The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"The Reader" (2008)

The recent NY Post editorial cartoon showing a chimp being executed by the police, and equating said chimp with the author of the stimulus package is raising some rather predictable eyebrows. The thing is, that there is a good chance that the identical cartoon would have appeared if we had a white president. (After many times did you hear Bush referred to as "The Chimp"? That would have been squashed INSTANTLY about Obama, bet your ass) I also think that we're going to see a rise in "iffy" material like that, treading on people's racial sensitivities. Part of that is that, on the one side, people are too sensitive. The other is that, on the other side, racism is a real thing, and racist opponents to Obama (including Democrats who wish like hell they'd had a white guy to vote for) just CAN'T call him what they really want to, and we're going to see the stress creep out in odd ways.

My guess is that if someone can do a quantitative analysis, material critical of Obama's administration will show a disturbing tend to slide toward racial stereotype. And in a country where stereotypes of whites had equal weight and impact, that would be just fine--all's fair in war, and so forth. But we're in uncharted waters here, and everyone is just going to have to be a little extra careful

That doesn't mean not poking fun at, or lampooning the new POTUS. I've seen tons of good funny stuff about him. The cover of the new Mad Magazine, with Obama smoking a dozen cigarettes in the Oval office while juggling a dozen crisis, with the title "Obama: the first 100 minutes" was priceless. The Daily Show, MAD TV, SNL, and other shows have done it just fine. I suspect that the people who complain that they can't make fun of him are worried that they have to edit themselves too much...and that if they didn't, some racist stuff would come sliding right out. We're human. It's in us, people. We're trying to grow up as a culture, but conscious actions (like voting) are different from unconscious preferences ( scenes in movies, for instance?)


Speaking of sensitivity...and I'm deliberately not saying "oversensitivity", the recent flap about Kate Winslet's movie "The Reader" is a perfect example.



The film is set in 1950's Germany deals with a young man who, at the age of 15, has a summer fling with an older woman (Winslet). She is distant and controlling, and has him read to her before making love. After three months, she disappears. Years later, when in law school, he attends a field trip to a war crimes tribunal, where he recognizes his former lover, now accused of being a prison guard complicit in the murder of hundreds of Jews. Needless to say, this fucks him up royally.

There is a major story point that deals with her confession to being the leader of a group of prison guards, and authoring a document that the boy knows she could not have done: she was illiterate. Does he come forward with his information? What does it all mean? In the midst of a country trying desperately to come to grips with its evil actions, this little human story is actually quite well done.

And it has spawned a mini-controversy, Jews who believe that the film, by focusing on the perpetrators rather than the victims, is an apologia for Nazism. Or that it is saying that her illiteracy somehow mitigated her crimes.

The fact is, while I disagree, I understand how they feel. If within living memory, someone had tried to eradicate my people, I would be mighty, mighty touchy about how any depictions of those events were handled, especially considering that there are so many people who pretend to deny the Holocaust. Yes, that's what I said. I don't think most "deniers" really don't believe it. I think they're lying sacks of shit who want to make anti-Semitism more acceptable by casting doubt on the one event so huge, so repugnant, so awesomely, catastrophically evil that even people who don't like Jews are repelled by what the Nazis did.

Yes, the movie humanizes the face of evil. But it would be a grotesque mistake to do otherwise: we got bitch-slapped on 9/11, and a significant proportion of our population became willing to cast people even accused of being terrorists into Gulags to be tortured. That's what people do when they are frightened. That's what people do when they can define those tortured or killed or enslaved as "other."

Winslet's prison guard is a burned-out shell, a cipher. She took a job guarding people she probably didn't consider fully human, so that performance of her job was the highest moral imperative. Despite the fact that numerous characters speak with open loathing for her actions, the mere fact of suggesting that the situation was more complex than "evil Nazis" gets some people's hackles up. Probably especially for those who love Israel, but are disturbed about the morality of some of its actions. Moral ambiguity is a bitch. Service to a higher moral authority can cost you your life, your freedom...hell, even your job.

I've felt similar things every time I see a Civil War movie that omits the attitudes of enslaved black people...meaning 99% of them. Every time I hear apologists trying to explain how few Southerners owned slaves, slaves loved their masters, slavery would have ended anyway...all that crap, which boils down to: "those Southerners are my people. I have to believe they are good." And of course, they know full well that venomous racist would mirror their comments with very different intent.

I don't think it was the Nazis. There were hundreds of camps, all over Europe. People knew, and most of them didn't do a damned thing. It wasn't just the Germans. It was a tendency within human beings, within us as a species. And hell, I've seen human beings helping strangers more often than I've seen animals helping strange animals, so don't get me going on that. We hold ourselves to impossibly high standards...and so we should.

The negative result of those high standards is that we can't believe that we would do such things. Watching Winslet's awesome vulnerability in her role underscores her commonality with the rest of mankind. If we don't want another Holocaust...another Biafra...another 9/11... we have to stop pointing the finger, and seek to root out the evil within ourselves.

If we don't do that, no matter what we THINK we're doing, we're just laying the ground for the atrocities of the future. Hell, the Germans thought God was on their side, too.

I'd give "The Reader" a B, but Winslet an "A" for her fearless, exquisitely measured performance.


Will Smith's "Seven Pounds" got "Best picture" at the NAACP Image Awards. Considering the panning it got by white critics, the fact that it notably underperformed for a Will Smith movie, and the fact that it had Dat Old Debbo sex in it, shall we look at all of the possible reasons I can think of?

1) Pure coincidence. Nothing has anything to do with anything.

2) Black people tend to give "their own" a pass, being too forgiving of an unremarkable film.

3) Whites tend to have a flinch response to black sex. This is probably unconscious in most cases, so there will always be another explanation for why they didn't like it.

My best guess? Go for the answer that is universal, rather than attributing different characteristics to different groups: "members of a group will tend to be more supportive of members of their group, and less supportive of members of other groups. Much of this approval or disapproval will be subconscious, especially when there are cultural prohibitions against such attitudes."

I like that one. people would tend to forgive flaws...a bit. And whites would tend to exaggerate the exact same degree. Personally, I think that if Brad Pitt had a track record like Will Smith, and had done "Seven Pounds" it would have jumped across the 100 million mark. But there's no way to prove that, now is there?

Which should be of comfort to anyone who thinks I'm talking about them.


Shawn Scarber Deggans said...

I think whites aren't as sensitive to racism. It's easy for us to say something stupid and not even realize it--especially when raised in the south.

However, I think the real problem is how we react when we're called on it. I mean, to most whites today, being called a racists is about the worst thing in the world.

It makes us cringe, because we think, "Ack! That's not me!" And out come the stories of how we have X number of African American friends, took 12 hours of cultural appreciation classes, watched the Cosby Show growing up, and even dated an African American Man/Woman in college.

I think the reaction should simply be, "I'm sorry I said/did something offensive to you. I'll try to be more sensitive in the future."

Marty S said...

I think the cartoon in the Post was stupid. Whoever it is aimed at. Now it may also have been a racist statement, by an incredibly stupid individual. But the stimulus bill was not written by Obama. It was written by the Democratic congress with input from Obama, so unless we believe the author of the bill does not realize this, it would be reasonable to assume that the cartoon was aimed at the whole Democratic government and not at Obama specifically.

Steve Perry said...

Seven Pounds.

You don't think that maybe the fun, upbeat nature of a guy who wants to atone for killing a bunch of people, including his wife, by committing suicide and parceling his organs out to the deserving might have put off a few viewers?

Not exactly a day at Disneyland, is it?

I didn't like No Country for Old Men, nor There Will Be Blood; nor Leaving Los Vegas; nor Brokeback Mountain. Sure, they were well-acted. But it's so much easier to get depressed by watching the news that paying ten bucks, not counting ten more for popcorn and a Coke, isn't that appealing.

I suspect I'm not alone, and the story was less than appealing to other folks, too.

You have to be in the right mood to watch samurai movies -- not everybody's cup of sake ...

Shady_Grady said...

Although the bill was written by the Congress, it is identified in the public mind as Obama's bill. There is a long history of associations between Blacks and monkeys. During the campaign there were lots of images depicting Obama as a monkey and a few people talking about "taking him out".

I think the cartoonist knew exactly what he was doing.

Josh Jasper said...

Having seen the cartoonists other work, which has been sexist, viciously homophobic to the extent I hope I'd seldom seen before, anti-Arabic racist, and just generally nasty, and having seen the photo on the page right before of Obama signing the bill, I'd say both he and the Post knew what they were doing, and intended a poke against Obama.

Mike R said...

"The cover of the new Mad Magazine, with Obama smoking a dozen cigarettes in the Oval office while juggling a dozen crisis, with the title "Obama: the first 100 minutes" was priceless."

Yea, but that wasn't really making fun of Obama. You could have had almost that exact same cover no matter who was elected president. It was making fun of the job and how impossible it is.

How many cartoons or skits have you seen that you found funny that portrayed Obama as stupid, cowardly, wicked, or ignorant?

Mike R said...

Side note:

Speaking of racial humor, I found this to be pretty funny;

"President Replaces N-Word"

Foxessa said...

In addition to the excellent points made by others to this entry that included the long history of this kind of depiction in political cartoons for racist objectives (including the endless supply of Apus Lincolnus cartoons during and after the Civil War and his assassination) and the content of Delonas's previous cartoons -- people who live in NYC bring to this particular cartoon a long history of white cops shooting unarmed black men. At least one shooting of this nature seems to happen every year.

We were at the Gilder Lehrman Center's for the Study of Slavery, Resistence and Abolition's Frederick Douglass Book Prize reception-banquet last night, seated with, among others, the editor of the - -, and her husband, who teaches Mass Communications at --*. He used the cartoon in his class yesterday to make certain points, and one of his students asked him point blank, "What does this cartoon have to do with mass communications?"

That's how ignorant a huge proportion of this nation's youth are.

From another friend there last night, born in Jamaica, and a Fellow at Gilder Lehrman this year, despite being at Yale specifically as a scholar of these matters, in this Institute, where all the members surely know what this is about, he said he's never anywhere been asked so often to bring someone refreshments, wine and so on at parties and receptions.

There is so much work to do.

Love, C.

* to protect their privacy

Anonymous said...

One ignorant comment does not undo all the effort and good that many young people are making every day. It wasn't long ago that the current generation in charge was written off by their elders as listless and ignorant...Try to encourage us to succeed, not write us off before we make it out of the gate. A lot of the problems we're suffering from are a result of actions and decisions from our predecessors. Many of us are working hard to make solid lives for ourselves and to change things for the better. Look at the youth participation in the past election if you need an example of the desire to make things better.

Steven Barnes said...

I haven't seen anything criticising Obama as stupid because that would be like criticizing Kareem Abul Jabbar for being short. It just wouldn't make sense. I've seen things criticizing his physical appearance, his stuttery manner, his "false" positivity, his sexuality, his name, his tendency to rely on charisma over content, his political inexperience and naivite, renegging on campaign promises, and much much more. The bit on "Lie to me" about Obama giving John McCain the finger had me howling. No. And the Mad Magazine cover was making a SPECIFIC comment about Obama's pledge not to smoke. Not general at all. It is perfectly possible to criticize his words and actions without using images that would give bigots the giggles.

Steven Barnes said...

The point to me is that racism exists in most of us, and to a venomous extent in about 10% of us. But it is totally unaccepted to make this textual and conscious. Repress it as you will, some will let it slip out, others will giggle at it and pretend not to understand, and others will genuinely be confused and upset: "It was innocent!". How would you suggest I sort out one from the other? I think that everyone is going to have to step just a little they would have for the first female president, or the first gay. And some of the jokes would be innocent, but the venomous 10% would hide behind the label as well. Remember that he had more death threats than ANY other presidential candidate, ever. This isn't a joke, not even a little bit, but the forces of evil want you to laugh and believe they're not serious. Keep laughing. Then, if something happens, you'll cry and say: "I never thought..."

Ethereal Highway said...

That cartoon was very upsetting to me. Though I don't like the racism, in this case I was much more upset by the depiction of assassination.

Mike R said...

>I haven't seen anything criticising Obama as stupid because that would be like criticizing Kareem Abul Jabbar for being short. It just wouldn't make sense.<

*shrug* If politician X is filmed damn near 24/7, they are going to say some stupid things.

You jump of those stupid things and portray them as stupid for humorous effect. It's been done for practically every US president I can think of, and it's not rocket science.

Here's a clip of a time when Obama's teleprompter went out;

Take a look at that, and tell me SNL couldn't have used that as a launching pad to portray him as unintelligent without his teleprompter.

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