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Friday, March 31, 2017

facing white privilege: a film series...


3/31






Facing White Privilege: A six part film series


As we continue deeper into this presidency, the project of deconstructing white privilege becomes ever more important. This year we have a valuable resource from a surprising place, i.e., Hollywood. After the embarrassment of 2016’s #oscarssowhite, there was actually a solid list of African-American themed films both nominated…and winning, not the least of which Best Picture winner Moonlight. (Leaving aside the whole embarrassing scene around the presentation of that award, metaphoric in its own right.) There were in fact enough films to create a film series that a congregation or study group could use to explore white privilege from the perspective of African-American artists.

Let’s take a look at these films:

First, Hidden Figures. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4846340/)(3 nominations…Best Picture, Supporting actress Octavia Spencer and Adapted Screenplay). This, the most traditional of the films, tells the story of three African-American women Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson who were vital to the success of the Mercury 7 space launch. The film depicts the prejudice that was the norm at the NASA facility in a segregated Virginia. (It also secondarily shows how sexism limited the roles of women.) The women through grit and determination survive the racism and take their rightful roles with the assistance of a supervisor, Al Harrison,  who realizes the importance of the best, no matter what, we all cheer when he takes a sledge hammer to the colored bathroom sign, and astronaut John Glenn. It becomes clear that racism was holding the US space program back and a choice had to be made between maintaining old structures and having a program be as successful as it could. All the right heart strings are rigged as the women succeed.

From a movie about a true story, there were 3 significant actual documentaries.  The winner, OJ: Made in America, was a actually a five part 7.5 hour long ESPN series. (http://www.espn.com/30for30/ojsimpsonmadeinamerica/) You watch, are amazed at how much we forget and see the story of OJ in its context. You see his rise to fame as a “safe” (ie, deracinated black man), the trauma of the Rodney King era LAPD relentless assault on the black community. And how the trial became a touchstone in our national drama. Underneath the prosecution’s bungling of the case (why did this make me think of the Clinton campaign?) and irrespective of OJ’s guilt or innocence, Attorney Cochran weary showed that whether or not they planted evidence intros case, the LAPD certainly could have based own its attitudes and culture. Cochran didn’t so much play the race card as revealed what was already there. In Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, Michael Eric Dyson has pointed out how for black Americans, this case was payback. And more than one juror in the  film attests to that reality. It’s important to remember that 95 million  Americans watched OJ’s white bronco run…more than the Superbowl. The nation was transfixed. It is tragic that the Rodney King videos look like they could have been on this morning’s news. 

13th is required watching.(Best documentary nomination    The title refers to the 13th amendment which abolished slavery…except for criminals. It shows how that loophole was used to criminalize blackness and find anew way to enslave African-Americans. In illustrating what Michelle Alexander has named the New Jim Crow,  Ava Du Vernay’s film clearly shows the connection between mass incarceration and police violence. (To which one could add gentrification) Today’s mass incarceration is a direct (chain) link back to US slave history and  until this issue is truly wrestled wth, slavery is not only a legacy but an unsealing wound in society.  Consider: one of every four African-Ameriocan males will do time in  prison...


Finally,  Raoul Peck’s “I am not your Negro” (Best documentary nomination). This documentary follows an essay by Baldwin dealing with the lives of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X. It s both revealing as to Baldwin’s subjects but also to his internal life. It captures the searingly beautiful lyricism of Baldwin’s prose. One early intercut views of recent police violence illustrates…again and yet again…how little has changed. We see the tragedy that the US could not understand the opportunity that Evers, King and Malcolm X offered. And it shows that King snd Malcolm had arrived at virtually the same place vis a vis American society. Through Baldwin’s voice, we hear his unrelieved anguish and tragic lack of hope  for the future. We hear why he had to go in exile  to Paris and then had to return. We hear in the awkward words of Dick Cavett our inability to even find the language to talk about our struggles with this issue. Baldwin’s look in response captures the knowing bemusement, resignation and sadness of the reality. While he had loving relationships with individual white people, his sense of hopelessness is a stern warning  to any who see us in a post racial society. 

Fences and Moonlight serve as bookends. Through the very particular lives of individual black people in specific contexts in two eras, film with no significant white characters whatsoever, we gain insight into the universal human reality. Through the lens of blackness. Between the two of then they garnered a dozen nominations ranging for best picture too score.  


Denzell Washington’s Fences brings the work of August Wilson to the screen and makes it  available etc those may not have been able to experience his plays. Wilson may be the quintessential American playwright of the 20th Century. His 10 Play cycle…one for every decade..is a vibrant, passionate, loving and lyrical portrayal of African-American life through the century. Once complete, he died soon thereafter. I have had a special love of Wilson’s plays because all but one are set in Pittsburgh and show me the tie of my home town I never knew. For those who say the words are too poetic, I disagree. When I go around the corner from my apartment  on Adam Clayton Powell, Jr, Boulevardrd, in front of the liquor store, and listen to the men, I hear the braggadocio, the metaphor, the dance and parry that is Wilson’s language. In Fences we are taken to Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the mid-50’s.  We see a world shaped and controlled by white people, even when invisible, including the commonness of the prison experience, and its impact on one man, Troy Maxon and his family. August Wilson opens for us a world we would otherwise never see….or hear….

Moonlight accomplishes the same thing in a different era. It is in short an exquisite motion picture. A true film in every way from cinematography to sound. It’s beauty takes us into a world where white people are fro all intents and purposes irrelevant. Like Wilson, Barry Jenkins gives us characters who are complex, not easily categorized. We find, for example, drug dealers who can be caring and compassionate and valuable to their community as well as destructive. (One can think of the similarities of legal jobs of white people that are destructive been when the individuals may be more complex..) We also get to see how that world looks though the perspective of queerness. It gives us the opportunity to talk about what moves us, what we connect with, in a story in which we collectively have no visible role. 


Together these films give us a sound insight into what white privilege means and what our societal reality is like for the African-Americans who live within it. We get a broad and deep view without having to ask any African-Americnas we know to….. once again…. be our tour guides int blackness. The journey is very long. It’s time to start….

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