The problem with viewing films by demographic.

the-problem-with-viewing-films-by-demographic

Via Angry Asian Man, a great article that makes a point about the ineffectiveness of protests about racism in mainstream Hollywood films. Basically, if we don’t patronize the good portrayals created by our own filmmakers, we’re unlikely to see much change in the racist dreck being cranked out by the Hollywood factories, because they pay attention only to money.

But then, the conversation turned to the work of Asian American filmmakers. And it turned out he had not paid to see any of the following films in the theaters—Better Luck Tomorrow, Saving Face, Finishing The Game, The Motel, In-Between Days, The Debut, Journey From The Fall. In fact, he couldn’t think of one Asian American indie he had paid money to see theatrically—the closest he came was the last Harold and Kumar movie, which hardly counts as an independently produced Asian American film. He was talking passionately about how we need to force Hollywood to change and show respect to our community, but even he admitted he had not done much to support our artists and our work.

Unfortunately, this brother’s story is not isolated. And herein lies the problem—it’s great that we’re willing to speak out when we see something that offends us. But until Asian Americans as a whole are willing to put down our money to support the work of our Asian American filmmakers—nothing will change.

It’s a good point. But something about it bugs me.

Because it assumes something that I’m not sure is true, and feeds into a bigger problem. What Phillip suggests is that if Asian Americans just go and view more Asian American films, this will show Hollywood there’s a significant demand for positive portrayals. The same reasoning, IMO, underlies African Americans’ patronization of black films (and African American Interest books, and so on) — we’ve taken to heart the racist rationalization that if we don’t make it ourselves, and go see it ourselves, we can’t expect the mainstream to follow suit.

Except… African Americans have been making it ourselves, since the Sixties. We’ve been going to see those films, too, enough to create several blockbusters, catapult several African American filmmakers to auteur status, and launch a few subcultural film/theater movements.

But has all this success — all this proof that we will support our own — really changed anything in Hollywood? We’re still getting slapped in the face with grotesque stereotypes, and “allegories” for the black experience of racism that Fail miserably. (I’m kind of dreading Cameron’s much-hyped Avatar, ya’ll. Looks like yet another “what these people need is a honky” derivation.) There’s still only one black male per generation permitted to reach A-list status — first Sidney Poitier, then Denzel Washington, lately Will Smith. And more often than not that black male is paired with a non-black female, out of the apparent belief in Hollywood that one black person on screen is tolerable, but two — especially if they’re showing love for one another — is just too damn many. (BTW, name a current black female A-list actress. Go on, try. Good luck with that.)

So basically, African Americans have been doing exactly what Phillip advocates for 50+ years now, and it hasn’t changed a damn thing in Hollywood. Which suggests to me that there’s a fundamental flaw in Phillip’s premise. He’s suggesting that money is Hollywood’s guiding philosophy. I think he’s forgetting the role that racism — some intentional, most aversive — plays in the way Hollywood people think. Money is just the excuse/rationalization that they use.

And to counter this racism, we have to do more than go and view films by demographic, as Phillip suggests. One of the justifications used by the producers of whitewashed films like 21 and The Last Airbender is that PoC aren’t “universal”. That actors of color might be able to appeal to audiences of color, but to really make the leap to broad mainstream (i.e., white) appeal, white actors must be inserted, even into PoC’s stories. This is racist bullshit, yes, but it’s racist bullshit that Hollywood keeps trying to support with numbers which show that PoC actors don’t pull the audiences that white actors do. So does it make sense to urge Asian Americans to go see Asian American films? That actually proves the Hollywood racists’ point — because of course those PoC actors won’t be able to pull big numbers if they’re only pulling an audience from within their respective communities. If only Asian Americans go to see Asian American films in any numbers, and only African Americans go to see black films, and so on, the racists can point at this and say, “See? PoC only appeal to their own.”

And yeah, I get the irony here. The whole reason these demographic-specific film industries have cropped up is because Hollywood has historically excluded us… but they’ll also use the existence of these industries to exclude us further. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

But here’s my proposed solution: all of us, regardless of race, need to go and see all good films, regardless of their target demographic. We need to see more Latino/a viewers attending events like the Asian American film festival. We need to see more black filmmakers creating films for that event, and more Asian filmmakers making stuff for black and Latino/a film festivals. We need to see more American Indians behind the camera, and sticking their shit into every festival with “American” in its title, regardless of the racial qualifier that comes before it. And so on.

And we as audiences need to attend all of it. Yes, I mean you, fellow black Americans. Put down that ticket to Tyler Perry’s next monstrosity; he’s gotten enough of our money and hasn’t done shit with it. (Well, except this. But he’s got to do a lot more before I’ll forgive him for all the rest.) Pick up your mouse and find a film by some other ethnic group that’s playing in your area. You can still stick to black people — we still need to support our own, especially given that there’s better stuff out there than Perry’s work. (If you can’t find anything recent, go see some older stuff that never got enough attention.) But in addition to work by African American filmmakers, maybe you can go see a Nollywood film too. Then branch out more. Did you go see Sleep Dealer when I told you to? Lazy ass. Now you gotta go buy it. (Shoulda listened to me, but nooo, you had to be hard headed.)

We still need to protest, IMO, because racism won’t change on its own. But I’m taking Phillip’s point to heart; we need the carrot as well as the stick. We’ve got to support the positive portrayals that are already out there. And that includes work by other PoC, because all this stuff feeds into each other. We’ll get more successful black actors in Hollywood once we prove that Latinos/as will go and see them. We’ll get more Asian actors when we can prove they appeal to black audiences. We’ll see fewer pretendians when audiences start going to see real Indians. And so on.

So. What films by/about another race are you planning to see this year?

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The problem with viewing films by demographic.

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9 Responses to The problem with viewing films by demographic.

  1. 1
    Brian says:

    Excellent points. Film history is one of my hobbies, and the general thesis is correct. While there is undeniable racism in portrayals and plots in Hollywood and always has been, a good chunk of the cause is simply dollars and cents.

    If some “genius” at paramount thought a Michael Bay directed remake of BIRTH OF A NATION with robots would make $400 billion global gross, that movie would be made.

    If that same genius thought$400 billion would be generated by a sensitive portrayal of Nojojojo’s life as the inspiring story it could be done right (everyone’s life is inspiring written correctly) then THAT film would be made.

  2. 2
    mr_subjunctive says:

    Is Halle Berry not black, or not A-List?

  3. 3
    nojojojo says:

    mr_subjunctive,

    Berry self-IDs as black, as far as I know. But although she’s got an Oscar, I’m not sure she’s A-list. Julia Roberts and Will Smith and Tom Hanks can basically have any role they want. Does Berry have that kind of power? What was the last movie she headlined, a la “Pretty Woman” or “I Am Legend” or “Castaway”? (I’m thinking “Catwoman”, which was before the Oscar.)

    Part of this is the dearth of roles aimed at black women. But the dearth of roles aimed at black men doesn’t seem to be slowing down Will Smith.

  4. 4
    Siobhan says:

    Halle Berry was my first thought, and I do think she was A-list but has gone out of fashion since Catwoman.

    I agree that she has less clout than Will Smith and Tom Hanks have, but I’m not sure that Julia Roberts necessarily has more – I think that Roberts is another star that has fallen out of fashion. When you are talking about female actors it’s hard to tease out whether racism or sexism is the bigger factor in their ability to get work. (After all, if you already have 3 thin blond under-30 women to put in the romantic interest role, why would you need to hire anybody else? Ugh.)

  5. 5
    nojojojo says:

    Siobhan,

    But when Roberts was in fashion, she was the center of the marketing campaign for quite a few movies. I’m remembering, for example, the posters for Erin Brockovich — Albert Finney didn’t even get a subheader on that one. Ditto “Pretty Woman”, “Runaway Bride”, “Stepmom”, and a whole bunch of other films for which she was the main draw. Aside from “Catwoman”, has Berry gotten a similar treatment? I don’t think so.

    It’s hard to separate racism from sexism when you’re dealing with a woman of color actress, especially in Hollywood. The same “ugh” that white women deal with gets raised by a few orders of “wtf” when you add racial stereotypes, and Hollywood’s persistent believe that PoC (except a token few) don’t sell movies, to the mix.

  6. 6
    Katie says:

    So on point. I think for my part I am a little frustrated that indie or small-budget films by POCs are not quite the level of comedy or fluff that I usually require in my movie-viewing.

    My choices are often tragic indie or racist blockbuster. I say, bring on the indie fluff!

  7. 7
    PG says:

    But here’s my proposed solution: all of us, regardless of race, need to go and see all good films, regardless of their target demographic. We need to see more Latino/a viewers attending events like the Asian American film festival. We need to see more black filmmakers creating films for that event, and more Asian filmmakers making stuff for black and Latino/a film festivals. We need to see more American Indians behind the camera, and sticking their shit into every festival with “American” in its title, regardless of the racial qualifier that comes before it. And so on.

    I wonder if “Harold and Kumar” has anything useful for us here: instead of having either a “South Asian buddy stoner movie” or an “East Asian buddy stoner movie,” they put two different kinds of POC as the stars of a movie! And with that, Kal Penn (don’t know so much about the career of the other guy) was getting roles where he was not The Indian Guy but the guy who is Indian (e.g. his role on “House,” brought to a sudden tragic end by his going to work for Obama). Maybe this is part of the way forward. Make some of those comedic, fluff movies that Katie and I are looking for with a racially mixed cast. Create more household-name POC actors whose movies aren’t seen as being solely about a single ethnic group. Kal Penn surely became a lot more recognizable through “Harold and Kumar” than if all his roles had been in stuff like “The Namesake.”

  8. 8
    Jenny says:

    I thought this review of District 9 explained it well: http://weblogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/2009/09/02/district-9/

    At first I thought the film was racist, but I think the movie’s supposed to be about how power creates prejudice between people in a community which in turn causes havoc.

  9. 9
    Jenny says:

    P.S. Please note I was offering my own interpretation. I understand opposing feelings towards the film.