We took a family outing to the Downer Theatre on Thanksgiving weekend to see “Rachel Getting Married.” While I loved many things about the film, it also troubled me. My response has nothing to do with the much-discussed style of the Dogma 95 film-making, but with its little-discussed portrayal of race.
Here are some things I’m wondering:
Did Jenny Lumet write Sidney as black?
Were the black characters meant to be stereotypes?
Why is there no acknowledgement of race in any of the dialogue?
How might this film be different if it was directed by a black filmmaker?
Or a woman filmmaker?
Why samba dancers?
Finally, what’s with the saris?
It turns out screenwriter Jenny Lumet did not write Sidney as black. As a mixed race woman (the granddaughter of Lena Horne), she said “the only time I ever thought about the race issue when writing the script was when I thought about making the characters of Rachel and Kym the children of an interracial couple. But I decided not to because I was afraid people would say that that was the reason Kym became a crazy drug person.” (http://www.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2008/10/04/in_family_screenwriter_sees_true_colors_of_connection)
Her only consideration of race was her fear of it being used as an unflattering stereotype. The casting choices were made by director Jonathan Demme. He initially chose a white actor to play Sidney, but that actor declined because of another project. Demme says he chose Tunde Adebimpe for being likable, for his “rock and roll allure….[and] I was excited by the fact that it made for an interracial marriage because that moves me.”
Now, ask any person of color if they’ve ever been selected for these reasons. We all know certain people of color are “likable,” cool with a “rock and roll allure,” and others are scary or geeky or too “ethnic.” One of the most common ways to describe Asian women is “nice,” as in “Oh, I know so and so. She’s soooo nice.” We are prized for our likability. That’s why we make such good nannies and maids and concubines. People of color can also be ingenious and daring and complex, but those movie roles are fewer.
And how many times have we been chosen because it makes the white people around us “excited” and moved? At one conference on multiculturalism, one well-meaning white friend approached me, her eyes nearly welling with tears, to thank me, with heart-felt sincerity, for being part of her community. OK, you’re welcome, but why do I feel vaguely colonized?
The casting of Adebimpe pleased me, except the script didn’t refer to his race at all, the same way the saris worn by the bride and bridesmaids was never explained or addressed. I did notice that all the really grounded characters, the caretakers, the organizers, the kind but firm rehab nurse, the soldier, were people of color. Even the toasts to Sidney were about how dependable and stable he was. Which is to say that the brown characters were idealized, not three-dimensional. Even flattering stereotypes diminish us. “I thought all Koreans were smart,” someone commented when I did something goofy. Demme could afford to make Sidney black, because he was flat. Basically they were all bit roles to give the movie a certain look and feel, like we see in advertising.
The filmmaker and writer claim the interracial marriage is not worthy of mention. They have friends of every race and know interracial couples and they don’t sit around talking about race. Does this remind you of the Obama campaign? After Obama’s lauded speech encouraging us to have a national dialogue on race, his campaign made no more mention of race until the acceptance speech. The only voices on the media addressing race were ones insisting that it didn’t matter at all. But to me it all felt like denial.
It’s OK to be colored, runs the subtext; it’s even super cool and desirable to be colored, as long as we can pretend not to notice. As long as we don’t have to, God forbid, talk about it.
Not noticing stuff and living in denial is after all a theme of “Rachel Getting Married,” a movie about a dysfunctional family. The problem is the filmmakers didn’t see their multi-culti paste-ons that way. The filmmakers created the film in a cloud of denial like the one their characters live in.
Demme set out to portray “the best, best, best wedding ever.” At the altar, Sidney sings a worshipful love-at-first-sight Neil Young song to Rachel. That felt odd to me, until I realized, oh yeah, Sidney was written as white. Lumet commented that the song in the script was by AC/DC but the rights to the song were outrageously expensive. Demme called on his friend, Neil Young, who accepted a pittance for the use of his song. In fact, Demme invited all his musician friends to the backyard barbeque. The party was a checklist of cultural appropriation and exoticizing. Those black people, aren’t they fabulous entertainers? Oh, look, a token Asian couple! But just one is plenty. And aren’t those dark-skinned dancers in their thongs gorgeous!
Where is the boundary between appropriation and assimilation? When can I wear a sari without being Indian? Not long ago in America, Italians were considered people of color, and Italian food was spicy and exotic. Now, we all eat Italian food weekly if not daily, while Italian-Americans are included in every sector of mainstream society. But Italians are European, and many are fair-skinned. Have Mexicans benefitted from the same process of assimilation? Have the Chinese or other Asians?
Do we live in the world that Lumet and Demme have created? Are we welcome at this wedding party? Are we beyond race? Am I a racist for asking these questions?
Let’s repair the racial harm we’ve done, stop profiting from exploitation of people of color, give immigrants rights, create real equality, and then and only then, can we dance samba in our saris.