The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Miami Vice (2006)

Wish I could say that this one was a winner, but it doesn’t work as well as I’d hoped, is definitely a triumph of style over substance—to the degree that it is a triumph.  This updating—or re-boot—of the groundbreaking  1980’s television series is shot on HDV, has a pounding soundtrack, and two ultra-cool heroes.  Heck, even if I was disappointed with the amount of time Foxx is offscreen (they lavish time and attention on the relationship between Colin Ferrel’s “Sonny” Crockett and Gong Li as a mysterious money launderer, Micheal Mann has the heuvos to give Jamie Foxx an actual relationship (including a very nice love scene).  But truth be told, it is overlong, it drags, characters are often sketched rather than filled in.  There are basically three action set pieces, beautifully done.  But overall I found myself feeling restless at times, and can’t give it more than a “B.”
Warning: Sambo alert!
Yes, it’s time to discuss racial politics in film a bit.  I predict that “Vice” will be a disappointment at the box office, and would have been willing to predict that before I saw it, based on the rumor that Foxx had  a love scene. 

We’ll see.  A hint: looking around the Internet for movie reviews, and seeing how few of them even mentioned Foxx’s relationship, as opposed to the amount of attention given to Ferrel’s.  True, there was more screen time and intensity there (of course.)

Another problem: the arc of relationships in movies goes
1)     Boy Meets Girl
2)     Boy Loses Girl
3)     Boy Gets Girl.

This is probably the most common pattern in all of Cinema, perhaps even of world literature.  Variations are played upon this theme, of course.  Now…consider the “Boy Meets Girl” arc to contain an intense, involving, hot-blooded love scene, and you’ll have refined this successful and consistent pattern.  I dare you to find a single week in the past twenty years when at least one movie playing in major cities did not contain this pattern.  And I equally dare you to find a single instance of this pattern given to non-white males, where the movie was considered a mainstream success.

Of course, blacks are doing somewhat better than Asians.  Asian men must be pretty disgusted looking at the number of their women presented as love interests for white guys…at the same time that Asian men get no play at all.  Not at all.  If they get leads in movies, it is only as emasculated, celibate martial arts monks.  In the entire history of American film, I can remember only one film where an Asian man got laid: “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.”  Nothing else that I can remember at all. 
Reading reviews and reader’s comments, it’s interesting to note some of the reactions.  Reading between the lines, it is easy to see very, very serious issues.  Guys talking about “not wanting to see Jamie Foxx’s butt” or “there were too many sex scenes” and implying that Foxx’s should have been cut…completely predictable.

But there is something else I wonder about.  Yes, all movies with non-white males having sex underperform at the box office.  No, I’m not saying that these are all wonderful movies, torpedoed by racism.  In fact, I often see flaws in these movies myself.

And I wonder about that.  Could it actually be true that the average film in white non-white males drop trou could actually be below-average in quality?  That’s a little boggling, trying to figure out what in the living hell might cause THAT.  Because it certainly isn’t true when white guys do it.  And there is a possibility that occurs, one rather disturbing in implication.

It is this.  Please follow my reasoning, and I’m sorry if it is a bit torturous, but here it goes:

1) racism is so hard-wired into the human (especially the male human) nervous system.  This results in an average   10% aversion  factor.  A feeling of discomfort seeing “the other” outside of their familiar, supportive, non-threatening roles. 
2)This factor would cause an average 10% drop-off in box office in any film depicting images disturbing on this level.  Say, mating behavior.  Of course, if the mating behavior was interracial (black man, white woman) the box office would take an even bigger hit.  Explicit love scenes would be even worse.
4)     NO ONE will admit to being racist on this level, unless they have anonymity (note the internet chats).  But that racism will subtly influence reviews (“I didn’t believe the relationships” “the love scenes stopped the movie” or criticisms of completely different aspects of the film.  You see this commonly when films contain a political content contrary to the orientation of the viewer.  The whole movie just feels “lousy.”
5)     Because of the above factors, a director who DOES put such images into their film has gone just a little crazy.  If he doesn’t understand the risk he is putting his film under, and listening to the nudging “advice” of his studio to trim this or that bit of dark-skinned flesh…well, such a person is probably going to make other mistakes in judgement too.  In essence, he is well-intentioned, but committing a bit of career suicide.
6)     Film is a collaborative medium.  Hundreds of people have input into pacing, effects, music, scripting, acting, etc.  No one person can really do it alone, despite the auteur theories of filmmaking.  Now take another look at that 10% disconnect theory.  I think that when people are working on a film that touches their hearts, they put extra time and energy into it.  And when they work on a film that offends them…even subliminally, they simply put in a day’s work.  And great films require more than that.  They require people willing to go the extra mile.  When that 10% disconnect kicks in, technicians and craft people smile, come to work, go home…and never understand why they aren’t QUITE as invested in this project.  As a result, the director doesn’t get the kind of brutal, honest, creative feedback he needs to lift the film from the pedestrian.

In other words (and this is spooky) one can look at the history of racial images in film (and television.  And literature) and see a mirror of the evolution of race relations in America.  That such relations have been twisted not only by an ugly history (slaver) but also the actual neurophysiological structure of the brain (Amydalic response to “the Other” when visually identifiable.
But note: saying “10% aversion” does not, in any way, mean things are hopeless.  I watch Will Smith and Jamie Foxx, and I suspect one of these fine performers are going to find a way to break through.  Audiences, are, slowly, learning and opening their hearts to embrace the humanity of other groups.  This stuff is TOUGH.  In fact, if you follow my reasoning, you see one of the reasons peace has been so hard to achieve, why war and rape and massive denial are so common.

What is the way out?  Forward.  I see nothing in our past that gives me more hope than our present, or our future.
The truth is that this is one of the main problems I have with Conservatism.  In speaking with my Conservative friends, I find them harking back to “the old days” when, in their thought, people were better, and we were freer.  And they are damned uncomfortable when it is pointed out that there was NOT more freedom.  There was less.  But that freedom was concentrated in the white community, especially white male heterosexual Christians.  If you are not of this group, you are VERY unlikely to look backwards to any “Good Old Days.”

And they look at me, and suddenly remember that I’m black, and the room gets a little chillier.  No, I don’t want to go backwards—I want to go ahead.  But nor do I want to throw the baby out with the bath-water.  Gun Control, Child-Rearing, Education, National Defense—on many issues I tend to be far more “Conservative” than my Liberal friends.  Truth is, I get it from both sides, until they relax and say, “oh, that’s just Steve.”

And I guess I can be content with that.  I guess, ultimately, I have to be.

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