Monday, February 16, 2015

White Guilt Cinema?

Dear White People, the recent movie taking our confused 21st Century notions of race, racism and equality to task, is engineered to generate discomfort and mixed reviews.

Any number of comments and critiques of DWP accuse it, or debase it, as a film created for, or because of, or to celebrate, White Guilt. Being painfully white and having spent most of my life trying to figure out how the heck I'm supposed to handle, accept, or fight my own White Guilt -- (Disclosure: I'm still not sure which I'm actually supposed to do, but I also know that asking someone of color a question like this is only doomed to frustrate or anger them for needing to make any of this About Me in the first place) -- I find myself wishing more movies so openly swam in the pond.

My adolescence and young adult years were spent exposed to a decent array of black-directed pictures and something close to "honest" depictions of The African-American Experience. mostly made me long for my lost youth and Robert Townsend, writer and director of Hollywood Shuffle. Sure, Hollywood Shuffle is the most salient, perhaps because it's whole raison d'ĂȘtre is more about shining a light and exposing the hypocrisies of even our most liberal white populace. But it's one among many.

Spike Lee, John Singleton, the Hughes Brothers. Eddie Murphy's late '80s and early '90s not-trilogy of Coming to America, Harlem Nights and Boomerang. As I wrestled with identity in college, I had no shortage of movies -- many wrestling with their own imperfections -- eager to expose me to the gripes and frustrations of "my black brothers and sisters."

I couldn't fix anything, and I couldn't repair anything, but I could try to better understand it. And oftentimes, the movies provided me plenty to laugh at as well.

Perhaps these kinds of movies never really stopped being made so much as I stopped having the free time necessary to appreciate them. All I know is, watching DWP was to Higher Learning and PCU what “Uptown Funk” is to Morris Day and the Time: entirely beholden to them but plenty enjoyable on its own merits.

Dear White People is, if nothing else, shot with agonizing cinematographic care in ways Spike Lee's "joints" almost aggressively avoided. Many scenes reminded me of better moments from Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” or the equally visually-captivating “Better Call Saul,” where every character is carefully placed into the frame, given their own real estate, in a way that demands that the viewer appreciate it. Lighting and spacing are so intentional as to beg to be appreciated.

Its message is a more complicated issue, and as I’ve grown up it’s become easier to accept that these films won’t allow the lack of a clear "right answer" or solution hinder them from being pissed off. As Spike Lee said half a century ago, the point of Do The Right Thing was not to offer a solution, but to “provoke awareness.” What a great phrase. To agitate or discomfort a viewer enough to make them reflective is a noble goal, especially given that most viewers would rather watch Jigsaw disembowel someone than suffer through two characters talking awkwardly about race.

What is cool, and dare I say authentic, about DWP is that the characters are in-your-face flawed. The movie understands the college mindset: be convicted and passionate in your opinions, and ignore the fact that you may wake up tomorrow believing something entirely different, learning something that clashes with your stance.

If you’re an eccentric gay black guy, will anyone claim you in their clique, or are you like Caine from Kung Fu or David Banner from the Hulk TV show, fated to walk the earth alone?

If you’re a Black Power-talking black woman who is sleeping with her white classmate, are you a hypocrite or merely enjoying and celebrating your freedom to live how you want to live?

Must all children of administrators attend their parent’s college or university? Must all children of school administrators be depicted as spoiled brats? (ARE they all spoiled brats??)

Must personal ambition always, or eventually, trump your sense of acting for the greater good? Is that what it means to become an adult?

What percentage of white people really do obsess with trying to touch black people’s hair?

What is The Right Thing for a white guilt viewer to Do after the movie ends?

If you can’t stomach sitting through 90 minutes of wrestling with your own white guilt -- or if you simply have no interest in doing so because white guilt is stupid or a waste of time -- I’d at least recommend their hilarious spoofs on the NBC “public service” announcements, “The More You Know (About Black People).” My favorite is probably the one about “black on black” crime, as it cuts to the heart of one of the most commonly-used arguments about… well, anything involving race and politics amongst a certain crowd. As the guy says, “Our violence is segregated… just like your neighborhood!”

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