Good Movies are Good Movies: What’s Race [or politics] Got to Do With It?

January 23, 2015

Last weekend I went to see “The Imitation Game” and it’s a terrific film. Benedict Cumberbatch does a terrific job portraying Alan Turing, the often forgotten  hero of WWII who cracked the Nazi transmission code thus saving millions of lives and shortening the war by an estimated two years while practically inventing the computer in the process. Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke is just as good, in her portrayal of a woman capable of matching and in some ways exceeding Turin’s wit at a time women weren’t believed capable of  the science-heavy  work she was most certainly doing and doing well. “The Imitation Game” was one of the films I didn’t have a chance to see before the end of the year and thus was unable to weigh as consideration in my list of best films of the year. “The Theory of Everything” “Boyhood” and “Selma” waited far too late to show up in my neck of the woods as well but I plan on seeing each and expect each to be phenomenal. These films, along with “Birdman” (which I loved) “Whiplash,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “American Sniper” are all nominated for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards. I expect that “Sniper” is solid  in that Cooper is an incredible actor and Eastwood has rarely disappointed as a director. “American Sniper”  has generated quite a bit of political controversy which I’ll weigh in on later in this piece. “Budapest” is probably fine, I’m just not a Wes Anderson fan and find all of his films to be basically the same pretentious thing.

I love films and I maintain that good movies are good movies whatever their topic, target, or  intent. Some movies are popcorn-friendly summer smashes that are sheer entertainment; sometimes such films work in deeper content and purpose and when they do that’s great though it’s not always important. Sometimes big summer movies are just asinine garbage, but if someone enjoys them enough to stop worrying about their mortgage or ISIS for 2 hours then no harm done. Fall and Winter are the months reserved for the “serious” films to unroll, those award show contenders. It’s my overall favorite period of the movie-going year and most of my ticket money is reserved for the end of the year and the first part of the new year when the specialty market films finally trickle to the exurbs. Many people complain about this way of fielding films, that some are “serious” and “contenders” and that critics point the way to which those are and award them to their own preferences in a subjective way while unfairly (or elitely) dismissing others. It’s like this with any type of art criticism–literary, music or film–and certainly what one likes eventually boils down to a matter of subjectivity. I’ve defended the role of critics in the past, and I still think film criticism is a worthy task. If you’re paid to watch movies all the time seeing hundreds a year, have studied the history and techniques of film and have devoted much of your life and time to films and appreciating “good” films, then I have a good idea that one you run across in a typical year that you find warrants praise, your opinion is probably worth at least a little consideration. If there’s a growing consensus on certain pictures being worth our time as a viewer, if enough people who devote their time to film agree on certain pictures, I believe those pictures are likely good movies whether they’re suited to everyone’s tastes or not. On the other hand, I have no doubts at all that some truly worthwhile and entertaining films are critically rejected out of hand from pure snobbery, particularly “genre” films far too many critics feel “above.”  So the way I’ve always seen it, those universally raved works are probably good and at least worth a watch while simultaneously not everything panned is necessarily that bad or unworthy of my own consideration.

This year, and certainly not for the first time but perhaps more than usual, race has become a major topic in relation to awards-season and these critical “gate-keepers.” Race has been a large topic in everything this year and with good reason so it is certainly worth bringing to the discussion table regarding film, awards, and Hollywood today. The minute after the Academy nominations were released it became quickly evident and commentated on that there is very little diversity among the nominations. Not a single actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress or director nominated is African-American.  The director of “Birdman” is a Mexican-born film-maker but that’s pretty much it in terms of non-white diversity. “Selma” is of course about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement but its African American lead actor is absent from consideration as its female African-American director. This comes shortly after some of the leaked documents from the Sony hack showcased Hollywood agents and shot-callers displaying a deep (if unconcerned) knowledge of racial disparity in Hollywood as they joked about the President’s likely favorite films (Kevin Hart movies) or discussed why Denzel Washington shouldn’t be cast in a particular film due to the potential loss of overseas returns due to a foreign audience’s perceived racism.
Chris Rock recently discussed racism in Hollywood in a deft piece for the “Hollywood Reporter”. Film buff and critic that he is, he makes the valid point that studio heads have to go out of their way not to hire Hispanics in Hollywood while hardly any Hispanics work on any set or movie company above the janitorial level. Rock himself, whose “Top 5” was one of the best pictures of 2014, is not immune to allegations of racism.*  He describes “Top 5” as one of the “blackest” films ever nationally released yet one that is so naturally and is not a “race” picture. Which of course is the area which needs growth; when Hollywood awards a black film it’s usually a “race” film dealing with slavery, civil rights, or race as a central topic rather than by simply featuring a diverse cast and profiling their lives and adventures naturally.
So is Hollywood racist? Rock details a scene he ultimately cut from “Top 5” in which a black agent (played by Kevin Hart) complains about studio racism (he’s not invited to a meeting) by exclaiming “and these people are liberals, this isn’t the KKK!” Racism certainly exists in Hollywood like it exists everywhere else. White-privilege works itself out by layering a power system at the top of every business, corporation, or political party in the same way it has in the media through concentrating generations of wealthy white male power at the top. Perhaps some of this is unintentional and a product of its formative time. It’s certainly time to shake up the membership of the Academy and bring down the overwhelmingly white, old, and male membership percentage and to boost diversity. Of course, Academy members have to invite diverse people into the academy on a member-to-member basis as that system works and to do that they have to socialize with a diverse crowd in the first place (a fault more than one industry and community shares). More films need to be made showcasing diversity, but ultimately in a natural way that isn’t overt and political. Hollywood isn’t a nonprofit so ultimately an audience has to vote with its dollars. Did those complaining about lack of diversity  pay to go see “Selma” “Top Five” or “Fruitvale Station”? Should it even be their (or our) responsibility? Going to the movies is expensive and even the most politically active diversity-seeking person around might not want to spend their time and money on something just to increase diversity when they may instead just want to see something fun and easy. What Hollywood can do is cast more African- Americans and Hispanics in roles where race is irrelevant (as was done in the great casting choice of Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in an upcoming “Fantastic Four” movie). If foreign audiences have a race problem and won’t bother to see a character-driven piece about black life in America or even a romantic comedy starring a black couple, perhaps they will be unable to avoid that multimillion dollar summer action blockbuster even if it is peopled with a diverse cast. Hollywood will still make their money and foreign audiences will be subtly acclimated to diversity and recognition that people are in some ways all the same.

The problem seems to be a mixture. It’s that not enough quality films are made with diverse casts on one end. Should this year’s nominations have not been recognized as top-quality simply because they’re not diverse enough? A lot of wonderful films this year lacked diversity but that’s no reason to boycott good films or to refuse to recognize their excellence or quality. I’m neither gay nor British and did not serve in WWII but can thoroughly enjoy “Imitation Game” much the same way I’m not black nor a comedian but can enjoy “Top Five.” Audiences nor studios can be asked to subsidize films for activism’s sake. Yet those who love film and independently make films can certainly take more risks as they so often do. What films that were made were slighted this year? The glaring omissions by concensus seem to be “Selma’s” director and lead actor. Which others?

And what about that “American Sniper” controversy? Politics most certainly do play a role in who goes to see and praise a move after all, do they not? Some left-leaning critics decried the perceived glorification of war and that a character based on real life with depictions of real war was played for heroic effect. The real life American sniper this film was based on labels the natives of the country he does battle in less than admirably in his book. Many who turned out to see “Sniper” did so in an odd sort of patriotic support of our military. This became an “issues” movie. Oddly, stats show evangelical Christians turned out in significantly higher numbers to see “Sniper” than they did that notable movie about a Baptist preacher living out his faith to lead an equality movement. Yet should such a movie as “Sniper” not be made? Of course not. War is indeed an ugly thing and there is danger in glorifying it and unconditionally praising soldiers regardless of what they may have done in combat and for what reason De-facto. There have been great war movies; ones on the one hand that portray it starkly, realistically, and troublingly. On the other hand, there have been those that white-wash it and portray it as good vs. evil, which is difficult to do with any war effort post-WWII. I haven’t seen “Sniper” yet and can’t personally offer my opinion but I do find the discussion interesting, particularly the fact that for those who don’t see a difference between fantasy violence and violence based on real life narratives and real life violence don’t see why there’s even a discussion over this film.

Politics and Race affect what movies are made, what movies are praised, who sees what movies, and often what someone thinks of a particular movie. This is a reflection of society at large. So ultimately, the issue must be resolved in larger society as a whole and then these reflections will follow suit. Of course, often a bottom-up approach of fixing the symptomatic expressions of racism and class-ism is easier and more effective than seismic large-scale change. So it’s good that we as a society are having this discussion now. Hopefully by addressing it, the coming years will see more diversity in film simply because it’s been so noticed now. In the meantime, as art is always an expression of the place its overall society finds itself, I maintain that good movies are good movies even in the midst of troubling power-structures. They represent their era in explicit and implicit, intentional and subconscious ways. Nothing precludes “Selma” and “American Sniper” from both being good films but maybe watching either should lead to a discussion for the viewers.

Your thoughts?

* A quick note on the allegations of racism towards Rock. The ones I’ve heard in most recent months oddly attack him for stand-up material he made popular more than 20 years ago as much of that re-surfaced in a misappropriated manner by white “fans” in the form of social media posts following Ferguson. Simply put, like Chappelle and Pryor, Rock is one of the funniest comedians to ever do comedy and all three have made race a loud, often uncomfortable, but prophetic topic. Sadly a certain white frat-boy culture always misappropriates and wrongly quote such material but I find that hard to be the comedian’s fault. Rock has always been accused of class-ism too, as he has done well for himself and does come from a middle class background. Check Rock now–his most recent stand-ups, his comedy round-table contributions, “Top Five”, and his “Hollywood Reporter” piece to see where he is now. Acknowledging race and tackling racism as always, trying to give a hand-up to other new black comics, etc.


3 Responses to “Good Movies are Good Movies: What’s Race [or politics] Got to Do With It?”

  1. Some good points. I’m surprised Selma didn’t get any nominations considering it seems like the type of film the academy would cream themselves over. But if that movie is snubbed it should be because it’s a bad film (I haven’t seen it so can’t say if it is or not) not because of whatever biases the academy has or because they want to seem progressive.

    • dmhamby2 said

      Well it got a best picture nod which is a big deal, but people are surprised the director didnt get a nod and dhe would have been the first african American woman to ever be nominated for director. Also many are surprised lesd actor nods didnt come from the pic.

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