30 December 2014

Why I don't Want to See "Unbroken."

And why don’t I want to see it, you may well ask? I’m not thinking about how the movie was put together—not entirely at any rate—since I have not seen it. I have seen the trailer though, I’ve read some reviews, and I cannot get around how this movie looks like it facilitates white privilege. Let me walk you through my reasoning.

First, a wee bit of background. Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book of the same name, “Unbroken” chronicles the life of WWII veteran and POW Louis Zamperini. Director Angelina Jolie and co-writers the Coen brothers have billed the movie as a story about “survival,” “resilience,” “redemption.” Regardless of the film’s merits, critics have associated the usual words about WWII with the movie. Manohla Dargis writes that “[Zamperini’s] is one of those stories that has come to define the Greatest Generation.” Although Justin Chang offers us a look at what’s at stake, noting that Ms. Jolie and co. are pushing for a major award, he describes the movie as a “capably stirring, morally unambiguous and classically polished prestige picture about an unusually spirited member of the Greatest Generation who survived a hell beyond anyone's imagination.”

Here’s where things get sticky for me. Despite that African Americans served alongside whites in World War II, the former do not appear to be well represented in “Unbroken.” Indeed, the lone exception that I could find is a “brief glimpse” of Jesse Owens, played by Sierra Leone sprinter Bangalie Keita. If there more references to African Americans in the movie, film reviewers have not mentioned them.

Let me be clear. I am not trivializing either Zamperini’s experience as a WWII veteran and POW survivor or the story that Ms. Jolie and the Coen brothers set out to tell in making this film. And I am aware that the vast majority of Americans who served in WWII were white and that Zamperini was one of the few survivors from the war whose story could be told some 60 years later. But that’s just it: Zamperini and the millions of white Americans who served in WWII don’t have to fight to tell their stories. Their story dominates the picture we have of what WWII was like. Whereas the fact that almost no African Americans are depicted in the movie clearly reflects the fact that, unlike their white counterparts, they do have to fight to be recognized. I’m willing to bet very few white people know that anywhere between 125,000 and 1.2 million African Americans served in WWII or that the Tuskegee Airmen were the first blacks ALLOWED to serve as aviators in the United States armed forces. And despite serving their country and proving their worth in battle, these soldiers were discriminated against at home and in the theatre (Jim Crow laws were in effect until 1965).

I’m well educated, and I’m ashamed to admit I had not heard of the Tuskegee Airmen until today. Which is precisely the point I’m making. I knew the watered down, white version of history everyone knows, not the far more nuanced, far more compelling one. Because I didn't make an effort until now to know it even as I was chaffing at what I was seeing and not seeing in the trailers for “Unbroken.”

If you think I’m exaggerating the problem with black people having to fight to tell their stories or to fight even for the same screen space, let me give you some more examples that came up in my research. For one, when I googled an image search on Bengalie Keita—a picture of him was not provided at the IMDB—I saw some pictures of Keita and other black people but also lots of white people, including Jack OConnell, who plays Zamperini in the film, but also Republican congressmen John Boehner, Taylor Swift, and perhaps most disturbingly, Oscar Pistorius. In contrast, something like 96 percent of the pictures I saw of Jack OConnell were of himself. And not one black person is depicted instead of OConnell.

Moreover, whereas Zamperini’s story has not been questioned to any serious degree, almost immediately upon release the movie “Selma” and the story it tells has been contested by Joseph A. Califano, former Special Assistant for Domestic Affairs under President Lyndon B. Johnson, who wrote an op-ed on the film entitled “The movie ‘Selma’ has a glaring flaw.” In a nutshell, Califano’s beef is that the movie unfairly portrays Johnson and the FBI: “Selma was LBJ’s idea,” Califano writes, “he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted—and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him.” Quite frankly, I’m amazed at Califano’s gall in trying to credit LBJ with organizing the Selma marches. I also guess the fact that the current President of the United States has had to fight every day he has held office to be treated with respect has escaped Califano’s notice. And although I think that’s shitty enough, there are worse examples I could trot out of how blacks have been portrayed for protesting the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and countless others. I promise you, few of the words the media has used to describe these people compare favorably to “survival,” “resilience,” or “redemption.” And of course, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and countless others are dead because they happened to be black. And that’s just the last six months, let alone the last two-hundred some years of systematic, violent discrimination and oppression of the American black community.

In closing, I don’t want to see “Unbroken” not because it might not be a good film but because I don’t think it’s the movie anyone, and especially white people, needs to be seeing right now. We could do with a few more movies about Selma and the civil rights movement (and yeah, I do plan to see the one out now). We could do with a few about the Tuskegee Airmen.

10 December 2014

'Tis the Season...For Anti-Multicultural Memes

December is upon us. Many people around the world will gather to remember one tradition or another this month. Most of us are familiar with the main stream ones: Christmas, Hannukah, New Year's Eve. In addition, Mexicans will observe the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe; Kenyans Jamhuri Day; Shiite Muslims Arba'een or Chehlom, which this year falls on 13 December on the Gregorian Calendar; and many more besides these.

I think most Americans recognize on some level the positive role that multiculturalism has played in shaping the kind of country the United States has become, whether that means enjoying a dish that has transcended ethnic borders (gumbo or jambalaya, anyone!?!) or something deeper. But for some Americans, when confronted with the reality that not everyone wants to be told “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” all sense of understanding what a diverse and culturally rich country we live in falls to the ground like the pine needles on last year’s tree.

What’s all the fuss is the constant refrain by holiday well wishers. Can’t I say something nice to a stranger? Why are these people so unfriendly!?!

One popular meme making the rounds on Facebook this year goes, “I don’t understand what the big deal is…If you are Jewish, tell me: Happy Hanukkah. If you are Christian, tell me: Merry Christmas. If you are African American, tell me: Joyous Kwanza. If you don’t prefer those, tell me: Happy Holidays. I will not be offended. I will be thankful that you took the time to say something nice to me.”

Ostensibly, the writer of this meme and those who choose to post it to Facebook may mean well. Whether the sentiment is sincere or not, the meme at least attempts to include several cultural traditions. But the underlying message, whether intentional or not, is that people are too sensitive and that political correctness has hijacked the reasons for the seasons, as it were. The writer also implies that, since they aren't the type to get easily offended by some kind of holiday wish, you shouldn't be offended either when they wish you Merry Christmas or whatever. More on this last point later.

So here are some of the problems with telling someone you don’t know anything about, “Hey, I’m cool with however you choose to celebrate this time of year. Don’t be afraid to tell me! I welcome diverse holiday greetings!”

I’ll start with the most obvious issue: not everyone celebrates one of the three traditions the meme names. I’m not expecting an all-inclusive list of traditions here either. That’s not even the point. Rather, the meme makes several huge assumptions about the cultures it mentions and even a few about those it doesn't. Most African Americans don’t celebrate Kwanza, for instance. Not every black person you meet is necessarily African American, for that matter. Likewise, not everyone chooses to celebrate anything or follow each and every custom of a particular holiday.

This leads me to problem number two: not everyone on the planet may wish to give you any kind of holiday greeting. There may be any number of reasons for this that you haven’t thought of. I’ll choose atheists for my example, partly because I’m an atheist and partly because I can readily illustrate what I'm talking about.

What would you expect me to say if I happened to meet you on 25 December? Happy-I-Don’t-Believe-What-You-Believe-Day? I’m not going to lie and pretend that I share your views, so what could I say that wouldn't sound false or weird or rude? If someone wishes me Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, I don’t take offense, but I also usually say “Thank You” and leave it at that. That answer is not at all unfriendly, and it shows that I understand your views are different than mine. But I've received lots of funny looks when I've said this, as if saying thanks is confusing. And of course not one of these confused people bothered to ask me what I believe.

My point is, if you really respect that everyone on the planet is as an individual with their own life story and history, you respect that no harm is meant just because that person chooses not to greet you or respond in the exact way that you would like.

So, to return to the very first words in this meme, when you tell someone that you don't understand what the fuss is about, you're telling them that you're not interested in their point of view. You're saying that, because you personally don't see a problem, then a problem must not exist, that the person is making it up, that they are overreacting or being overly sensitive.

There are two huge, interrelated problems with this kind of thinking: 1) you take away another person's right to tell their story (or even not tell it); 2) you rob yourself of an opportunity to learn something about someone different than you. Sometimes these differences are small, subtle, not easy to see. But that does not make them unimportant. You probably grasp the fact that electrons exist even though you cannot see them without the aid of precision instruments. But they turn out to be one of the fundamental building blocks of the universe. In much the same way, differences are a fundamental part of what makes each of us human.

If you truly embrace multiculturalism and respect what other people may believe or not believe, you don't go around shouting, "I'm open to different points of view! And Merry Christmas!" That attitude isn't about other people and how they might feel. It's about you. You get to know them. That starts with saying hello, but mostly you stop talking and listen to what they have to say. And you respect that they may not want to talk to you. That doesn't make anyone good or bad. It makes us real people.