A funny thing happened to me in Baltimore.
A-List: Race in America
By Sean Collier
December 18, 2008
After spending the weekend enjoying and performing at the Baltimore Improv Festival, a few friends and I decided to take a tour of Camden Yards and grab lunch before setting off on the four-hour drive home. As I enjoyed a downright excellent Tuna Burger, someone smashed in the left rear window of my traveling companion's car and stole our luggage. The next few hours were spent pacing around angrily and chatting with police and an entertaining cast of garage personnel, followed by a windy and cold ride to Pittsburgh. I am not currently planning any return trips to "Charm City."
At one point in the endless conversation I had with the garage manager, she was commenting to a co-worker that a different garage under the same ownership had been robbed earlier in the day, and the supposed thief had been caught on tape. In the course of this conversation, she said, "Well, the guy they're looking for, he's..." She briefly turned to me. "Pardon my language." She turned back. "He's a white guy."
This was sort of a funny way of putting it ï¿½ I did not know that "white guy" had reached the status of language that needs to be pardoned, for one thing ï¿½ and it sort of got me thinking. We're awfully afraid of race, aren't we? I've always been for political correctness, but this situation was something else. The garage employee was black, and I was white, and so she was nervous about saying the phrase "white guy" in front of me.
I'm not sure what this means. I think, though, there's a chance that we strive so much to not speak racially, we've become afraid to speak frankly, lest we offend. If we're not careful, this tendency threatens to close some amount of cultural dialogue, which is a more precious thing than unflinching politeness.
That's a funny way to set up a column, but I wrote about Evil Dead last time, so I figured it was time to mix it up. This week's A-List contains some of my favorite movies that deal with race in America. (Bonus points: my gross-out column and this column will be linked by both zombies and John Waters!) There are obviously thousands of candidates for such a list, so let me say that these six films aren't necessarily the best ï¿½ just my personal favorites.
With a friendly reminder to conceal your valuables in parking garages, The A-List presents my favorite films about race in America.
I may well be the only BOP staff member who is a big fan of Crash. One of my favorite films of the last few years, Crash has proven very divisive, for any number of reasons: it notably offended certain Hollywood types by implying that L.A. was an inherently racist city, it infuriated fans of Brokeback Mountain by stealing a Best Picture Oscar at the last moment, and many critics and fans simply found it preachy and unrealistic. I, however, think it's perhaps the most gripping and moving story about racism I've ever seen. Paul Haggis' film starts with a simple premise: when in tense, violent situations, we have a natural tendency to default to ugly thoughts and behaviors, some of them racially flavored. Crash tests that theory on a wide cross-section of individuals in a somewhat mystical Los Angeles, and then slowly lets things unwind until any notion of good guys and bad guys has disintegrated. Less realism than a dark, gritty, fantastic experiment, Crash is a powerful, powerful movie.
Do the Right Thing
Another obvious choice, Spike Lee's masterpiece still resonates nearly 20 years later. Far from a bleak grittiness for most of its running time, Do the Right Thing sets up a romanticized version of Bedford-Stuyvesant, and then tears it apart. The plot of Do the Right Thing, however, is not the source of the film's strength; the ambiguity in many of the moral issues the film presents is the true gold here. In defiance to the title and the exhortation to "always do the right thing," when the climactic riot breaks out, Mookie finds that there might not be a right thing left to do.
Night of the Living Dead
This is obviously a stretch, but you may have noticed that I have a thing for horror. There have been any number of readings of the social implications in George Romero's seminal zombie film, but many focus on the fact that the film's hero, Ben (Duane Jones,) is shot without question at the end of the film. Released in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., one possible interpretation of this climax posits that Romero was trying to point out that white Americans inevitably lump African-Americans as the "other," whether that "other" is communists, criminals, or, in the case of this film, monsters. Other interpretations see the film as a metaphor for the brewing tension of desegregation, or a commentary on the Vietnam War; still others like to claim that Night of the Living Dead is nothing more than a scare flick. Judge for yourself.
See? Zombies and John Waters. The original (non-musical) version of Hairspray is a classic story of the outsiders taking on the elite, with an unlikely group of protesters trying to desegregate the dance halls and television broadcasts of Baltimore. Every performance in Waters' film is perfect, and there's a serious message mixed in to the madness: racial issues are often more about the haves putting down the have-nots than simple black and white. Mostly, though, I'm including Hairspray as a reminder that these issues can be dealt with cinematically without doom and gloom.
There are countless films about the civil rights struggle, but this is one of the best. Carried by undeniable performances from Gene Hackman, Frances McDormand, Willem Dafoe, Brad Dourif and R. Lee Ermey, the film starts at a fever pitch of violence and tension and doesn't relent until the final frame. Controversial for its semi-verifiable depiction of the true events depicted, Mississippi Burning drew fire for putting two white heroes in the lead. The film isn't about the FBI agents, though ï¿½ it's simply about how volatile and unapproachable the south was during the civil rights movement.
Far From Heaven
Todd Haynes' film is one of my favorites mainly because every frame is gorgeously shot, but there's much more to the film than perfect cinematography. Julianne Moore is perfect in portraying how social ostracism resonates beyond the individual and into the lives of their loved ones, and the private unraveling of Dennis Quaid's gay businessman is a powerful counterpoint to the public hatred directed at Dennis Haysbert's mild-mannered gardener.
One to Watch For
It's a little out of the range of the rest of this column, but I was really grabbed by the trailer for Spike Lee's upcoming Miracle at St. Anna. Lee's first film since the serviceable Inside Man, the film follows a mysterious shooting and a bizarre Italian artifact back into World War II and the only segregated combat unit of the war. A strong cast that includes Derek Luke, Michael Ealy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and James Gandolfini should make this more than worth a look, though it might get a somewhat limited release.