I’m not a huge fan of “The Secret Life of Bees.” In my review, I praised the performances of Queen Latifah and the other black women in the cast but felt as though Dakota Fanning had been badly directed.
But I see that the film is being tarred with the same brush as Tom McCarthy’s “The Visitor” from earlier this year: that it somehow wrongs its black characters by allowing the white characters to learn from them.
Noah Forrest, on the Movie City News website, said, “Once again we are presented with a scenario where the black characters, who are shown struggling for their freedoms, are really here to help out with the sole white character. They are all given subplots … but really they are all there to provide a family for this poor little white girl.”
Richard Corliss, writing on Time.com, referred to the movie as “another entry in the long tradition of books and movies about whites being nurtured and schooled by the example of the black underling,” though he ultimately ends up praising the film.
But their responses reminded me of the review I read in Time Out New York early in the year, when “The Visitor” (just now out on DVD) was released. In particular, I was struck by the review Melissa Anderson wrote: “The road to white people’s salvation is paved with the misery of brown and black folks, or so we learn in Tom McCarthy’s sophomore feature … its mushy, apolitical humanism is just as insidious” as films such as “Mississippi Burning” and “Blood Diamond.”
That seems like such a blinkered, reductionist way of looking at these films: that, because the protagonists are white and the people they are influenced by are black, exploitation somehow must inevitably be the byproduct.
The same charges were leveled at “Cry Freedom,” Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1987 film about the relationship between anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko and journalist Donald Woods. Biko was killed in custody by South African police; Woods, who reported on his death for an East Lond, South Africa, newspaper, ultimately had to escape from South Africa with his family to avoid the same fate.
But the flim was attacked for killing off Biko – who was played by Denzel Washington – halfway through the film and spending the rest of the film focused on Woods (Kevin Kline). Critics complained that, though Biko was the martyr, he was an ancillary character in the story.
But to me, that was a film about the insidious nature of apartheid and racism: that beyond the largest evil – the denial of rights and full citizenship status for blacks – it infected every level of society, poisoning the lives of whites as well. Biko was a martyr for fighting for equality; Woods was a hero for fighting the system by trying to tell Biko’s story. Biko set the example in his battle against apartheid; Woods made his story public knowledge, creating international awareness of the brutality of the system and its enforcement (though it would be more than a decade before apartheid would finally fall).
Similarly, in “The Visitor,” a film that took the arbitrary nature of American immigration laws as part of its subtext, a white man – a college professor played by the beautifully modulated Richard Jenkins – has his eyes opened to the destructive effect this system has on people he previously had not encountered or paid attention to.
It’s simplistic to called “The Visitor” a film about his salvation. This is a movie about an awakening and, with a little luck, about effecting a similar awakening in those who watch the film. So it is with each of these films: They deal with people without power encountering those who do have a little (but don’t realize it), then impart a sense of urgency or justice denied or inspiration – whatever it takes to shake that protagonist out of complacency and into action.
In a similar way, the Dakota Fanning character in “Secret Life of Bees” (which is set in 1964 South Carolina) will be informed and empowered by her experiences to become part of the change – the generation of Southerners that rejects old racist traditions to move her world a little closer to equality.
As much as we’d like these things to happen all at once, they happen in increments. So it seems wrong-headed to belittle films that celebrate those small steps.
Oct. 11, 2008
I’ve been meaning to comment on the column Virginia Heffernan had in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday, Oct. 5, about how what she refers to as “mega-movies” have taken over TV. Using “The Sopranos” as her model, she invokes shows like “Damages” and “Mad Men” to make her point about how the most interesting stories are being told on TV – and that, rather than trying to wrap up a plot in the confines of a two-hour feature, these series have the ability to create movies that last for dozens – even hundreds – of hours.
A couple of things:
If you think about it, movies are the wrong analogy. In their serialized form, with a new slice of the pie being offered each week – and then doled out in boxed DVD sets – the better comparison here is the novel. Sitting down to watch an entire season of “Rescue Me” or “Six Feet Under” is like pulling a great novel off the shelf and working through it chapter by chapter. And a lot more likely to happen these days than someone actually reading a book.
Heffernan also claims that in the paradigm assembled by “The Sopranos” creator David Chase, “a show’s main character must be fundamentally evil, and this evil must undermine the tenacious American fantasy that there are morally responsible roads to power and moreover that the achievement of power is itself a moral responsibility.”
I don’t know about that last part – unless you’re Spider-man (“With great power comes great responsibility”). Or the first part, for that matter. After all, the Kennedy fortune paved their road to power – and it was built on bootlegging during Prohibition. You don’t get American fantasies much more tenacious than that.
But I’d take issue with Heffernan’s premise that the central characters in these shows – whether it’s Tony Soprano or Don Draper of “Mad Men” or Patty Hewes of “Damages” or Tommy Galvin of “Rescue Me” – are fundamentally evil.
Frankly, I can’t imagine that “The Sopranos” would have been nearly as popular as it was if Tony was intrinsically a monster. In fact, that’s what made the show so compelling – the tension between his line of work and his urge to be a loving family man. That’s what made “The Sopranos” so fascinating: the moral complexity, with Tony being the most complex character ever created for TV.
The same is true of the others I mentioned: None of them has evil goals, only misguided impulses and a lack of restraint to keep them from acting on them. That’s what makes them interesting: They’re people who have compromised so much that they’ve lost their bearings – but are still plugged in enough to recognize that fact. They still do the wrong thing more often than not – but it eats at them. And they do the right thing so unpredictably that it makes them fascinating.
So when Heffernan refers to these characters as “sinister, ugly figures,” I have to wonder if she’s ever actually watched the show on a day when her anti-anxiety meds were working.
The redcoats are coming
Oh, wait a minute, they’re already here:
Hugh Laurie in “House.”
Damian Lewis in “Life.”
Jason O’Mara in “Life on Mars.”
Simon Baker in “The Mentalist.”
Rufus Sewell in “Eleventh Hour.”
Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver in “The Riches.”
Stephen Moyer and Anna Paquin in “True Blood.”
Jason Isaacs and Jason Clarke in “Brotherhood.”
Wentworth Miller in “Prison Break.”
Jonny Lee Miller in “Eli Stone.”
What – there aren’t any American actors capable of playing American characters on American TV? Why aren’t Obama and McCain debating about this?
Call me Nostradamus
Tom O’Neil at The Envelope, the L.A. Times’ Oscar blog, asked for my predictions about nominees for the 2009 Oscars, which you’ll find here.
Keep in mind that I haven’t seen half the movies that are mentioned here. These are strictly guesses based on buzz and hunches. For example, I didn’t pick “Milk” as a potential best-picture contender because as much as I enjoy some of Gus van Sant’s work (“My Own Private Idaho,” “To Die For”), he’s an inconsistent filmmaker, as capable of commercial shlock (“Finding Forrester”) as he is of avant-garde time-wasting (“Gerry,” “Last Days”).
Meanwhile, I actually was sitting in a room full of bloggers and overheard a discussion where “The Dark Knight” was seriously bandied about as a best-picture contender. I politely stifled my chortles of derision.
When it comes to this kind of stuff, your guess is as good as mine.