The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, March 20, 2006

Taking the Red Pill

Meditating this morning, I found a lot more emotional cloud stuff, evidence that I’m digging deeper into calcified, decades-old pain and crud inside me.  Not fun.  But predictable.

Over the last two weeks talking about The Covenant, I was force to go once again into places inside myself that, given my druthers, I wouldn’t have gone.  Anyone who knows me knows that the level of reality I like to play on has to do with pure human existence, and pure creativity.  Only in the last ten years of my life have I started looking at race very much.  Only after I looked around and realized that, contrary to my hopes, few other black people, and no other black males, were coming into the SF field (Walter Mosley is doing some interesting work there now) and that if I followed my predilection, I was actually yielding to some of our culture’s worst demons. 

So I wrote Blood Brothers, and Lion’s Blood, and now Great Sky Woman, trying to find some way to fill in a gap that yawns so wide that most people can’t even really see it’s a gap. Would I have seen the dangerous cultural game the Wachowskis are playing?  And could I have done it without going a bit nuts, as they are fabled to be?  I’m not sure, I’m really not.

I said last week that “V For Vendetta” in one interesting sense, takes place in the world of the Matrix.  Not one reviewer—and at this point I’ve read about thirty reviews—comments on what I’m about to say.  The reviews talk about the repression of freedoms.  About the criminalization of homosexuality and Islam.  But not a single (white) reviewer I’ve read has commented that, among the hundreds of characters and extras seen in the first 2/3 of the movie, every single one was white.  Every one, in a film taking place in a country that is 8% minority.  I sat in the theater wondering “what is THAT about?”  These are the guys who created Zion.  This can’t be their personal wet-dream, so what is it?


And then, they  gave us a scene set in a concentration camp, where germ warfare is being tested.  NOW, for the first time, you see blacks.  Used as guinea pigs.  And at the very, very end of the movie, after freedom is restored, again you see a few dark faces.  Aside from that, the slaughter of the non-whites was complete in this Brave New World. 

And not a single white reviewer even noticed.
In “The Matrix” I noticed rapidly that in the computerized world, everyone was white, whereas, even in the first film, the “Real” world was very mixed (Laurence Fishburne, as Morpheus, even survived the movie! What a shock THAT was!).  It wasn’t until the second and third films, seeing Zion itself, that it became clear that this was no accident.  Zion reflected the real world, in genetic composition.  The Matrix was somebody’s fantasy. I wonder whose?  Nobody noticed the discrepancy…but they DID notice that Zion was dark, accusing the filmmakers of making it all black.  Nonsense.  Genetically, there were no more black people than white people.  What there WERE, was a lot of mixed people.  Who, of course, have been labeled black by American culture, a label that black Americans themselves have accepted:  “One drop makes you whole.”  Not exactly a complement.  It’s the “a little tiny turd spoils a great big punch-bowl” theory of race, people. And blacks, desperate to build a political voting block, faced with the reality that, no matter how light their skin, if there is anyone in their family at all with black blood, they themselves are considered black (you  could be sold outright, all the way down to Octaroon) simply went to sleep and accepted the label. 

There are no dark-skinned white people.  Only light-skinned black people.  Tell the truth: have you never wondered about that?
I remember “The Handmaid’s Tale” the  chilling Margaret Atwood SF tale, seen as a fable of the repression of women.   And women are, definitely, brutally repressed.  But people, I would a thousand times rather have been a white woman in that future than a non-white.  Blacks  (we saw no Asians) were simply carted out and thrown into the radioactive wastelands.  Men, women, children.  So it wasn’t a tale about the repression of women.  It was a tale about the repression of white women.  Black women were simply slaughtered.  And again, there was virtually no mention of this in any reviews.  It wasn’t noticed.  It didn’t matter.  No one cared.
It has often been commented that the second and third Matrix movies fell apart.  There is some truth to this.  People have also said, many times, “Steve, you complain that if a black or Asian man has sex in a film, the film bombs.  Maybe it isn’t the audience.  Maybe these movies are just bad.”

Wow.  And what, I’ve wondered, could account for that?  What in the world would explain why that single variable: non-white male sexuality, would be found only in flawed films?  It doesn’t happen with non-white females.  It doesn’t happen if the non-white males remain sexless and non-competitive.  But what if, just for the sake of argument, I took the position that these people were right?  That there WAS something wrong with those movies?  That they were all seriously flawed?

What if I lumped them together with the Matrix sequels, where the Wachowskis were clearly (and if the casting of Cornell West didn’t make it clear, nothing could) making a statement about the gap between cultural fantasy and cultural reality, and went slightly nuts in the process?

What if I tied that all together with the fact that audiences, and critics, barely even noticed the almost complete absence of dark faces from television during all the years of my childhood? That even now, it is horribly difficult to get people to see the gaps in representation, the audience love of minority males dressed as women, dying to protect white people, marginalized, presented only a buffoons or sexless spiritual guides (Morgan Freeman, anyone?)

What makes sense of all of this?  Why did the Wachowskis go crazy?  Because the Matrix has us, that’s why.  Because if, from childhood, you are raised to see only white, the effort of breaking free, of waking up, of realizing that there is another, deeper reality, requires an almost superhuman effort.  To wake up and see the truth without hating, without despairing, requires even more. 

Film is a collaborative medium.  Hundreds of people have input—and that can be a good thing.  Filmmakers have other film-makers as friends, who criticize their scripts, help them design effects, recommend actors.  As I’ve said, artists are in general drawn from the most “liberal” segments of society, so in NO WAY do I think that Hollywood (either the artists or the management “suits” who sign the checks) represent anything other than America as a whole.  They are simply us.  And I think that when a filmmaker sees the truth, when they “wake up” to certain realities, they are slightly enlightened—and the wall between enlightenment and insanity can be quite, quite thin.  Shamanistic trances can produce madness quite nicely, thank you, and those who play on the edges of perception often dance alone.
So what do I think happens?  I think that when people try to change the status quo, they find themselves alone. That craftsmen, and actors, and writers, and directors who have NOT awakened smile and nod and don’t contribute that 110% necessary to make a really good film (notice the difference between “Jurassic Park” and its sequels.  Better effects in the sequels, but the “magic” is just flat missing.  And oh, by the way?  Sam Jackson dies protecting white people.  And yes, that’s a nasty joke on my part)  But it happened.)

The Wachowskis saw something wrong with society, and structured a mythological film that, in part, dealt with that issue. To stretch oneself to see this truth they saw is to bend consciousness to an almost unbearable degree. They were also going against the culture: no one threw them a life preserver, and the films fell apart.

THAT would explain why so many films that go contrary to the common cultural model seem…slightly “off.”  The spirit of spontaneous collaboration isn’t there.

THAT would explain why audiences and critics don’t notice if black people aren’t there, or die protecting them.  Unconsciously, that’s the world they want to see.  The mythology of every culture says that they are the center of the universe, and that God made everyone else later, and lesser.  Whites have simply been able to create a “Matrix” of multimedia imagery, convincing themselves on such a deep level that they are the kings of the world because of innate superiority and goodness and God-nature (well, gee, God gave His only begotten Son to them, didn’t He?  They must be pretty swell!)

It would have to be almost insanely difficult to awaken from such a dream.  To climb out of  the Matrix.
Would I have noticed these things, had I not been partially of African heritage?  I don’t know.  I hope so.  But how can I be sure? We go to sleep so easily.  I am sure that I miss many, many things about sexism, about cultural eliteism, about homophobia, about other things.  So damned easy.  And when you awaken, it is so easy to feel fear,  and to  mask that fear with anger, and then to  blame the other side and not see the basic aspects of the human experience that make such behaviors and perceptions damned near inevitable.

I don’t know. But every morning, I meditate and ask God to help me awaken, and keep me awake. To help me look through race, and gender, and age, and culture, to the reality of my existence.  And it is hard.  It is the hardest thing I have ever done.

But I must do it.  I will not sink back into the Matrix.  Death would be preferable.  Madness, in comparison, would be a blessing.

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