The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ah, Zion

Friend asked me what I thought about Will Smith being offered the Keanu Reeves role in "The Matrix". He turned it down for "Wild Wild West." Wow. Talk about bad choices. But he asked how I thought "Matrix" might have been different. You know, I have to answer that question differently now than I would have before. Initially, I figure "Matrix" could have played very similarly...but Trinity would have been Hispanic or black, and Morpheus would have been white. There still could have been the kiss, and the happy ending. The movie would have had a similar cultural impact. Oh, and the martial arts sequences would have been better: Smith is just more athletic than Reeves. But you know what? After watching the second and third movies (and have you EVER seen a movie series go downhill faster?) I realized that the Wachowski brothers were playing a strange, dangerous game.

Did you notice that Zion, the city of "real humans" is totally multicultural/multiracial, while the Matrix, the synthetic construct, is almost totally white? I mean, there is a brief scene in "Chinatown" that features some Asians, but basically the Matrix has the racial makeup of a 1950's movie. Even the crew of Morpheus' ship is brown, and I never really noticed it while watching the original film. So what in the world were they trying to say?

And if they had gotten Will Smith, would they have DARED to keep the rest of the casting the same? With almost all the white characters either machines, synthetic, traitors or dead? Good lord, what were they up to?

By the time we saw Zion, and they had the big dance scene, trust me, white boys in the audience were grumbling. I was there, and I heard them. So if the Wachowskis were trying to make some kind of point about how we're living in a synthetic media creation with little connection to the "real world" of multicolored people, they kept it under control in the first film, but something went very wrong, and nobody reigned them in.

Or...they just went crazy. I have a sense that there was a lot of cocaine around that shoot, and look at all the weight Larry Fishburne put on during production. And of an action film, yet. Almost as bad as Steven Seagal, that THAT weight gain is a pretty obvious mark of an emotionally damaged human being. In Seagal's case, I'd bet it relates to a serious case of "imposter syndrome"--knowing that his entire Hollywood mythology was based on a lie. Self-sabotage as bad as Meg Ryan humping Russel Crowe. But what was going on on the "Matrix" set?

I think these guys are a little nuts. I think that they went "off the reservation" and literally had trouble relating their ideas and concepts to the outside culture, began to live in a self-referential and increasingly dark and ugly that ultimately made little sense.

I kind of think this is part of what happens when people try to make blacks full-spectrum human beings in film. It goes like this: blacks have numerous problems in society. The answer for "why" is on a sliding scale, ranging between the culture treating them different, and black people themselves being different. I've made no secret of where I stand on this.

A film that depicted blacks as being too "different" would turn off an entire chunk of the American public. But what I think is NOT understood is that if you show them as being too "ordinary"--with the same hopes, dreams, and needs, it will turn off ANOTHER chunk of the public. And that this understanding is instinctive, and begins to be programmed in childhood.

The good news is that the older generation, who was poisoned with these lies from the cradle, is dying off. I'll join them soon enough, trust me: I'm not pointing a finger and laughing, just stating the obvious. But the memes that justified the institution of slavery (it's only been about twenty years since the last time I regularly heard Southerners trying to state that "slavery was good for the slave." To this date, they still believe that the institution would have "died out naturally in thirty years." Which is interesting, considering that it hasn't died out to this day.)

What I'm saying is that I suspect that the reasons that no non-white male has had sex in a movie that has been accepted across the board by the American public is BOTH that such films are rejected by the racially queasy, AND that they actually had to be just a little crazy to try it in the first place: that they are operating in a zone without any foundation or touch-stones to guide them, and run off the rails. Should it be a comedy? A drama? An action film? It's all been tried. It all fails. So the Wachowskis, trying something kind of radical, pretty much guaranteed that they would be out of touch with mainstream America. And while they were at it...just a little bugfuck as well.

The key is going to be experimentation, feedback, study (for instance, we now know that an Hispanic woman won't push the buttons as hard as either a black woman or a white woman. Man, I sure as hell never predicted THAT!) Try this, try that...and eventually, someone will get across the line. Statistically, the numbers will still tend to be depressed, but it'll happen.

Curiously, it doesn't bother me as much as once it did that black women are jumping into bed with white guys in movies. First, that's the real world. Second, it's their business-(I just resent it when black women criticise black men for smooching non-black women, when I don't hear them complain about black women with white men. I think that is rank hypocrisy, and did in the 70's when black men claimed that THEY had the right to bed white women, but black women shouldn't cross the racial line. I told them I thought they were full of shit, and I say the same thing to Sisters now: no matter what history or statistics you quote, you simply don't have the right to say it's all right for you, but not for me. I've heard every reason imaginable, and it's all crap ). But the real reason I'm not minding as much is that I see that there's a level of game going on. People of all races are attracted to people of all races. If that weren't true, you wouldn't have needed laws to keep us out of each other's bedrooms.

If white guys want access to, say, Halle Berry, there is a limit to the number of times she can have scenes with Benjamin Bratt or Billy Bob Thornton or whatever before even the AUDIENCE starts getting uncomfortable with the obvious racial implications. And on an unconscious level, watching dark skin helps to desensitize the flinch response. And white women are gonna want theirs. Why should their guys be the only ones gettin' that chocolate love..?

Hah hah. I trust lust in this matter. That, and the dying off of Clint Eastwood's generation. The kids coming up now pretty much wonder what the fuss is all about. Keeping my fingers crossed: By June 30, 2009, I think it's gonna happen.


And no, I don't think it's so strange that whites would vote for Obama but still not be able to deal with Will Smith's sexuality. A president isn't just a popularity contest: it's hiring someone you believe can help YOU. Lotsa people would hire a black plumber who wouldn't want the guy dating their daughters. Plus...hell, there are just lots of us who consider Obama exceptional--so it's a "well, if they were all like him, there wouldn't be a problem!" In other words, when bigots meet an exceptional member of the group they despise, they will often make an exception: "THAT one is O.K." Oddly, doing this actually reinforces their other racial attitudes, because now they can say: "see? I'm not a bigot! I

1) listen to black music

2) like Kung-fu movies

3) Have a Jewish Lawyer

4) Am married to a woman

5) Own a copy of "YMCA"

6) Love to screw white girls

Thus proving that I'm open-minded. I just know that there are...certain things about "that" group that most people won't admit. I'm just more HONEST than most..."



Going to Larry Niven's New Years party tonight. I'll see some of you there. Then tomorrow I'll chill, and Friday I'll get a little more work done. Then family stuff over the weekend.


A question: is there anyone out there in the L.A. area with access to a sound studio? I need to create the core CDs for the "101" system (which, by the way, should beta-launch next week, good Lord willin' and the river don't rise). Let me know if there is anyone who can hook me up...I'm gonna keep asking until I get a "yes" from SOMEBODY!


Happy New Year, everyone! Be safe, and let's make 2009 the best year ever!


Michelle said...

See...I love all the Matrix movies.

I'm pretty I'm the only one.

Derek said...

Hi Steve! I may know someone who can hook you up on the recording studio or can point you in the right direction. I'll look into it for you, but please note that it may take a few days as many people have not yet returned from vacation.

Christian M. Howell said...

What the hell is wrong with Clint Eastwood? He's been a pretty prolific figure in modern film.

We need more real stories and less fluff. I guess I'll just never understand why you think white men who have women "degrading" themselves on a 50 foot screen is something that can bring more equality to America if black men do it too.

I just posted my opinions of sex in cinema. I may expand on it if I get time.

Lester Spence said...

Do you think that Fishburne is now unhealthy, or that his weight gain is?

Smith has said that he would've played Neo totally different. I'm thinking the rest of the casting would've been the same. Leading to a more significant drop in profits between 1 and the sequels.

Why do you say that the sequels failed as stories?

Anonymous said...

Steve, take a look at this article, and then come back as to why Will Smith's characters can't get laid. I personally think that Christians and non-religious white folks don't care one way or another for the most part (unless they are right-wing nut cases, then all bets are off).

Also, please don't give the the line about blacks and Jews. No way I'm believing that. On an individual level that may be true for some, but by and large racism among Jews is quite out there on a day to day basis. I have been told dozens of times by Jews that it an economic class issue not a racial issue, but in the same breath I am told that there are no middle-class blacks. I know of no Jewish person who was for Obama before he won the nomination. I know lots of Jews -- mostly non-religious. There is a lot of liberal angst over this, but little movement to a non-racist place.

mjholt said...

No one could have played Neo like Keenu Reeve did. He has that flat personality down pat. Smith is too animated. The Matrix would have been totally different.

I loved all of the Matrix movies too. I rented them all within days of one another, and seeing them basically back to back emphasized the strength of the story.

I do think that Smith could have played Johnny Mnemonic.

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

Anonymous, Steve Sailer (of that isteve site) himself is quite racist; he has all kinds of articles up on the web about how black men are inevitably preferentially attracted to white women and vice versa, Asian men are bright but unsexy, the whole works. Early on in the Obama candidacy (which he certainly never supported), he was on about how Obama's real white appeal was to white women who found him sexy; he writes about Obama's life with heavy emphasis on Obama's mother's attraction to darker men; he's downright obsessed with that sexually threatening black Other (and he makes it clear enough that, though he thinks we white women are all dying for a little black action, he thinks black men aren't nearly as bright and responsible and good for us as, well, men like him). Anyone who's that bigoted about black people, I don't trust on Jews; he's probably bigoted against Jews as well.

(Joel Stein's another matter, of course, and, though I, too, would have marked "Jews basically run Hollywood" as false if I'd been in that survey, if the statement were made weaker - Jews are especially influential in Hollywood, or something, I'd have marked it as true.)

I know of no Jewish person who was for Obama before he won the nomination.

Well, Matt Yglesias, to name just one prominent Jewish blogger, was supporting Obama as soon as he won Iowa. Ezra Klein, another prominent Jewish blogger, was an earlier Obama supporter. I saw Jewish people supporting Obama, prior to the nomination, in about the same numbers as other white people, so I suspect your sample's skewed. I haven't found my Jewish friends to be more racist than my Gentile friends, either.

I can understand this "Jewish people are racist" claim in the sense that Jews tend to see themselves as less racist than Gentiles, and, like other human beings, don't always live up to their best image of themselves. But I haven't found Jews to be more racist than Gentiles, and I'm not buying that Hollywood's especially racist because it's especially Jewish (in fact, I'm not convinced that Hollywood's more racist than the rest of the country at all).

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

Another thing to note: Hillary Clinton A) was the Senator from New York and B) appeared to be making more consistently hawkish sounds regarding support for Israel than Obama. Some non-trivial set of Jews live in New York, and another non-trivial set of Jews want candidates who are strongly pro-Israel (though of course there are also Jews to whom neither of these criteria apply). So, to whatever extent she did have any edge with Jews in the Democratic primary (I can't think by as much as Anonymous says), that support may have been boosted by factors that would have nothing to do with what movies Jewish producers in Hollywood (whatever market share they might control) might choose to produce.

Dan Moran said...

Also, please don't give the the line about blacks and Jews. No way I'm believing that.

Well, it's a gift to be able to come off bigoted against both blacks and jews in one short piece of text, but you've managed it.

Share of the Jewish vote --

2000, Gore: 79%
2004, Kerry: 74%
2008, Obama: 78%

Jews might hate blacks, but apparently not as much as they hate guys from Massachusetts. (Which I get -- it's the Celtics hatred, which I share.)

I heard the same crap about Latinos -- wouldn't vote for a black man.

Latino share:

2000, Gore: 62%
2004, Kerry: 53%
2008, Obama: 67%

Latinos and Jews were both anti-black bigots who wouldn't vote for a black man ... except in both cases they voted for the black man by meaningful margins over the last (white) Democratic Presidential candidate.

Dan Moran said...

Brendan said...

I think The Matrix would have been very interesting if it was an older Bruce Lee playing Morpheus and his real life son Brandon Lee playing Neo. Although Bruce Lee might not have been a fan of the "wire fu" stuff.

lynn said...

Steve, a question: This is off topic but not way off topic and this is the only way I know to contact you.

I would be interested in your thoughts on video and blog post.

You are generally sensible about such things and the discussion here is always incredibly civilized so I am hoping you will write a blog post about it.

Steve Perry said...

Well, the first Matrix movie didn't do it for me. All the hoopla about how wonderfully original it was came from folks who had no clue that H.G. Wells wrote the story it was swiped from in the 1890's, and I though it was overly violent and too heavily reliant on the EFX.

The second one was worse. The third one worse still ...

Interesting to have a "real" society that was multihued, but lost in the awfulness of the story.

Great role for Keanu, though. The Bill and Ted chops were all he needed and perfect:

Whoa! I can do kung-fu!

That, and bullet-time was pretty much all it had going for it from where I sat.

BWoodson said...

i'm nowhere close to hollywood, but i heard that the W bros wanted to emphasize the browness of the world. I do think the Matrix would have gone off the charts just the same because of the novelty of the cinematography. And i think will could have pulled the same vacuous existentialist 'who am i' that keanu brings to everything, inadvertantly. but are you saying the trilogy went downhill because of the race issue or because the other movies just weren't as good?

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