The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, November 29, 2013

Reason #1 I'm happy I'm almost dead

(well, really Reason #1 I’m happy to be more than half-way through my life…)

I no longer feel like I have to put up with cultural b.s. I smiled through when I was younger.    A Hollywood friend recently asked me to look at a piece of his work.   It was very enjoyable except for one little thing, a peeve that I was willing to grimace through in earlier days.  Not any more though.  This is the note I sent him…

“Well, I’ve got good news and bad news for you. Part of the good news is that you may not care about the bad news. The best news is the your movie works fine. strong story, good characters, good world, fun action. The bad news is that I didn't give a shit about them for one simple reason--you committed a sin that I really don't forgive any more: you killed the only black character in the film.    Any time that happens, I automatically withdrawn all empathy from the white ones, and frankly enjoy watching them die. I would suggest either taking the black people out, or changing the race of another character. aside from that little issue, though, well done!”

I’ve seen this trope literally countless times.  And never, not a single time in an American film, seen the opposite.  It may exist, but despite frequent mentions and lotsa suggestions from people, have been unable to identify a single American film in which all white characters (people with at least one line of dialogue) die, leaving non-white characters alive (so, “On The Beach” doesn’t count).    Seen in in foreign films, for instance “The Chinese Connection”, where the “Russian” character is killed by Bruce Lee, a clear expression of hostility for the Russian occupation.  In other words—it is hostility, not well veiled at all.  Or, at the very least, a lack of extension of humanityt—if there is no example of an American film in which all the white characters die, then clearly the filmmakers know that it would be painful to sit through an experience like that, and simply don’t do it.

Similar, but not as extreme a reaction with films in which all the black characters are villains.  “Captain Phillips” did this.  As a result, I felt my mind slide into a place where I kind of enjoyed watching Tom Hanks get the shit beat out of him.  Hey, I never said I was perfect.   I find that I will always attempt to treat people 1% better than they treat me.  But 2% and above is optional.


Benaboo said...

I have never commented on racial issues before, but when I read your post (kudos to you reading someone's script -- I would never dare ask anyone to read mine after reading Josh Olson's take on the matter), I was reminded of one prominent film where the black character was killed at the end of the movie - Night of the Living Dead. Of course, that was a single moment in film history not likely to be repeated, but I found it interesting that Duane Jones actually convinced George Romero to keep the scene where the lead gets killed - "I convinced George that the black community would rather see me dead than saved, after all that had gone on, in a corny and symbolically confusing way.” Besides, said Jones, “The heroes never die in American movies. The jolt of that and the double jolt of the hero figure being black seemed like a double-barreled whammy." Like I said, probably only applicable to that one film, and you'd be hard-pressed to find another film that could make that kind of a statement today. But I also have to wonder why, today, would someone write a film with a lone black character only to have him die and all the white characters survive? Unless the writer was doing that for a specific purpose, I'd have a lot of other questions for said writer, don't you agree?

Anonymous said...

I have my own theory of The Expendable Hollywood Black Man, a synthesis of Chomsky, Freud and Star Trek (see the Hirogen on the Holodeck episodes). Chomsky thinks the evolution of stable democracy involved the substitution of brainwashing propaganda for blatant violence as the preferred means of political control. In this context, during slavery and Jim Crow, lynching was common. Come the Integration Era, cinematic simulations took their place (minus Stop & Friskapades). As to Star Trek, the hunting-addicted Hirogen realized their survival depended on curtaining their instinctual violence. Yet they also knew their animus needed an outlet. Hence the Hirogen substituted simulated slaughter for real bloodshed. In our context,centuries of cultivated White racial hatred couldn't simply be erased; American society
instead saved itself by sublimating this negative energy into the simulated cinematic dreamworld. And we know Freud believed dreams are wish fulfillment.