The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, December 15, 2008

10 Thoughts on "Day The Earth Stood Still"

A recent AP story suggests that Americans are struggling to define race in a way we never have. Good: it was always bullshit anyway. The trigger is the question of Obama's race. Hah! "He's not black..."

As defined by what? White America for most of our history? Black America for the same period? Genetically, he's obviously "mixed" or "biracial." But we're about the same skin color, and trust me, I've been defined as black my whole life. The trick, of course, is that it was always a lie...first, to enable the sale and deprevation of a group of human beings. Then when the "one drop" rule became popular (one drop of black blood makes you black) blacks themselves tried to reframe it. I remember my mother, as light skinned as Catherine Zeta-Jones, talking about how "black blood is the strongest in the world: one drop makes you whole."

Yeah, right. This the same woman who agonized over the fact that she hadn't passed for white and had (in all probability) a much better life, at least materially. She didn't die well, and I think that was a chunk of it.

But Obama is so well liked that everyone wants to claim him for themselves. Making whites ask, for the first real time in our history: "why isn't someone half 'us' one of `us'?"

Well, he is. But there has always been a huge amount of confusion about this. Don't be dishonest enough to imply we started it. Whatever the origins, however, we're going to work this out: I can feel it.


Part of the problem is the word itself. It just doesn't have a meaning that is really useful about stuff like this. For instance, the word "race" applied to Jews (are Jews a separate race from whites?) is, to me, rather obviously a different word than the word "race" applied to the question of blacks and whites. A Sociological as opposed to anthropological definition, perhaps? I mean, there is greater genetic diversity in sub-Saharan Africa than in the rest of the world combined. I'd bet a considerable amount of money that there is a greater genetic difference between pigmies and Zulus than between Jews and Arabs. In terms of sociology, America operates generally as if Jews, Arabs, western and northern Europeans are all "Caucasians" (in some interesting ways), while Latinos are kind of "half-white" depending on their skin color, while Asians are a separate group, and so are sub-Saharan blacks. My reasoning? White film audiences don't react very negatively to images of Jews, Arabs, and Europeans engaged with each other sexually. Most times, you can't even tell the difference between the groups, and unless you hear that Danny Thomas is Armenian or Omar Shariff is Egyptian or Bill Shatner is Jewish...someone may get a slight sense of "Exotic" but there's no objection to having pleasant situation comedies with them married to white women, having them romance Julie Christy, or whatever. Desi Arnaz could be married to Lucille Ball, and while they made jokes about his Cuban heritage, that was about it.

BIG difference once you jump over to Toshiro Mifune, Jackie Chan, Jet Li or whatever. Let alone Sidney Poitier or Will Smith. Nothing scientific about this, just my observation that that's the way we SEEM to react.

Does anyone have a specific comment about the term "race" as it is used with Jews and the way it's used with Asians and Blacks? My sense is that every group sees the minute differences between their own sub-groups, and looms them large. But not within other groups. It's like you know all the names of your own kids, but the kids down the block are just "the Joneses'." Just the way we break reality down.


I looking forward to seeing Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino" this afternoon. About an unrepentant racist forced to reexamine his own feelings when he becomes the neighborhood defender, I suspect it will parallel my own feelings about Eastwood. I love him. I think he is arguably the greatest star in the history of Hollywood. And he is the old guard. I look at "Flags of our Fathers" and he thinks that because he focused on several white guys, that's a justification for the THOUSANDS of extras storming Iwo Jima to have not a single brown face among them. In truth, this is one of the differences I see between Conservatives and Liberals. Conservatives think it will all be all right if we just don't think about race. Liberals think that we have to talk about it and compensate for it.

I won't argue about which is the "best" approach. Ya'll know I'm somewhere in the middle. But one thing I think a lot of Conservatives aren't clear about: if you don't think about it, you will default to your factory setting: Tribal. And for a man of Eastwood's age, that means white. That's why I've said that the racial problems in this country won't finish their major correction until most of the white males born pre-1950 are dead. Sorry. No hard feelings at all.

What do I mean about Eastwood's "problem"? Well...look at the movies he has appeared in and directed. In the entire history of his films, of all the countless hundreds of characters with speaking roles and any characterization, I can remember one...count 'em ONE black character of "breeding" age (and therefore genetic threat) that I would want my son to grow up to be: Mario Van Peeble's dancin', rappin' Marine in "Heartbreak Ridge." Everybody else is old, dead, or criminal. Sorry: no role models there, while his films have provided uncountable decent positive images of strong, decent white men. In order to extract some of the emotional value from his films, I had to forget my skin color, and forget my sense that, to a man like Eastwood, blacks "hadn't quite proven they were up to snuff."

Men of Eastwood's generation and temperament can rightly consider themselves Guardians at the Gate. And you know what? There is a cost for being high-Alpha warrior types, and one of them is a tendency to flatten reality out a little so that you can make flash-fast reactions under high stress. Enemy? Friend? You might have a fraction of a second to decide. And to me, this is what explains the horrid stats on police shootings. Physical appearance is simply a determinator of "ours" or "theirs" and has been ever since tribal skirmishes began.

This is just more atavistic programming...but maybe not. It's STILL damned useful under combat stress. The trouble is that if you "just don't think about" race, you will naturally prefer certain roles go to people who look like you: leaders, lovers, fighters, etc.

This is why people like Jesse Owens and Joe Louis were so damned important. They were AMERICA'S champions against Germany, and when we cheered for them, the positive emotions transferred to every other black person in the country. When white audiences laughed at Butterfly McQueen, they opened the door to acknowledging that something she did was brave or smart or at least human. When they admitted Poitier was, but for the single fact of his skin color, a perfectly acceptable mate for a white ingenue in "Guess who's Coming To Dinner" the questions became more urgent. Without a sexless Morgan Freeman playing God and the President, the image systems COULDN'T have changed enough to lay the ground for a Barack Obama.

I'm seeing an overall pattern here, and it's one I just love. God, Jason gets to have a world so much better than the one I grew up in...

But I'll miss Clint Eastwood when he is gone. He ain't PC, but I think he is an authentic, awake, adult male human being, the kind who built quite a bit of this country, and they're in short supply. Might not want him marrying my sister, but I'd be happy to have him live next door.


Damn! Didn't get to "Gran Torino." Sigh. But did see Jason Statham's "Transporter 3" and found it mostly great fun, with some bad editing of fight scenes (it's harder to pull off the Bourne shakeycam than people think) but a little more heart than the others. A "B" for this tale of an indestructible delivery guy caught up in an environmental scheme.


"The Day The Earth Stood Still." Well...

1) Keanu Reeves was born to play Klatuu.

2) Jadan Smith has not inherited his father's ability to stare at a blue screen and convince you he's actually looking at something. And his reading of the important final line was shyte. Other than that, cute, talented kid. But he simply screams "watch me act, Dad!" with every move.

3) The use of the actual line "Klatuu Barada Nikto" was superior to the original film. You can barely hear it, mixed into a stream of alien speech. Anyone who really thinks that the words would be pronounced exactly the way Micheal Rennie originally said it isn't paying much attention to transliterations of Chinese or African languages. Sure, I believe he would have TOLD the woman to say those words to the robot, but that would have been an approximation of the actual phrase. When he himself said it to Gort? "Klatuu Barada Nikto" might have been the only way we could write it out, but that sharp pronunciation? I doubt it.

4) G.O.R.T. as an acronym was cute. Maybe too cute.

5) I LOVED the idea that Klatuu was here to save the Earth. From us. Which raises an interesting question: if the intention was to prevent humans from damaging the biosphere, what WOULD the maximum number of us hairless bipeds be?

6) The use of nanotechnology was both fun, and already somewhat cliche.

7) The end of the film was a bit unclear as to what the aftermath of all this was going to be. Clarity would have been nice.

8) Too few people were making too many decisions that affected too many people. Kathy Bates did the best she could with her role, but it really felt like she was just pulling her ideas out of her ass. Where was the intense and universal debate?

9) The containment facility for Gort looked pretty damned convenient. I mean, it didn't look like a re-purposed missile silo or something. It looked as if they knew EXACTLY what was coming. What's up with that?

10) I think the beginning takes place in 1927 Mongolia, where an alien artifact encounters...Keanu Reeves. Wait a minute. The original 1951 classic was WAY ahead of its time in depicting something vaguely like a world-wide and multi-ethnic response. Why the hell couldn't it have encountered a Mongol? Have Chow Yun Fat appear as the alien. Or have the damned sphere appear in Europe. Yeah, I know, "Keanu Reeves is part Hawaiian and Chinese." which is why they're casting him in "47 Ronin" (!!), which is logical in the same way that Fred Armisen, with some small portion of Japanese genetics, is somehow a good choice for Barack Obama on SNL.

Generally, it's just not a good movie, and is a remake of a classic at a time when Hollywood is plundering its past with disturbing regularity. Yeah, it ain't a lack of creativity, it's a lack of balls--no one wants to green-light a 100-million dollar investment without some kind of safety net: a star, a sequel, a remake, a bestselling original text. I get it.

But "Earth" is going to take the heat for the righteous disgust. And...I guess that's a good thing. I'd give it a "B-" if it weren't for the original source material. You got responsibilities when you touch something like that. And from that perspective, "Earth" is a "D."


mjholt said...

Re: Obama and race. I am so offended at the AP article headline that I haven't read it yet. Obama's race is not news. What is news is who he is appointing to key positions, and the Repub reactions. Repub. Senator Evan Bayh has started the "Blue Dog" Senate Caucus group of Republicans that will meet with the Dem Caucus. McCain seems to be flirting with joining it.

What does the news media always seek to deflect or distract from what is important?

Nancy Lebovitz said...

A fast hack at "race": I'm pretty sure that the word used to mean something different in British English than it does in American English. (I don't know what the current British meaning is.)

In British English, it meant something closer to ethnicity-- culture and genetics and politics mixed together. They could say "the Irish race" or "the Welsh race".

In American English, "race" is (was?) closer to the debunked scientific theory that there are three races, and you can tell who's in which one by how they look.

Tideswellman said...

There is WAAAAY too much fixation on Obamas race, naturally I was delighted that he won, as a man of colour if can only serve as an inspiration for other non white people to take the top office in the most powerful country in the world. That said, I feel like people are expecting Obama to walk on water for black people, and raise them to perfect economic parity with whites.

That isn't gonna happen anytime soon.

Steve Perry said...

"So, you know, like, if you keep being violent and shit? We're, like, gonna reduce your planet to, like, whoa, ashes and shit ..."

Sorry. Michael Rennie at least looked smart enough to run what was -- and still is -- the state-of-the-art space ship from another world.

Keanu seems like a nice kid -- I just can't see him as Klaatu. No way, dude.

Ronn said...

I'd give Earth at least a C, but that's only out of respect for Michael Rennie and the original. About as close to a perfect story as you can get.

I've had the film in every format that its been ported over to, but I doubt that I will buy the new one.

As to Keanu Reeves, I like him, but for some reason each time he appears on screen all I can think is that he has the emotional range of a dry sponge. Jennifer Connelly did a good job with her part, but everyone else was pretty much a throw away. Well, except for John Cleese. I'm glad that they chose to expand on the conversation with Dr. Barnhardt. It was the one thing missing from the original.

Ah well, I guess I'll just sit back and wait for Wolverine, Watchmen and Star Trek. (Good God, Simon Pegg as Scotty!?! Gotta see that one...)

Anonymous said...

I continue to be amused by the people who want to say Barack Obama is something other than what he says he is.

I also have yet to see evidence of Jaden Smith's talent.

Marty S said...

For me there is a significant difference between race and ethnicity. If one watches the TV show Bones or reads the books the race of the skeleton is often determined by certain characteristics of the skeletal structure. Ones ethnicity, such as being Muslim, Jewish or Catholic is not determinable by examining ones skeleton. It has been a goal of mine since childhood to stop distinguishing among people by either their race or ethnicity. I am a conservative, but I don't ignore or not talk about discrimination, I just have in some instances a different approach to best way to rid ourselves of it.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

I'd give Earth a 'B'. It meant well, it's well shot, and as Barnes notes, mostly it fails in relationship to the earlier movie. Which is fair -- but if you take it on its own terms, it's modestly OK entertainment.

I've never seen Jennifer Connelly embarrass herself, and she doesn't here. She's present in almost the same degree Keanu is absent in every scene, and it almost works.

My biggest bitch was the Star Trekkie plot -- "woah, dude, they have emotions 'n' stuff. And Jennifer Connelly is on this world. Let's not kill them."

Jaden Smith had a role a young Will Smith would have had a hard time nailing. Maybe he can act and maybe he can't, but the character in this movie was whiny and unlikeable and it's hard to see how anyone could have done much with it.


Obama's as black as he ever was. I'm not surprised people want to claim him.

Josh Jasper said...

If Obama wasn't famous, and you saw him form across the street, would you say he's white or black

We ALL know the answer to that question. And we know he identifies as black. So why is anyone asking this? I think it's much more interesting to look at the motives of the people who're trying to bring the question into the media.

And it's not that conservatives don't want to talk about race, they don't want minority groups defining the discussion of race, and they don't want to confront racism. And it's easy to do it if you claim to be trying to stop "seeing" race because it ends discussion about what racism really looks like.

Some liberals I now do this too. Its intensely annoying. You should always "see" race in that you notice what people are doing about it. It's how you treat people and talk to them that matters.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Marty S, you mention having the longterm goal of not distinguishing among people by race or ethnicity. What have you done to try to achieve that, and how well has it worked?

Marty S said...

Nancy: My primary mode of doing this aside from acting that way myself was to raise my children that way. I would say its worked very well. When my sons entered college they were actually given the option of checking off groups they would not want as roommates. Neither of them checked off any group and so one ended up with a black roommate the other a Hispanic roommate. Both became good friends with said roommate. I have two daughter in-laws. One is white, but christian(we are Jewish) the other is a Brazilian catholic of Japanese decent. So,yes I would say that I was successful.

Steven Barnes said...

As I've said, I have NO sense that Conservatives are in any way morally superior or inferior to Liberals, and I see prejudice as both a moral and intellectual issue. So a "ignore race" approach is probably just as good...I'm just not quite as comfortable with it, for reasons already stated.

Christian H. said...

Barack is of course black. Or perhaps what some would call black. I only use the word lightly as I am a juicy CARAMEL color. But then perhaps the use of brown to define Latinos has something to do with it.

It's as if the browner you are the more "black" you are.

As far as Eastwood, I just did a post on him. He has been a prolific filmmaker but he has had several "positive" black characters in his films. True Crime - Isaiah Washington plays a hard-working mechanic; he had at least one negro partner as Dirty Harry; his best friend in Escape From Alcatraz was a negro.

Anyway, I just don't feel that it is up to "white Hollywood" to create cinematic fare for us.

It's up to us. Barack showed that quality will be recognized and I feel the same about cinema. There are lots of topics that are hard to get a green light for but why give up?

As far as "claiming" Barack, I claim him for myself. I know I was one of the only people who really thought it was not only about time but truly necessary.

I maintain a professional dress and am "conservative" when it comes to race. If you are a good worker I can deal with you, if not FUCK OFF you're not helping.

We need to be Americans not Irish or Jewish or Negro. If not our economy will continue to get worse.

NYC, the financial capitol of the world, is in a $1.4B deficit because, in my opinion, of a prevalence and proliferation of mediocrity. People actually feel that they are better the bummier clothes they wear.

Not sure how that works.

Marty S said...

Steve: There is a difference between "ignore race" and work for a day when it won't matter to anybody. I want the latter, but recognize it doesn't exist yet. I am hopeless with cars. When I see someone pulled over at the side of the rode I usually ignore them and keep on driving assuming someone who can help them more will stop. Several years ago I was driving to work on a minor road when I saw a black man pulled over with his car hood up. My immediate thought was that a black man in a Lilly White neighborhood might have trouble finding someone to stop and help him. So I stopped and ended up driving him to a phone where could call for a tow. This was of course pre-cellphone. So I don't "ignore race" that would be living in a dream world. I just dream of that world and have my own beliefs on the best way to get there.

Master Plan said...

I thought "race" was a weasel word designed to create divisions for political and religious (ie, political) purposes?

You know, the yellow man doesn't feel pain the same way we do, the black man just can't become civilized, etc.

Thus Jews are a "race" because it's politically advantageous for them to be put in that false box for somebody or some group.

I don't think it "really" means anything at all.

I read something a few months back about how the sorts of DNA testing they use to convict people of crimes, 1,000 site matches (or something, don't quote me on that), and the probability of finding duplicates (12 BILLION to one or whatever) and how....they found one. Two guys convicted of crimes both matched "the same" on DNA tests was white the other black.

If you can't find race in genes (the genetic variety re: sub-Saharan Africa for instance), and you can't find it in culture and performance and attainment then....what is it?

Nothing. Convenient labels for keeping people down, or divided, or oppressed, or whatever political hoo-ha is required in the moment.

If you need slaves to make your economy work then of course black people aren't really people! That way we can enslave them and it's all good, ethically and morally.

Got nothing to do with it actually being true, just a polite fiction (or not so polite).

Culture and ethnicity are different and real things, but race seems like bullshit to me.