Friday, September 7, 2007

Review: East of Eden (1955)

A queer woman's review of a queer man's legendary movie.

Review by Yolanda Carrington

Director: Elia Kazan
Cast: James Dean, Richard Davalos, Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, Jo Van Fleet, Burl Ives
Screenplay: Paul Osborn, John Steinbeck (uncredited)
Format: CinemaScope, WarnerColor
Studio: Warner Bros.
Edition: Two-disc DVD set (Region 1), Warner Home Video, 2005

Back in the day, a kid from North Carolina named Yolanda Carrington was highly skeptical about an actor from Indiana named James Dean. From the time I hit puberty all I ever heard about was the legend of this dude, The Rebel, the guy who set a million hearts on fire with his performances in just three films, and who was gone all too soon from a fatal car accident right when his star was just beginning to shine. From looking at the old film posters and breathtaking publicity shots, it was easy to assume that Mr. Dean was just some pretty boy teen idol, whom white women old enough to be my mamas and grandmas were still pining for after all these years, just like they did with that other slick-headed fifties dude---Elvis Presley. It all seemed to fit in perfectly with the 1950s nostalgia that infected middle-aged and elderly folks in my hometown, the same ones who went out for burgers and shakes at carhop-style joints like Char-Grill and Cook-Out in glossily restored Chevys and Cadillacs.

But then there were the Top 100 Films of All Time specials on CBS from the American Film Institute, where Jimmy Dean was talked about in the same company as Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra and all the other très legendary white men of stage and screen. Two of his films---Rebel Without a Cause and Giant---are among the AFI Top 100. In one of these broadcasts, I watched actor Dustin Hoffman become misty-eyed when he reminisced about how Dean's performance as troubled kid Jim Stark in RWC affected the kids of his generation. For Hoffman and for kids like him, Dean had set them on fire---for the first time they saw their real lives as young people reflected on the big screen. In my own adolescence the big stars who set my generation on fire---Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, and the Notorious B.I.G.---had a similar affect on me and my peers. Of course, those three men and us were resting on the shoulders of folks like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, all the Beatles and the Stones, the punks, post-punks and New Wavers, the South Bronx legends who created hip-hop, Kerouac and the Beat writers, and Messrs Dean and Presley and their followers.

In his short life and career, Dean made eight films and starred in three: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant. Of these three, East of Eden is my favorite film. But my favorite performance of Jimmy's is his turn as the alcoholic, racist nouveau riche oilman Jett Rink in Giant (an uneven and overly long film co-starring Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson). In a time when public consciousness of both white supremacy and substance abuse was extremely limited, Jimmy Dean brought out all the contradictions in Jett's character---a poor white man looked down on by the wealthy Texas rancher class who drowns his insecurities in liquor and projects his own vicious self-hatred onto the Mexican American community. Indeed, Jimmy gives a masterfully dialectical performance as Jett---he's every bit the poor white man that Bob Dylan sang about nine years later in "Only a Pawn in Their Game." But today, we're here to talk about Dean's first starring movie, East of Eden.

East of Eden is loosely based on the novel of the same name by Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath). Like its literary predecessor, the film EOE is set in Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas Valley, California, and like the book, it's a play on the Cain and Abel story in the Bible. Director Elia Kazan focuses his dramatization on the last ninety or so pages of the book, set during the World War I era, which is concerned with the saga of the three-man Trask household, father Adam and his two young adult sons. Cal (Dean) is a young man wanting to know who he is. He feels part of his being missing---the missing piece tied somehow to the mother who he and his brother Aron (Davalos) have believed to be dead. Their father Adam Trask (Massey) told them that their mother died when they were young children. Yet somehow, Cal not only knows that his mother (Van Fleet) is very much alive, but that she's a big-time brothel-keeper the next town over in Monterey. Just how he figured this out is not revealed in the movie.

Cal (Dean) walking with Mama Kate (Van Fleet)

Cal is the so-called "bad" seed of the two Trask brothers. Cal's wanderlust, angst, boredom, and impestuousness arouse the ire of disappointment from Daddy Trask. Daddy fears that Cal is headed down the wrong path, and may be spiritually ruined in the same way that his mother was. By contrast, Aron represents all that a father would want from his son---well-behaved, honest, decent, hard-working, God-fearing, and responsible. He is on the right track to being a good, upstanding citizen, demonstrated by his intention to marry his sweetheart Abra (Harris), a sweet nurturing young woman from a prominent family. Aron envisions Abra as a loving, comforting wife and mother, that soft pillow of wifely goodness that every heterosexist family man dreams of coming home to. It wouldn't be a stretch to assume that Aron's daydream of Abra's future maternity comes from an unrequited desire for his lost mother.

Caught between two brothers (Davalos, Harris, and Dean).

As for Sister Abra, there is a hell of a lot more to her than meets the eye. (Ain't it always that way, ladies?) Because of her own strained family situation, she has a deep insight into the ways that family members can hurt and be hurt by each other. She also recognizes the deep complexity of a human being that is Cal Trask, seeing beyond his bad-boy persona/reputation and reaching out to the thoughful, intelligent man that lies underneath. She feels drawn to Cal by some intangible psychic bond, a powerful energy that ain't nowhere to be found in her relationship with upstanding citizen Aron. As she and Cal grow closer together, she becomes ever more determined to help him repair his strained relationship with Daddy Trask.

Daddy Adam is a hard-working, God-fearing man who has tried to live right, and to raise his sons in the word of the Holy Bible. Daddy Trask has a very static either/or view of the world, what is right and wrong and the correct way for a man to live a good, decent life. It's a mindset that establishes impossible expectations for himself and his sons. The unbearable tension in his relationship with Cal comes from the fear that many a parent has felt for her child---that she or he will make a big mistake and fall into a place where she can't come back from. Cal has felt this fear from Daddy Trask his entire life, and Daddy's fears for him and his spiritual welfare have convinced him that he is a "bad" son, an irredeemable lout predestined to be a sinner.

Daddy Trask (Massey) looks out over the horizon.

When Daddy Trask loses a substantial amount of money in a vegetable shipping venture, Cal sees a chance to redeem himself in his father's eyes. He embarks on a plan to earn back every penny that Daddy Trask has lost in the business failure. Of course, we in the audience can recognize that this plan of Cal's isn't necessary---the only thing that Daddy wants from Cal is the honor of a good, decent life lived. But here's the question: what constitutes a good, decent life? Financial success? A happy marriage with kids? Dedicated worship of God and regular church attendance? What standard of honorable manhood does Daddy Trask have? And what kind of man should Cal be?

Kate, the long-lost mama of the Brothers Trask, is a highly successful pimp and saloon-owner in fast-track Monterey, fifteen miles and millions of light years from verdant, idyllic Salinas. Her clients include top dogs in government and business, who sneak in at night, while she "walks through the front door in the daytime," in her own words. She broke free from Daddy Trask because she felt he was trying to tie her down as a wife and mother, to isolate her in Victorian domesticity on a Salinas ranch. Her desire to live independent of wifely/maternal expectations, to acquire power and independence on her own terms, is seen as the Ultimate Sin by both fellow characters and audience members alike. Indeed, more than a few film critics and even co-stars of EOE have referred to Van Fleet's character as a prostitute, rather than a pimp and brothel-owner. Granted, the Kate character in Steinbeck's book begins as a sex worker before taking over the brothel from the previous owner, but there is no indication of Kate having turned a trick in the film. No, any woman who abandons the respectable life of husband, home, and kids for easy money must be some kind of prostitute. Why is a woman who displays any kind of worldly ambition automatically seen as a whore?

In contrast to Daddy Trask, Mama Kate is everything that he is not---streetwise, business-savvy, full of personal desire and ambition. She knows what the public wants and she knows how to deliver, and she won't let the fact that she is a wife and mother stand in her way. Rather than tell his sons this hard truth, Daddy convinces his sons that this untameable, disobedient woman died when they were babies. Just as her sons are the embodiment of Cain and Abel, Kate is the personification of Eve, the woman tempted by the riches and ambition of Satan who forsakes the innocence of Eden. In short, she is everything a good white woman of the time was NOT supposed to be, and in my 2007 eyes, Kate emerges as a distinctly feminist---albeit contradictory---character, an outcome I'm sure neither Steinbeck, Osborn, nor Kazan intended.

The tension between good son Aron and bad son Cal inevitably comes to a head in the end. In a fit of rage and jealously at the deepening intimacy between Abra and Cal, Aron arrogantly denounces Cal as no-good. In a desire for revenge, Cal introduces Aron to Kate, the bad mother that the good son has long believed to be dead. Not surprisingly, Aron's entire sense of self is shattered, and he leaves home to join the Great War in Europe, a war he swore he'd never fight. What ensues afterward changes the dynamics between the two remaining Trask men, for the better. Recognizing that they both love and need each other, father and son reach out to each other, in one of the most poignant reconciliations I've ever seen in a feature film. In East of Eden, the Prodigal Son comes home, straight into the arms of his father.

How do I feel about Jimmy Dean now? Well, needless to say, I ain't skeptical of him anymore. But I am deeply sad. Tragedy happens in life, as we all know. Many young people, talented, caring, and loving, have fallen before their time. James Dean just happened to be one of them. None of us knows when we're gonna leave this Earth, how old we will be or what we will have accomplished when that day comes. But I hope that when that day comes for me, I would have lived my life to the fullest, as Jimmy had. What a hell of an example for a young queer man to lay down.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Meeting an Actor's Acquaintance

Hey y'all---I've got a question for y'all. If one were to approach the films of a particular actor, which one would be the best one to ease into her work? Especially when that actor is Marlon Brando?

You see, I had wanted to watch Last Tango in Paris, but after reading as many reviews as I could find and seeing a few clips and stills, something told me that Tango wouldn't be a good "intro" film into Brando's work. A couple of years ago I saw Burn! at a film screening that was part of a group study, and I really enjoyed that film. I saw The Young Lions on cable TV when I was in my late teens. I've tried to watch The Godfather before, but I didn't like it at all (maybe I need to watch it again).

Which Brando film would you suggest watching before seeing Tango? And please be careful, I haven't seen many of these films before, so don't spoil 'em for me!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Professionalism = Selling Your Soul: A Feminist Rant on "The Devil Wears Prada"

Greta Christina offers a feminist persective on The Devil Wears Prada
Devil_wears_prada"The Devil Wears Prada" has been on HBO recently: I watched it again a few days ago (I do think it's a funny, entertaining, well-crafted movie), and I was reminded of a feminist rant I had when the movie first came out.

Devil_wears_prada_andrea_2Here's the deal. (Spoiler alert.) The purported arc of the movie is that our heroine, Andrea (Anne Hathaway), is a young would-be journalist in New York who can't find the kind of serious work she wants, and thus takes a job as assistant to the editor-in-chief at the biggest fashion magazine in the country. She justifies this as (a) a source of a much-needed paycheck, and (b) an entry-level position that could earn her some experience and gain her some connections in the profession.

Devil_wears_prada_andrea_1But she sells out. She sells her soul. She is seduced by the glamour of the fashion industry into abandoning her high ideals; she prioritizes her work over her personal relationships; she stabs her colleague in the back; and she even winds up defending her abusive control-freak boss, Miranda (Meryl Streep) against her many critics. Eventually she realizes the error of her ways, walks out on her job, finds a better one, and grovels for forgiveness to everyone she injured along the way.

So here's my problem with the movie:

I couldn't see anything she did wrong.

I was watching very carefully the second time around, and almost every "soul-selling" step that the heroine took seemed perfectly reasonable and defensible.

And more to the point, just about everything she did would have been accepted without blinking in a male protagonist.

Let's take it a piece at a time. Here are the sins against her soul that Andrea supposedly committed.

Devil_wears_prada_andrea_51) She stayed in a job she didn't much care about, in an industry that's a snakepit of ego and ambition, working for a boss who treated her abysmally... just to get ahead in her career.

Well, yes. If you're serious about a career, "take this job and shove it" isn't always an option. Especially if you're just starting out. Sometimes you have to put up with very bad situations temporarily, to get what you need on your resume (not to mention to keep the paychecks coming). And sometimes you start out at a company you don't much like or care about, to gain experience you'll need to eventually work for someone you do care about. That's not selling your soul. That's having long-term goals, and the stick-to-it-iveness to go through the necessary, if sometimes unpleasant, preliminary steps to get there. That's being willing to prioritize your long-term goals over your immediate happiness and comfort. And theoretically, that's a quality our society values.

Thedevilwearsprada_nate_1jpgIn men, anyway. This especially bugs me because her boyfriend, who's super-critical of her choices throughout the movie, is an equally ambitious, young, struggling would-be chef... and it's not like the world of high-end restaurants isn't a snakepit of ego and ambition, in which people stick with crappy jobs and asshole bosses to get the experience and contacts they need. But somehow, that's different.

And as it turns out, Andrea was right to do what she did. She did get useful experience and contacts, and at the end of the movie when she applies for the serious journalism job at the lefty newspaper, her recommendation from her old fashion-magazine boss is the tipping point that gets her the job. The job she cares about, and is good at, and that matters in the world.

But somehow, she was still selling her soul.

The_devil_wears_prada_nate_and_andr2) She prioritized her job over her friends and her lover -- including, sin of sins, skipping her boyfriend's birthday party because of a work emergency.

Let me ask you this. Ingrid currently has a job that she loves -- and it currently requires her to travel out of town two and a half days a week. This is a little hard on me, and puts some stress on our relationship. I also currently have a job I love (freelance writing) that currently requires me to spend weekends and evenings writing... time that would otherwise be part of the diminishing time we can spend together. This is a little hard on Ingrid, and puts some stress on our relationship.

Is either of us doing something terribly wrong?

AisleI don't think so. I think we're both doing exactly the right thing -- supporting each other in our respective careers, making space for each other to do what we need to do, and making a point of savoring the time we do have together. That, in my mind, is what you do when you love someone. Obviously there's a limit -- if Ingrid's job required her to move to Antarctica, I'd put my foot down -- but especially when a situation is a temporary, experience-gaining or stopgap situation, cutting your partner some slack so they can get where they're going in a career they care about is just part of being in a relationship.

Birthday_cake_2And, as Ingrid pointed out when I first shared this rant with her, "If you had a work emergency and had to skip my birthday party, I'd be disappointed, but I wouldn't think you'd done anything horribly wrong." Thinking that a birthday party is the most important thing in the world... that's not what sane adults do. (In fact, Andrea stayed at the emergency work event only as long as she needed to fulfill the requirements of her job, and when given the chance to stay longer to fulfill her own personal ambitions, she cut out and went home to be with her boyfriend.)

Devil_wears_prada_miranda_andrea_anBut women aren't supposed to think like this. Nobody blinks an eye when men have to work late or miss special personal events for job emergencies... but women are supposed to be loving and emotional and think family and love are always, always, always more important than work. Andrea was making a difficult but reasonable decision... but somehow, she was still selling her soul.

Devil_wears_prada_andrea_63) She got sucked into the world of fashion -- a world she didn't care beans about before she took the job.

Yes. Interestingly enough, when you take a new job in a field you're not familiar with, you often get excited about it and drawn into it. For fuck's sake, that's one of the best things about taking a job in a field you're not familiar with. You learn new things. You expand your horizons. I didn't know that much about women's health care before my job at the Feminist Women's Health Center; or about gay politics before my job at the gay newspaper; or hell, about the music industry before my crappy job at Ticketmaster. I grew to know and care about these things more because of these jobs. That doesn't make me a sell-out. That makes me an open-minded person who's eager to learn.

KingofthehillYou can argue that fashion is a vapid, trivial thing to care about. But you can also argue, as many characters in the movie do, that fashion is an art form, one that touches everyone's life. Nobody thinks Hank Hill of "King of the Hill" is a sellout because he's grown to care passionately about propane and propane accessories... but when Andrea grows to see that fashion isn't as vapid and trivial as she'd originally thought, somehow it means she was selling her soul.

Devil_wears_prada_emily_14) She stabbed her friend and colleague in the back.

Now, this is an interesting one. Andrea's most serious sin, in her mind and everyone else's, is that, when Miranda told her that she would be going on a coveted trip to Paris instead of her fellow assistant Emily (Emily Blunt), her initial reaction was to say, "I can't do that, the Paris trip means too much to Emily." But when Miranda made it clear that refusing the Paris trip would mean risking not only her job, but her chance at a recommendation and her career prospects (I believe her words were, "I'll assume you're not serious about your career, here or anywhere else"), Andrea caves and accepts.

In other words:

Devil_wears_prada_andrea_and_mirandHer boss decides (somewhat unreasonably, but not entirely so) that Andrea is a better and more capable choice for the Paris trip than Emily. Her boss offers her the assignment. She accepts it.

And this is bad because...?

Devil_wears_prada_andrea_and_miranaThat's what the working world is like. If you're a boss, you don't offer assignments based on how much it means to your employees. You offer assignments based on who you think the best person for the assignment will be. And if you're an employee, you don't refuse assignments because taking them would hurt someone's feelings. It's not like the dating world -- it's not rude or bad to take the job your friend is hot for.

It's not like Andrea connived and schemed for the trip. It's not like she tried to undercut Emily or make her look bad so she could get the trip. In fact, she tried to turn the trip down, and she tried to give it to Emily.

Devil_wears_prada_andrea_4pgBut in the end, she acted like a professional. She treated her job like a job, not like a social relationship. She accepted an assignment that her boss offered her, an assignment her boss decided she was better suited to than her colleague -- and this, in her own eyes and in everybody else's, makes her a selfish, backstabbing power-slut. Nobody would blink twice if a man did exactly the same thing -- but for Andrea, somehow it means she was selling her soul.

Devil_wears_prada_miranda_15) She began to have understanding and sympathy for her abusive, control-freak boss.

My very, very favorite line in the movie -- and one that I think sums up in a nutshell the movie's real message -- is when Andrea says to a fellow writer (I'm paraphrasing here), "If a man acted the way Miranda does, nobody would say anything at all except what a great job he does."


That pretty much says it all.

Devil_wears_prada_miranda_4I think Andrea's character arc when it comes to Miranda is 100% reasonable. She starts out hating and fearing her; she grows to have some respect and compassion for her; and in the end, she decides that the compromises Miranda has made (personal and ethical) aren't compromises she would be willing to make.

But somehow, the fact that she ever had respect for Miranda's professionalism, and compassion for the pain that her sacrifices caused her... somehow, that means she was selling her soul.


HpandphilosophyThere's an essay I read in "Harry Potter and Philosophy," arguing that ambition (the defining quality of the Slytherin house) is, in fact, a virtue. And I would agree. Like most virtues, taken to extremes it can become a vice... but the willingness to focus on long-term professional goals, and to work hard and make sacrifices to reach them, is definitely a virtue. And it's a virtue that our society generally values quite highly.

Devil_wears_prada_2But not in women. In women, ambition -- being willing to put up with shit to get where you want to go, sometimes prioritizing your career over your personal life, becoming engaged with a job even though it's ultimately not what you care about most, treating it like a job instead of a slumber party, having respect for successful high-achievers in your field, and generally taking your career seriously -- isn't considered a virtue at all.

In fact, it's more than just not a virtue. It means that you're selling your soul.

Read more from Greta Christina's blog

Monday, August 6, 2007

Jesus Camp: Training the Wee Footsoldiers of God

I finally saw Jesus Camp last night. (Yes, I know I'm late to the party.) While some of it was absolutely unsurprising, some of it did indeed send chills down my spine. There were certainly shades of my own summer indoctrination camp[PDF - thanks R.D.] but it went much farther. I recognize some of the brainwashing tactics, as they were used on us at bible camp, in particular the shame and the peer pressure to convert and repent (extra points for squeezing out some tears). While we didn't speak in tongues and writhe on the ground, the main difference was the political element featured at Jesus Camp.

One of the weirdest scenes was when a giant cardboard dummy (heh) of President George Bush was brought to the front of the chapel and all the kids had to pray over him. One of the scariest was the whole abortion thing. They gave the little kids tiny fetuses to hold in their soft little hands (of course they looked like wee toy babies, and nothing like a real fetus at 7 weeks - if the kids saw what a real one looks like they would probably have nightmares). They put "Life" tape over the kids mouths - there was even a scene in front of the white house. Many of these kids were far too young to understand sex, pregnancy, or any of that, so surely they had no idea what abortion actually is. In their minds abortion is baby murder, plain and simple, and it must be stopped.

In order to justify what they are doing, the camp director and some parents say they were training their little army of God as a response to how Muslims train their kids into an Islamic army.
It's no wonder, with that kind of intense training and discipling, that those young people are ready to kill themselves for the cause of Islam. I wanna see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam. I wanna see them as radically laying down their lives for the Gospel as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine and all those different places, you know, because we have... excuse me, but we have the truth!
The kids who were interviewed spoke about being warriors and not being afraid to die for God. I think they meant it metaphorically, but I'm not really sure.

The camp did an excellent job at reaching the kids' tender little minds - using stories and props that really reach the kids, making them feel special ("You are the most important generation", "God wrote the book of your life"), even letting them smash things with a hammer (coffee mugs labeled "government") - and if there's one things kids love, it's smashing things!

The children are not raised to be freethinking individuals, but vessels of God to be used. The frames in which they can think are extremely tight, and there is no respect for science or critical thought. Many of the kids are homeschooled: global warming isn't a big deal, science doesn't prove anything, evolution is a belief... One of the families did a sort of pledge of allegiance to Jesus, and the USA, and oddly enough, the Israeli flag.

Overall, it was an excellent movie, with no commentary from the directors at all. The interviews let the camp director, parents, and kids speak for themselves.

Worth watching: the deleted scenes.

Most embarassing guest appearance: Pastor Ted Haggard.

Funniest line of the movie: "We pray over these powerpoint presentations".

Crossposted at Red Jenny

Friday, June 15, 2007

Class and The Pursuit of Happyness

Originally posted at Red Jenny

I saw Pursuit of Happyness yesterday and found it to be a very emotionally engaging film. This feel-good story features a homeless single father going to extraordinary ends to try to make it big in nearly impossible circumstances.

I was struck by the fairly realistic portrayal of working class life... The precariousness of this existence; those who scrape by are always only one small disaster away from financial ruin. The bone-weariness of constantly overextending oneself. The emotional fallout from all the stress and anxiety, which impacts self-esteem and relationships. The distress at not being able to protect one's kids from the realities of poverty.

I liked that Chris Gardiner's character was at once hero and anti-hero; he is intelligent, loving, and determined. He also doesn't always make the best decisions - in fact he makes some pretty bad mistakes. He is ultimately moral, but does a lot of unethical things (some due to panicking in tight circumstances) such as lying and stiffing others for money they also need.

I've read some reviews which describe this movie as a dramatization of the American Dream, the "meritocracy" that insists everyone can make it if they are upright, smart, and willing to put in the effort. Moralizing class like this leads to blame and judgment: if you don't make it you are lazy, immoral, or stupid and deserve your lot in life.

For me, however, as for this blogger I see the happy ending in the film as very unrealistic. Not everyone can make it in America. Indeed it "shows that for someone starting with nothing in America, it take a ludicrous amount of talent and drive to pull oneself up." For every one rags-to-riches story like this, there are millions of people who go from rags to rags, and many others who go from rags to slightly better. And of course, what little class mobility there is goes both ways.

Getting out of the cycle of homelessness is an incredible struggle, and many of us who have done it were lucky enough not to fall too deeply into that cycle, perhaps to have some help or an unexpected stroke of fortune. Those who think anyone can do it should try finding a job without a permanent address, a phone number, safety, or clean clothes, the need to carry everything on your back, lack of sleep, and a generally scruffy appearance. Hard, but many do it.

Now add a small child, and try to get a stockbroker job. Virtually impossible, and as noted, the extreme jump from total poverty to millionaire is "about the only jump that many black people get to see others of their race make when they’re growing up." Unfortunately there's no exploration of the injustice of the entire structure, or the need for collective action.

So is the film pro-capitalist propaganda or does it portray the realities of poverty? Both, a little. And neither. But it's emotionally satisfying, and ultimately worth watching.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Crash: Viewing White Hollywood Through Minority Colored Glasses

nubian reviews Crash: Viewing White Hollywood Through Minority Colored Glasses

last night i finally saw the film “crash” which i have been told to see many times before. i already knew that the premise for the film was about the racial undertones of the multicultural multiracial city of los angeles (my home)

first off, if you havent seen this movie, i think you should. not because i think that it does anything to educate folks about racism, i just think that in some instances it was well written and it told a story very well. since i am a filmmaker myself, i really enjoyed the cinematography and visual imagery.
however, my main problms with the film are as follows:

out of the characters of color, one was run over, one was fatally shot, another was publicly molested by a cop, one was a crack head, one shot a 5 year old child (with blanks however), and another was involved in human trafficking–the only thing badthat happened to a white character was when sandra bullock tripped and fell down the stairs of her house. but don’t worry, as the lovely white women that she was, she ended up being fine. this made me feel like the filmmakers were getting at the idea that white peoples lives are much more valuable.

the white people in the film were portrayed as the saviors of folks of color. the racist cop played by matt dillion molested a black woman on a routine traffic stop, but eventually saved her life when she was in an accident. the other white cop played by ryan phillipe saved terrence howards character from being shot by another cop, but eventually shot and killed larenz tate’s character then dumped his body on the side of the road. the mexican child was not fatally shot because the white storeowner saved her by selling the iranian daughter character blanks that filled the gun.

the message of the film implied that racism exists in all facets and it is not just a black and white issue, but that white people are somewhat immune to its effects. white people will never die from it, maybe fall down the stairs, but never suffer as much as folks of color. the film also implied that racism is not institutional, rather it is the fault of the citizens who perpetuate it. which, i think holds some weight, but i also think that racism is fundamentally institutional, whereas it is in every facet of american life. it is a disease that reproduces itself through the exploitation and subjugation of darker skinned folks, whether through equal access to education, healthcare, economic stability, or plain and simple…a healthy life. by ignoring this salient issue, the film then perpetuates the idea that racism can be eradicated if people simply stopped seeing other people’s skin color. this idea promotes “individualism” and denies the collective histories of people of color within this country. unfortunately, seeing people as “people” rather than as a white person, asian person, black person, etc is impossible because we do not live in a vaccuum. by that i mean, we are always affected by other people’s perceptions of race whether positive or negative; we are affected daily by the racist images produced in the media; we attend school within a system of education which systematically excludes the experience of folks of color–rendering our experiences as inferior to whites; and as american citizens and arguably, citizens of the world, we are controlled by a government which has blatantly and historically created policies which deny people of color the same mobility and equal opportunity and access afforded to whites. it is also highly unlikely that we can just up and erase the past 230 years of sterotypes that have grown, developed and changed and been ingrained into the core of the united states to see people as “just people.”

the sterotypes in the film were plentiful, but were not depicted in a way that challenged them–they were only reinforced and presented as truth. asians were bad drivers, black women were big and loud and named shenequa or big and loud and crackheads, iranians were shopkeepers with short tempers, black men were violent criminals and disrespectful towards women, latinos looked like gang members or didn’t speak “good english.” now, in a film that was supposedly produced to have us question our own prejudices, why wasn’t it produced in a way that portrays people of color differently? i argue because it wouldn’t make sense. the film needs to depict the stereotypes that maintain the racial social order to have the audience be able to relate to it—basically, to be able to consume it. if the film was about poor white people, rich and educated black folks, latinos who weren’t houskeepers but doctors or lawyers and so on, who would go see it? would it make any money? probably not.

in short, the film reinscribes racist stereotypes, which do not contradict hegemonic conceptions, but rather maintain the dominant social order regarding race. secondly, the film keeps racism at an interpersonal level without exploring race at the structural and institutional level, deeming it as a problem that can easily be solved if the world were “color-blind.” finally, “crash” follows the overtly racist claim that people of color “need” whites to save them from racism, since whiteness is depicted as a path of redemption and necessity for racially marked bodies.

its films like this that continue to fuel my fire to make better films….

Recommended: "Shut Up & Sing"

Recommended: "Shut Up & Sing" by Amy at Feminist Reprise

Yesterday we saw the documentary about the Dixie Chicks,"Shut Up & Sing." The controversy that has surrounded the band since lead singer Natalie Maines spoke out against the Iraq war on a London concert stage in 2003 has led the Chicks to produce an amazing song, "Not Ready to Make Nice," which could well become an anthem for strong women. The video is complex and intense, juxtaposing traditional icons of femininity with the strength and power of the song's direct lyrics and the band's emotional presentation.

Watch the
video of "Not Ready to Make Nice"
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The film exemplifies the frightening contradiction between the supposed "amerikan" value of free speech and the vitriol and hate that was spewed at Maines for speaking out against violence and war, by those who would likely not bat an eyelash at hate speech against any marginalized group. The irony is that the Dixie Chicks has not been a political band--though I enjoy their work, it mostly treats stereotypical country music themes. (The exception to this is their song "Goodbye Earl," in which a woman and her best friend conspire to poison the man who is beating her. I heard this song was also banned from country music radio and the subject of significant public protest, though the film does not touch on this at all.) "Shut Up & Sing" shows the band becoming more political, almost in spite of themselves, as they witness the increasing hatred and over-the-top protests from former fans in response to Maines' clearly off-the-cuff, spontaneous comment such as any of us might make. I was reminded that, so often, it's not that we choose our radical politics--it's that the events that happen to us when we are going about our business radicalize us. The contradictions and injustices that surround us force us to take stands that we might not have chosen, but that, once taken, cannot be abandoned. What I took away from the film is that the Dixie Chicks' transition is far from over; there is a strong sense that the changes sparked by the London concert in 2003 in their politics and their work have really just begun, and I have high hopes that the future will bring more music from them that blends the personal and political as they do with "Not Ready to Make Nice."

The documentary makes much of portraying the Chicks as very traditional Texas
girls, good wives and mothers, probably partly to make a statement to those who
have criticized them; but it also comes through really clearly that that is who they are. That's one reason why the hate directed at them suprises them so. As I watched the scenes dealing with Emily Robison's difficulty becoming pregnant and her decision to undergo fertility treatments, I remembered what I wrote the other day about belonging to lesbian/feminist culture; I felt strongly that the culture the Dixie Chicks represent is not mine. And yet I also felt a kinship with them in their struggles to stand up for what they believe, to stick together and support each other even though they may not all agree. There is a wonderful scene where the Chicks are sitting with their male manager and a male representative of their tour sponsor, and the men are struggling (and failing) to get a word in edgewise as the three band members are clearly focused on talking intensely to each other. If nothing else, "Shut Up & Sing" is a testament to the strength of female friendship, to what women can accomplish when we take each other seriously--and, not least, a delicious showcase for the brilliance of three incredibly talented musicians.

Read a review of the film
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