Friday, July 13, 2012

Man or Beast?: Revisiting the White Male Gaze

"I'm the man!" the little girl screamed at her father in a climatic scene from Beasts of the Southern Wild, a new film by Behn Zeitlin.  My dear friend Holly and I checked it out tonight in downtown SF. It's a film I've been wanting to check out for a while. And, it did not entirely disappoint. In fact, it did something else.

Beasts made me sick, literally. This has happened to me once before, because of the way the film is shot and our proximity to the front of the crowded theater, I became nauseous and had to run to the bathroom. I'll spare you the details because it wasn't pretty, but it was a nice break from the dizziness. Not just from the camera work, but also the storyline and overall flow of the film. I don't want to imply that it wasn't good. There were great things about it. For instance, Quvenzhane Wallis, the young woman who plays Hushpuppy, is breathtaking. In a word. Her voice, stories, screams, and strength infect every inch of this film, which was the the intent, as narrators often do. But, Wallis goes beyond this. You feel everything--every word she utters, every adventure she embarks upon, and her extreme isolation, relaying that she can count the times she's been held in her short life on two fingers.  If I could stomach it, I would watch this film over and over again just to see her. She is devastating. I don't care if she never acts in another movie again, this was it. The same is true of Dwight Henry, who plays her father. He's stunning.

So what was it, aside from the camera angles, that made me sick? Nothing, really. It just felt uneven, rushed, and, as its touted, fantastical. This film is loosely based on Lucy Alibar's play, Juicy and Delicious, which I know little about, but it also--given it's story location in the Southern Delta and Zeitlin's love for New Orleans--is reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina. Because of the similarities, the fantasy/magical element of the end of the world feels off to me. I don't know that Katrina is far enough "behind us" to make this kind of movie--one that touches upon, but doesn't really delve into the "truth." I won't give away spoilers, but I think it's difficult to make a fantasy movie about a natural (and social/cultural) disaster that most of us haven't seen the full scale of. Many of us have put out of our mind the flood victims, mostly Black, who were forced to leave their home city and still haven't returned, lost their homes to flood damage and "lost paperwork," and lost their lives due to a slow moving federal response. Remember Kanye's (he's mentioned way too much on this blog) George Bush doesn't care about Black people comment? That was true.

But, that's not really the case here, or at least that's not what troubles me about the movie. The Black folks, though 'magical' at times, are the most interesting characters. It's the white people in the film that tweaked me a bit. They are effectively "poor white trash." The lines the white characters are given and their overall buffoonery--one guy is so drunk/disheveled that he opens the door of his house, doesn't realize there are no steps and walks right into the water. It's supposed to be a kind of funny, sweet and sympathetic scene, I think. But then we get inside his "house," and his large, female counterpart (wife?) is passed out under the table, wakes up, and says something about "trying to touch my titties." Outside of Hushpuppy--can't stand these kinds of nicknames for little Black girls and there is no context as to why this is her name, more of the fantasy--all of the characters feel one dimensional. I think her character may have been written one-dimensionally, but her acting transcends it. In any case, there's something about her magical quality, her strength that feels half written and insincere against a backdrop of bumbling, incompetent, but kind of lovable, poor white people.The distancing that had to/has to happen in order to portray those characters in that way demonstrates a false alignment with our heroine. And it's an alignment, a solidarity that's necessary to make this movie believable.

Benh Zeitlin is a white male filmmaker--as are most that gain attention--and I don't fault him for that. He (and Alibar) have created one of the most beautiful Black characters to come along in a while. However, the portrayal of white people in the film represents a distancing between his whiteness and theirs that allows his privilege, his gaze to remain invisible. He is not a part of them.  It's not like the white people are racist in the film, which we collectively assume to be true when we view white + Southern, they're just poor. And poverty, as a state, is something that it looks like he knows little about. Or he has constructed it in some way that he hopes filmgoers will go along with. But, it's a representation that strips them of their humanity. And how is stripping the white people of their humanity ok when you're trying to demonstrate the super humanity of a Black girl whose mother deserted her and her father (which felt very Disney/Pixar, I must say and whose truncated body was sexualized in ways that didn't go outside of the gaze whatsoever)? What does it say when the only other white people in the film are officials who force their way into people's homes, try to break up families, and hold down the violent Black male body? In the end, Hushpuppy's strength comes with much sacrifice, which is a story that gets told over and over again about Black women.  But she's ok, she'll be ok. Like all the others. That's troubling to me in this current moment of openly celebrating the white male gaze.

Or, really, the white male.

If you follow this blog, you know that I watch a good chunk of TV. And I'm currently gearing up for Sunday night's premiere of Breaking Bad (unless my DirectTV scrambles AMC, which will make me go all Walter White on folks). I also watch and am a fan of Mad Men. Both of these shows are in total celebration of all things white, male, and heterosexual.

So, what's the problem? 1) All of the people that are killed or evil on Breaking Bad are people of color, mostly Mexican with one or two other Latinos thrown in for good measure. Walter White gets away with murder (literally) every season. He's ruthless and, as the story goes, will do whatever it takes and whatever white guys are supposed to do, to protect his family. 2) Don Draper on Mad Men doesn't trust women whatsoever, makes angels out of some and "whores" out of others as do all of the male characters on the show. This was explicitly the case this season when Joan and Peggy played both roles literally and figuratively by "betraying" his idea of them. I'd say this was all nostalgia or more fantasy, if it wasn't coupled with Daniel Tosh's recent "rape jokes," George Zimmerman's second release from jail, and the "beast or man" comments made about Serena Williams and Brittney Griner this week. A celebration. An all out arrogance.

While Beasts doesn't exactly celebrate, it doesn't feel in solidarity either. It feels defeatist. That's the uneasy feeling it left me with. But there are scenes from the movie that will stay with me for a long time. Unfortunately, some of the scenes are the disenfranchisement of the already disenfranchised.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Black Pride: On Serena, Frank Ocean and Dichotomous Belonging

Days ago, I finished teaching my summer course. To celebrate, my dad came into town, Joan and I are going on a road trip, and I've been catching glimpses of the Women's quarter- and semi-finals at Wimbeldon. Every time I see Serena Williams on the court in hot pink shorts and pony-tailed extensions, I feel glorious, a part of something, proud, and vengeful. Yeah, vengeful, like "take it." "Take it all!"And that's what she looked like yesterday morning--literally she had on hot pink shorts <3--as I watched her beat Victoria Azarenka in two sets, taking her into the finals for the 7th time.

Like others, I've been watching Venus and Serena Williams play tennis since the late nineties and have felt included in a space where Blackness rarely is. I grew up watching tennis, during the Navratilova era, who my cousin, who is white, was obsessed with. She also played tennis and offered to teach me how to play when I was in junior high. I passed. Partly because I thought tennis was "gay," literally, but also because it wasn't Black. There were no Black women playing on the courts. No working class folks. No one who learned outside of a country club. The only Black player, Arthur Ashe, a man, had just revealed his HIV status, and later died of AIDS. That seemed to close the door on Blackness and tennis for the foreseeable future.

Until Venus came along. Tearing up the courts, carving out a space in a place where she: Black, woman, working class, Compton didn't belong. And even though she and Serena have not only been playing but winning/grand slamming, even, they are still treated as if they are in a space where they don't belong.  Their every move on and off the court scrutinized and duly noted. Serena is often cast as the "nice," more humble one who offers up praise for her opponents. Venus is aloof, quiet, adamant that "she" only beats herself, no one else. And though Serena is being praised today for making it to her 7th Wimbledon final, many are watching, waiting for her to "unleash her wrath" (as the ABC News headline read about her argument with a U.S. Open official last year) on linesmen, officials, spectators, whoever.

Somewhere she doesn't belong. Similar to gays in hip-hop, it appears.

I don't listen to Frank Ocean and don't really know his music, but reading about his first love with a man, which he revealed, fittingly, on Independence Day, didn't fill me with "pride" in the same way that watching Serena hit ace after ace after ace does. Don't get me wrong, I was touched by his story. It was poignant, to the point, and very sweet. I think. Because I don't always "trust" gay + celebrity (Hello, Nicki Minaj), I was kind of expecting him to turn around and say it was joke. Like Kanye's t-shirt.

But he hasn't and, given his status in the R&B and hip-hop communities, that takes a lot of courage. I will give him that, for reals. Courage. Thank you. But I don't know that it's "revolutionary," a "game changer,"or "leading the way" for Black queers in and outside of hip-hop. A beautiful testament to first loves? Indeed. Yes! And yay for first loves, even (and maybe especially) when you're rejected. But, is that all it takes these days is for Black people to come out and somehow liberation is achieved? Does that, as Russell Simmons tweeted, reach the lost souls in the Midwest and Brooklyn who "need his leadership?" I don't think that's going to change the lives of that Black boy in Kansas City who swishes just a little too much to pass or his female best friend who is a little 'too hard.'Not that this isn't a good thing or that folks don't struggle. But, visibility = leadership = revolution doesn't compute for me. Let's not forget that just last month, Queen Latifah, days after she performed at Long Beach pride, "denied" that her presence there meant she was gay. Declaring that she will never disclose her personal life in public. And that's fine, I don't think she has to, but where does that fit into the spectrum of celebration? It takes guts, I guess, to come out in hip-hop. But, placing so much emphasis on this one act from one person reinforces the either/or dichotomy of Blackness and queerness. Or, hip-hop and queerness, which has not always been separate, as Davey D reminds us. Maybe we should ask Juba Kalamka, Tim'm West, DJ Invincible, Hanifah Walidah, Katastrophe, Staceyann Chin, and the countless others who came to hip-hop as out, queer artists. For whom it was never separate. Not to mention that equating coming out with social change reinforces (a la J. Butler) that in order for that story to work there has to be someone who stays in the closet, always. That's the only way it works.

So, I applaud Frank Ocean, a man I never listen to, for relaying such a sweet story about first love to the world. It just so happens that this story is not where my pride lies this week.