stories -- how hard can it be to imagine a female lead instead?!

    I agree in that I found the pre-slavery part of 12 Years... much more interesting, since it portrayed a historical situation that I knew so much less about. Although I'm not sure I would call the ending "happy", exactly...

    The idea of bringing in Moneypenny instead of a Jane Bond is pure genious, but with the Daniel Craig-Bond I have not that many problems with seeing the character as female instead. It would be much harder with the Sean Connery-Bond :)

    And, as usual, isn't the main problem that far too many groups try to decide what is right for everybody else? Regardless if they are the ones making a movie or bashing it?

    1. Well, happy endings are a muddled concept! I meant that he survived and was reunited with his family.

      Yes, the self-righteous crowd is large and booming.