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.

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