On Cinema's Dark Side
Diversity is emerging in cinema and, as a man of color, I cannot help but to internally rejoice for my race and for the progress our society has made thus far. With the release of new films like 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, and Beasts of No Nation, the status of minorities in America is expertly exemplified, bringing about social awareness to White-America and fostering necessary conversation between a variety of different cultures. It is for that very reason, however, that I am deeply saddened by films such as Dear White People and A Haunted House and the presumed “progress” they signify for American cinema. Films of this nature remorselessly exploit minority culture for the sake of their target audience – White-America – essentially reducing the black characters and the customs they represent to those depicted through the Minstrel shows of past generations. The stark contrast between the two types of minority pictures illuminate the main issue at hand. Integration of minority races into cinema cannot conform to the existent norms of film culture, because that stymies the possibility of innovation and progress. Films like the latter two propagate the social norms they claim to be trying to overturn because they operate on the cinematic standards that already exist. Conversely, films that are successful in fostering social change do so through divergence – that is, they operate according to their own standards and captivate the audience through fundamentally sound moviemaking.
The Right vs. The Wrong:
The discrepancy between successful minority films and those that fall short is largely related to the contrast between the types of directors taking these types of movies on. Often, newer directors approach fragile themes like race and gender too aggressively, causing a distorted message in what may otherwise be a spectacular film. “The moviegoer is much in the position of a hypnotized person… he cannot help succumbing to the suggestions that invade the blank of his mind,” so when a director asserts his/her stance on a subject too deliberately through film, the opportunity for any positive conversation is replaced by a more didactic and one sided statement of opinion (Kracauer 160). Take the film Dear White People for example. Justin Simien, a man of color, attempts to illuminate a pretty common societal dilemma amongst minorities by revealing their perspective on the stereotypes white Americans unknowingly make on a day-to-day basis; his only shortcoming is that he does so via the typical Hollywood movie construct. As a young and rising director, this is to be expected and can even be understood to some extent, but this is exactly what Ellison warns directors of in his essay, “The Shadow in the Act”. Ellison explains that, “It is here precisely that a danger lies. For the temptation toward self-congratulation which comes from seeing these films and sharing in their emotional release is apt to blind us to the true nature of what is unfolding—or failing to unfold—before our eyes” (Ellison 19). Simien’s film might have been effective, if it were released sometime in the future after a bit more social progress has been made, but unfortunately it proved to be useless in the context of the current social conversation. It is, perhaps, too early to directly address White-America as flagrantly as Simien does because White-America does not yet know what to pay attention to in his film. Much like Ellison’s warning, White-America’s response to the film, and many other films of a similar nature, is misguided and apocryphal. While they may laugh at some of the more humorous parts, the picture’s underlying air of castigation disallows them to truly connect with the message the director attempts to portray. There are certain prerequisites to Dear White People that are never pointed out, so the conversation Simien intends to spark is simply never initiated. The target audience simply does not know how to watch the film, so it therefore fails to generate any significant positive social change.
Scorsese addresses this shortcoming in his essay, “The Persisting Vision,” where he discusses “visual literacy” and the moviegoer’s ability to fully comprehend cinema. He expresses his concern that “we need to educate [young people] to understand the difference between moving images that engage their humanity and their intelligence, and moving images that are just selling them something” (Scorsese 6). This is precisely the issue with films like Dear White People. Simien takes a tongue-in-cheek approach at some of the lighter topics that ail American minorities, but he fails to explain that not everything in his movie should be taken so seriously. The problem with this approach is that White-American society is not yet sufficiently aware of the extent of minorities’ social plight, so they do not understand how to go about watching a film that condemns their behavior. To other minorities, these lighthearted jokes make sense and are all but disregarded, but we are not Simien’s target audience. It is because of this dissonance in understanding between minorities and whites that minority cinema is at a juncture where awareness is the most important factor in producing social change. In terms of cinema, films that attempt to address the ethnic struggle for equality need to focus on minimizing (if not eliminating) the gap in understanding between ethnic groups in the United States, primarily because that is all films can effectively do for society at this point. Movies like Fruitvale Station and 12 Years a Slave provide an objective and relatively unbiased stance on real issues that take place in America, and that is why they are so well received by ethnic groups across the board. They educate viewers without passing judgment upon the films’ antagonists, allowing the viewer to do so him/herself and resultantly engage the conversation in a more personal manner so that they may educate themselves through question and discussion, regardless of the social, cultural, or ethnic background.
After scouring the web, I found article after article talking about how “[Hollywood] is still dominated by white men, with women and minorities dramatically underrepresented both on and off screen,” and how “[cinema] is woefully out of touch with and emerging America, and America that’s becoming more diverse by the day” (Lyons). I argue, however, that the real issue with Hollywood is not the amount of minorities in cinema; it is the way minorities are viewed in The United States as a whole. If there is to be any change in the amount of non-white and non-male faces on the silver screen, American society must first make strides to eliminate the discrepancy between white males and minorities. To that end, a film with a predominantly black cast will do nothing positive towards minorities’ progress in the film industry if there is no compelling argument or revelation to be had. Consider 12 Years a Slave, a film that is noted for its open and impenitent retelling of a black mans struggle to be just that – a black man in America. Reports show that “playing in 123 locations, ‘12 Years a Slave’ grossed a solid $2.1 million, and the film’s performance was strong throughout the dozen cities where it was showing.”(Horn). Quite unsurprisingly, 12 Years a Slave, a quality film, saw success in the box office, even though it is an “independent black” film. Frankly, that should not be a surprise, because when a movie reaches its target audience (“highbrow art house patrons and mainstream African Americans”) as well as McQueen’s Oscar-winning masterpiece did, it is bound to make money; and it is important that directors understand that (Horn). With a topic as delicate as the condition of minorities in the United States, the message the film conveys should always come first and foremost. Money cannot be allowed to influence or hinder the manner in which the director chooses to shoot his film, and unfortunately that is the largest hurdle directors of minority films face today.
Time and time again, we see true progress come about when a director makes a minority picture and disregards factors that historically prove to sell tickets. When their main goal is to make quality films rather than educate the populous on the current status of minorities in America, good movies are made and the money will undoubtedly follow. Awareness is essential for any change to come about, because we cannot fix a problem that we do not know exists. Films like 12 Years a Slave make black people angry and white people ask questions, and that is precisely how it must be in order for conversations that will inspire change to occur. The emotional feedback these types of films evoke amongst their viewers and the subsequent conversations that arise as a result is what makes them such vital elements of promoting change. Without directly stating how things should be, they create awareness about how things currently are.
Film as a Medium of Social Progress:
Americans – white or otherwise – do not choose whether or not they will see a movie based on the race of its cast members (for the most part). They see the movie for the story. They go because they want to be moved in some way or another by the images on screen and for the change that occurs within them between the time the lights dim and the credits roll. In a truly well made picture, the audience is not aware of the social conversation the film may be generating until their thoughts in hindsight, because the film was too captivating to consider anything other than its immediate emotional effect. More simply put, “for an idea to be sold, it must captivate not only the intellect but the senses as well” (Kracauer 160). A good movie leaves the audience wondering why they feel the way they do after seeing it, and the resulting conversation blossoms from this wonderment. It is for this reason that film is an inherently inappropriate medium for social conversation. While sometimes the backlash from controversial films spark conversation in popular culture and socially relevant topics challenged in film pour over into a more political realm, cinema should never be expected to function as a vehicle for social change of any sort. The efficiency with which ideas may be sold through the medium is simply too volatile and unreliable.
Ellison uses the film Pinky, which challenges the social acceptance of mixed-race relationships to show this phenomenon in action. He explains how, although the movie’s primary function is to spark conversation on interracial relationships in America, the audience and critics are more apt to discuss the film’s underlying debate about land ownership amongst minorities because of one scene that occurs towards the end of the movie. This is the danger with trying to use cinema to alter bigger social issues. In the movie, Pinky ultimately has to choose between marrying the white man that she has fallen in love with, or to “remain true to her race” and denounce her feelings for him. Ellison warns, “in real life, the choice is not between loving or denying one’s own race” (Ellison 19). The issue is multi-faceted and the world we live in is much more complex than what can be portrayed through film.
Kracauer and Ellison describe cinema as a realm in which uncomplicated worlds are the norm, and it is for this reason that one cannot expect the subject matter therein to directly translate to the corrupt and uncertain world we actually live in. Because “films tend to weaken the spectator’s consciousness,” viewers are susceptible to being persuaded that the real issues we face are exactly as they appear in film (Kracauer 160). This is precisely why individuals like Stokes, who believe film should be doing more to bring about change in America’s social sphere, are potential dangers to the industry. His initiative to “show our sons a new definition of manhood” via the Netflix cue, is both aggressive and impractical, and he fails to offer any suggestion on how moviemakers would go about creating this change in the first place (Stokes). Social issues of this nature are too important to be tackled (and most likely mangled) by pictures as lighthearted as most Disney films, and the audience they appeal to is the most vulnerable of all – young children. The likelihood of social commentary being properly executed via the movie screen is too minuscule when considering the potential for damage they possess and the chance that the viewers would absorb the film’s message, even if executed well, is practically nonexistent. The belief that cinema can aptly foster social change is a generally regressive one because film, by its nature, is forced to rule out most of the complexities that embody the true argument to ensure that a functioning plot exists. The solution for most social disputes is the same: Love everyone and everything. The factors that drive this conflict, however, are many and often stem from emotions and sentimentalities that film simply cannot embody. The resulting oversimplification of the abstract defiles a social dilemma’s true nature and cheapens the struggle of the victims of said social injustice. In other words, if the issue at hand is simple enough that the solution can be put into a two-hour motion picture and adequately address the problem and all of its nuances; it likely has no relevance in the overarching American social sphere in the first place.
Society is trying to expedite a delicate process that must be allowed to occur on its own. There is no doubt in my mind that the change we so desperately seek will come to fruition. With that being said, I wholeheartedly believe that we are going about imposing that change in a completely inappropriate manner. Cinema is ultimately a medium for entertainment and a powerful one at that. Although it has the potential to strike some seriously engaging social commentary, it is not and will never be cinema’s responsibility to invoke social change of any sort. Film is dynamic within its context throughout the generations, so we must first seek to change the society we live in if we expect to see any sort of change on the big screen. Until then, it is crucial that directors like Fukunaga, McQueen, and Coolger, not only continue to succeed, but that the become champions of the black (or maybe better put, minority) voice in American cinema and inspire new directors to do the same thing. Proper integration cannot occur without education, and that is precisely what these gritty, unapologetically controversial films are doing for our society.
Ellison, Ralph. "The Shadow and the Act." The Reporter (1949): 17-20. Print.
Horn, John. “In First Wider Weekend, '12 Years a Slave' Reaches Key Audiences." Editorial. LA Times 29 Oct. 2013: n. pag. Www.latimes.com. 29 Oct. 2013. Web. 2 Dec. 2015.
Kracauer, Siegfried. "The Spectator." Theory of Film: the Redemption of Physical Reality. New York: Oxford UP, 1960. 157-72. Print.
Lyons, Kate. "Why Hollywood Is Frozen in the 1950s: White Men Are Still King of the Silver Screen with Lead Roles Going to Just 26% of Women and 11% of Minorities." Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 20 Feb. 2014. Web. 19 Dec. 2015.
Scorsese, Martin. "The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema." The New York Review of Books, 15 Aug. 2013. Web. 23 Sept. 2015
Stokes, Colin. "How Movies Teach Manhood." TedTalks. Beacon Street, Boston. 17 Dec. 2015. Speech.