Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Racial Getting Married

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.

10 comments:

Shelly said...

Thanks for sharing this Peggy. I have lots to examine in my own life of feeling moved by being associated with people of color in my work, my personal life, my faith life. This is a helpful reflection for me.

Fons said...

I think Demme and Lumet were making a comment on cultures that see beyond race. Not that race is unimportant but that this is the world that many of us live in and it (race) is not something that needs to be mentioned in every sentence.

They also showed how a little mocking of the electicism of the group can show a more confident multi-cultural society, one that can make fun of itself. Thus the Saris and a black dude singing Neil Young.

CF

peggy hong said...

hey all
thanks for reading and commenting

re
"this is the world that many of us live in and it (race) is not something that needs to be mentioned in every sentence."

i felt this way in college
that i had moved beyond daily considerations of race

after i graduated, had kids, got jobs, etc i became ever more "racialized"
seeing that race is still a huge factor in social/economic structures and levels of privilege

i guess i don't know any poc who are part of that world beyond discussions of race

"They also showed how a little mocking of the electicism of the group can show a more confident multi-cultural society, one that can make fun of itself."

i wondered about this
whether demme was being ironic
but after reading several interviews i've concluded he was not

i'd like to give him that generous reading of the movie
but it's not justified in my research

Jacqueline said...

Peggy, thanks for sharing this--it is very brave. I agree that the film did not show any political awareness of race, and how people are affected as a class--privileged or disadvantaged--by this construct. It's pretty obvious that Demme and Lumet were trying to show us the world from the point of view of the white characters. It's a common problem in art created by whites--lack of dimension in characters of color, by virtue of the fact that those characters are not main characters, and supporting characters are always going to be less-dimensional. Any white woman who has a hard time understanding this should think about how men usually portray women. Also, I have to say that I had another problem with this film, and that is that Demme and Lumet were interviewed on Fresh Air and made it sound like a comedy, however bleak--but in reality it skewed melodramatic. In its worst moments it reminded me of Margot at the Wedding, ultimately a self-indulgent film, but with some entertaining / intriguing parts. Peggy, thanks again for writing this and getting me thinking more deeply, which you tend to do... And the title of your entry is awesome, so clever...

helena said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
helena said...

Peggy, your essay raises many interesting points; such as appropriation vs. assimilation; for example you stated, 'Basically they were all bit roles to give the movie a certain look and feel, like we see in advertising.'

I saw this argument clearly among the many you bring up. Your quote shows association between advertising and appropriation which immediately draws out the question of exploitation on the part of the filmmaker and writer.

However, Lumet is a mixed race woman which counteracts my criticism -is it possible to exploit oneself?-

peggy, your comment 'the filmmakers created the film in a cloud of denial like the one their characters live in.' Is striking and calls upon metaphysical implications within the argument. Such as, if exploiting oneself (Lumet) is based on existence of self-denial (within Lumet), then we can see how injustice establishes itself within oneself (Lumet).

To an observer the use of the saris lacked purpose or even justification; much like the Neil Young song, the samba dancers, the young black man in uniform, the old and beautiful black mother talking about heaven, not to mention any of the familial “issues”. Unfortunately, that type of entertainment reminds me of my family members who reminisce about how they used to call a certain type of nut ‘nigger toes’. Incidentally, I never got the joke, and in the movie I didn’t care for the entertainment the bit roles looked to provide me with as a white girl. I became uncomfortable over the interpretation of certain parts of the movie as some kind of fun, ethnic, pleasing entertaining movie. I became uncomfortable over a number of portrayals in the movie which were on deck for exploitation because I knew better than to assume a tone of irony from the point of view of the filmmaker (nevertheless, this did not stop me from observing irony).

the ‘cloud of denial’ in the movie addresses exploitation in the sad way of self-exploitation.

peggy hong said...

hi helena and jackie
thanks for your thoughts

i definitely think it's possible to exploit oneself
in fact i do it so often i hardly notice it!
how many women and people of color in their most honest moments would admit this?

if i think of it as objectification (a form of/a step toward exploitation?) then it's easier to see

"peggy, your comment 'the filmmakers created the film in a cloud of denial like the one their characters live in.' Is striking and calls upon metaphysical implications within the argument. Such as, if exploiting oneself (Lumet) is based on existence of self-denial (within Lumet), then we can see how injustice establishes itself within oneself (Lumet)."

love this!
right on
it explains a lot

luckyfatima said...

Hi Peggy, it is my first time coming to your blog, i got here via google. YOU and only YOU have echoed some of my thoughts (though much more eloquently than I ever could have) about the decorative usage of POC and cultural misappropriations throughout this film. I liked the film, but the racist aspects of this film were overwhelming, but thoroughly missed by mainstream reviews. I honestly DO think that a black and white couple can get married today with both families perfectly happy about it. That was what most reviews harped upon. To me, that wasn't even a problem. It was more the way that the filmmakers unintentionally made the black people and other POC into the kind of black people they just lurve, flat, happy, soulful dancing people, tokens of how ecclectic they are, etc. And the sari thing really irritated me. (they were such hideous saris anyway!) and then the Brazilian dancers at the end??? Huh? Anywayz...It would be too clever of a white person to do all of this on purpose to be ironic and show how the misappropriations here were part of what was wrong with that family. It was obviously intended that the multi-culti ness of it all was suppose to be a positive, yet simply decorative non-point in the film.

luckyfatima said...

oh, and was i the only one who noticed that the white dad told the black Son-IL to-be that he was gonna open a can of whoopass on him? cringe.

peggy hong said...

luckyfatima
great to find you!
thanks for reading and commenting

so glad you saw what i saw
i must admit i have gotten a wide array of responses to the essay and hate to racialize haha
but poc get it and white people don't yet see it

shoot i missed the whoopass comment but a friend pointed out the scene where anna deavere smith is serving everyone....watermelon

thanks for letting me know i am not a paranoid closet racist

pkh