‘So humble, it’s embarrassing,’ says John Reid (Richard Madden) to Elton John (Taron Egerton) shortly after they meet in Dexter Fletcher’s biopic of the singer. It is a trait that soon disappears as far as Elton’s possessions are concerned – with the film being in part as great a celebration of consumption, including the consumption of booze and drugs, as one could find.
Indeed, while the film gets to see Elton go through rehab and thus come to regret his excessive consumption, partially (the ending affirms that he still loves shopping), Elton nonetheless confesses to his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) that ‘Mum, I have fucked everything that moves. And I’ve taken every drug known to man. All of them. D’you know what? I enjoyed every last minute of it.’
Oddly enough, given that Elton in his own words ‘fucked everything that moves,’ he barely gets any action in the film at all – and it is Reid who betrays Elton by getting head off an intern by the pool in front of the ‘poolboy.’ That is, the film is determined at pretty much every turn to cast Elton as the victim.
That Elton comes from a loveless (and homophobic) family means that Elton’s plight is neither without victimhood nor (dare I say it) something like familiarity. Indeed, the film captures well a bourgeois British tendency for signs of familial love to be effectively nil, and for love to have to exist in such a slender space of feeling that it may as well not exist at all.
Given the lovelessness of white heteronormativity – an assertion that I shall try to clarify below – it is indeed unsurprising, and plays out in some senses as convincing, that Reginald Dwight must indeed die, and that Elton John must indeed be born, in order for Elton to escape his destiny to be a part of, and thus to reproduce, its logic.
However, regardless of Elton John the person, the Elton John of the film does reproduce many aspects of hegemonic whiteness, even if with a homosexual ‘twist,’ such that the film performs what Jasbir K Puar might define as ‘homonormativity’ – or a kind of reactionary queerness.
(Given that Elton John the person has asserted of the film here that ‘[t]his is how my life was, and I didn’t want to cover it and gloss it over,’ then we must wonder how much it does reflect upon the ‘real’ Elton, not least because, as I have already suggested, the film definitely ‘glosses’ Elton’s sex life – not so much out of prurience, but in a bid to ensure that he remains ‘heroic’ in the eyes of the film. That he implies here that the film portrayed him as he ‘wanted’ also gives a loose air of not just a vanity project – since vanity projects tend to be considered to be money-losers – but also a strategic money-making ploy, with the film grossing US$195m worldwide on a US$40m budget. And as Elton laments how people buy his records instead of those by other artists… If the film offers to us ‘crocodile rock,’ perhaps its tears are also those of the same creature.)
Given that the film’s Elton is supposedly ‘so humble,’ as might be the real Elton John (were we to think it important to know), why would I now attempt to humiliate that Elton by exposing his white privilege, and thus the unthinking white supremacy of the film?
In part it is because the film is so unrelenting in its validation of Elton John as success story and yet as victim, and so unrelenting in its celebration of consumption (enjoying ‘every last minute of it’), that Rocketman becomes a prime portrayal of what Kehinde Andrews might term ‘white psychosis.’
As far as Blackness is concerned, the film – like so many others – shows Elton receiving a key life lesson from the lead singer of a band that is not fully identified in the film. Known in the credits as Wilson (Jason Pennycooke), he sings under a banner above a stage that bears several band names, including Johnny and the Apaches (seemingly a real band, but fronted by a singer who seems to be white or white passing in the images of the band that I found online) and Billy Jones (a real-life Black soul singer). Given that ‘Wilson’ says to Elton that his real name is Rodney Jones, we might surmise that ‘Wilson’ is an amalgam.
So be it, we might think, that a film would offer up an amalgam of people from Elton’s history; that’s what biopics do, after all. But this only goes to reinforce that it is not so much any particular Black person as Blackness in general that is the rock upon which his subsequent success is founded, as Wilson says to Elton the crucial line that he has to ‘kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be’ – a line that will mean completely different things to a person of colour, as opposed to a white person.
Even more important than Wilson effectively inducing Reginald Dwight to become Elton John, though, is the fact that it is another Black band member, listed in the credits as Richard (Carl Spencer), who grabs and kisses Elton, thereby inducting him into homosexuality.
In other words, not only is Blackness responsible for the creation of Elton John – shown in the film as possessing the energy and power that Elton must use in order to transform himself – but Rocketman also performs a rather neat and typically white supremacist trick in the process. This is not simply a case of how we will never see these characters again after an initial post-tour reunion in which Richard outs Reggie/Elton in front of his songwriter bro Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), thereby rendering them disposable, magical negroes. Rather it is that Elton appropriates Blackness in order to achieve both stardom and homosexuality, while at the same time appropriating the historical victimhood of Blackness in order to claim it as his own. That is, Elton steals from Blackness not just his identity, but also his status as perpetual victim within the film – a second/double theft that annuls any sense that the film’s narrative would otherwise give to us that Elton is ‘given’ the advice by Wilson and Richard (and thus does not ‘owe’ them anything in return).
As far as Bernie is concerned, he also learns truly to love the ‘American’ way of life – that is, success and hedonism – by fucking a Black woman, Heather (Sharminah Harrower), at a party supposedly at Mama Cass’s house. That this moment, when Bernie chooses to consume the Black woman over hanging out with a slightly lonely Elton, becomes a key moment of ‘betrayal’ for Elton in the film’s narrative, only goes to show that Blackness renders Elton victim once again.
Of course, we never see Heather again, but Bernie does roll up later at a party at Elton’s mansion with two white chicks, all dressed in white. Not only does Bernie ‘graduate’ from Heather to an all-white threesome, but as he enters the party a Black party goer shakes his hand and says hi, after which Bernie, flexing his antiblack muscles, boasts to the women ‘no idea who he is, of course.’
And why does Bernie have no idea who he is? Because ‘of course’ that party goer, like Wilson and Richard before him, does not need to be identified because Blackness is faceless and fungible, as Tiffany Lethabo King and so many others have argued so cogently.
Of course, then, now that Elton and Bernie have both effectively worked out how to be Black, or rather to exploit Blackness, success is assured (and portrayed to us as natural and deserved, while figures like ‘Wilson’ and ‘Richard’ can languish in obscurity). And so by the time Elton is ‘betrayed’ by Reid for that poolside BJ, referred to in the film as ‘a bit of rock n roll,’ it is perhaps no surprise that Elton is alerted to Reid’s presence by a character referred to in the credits as LA Transgender Maid (Micah Holmes), who also happens to be Black.
That is, Blackness is there as a constant-ish presence to remind us of Elton’s victimhood, even as its presence, especially in the form of the Trans* person, is aiming to signify that Elton is himself suffering outsider with all of his millions and his loveless family.
The film’s white supremacy also plays out liminally in its casting of Stephen Graham, who is mixed race, as (the white) Dick James. For, James in the film comes across as uncouth, working class and unpleasant, thereby pushing on to a kind of marginal Blackness the ‘unpleasant’ and commercial aspects of the music industry (also embodied by the unfaithful Reid), while Elton is ‘of course’ ‘simply’ a piano man.
When Elton and Bernie early on are living with the former’s mother, we hear her complain that she effectively washes up after the pair, and that without her giving to them the time to write songs, a pastime that for them is seemingly a god-given right (because Elton John has become famous; that is, because the future justifies the past), we get a sense that Rocketman does want at least in part to acknowledge that the success of people like Elton John is built upon the labour of many.
But, as the Elton empire grows, the film rather tries to have us believe not that Elton would be nothing without that labour, but rather that such labour would not exist were it not for Elton (‘maybe all I do is play the piano, but you know what else I do? Hmm? I pay, John. For everything.’).
Getting further into the relationship with Elton’s mother, however, we see her lament towards the end of the film that she should ‘never have had children.’ This is cast as an abhorrent position for her to take. Because, you know, while we can definitely live without so many nameless and faceless people of colour in the world, we can’t live without Elton John – not least because he helped to set up an AIDS charity ‘from his kitchen table,’ as we are told in the film’s final credits. Because Elton of course knows everything about working at a kitchen table.
This is not to deny the goodness of the ‘real’ Elton John’s charitable work. But importantly it means that Elton’s mum gets to be portrayed as monstrous, with Elton thus as victim once again, while also claiming a desire for non-normativity in her role as vessel for sexual reproduction.
If, as Lee Edelman has famously argued, the pressure for normative reproduction might be resisted, not just in the name of lowering the number of humans on the planet for the purposes of minimising the detrimental impact of those same humans, and if Edelman has put this position forward as a queer position, then Rocketman takes here a somewhat strange turn in portraying Elton’s mother’s resistance towards reproductive normativity as monstrous. For, it means that Rocketman not only portrays to us another mother-hating film (with Elton’s mother having also ‘betrayed’ him early on in life for herself ‘fucking anything that moves’ – or at least for fucking Fred, played by Tom Bennett, who becomes her partner as the film progresses; he is another figure who effectively introduces Elton to rock n roll before being somewhat discarded narratively for the purposes of the construction of the Great Elton), but it places on to her a queer position that the film might otherwise adopt.
To detect in Rocketman an anti-queer set of sentiments might seem paradoxical, since the film is so obviously ‘queer’ in all but its form (this is about as ‘straight’ filmmaking, stylistically, as you can get). And yet, it also plays out in the Elton-Bernie relationship, which is the central and driving bromance of the film, and yet which of course remains chaste, while Elton’s ‘genuine’ gay relationship with Reid turns to shit. Meaning that Rocketman punishes practicing homosexuality while also pleading for Elton as victim because homosexual.
If it is clear that Rocketman insistently eats its cake and has it, then we might add that the final credits, during which the ‘real’ Elton is introduced to the film, also tell us the widely known story of his relationship with David Furnish, who is one of the film’s producers. This is a truly loving relationship, as the film makes sure to signify because the pair has two children, Zachary and Elijah. That is, Elton is finally validated for rejecting an Edelmanian ‘no future’ position on queerness, which is of course fair enough, but in the process it validates Elton as ‘real’ by virtue of his afore-mentioned ‘homonormativity.’ Unlike his mother, Elton wants and will have kids – and the world is a better place for it!
All hail non-normative families – and so bring on queer dads and, indeed, non-white reproduction (for while Edelman suggests that there are already enough people in the world, especially given the damage that they are doing to the planet, he overlooks how the people who do most of that damage, and thus who might more meaningfully be reduced in number, is white people). But since Elton has demonstrated his Black credentials, the film asks us here to overlook his whiteness – in one final gesture of white supremacy.
That final gesture of the film, though, is not the final gesture of this blog. For, during one of Elton’s therapy sessions, in which he prattles on endlessly and self-indulgently about his victimhood while a group of people (including various people of colour) simply listen to him, Elton looks pointedly at another patient, played by Black actor Dempsey Bovell, when he describes Bernie as his ‘brother.’ It is as if Elton adopts the fraternal language of African American male bonding (as per phrases like ‘my brother from another mother’, ‘brother from another planet,’ and ‘whassup my brother?’) and asks the Black patient to validate him in this appropriation.
This validation even happens subsequently when, in explaining how he has had so much difficulty in finding real love, the same patient nods sympathetically at him. ‘That’s right, Elton, your suffering is equivalent to Blackness, but don’t worry we are here to listen to your woes and to feel sorry for you like we ought to.’
Finally, if a bit more obliquely, Elton is of course staged in the film as precisely a ‘brother from another planet,’ not least through its title: Rocketman. But this ‘other planet,’ revealed as it has been as a white homonormative repetition of consumption on (and of) this planet, is thus not really ‘other’ at all. That during the rendition of the titular song Elton dives into a swimming pool and sings – i.e. breathes underwater – in the midst of a suicide attempt (or call for attention) would further help to elide Elton with Blackness, in that Blackness of course is linked to drowning and breathing underwater following the Middle Passage as per the mythology of musical artists like Drexciya. Admittedly a bit of a stretch, the sequence nonetheless loosely appropriates African American suffering once again in order to put the case forward for Elton as white victim.
Turning our attention from Blackness now and to ‘redness,’ we can detect a very loose presence of Indigeneity in Rocketman. This happens in two ways. The first is via the band name, Johnny and the Apaches, which bespeaks the appropriation of Indigeneity for the purposes of constructing a white, capitalist media entertainment complex. And the second comes via Bernie going off to fuck Heather in Mama Cass’s tepee – another appropriation of Indigeneity that here also helps to signal the white conquest of Blackness – as a rite of passage for entering into American society by a British man (a rite of passage that Elton has already been through, even as he resents Bernie for going through it as well).
In other words, Indigeneity looms as a structuring absence here, because of course there would be no USA without the genocide of Native Americans, who thus function as what Jodi A Byrd terms a ‘transit of Empire.’ That is, Empire, here the Empire of Elton John as an US$87m dollar music industry and Rocketman as a US$195m movie empire, is built upon the systematic disappearance of Indigeneity, as well as the exploitation of Blackness.
That Elton and Bernie know ‘true love,’ then, is not because they fuck; it is because they both fuck Blackness and Indigeneity alike. White normativity, which likes to think of itself as ‘love,’ is thus in fact built upon hatred – a hatred of Blackness and Indigeneity alike (as well as other people of colour; we might note that one of the people who rescues Elton from the swimming pool after his ‘suicide’ attempt is Asian). No surprise that the ‘love’ of the white heteronormative family is thus also in fact a hatred, because that white heteronormative (and homonormative) family is also built upon the same hatred that is Empire (white middle class men from Pinner as the ‘real victims’ of the world – a gold rush for victimhood that follows and is part of the exploitations of capital).
But how simultaneously excruciating and moving it is, then, for Rocketman to have the Black patient affirm Elton’s desire for love in the Parkland rehab clinic. For, in having him sympathise with Elton, not only is he of course validated as a/the victim, but it also has that character, about whom we know nothing, be given a lesson about love from a white person, when if anyone has ever felt love, real love, it is a people (or peoples) who have needed to work together, to come together and precisely to love in the face of genocide – as a very matter of survival. Not as a spectacle of gross consumption, as per this film. Self-reinvention was necessary for Rodney Jones; it was a mere luxury for Elton Hercules John. Love is a necessity for Blackness; for whiteness, ‘love’ is the never-ending consumption of the other (just as the white slaveowner ‘loves’ the Black slave that he rapes night after night).
I am glad that Elton in the film, and hopefully in life, surmounted lovelessness and through accumulating millions learned finally to love and to be loved. It is a journey out of lovelessness that many fail to achieve, because whiteness drowns in its own emotional and psychological misery.
But that this transition is expected to be understood as a grand achievement, especially considering the people of colour that the film goes through in order to get there… just renders the film an exercise in nothing more or less than a reaffirmation of Empire. The spectacle of Rocketman and the spectacle that is Elton John in some relatively outlandish and fun costumes are forced upon us to make us believe that this makes all of the hatred of Empire worthwhile – including Elton at one point dressing like Queen Elizabeth I, who herself was instrumental in setting the exploitation of the Americas in motion, just in case the Spanish got too rich from doing it themselves. But hey, those genocides were worth it, the film wishes to tell us, because Elton John was the result, and he now gets to wear a fez and become a white saviour to AIDS victims (a kitchen table activist, no less).
For me to seek to humiliate Rocketman, and perhaps by extension its lead character, and for me outrageously to suggest that the film might even be queer phobic or Trans*phobic to boot… means that I become the one who victimises Elton again, since Rocketman positions the viewer either to love the film or to be, like Elton’s mother, a monster. This is Empire. Don’t think it is anything else.
And that Elton engages in an abortive heterosexual marriage with a woman, Renate Blauel (Celinde Schoenmaker), who is made in the film to look quite closely like his mother, would suggest a touch even of the Norman Bates at work in Rocketman‘s Elton John, whereby his homosexuality is born out a desire for the mother who otherwise monstrously rejects him, furthering homosexuality, therefore, as a ‘deviant’ position, that is, as Jonathan Beller understands of Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho (USA, 1960), a great example of precisely white psychosis.
One last throw of the dice. As Reid leaves Elton, he tells the latter that his newest record is ‘coked out, M.O.R. shit.’ Cut to Elton in a studio as ‘Victim of Love’ plays on the soundtrack – suggesting that this track from 1979 is indeed the ‘coked out, M.O.R. shit’ that Elton was plying at that point in time. It is here that he meets Renate, also implying that his attempt to be heteronormative, even if in a weird Oedipal fashion (Renate is made to look like his mother), again makes Elton the victim (he wants love, but he is also its victim; oh, the suffering…)…
As Rocketman tries to have it every which way (what Elton loves is, in his own words, ‘fucking [over] everything that moves’), including in its would-be woke but actually (racially) algorithmic casting of people of colour (including Trans* people of colour) in minor, faceless ‘background’ roles, means that these humans are reduced to yet more props, as James A. Snead understands Blackness historically to have been treated in western cinema. That is, they continue to be the prop-erty of a hegemonic whiteness – a perpetuation of slavery and theft that we all know is writ large in the music industry, and which Rocketman is completely shameless in presenting to us as simultaneously a tragedy and an undeniable success story. Coked out, M.O.R. shit, indeed.
I was delighted this evening (Wednesday 24 August 2022) to introduce John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever as part of the VIFF Centre’s Ragged Glory: Summer in the 70s season in Vancouver.
My intro ended up being improvised rather than read, not least because there was a hitch with the projection, which meant that the film started 30 minutes late.
All the same, I am posting here the written intro that I might otherwise have given, and a truncated version of which I did give, combined with greater enthusiasm for the film (I got a bit nervous that the below is too disparaging).
I shall add a bibliography at the end, although the main text, not being entirely academic, does not include direct references. All the same, the work of those in the bibliography was immensely useful, even if not directly referenced.
And so… the intro as would have been! Starts:-
The Bridges of New York play a key role in Saturday Night Fever, especially the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge – with one scene in particular, featuring John Travolta’s Tony Manero and Karen Lynn Gorney’s Stephanie Mangaro, finding some sort of respite from the endless pressure of the city while looking out at the bridge from the Shore Parkway Greenway.
The shot announces Woody Allen’s Manhattan (USA, 1979) two years ahead of that film’s release; and yet, where Allen unashamedly takes us into the rarefied milieu of New York’s educated elite, John Badham’s film keeps us much more firmly in Brooklyn, specifically the Bay Ridge area where Tony and his friends live, work and go balling on Saturday night at the 2001 Odyssey nightclub.
Where Allen’s film is resoundingly white in its privilege and outlook, though, Badham’s walks a very narrow bridge between exposing the racist, homophobic and misogynistic white world of Bay Ridge, and effectively endorsing it. For, while many might think of Saturday Night Fever as an upbeat jaunt thanks to the iconographic status of its central dance moves and its soundtrack, as brilliantly celebrated and lampooned in Airplane! (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker, USA, 1980), it is in fact a very downbeat film, and in the manner of contemporary trigger warnings, it features two scene of sexual violence, as well as a near-constant stream of abusive invective that make it almost an extreme version of the street cinema to which many 1970s films aspired – with Fever explicitly referencing films like Rocky (John G. Avildsen, USA, 1976) and Serpico (Sidney Lumet, USA/Italy, 1973) – as well as Bruce Lee.
As Rocky in particular saw the resurgence of the Great White Hope in a sport then-dominated at the heavyweight level by black athletes, so do the Bee Gees in Fever take disco and make it a white form, with Travolta also openly acknowledging the influence that black dancing, and even black walking, played in helping him to develop not just Tony’s moves on the dancefloor, including moves of black origin like the Scooby Doo, but even the famous strut with which the film opens.
The low angle shots of Tony, creating odd diagonals across the frame, perhaps also tell us that while Rocky and Serpico are Tony’s cinematic points of reference (and while Stephanie aspires to Franco Zeffirelli’s high brow Romeo and Juliet, UK/Italy, 1968), director Badham is drawing more upon Blaxploitation fare like Shaft (Gordon Parks, USA, 1971), which opens with similar movement and framing.
Read in the light of Spike Lee’s later Jungle Fever (USA, 1991), itself about the impossibility of bridging the racial divide in Bensonhurst, one of the main thoroughfares in Bay Ridge (where, in fact, we first see Tony in Saturday Night Fever), one might even conclude that the ‘fever’ of Saturday Night Fever is an otherwise disallowed blackness, which is characterised, in a language appropriated positively by a rapper like Nas, as ill.
Or, as dance scholar Sima Belmar has written of the film, repeating what one of the crowd members says of the African American dancers in the film’s climatic dance competition, there is ‘no way’ for blackness to be allowed into a film that is structured around the white male individual, a story that we have seen repeated afresh this year in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (USA/Australia, 2022).
Come the final dance competition, then, audience members can themselves decide whether the number put together by Tony and Stephanie, of course all dressed in white and dancing to ‘More Than a Woman,’ performed in rehearsal by Cape Verdean-American group Tavares, but here by the white Gibb brothers, is better than the other performances that we see from the African American and the Puerto Rican dancers. Without wishing to give too many spoilers, Travolta’s movements in the film are magnificent, but Karen Lynn Gorney is alas no dancer – only making her task in giving life to Stephanie all the more difficult, if not impossible.
Numero uno says director John Badham in a cameo role to the Puerto Rican couple, perhaps giving to us a sense of where the director’s sympathies lie, and how the film’s constructed whiteness itself demonstrates the racially rigged nature of cinema. And as we see the morally barren lives of Tony’s friends, Joey and Double J, emerge most clearly, perhaps we get a sense that Tony does not want to belong to this world in which white Italian American identity is built upon the backs of occulted black, Hispanic and other racialised and gendered labour (for example, Asian – as per the Bruce Lee poster that adorns Tony’s wall).
In this way, the film – much like Tony and his fellow so-called ‘faces’ (who include the afore-mentioned Joey and Double J, as well as Gus and the afflicted Bobby) – treads a precarious path across the bridge that separates affluent Manhattanites from the residents of Brooklyn as they live in the wake of Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, the Son of Sam killings and more. In this way, those low-angle shots, which will be repeated three years later in Kathleen Collins’ overlooked Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (USA, 1980), precisely about Puerto Ricans trying to make it in outside of New York, demonstrate to us the tightrope that Tony and others of his class walk, or strut, in order to make a better life for themselves.
But where the Cruz Brothers rise as, precisely, brothers – that is, collectively, in Tony’s white world, he is of course atomised, alone (thereby challenging the film’s pretensions to class analysis). And so while Saturday Night Fever promises to us that Tony can become repulsed by the sexist, racist and homophobic world in which he resides (indeed, much has also been made of how Travolta is regularly ‘feminised’ by the camera in his performances), it also cannot let go of the myth of white exceptionalism, even as Tony needs not sex but friendship in order to deal with his life.
Indeed, the film cannot let go of its masculine privilege, giving to Tony an interiority that he tries to express through his dance, both through point-of-view shots during his rehearsals with Stephanie and through his desire to discuss ‘how we feel when we’re dancing.’ It gives no such interiority, however, to the stripper presented to us frontally, and thus as a ‘mere’ display, in the back room of 2001 Odyssey, while Tony’s neglected partner Annette (Donna Pescow) suffers repeatedly through his emotionally neglectful behaviour. Tony’s most famous pose, arm pointing into the air, perhaps recalls that otherwise unseen icon of New York, the Statue of Liberty, but here expressed as the search for Liberty by the white male; this is femininity as appropriation negatively (i.e. downwards), unlike illness as appropriated ‘upwards’ by Nas. In other words, Saturday Night Fever offers us cinema as usual.
Indeed, Pablo Larraín’s brilliant Tony Manero (Italy/Brazil, 2008) perhaps points to the dark heart that is at the centre of Travolta’s Tony, as well as Saturday Night Fever more generally – and in the South American context, the film and its lead character do function as means for creating a psychotic whiteness within its own culture (even if ‘Latin’ functions as non-white within a North American context).
You’re turning God into a telephone operator, Tony says to his long-suffering mother. God is a medium, then, and his desire to be Pacino would suggest that this divine medium, cinema, presents to us a White God. But as Robin Wood identified that the 1970s saw a shift from seeing the repression of sex as horrific to seeing sex itself as horrific, so does Saturday Night Fever in its sometimes sincere, sometimes performed attempt to get past dancing as a prelude to sex, grapple acutely with the horrors of a New York ravaged by history and which lies just over the bridge from Woody Allen’s bourgeois, and perhaps ultimately more deeply corrupt, Big Apple.
Belmar, Sima (2016) ‘Behind the Screens: Race, Space, and Place in Saturday Night Fever,’ in Douglas Rosenberg (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 461-480.
Kinder, Marsha (1978) ‘Saturday Night Fever by John Badham,’ Film Quarterly, 31:3 (Spring), pp. 40-42.
Ramanathan, Geetha (2020) Kathleen Collins: The Black Essai Film, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Steven, Peter (1980) ‘Saturday Night Fever: Just Dancing,’ Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 23, (October), pp. 13-16.
Wood, Robin, and Richard Lippe (eds.) (1979) American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, Toronto: Festival of Festivals.
This blog is a write-up of sorts for the first of a series of events that I am putting together in my (still relatively) new hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia.
Collectively entitled Cinema Thinks The World, the events involve a series of screenings and discussions over the course of the next year and perhaps beyond, and half of which are held in partnership with, and at, The Cinematheque here in Vancouver.
Each event involves one or more of a group of scholars who work on film at the University of British Columbia (UBC), expanding widely beyond its specific Department of Theatre and Film (where I am located) to incorporate scholars from various other disciplines – primarily but not necessarily exclusively in the Humanities.
Sponsored by the university’s Public Humanities Hub, the Cinema Thinks The World project effectively takes its name from the idea that it is hard for us to think of ‘the world’ without thinking of images produced by moving and still image cameras.
Indeed, as I explained in my brief introduction to the first of our screenings on 2 June 2022 at The Cinematheque, Matthew Boulton said of the steam engine, which he first helped to manufacture following its invention by James Watt, that it was a technology that was not worth making to work in three British counties alone, but that it only would make sense to build it for the entire world to use.
As the great Trinidadian scholar and Prime Minister Eric Williams suggests, drawing upon this comment from Boulton in his landmark 1944 book Capitalism and Slavery, to think ‘globally’ is always already to think through capitalism, and that it is technology (here, the steam engine) that necessitates such thinking.
Fast forward to the time in which we regularly see images of the ‘whole planet’ from outer space, and we can also connect Boulton’s remarks to Martin Heidegger’s well known idea of the ‘world picture,’ whereby a ‘world picture’ is not just a picture of the world, but an understanding that the world is, or we can only understand the world as, a picture.
That is, photographic and cinematographic technologies, among other imaging technologies, are what allow us to understand ‘the world’ as such. In this way, cinema ‘thinks’ the world for us. But just as the steam engine and cameras are technologies that spring from and reinforce power (not just steam but also political power), then so does the way in which cinema ‘thinks’ the world need to be looked at in terms of what I am here terming politics. If you will, if cinema thinks the world (for us), then how we think (of) the world will depend on what kind of films that we watch – from which places, which periods and so on. Thus how we think about the world depends on which kinds of films we see and which kinds of films we get to see and/or are encouraged to see. And which of the vast number of films get screened is a matter not just of taste, but also of, precisely, politics. That is, cinema plays a key role in power struggles and the distribution of power: if you are not on the screen, then you as good as don’t exist (since no one knows about you).
The world – what the world is (or what the world is understood as being) – is in this sense a concept that is unevenly distributed, much like wealth, and much like movies, in that American blockbusters are widely distributed and small, slow art house films like Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn, much less so.
Given that Tsai’s film is itself about cinema and the films that we see (or not, as the case may be), then it was a wonderfully apposite film for The Cinematheque to screen and to act as the launchpad for this series, with the 2 June event involving responses to the film from Chelsea Birks of The Cinematheque, and Igor Drjlaca, Christine Evans, Helena Wu and Mila Zuo of UBC. Along with The Cinematheque’s Shaun Inouye, I moderated the event – which required minimal effort and great pleasure.
What follows may well touch upon some of the things that the participants said in relation to the film, and I shall where I can give reference to things that my esteemed colleagues said. But primarily it is just a brief response to the film of my own, and it can be understood as incomplete rather than final thoughts about what is a very rich film.
For, Tsai’s film is set in a cinema where is screening King Hu’s classic wuxia movie, Dragon Inn (Taiwan/Hong Kong, 1967). Through a curtain, we see a packed house looking up at the screen early on in Tsai’s movie, before we see outside the theatre the arrival of a young Japanese man (Kiyonobu Mitamura), who without paying for his ticket proceeds into a relatively empty screening.
The mismatch between the full and empty house already destabilises our understanding of what we are seeing: what is real? who is really there? And this ‘ontological instability’ only deepens when, as the film progresses, we learn the theatre may be haunted and that various of the patrons might be ghosts (perhaps especially a woman, played by Yuang Kuei-mei, who eats nuts, discarding a seemingly endless pile of nutshells over the cinema’s floor).
The Japanese man seems not necessarily to be at the film to catch up on an Asian classic, but rather to get involved also in some of the cruising that seems to be going on among the cinema’s male-majority audience – even as our man never seems quite to be in luck.
Director Tsai’s work is, as Song Hwee Lim has argued, exemplary of what is sometimes called ‘slow cinema,’ in that ‘very little happens’ in terms of ‘dramatic action,’ while also consisting of long takes and long shots that give to the film a sense of taking place in ‘real time.’
Indeed, it is 45 minutes before a word is spoken (although we can hear dialogue from King Hu’s film during this time), and as much as anything we might just see people walking slowly through the cinema, especially a ticket woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) who has a pronounced limp, or taking amusingly interminable leaks in the men’s urinals. All the while, the rain pours insistently down outside of the theatre, with water leaking in through the cinema’s roof, and the ramshackle space, as we latterly discover, facing imminent closure.
For all of its flowing water, though, the film is very ‘dry’ in its humour – a kind of deadpan comedy of manners along the lines of someone like Jacques Tati, whose Playtime (France/Italy, 1967) was made in the same year as Dragon Inn, and to the ‘philosophy’ of which I shall return imminently.
Indeed, while I hope to have set the scene to the film in the above description, I also hope to have established what for me are some of the key terms of making a bit of sense of Goodbye, Dragon Inn, including real time, playtime, limping, leaking, water and the weather.
For, as we see the ticket lady limping around the theatre, slowly climbing and then going down stairs, there is a sense in which this is not just a film that moves at a ‘pedestrian’ pace, but that it, too, also ‘limps along,’ walking imperfectly, or in a ‘non-standard’ fashion.
And yet, if we feel tempted to call this a ‘real time’ movie, then the fact that we might be seeing ghosts seems only to complicate such a claim. Or, put more interestingly, it begs the question: what is ‘real’ about time at all?
One of the points that Tsai seems to be suggesting, in fact, is that time is not ‘real’ in the sense of having a fixed form or rhythm, but rather than time is malleable – even if also unstoppable. Time is, perhaps, like water, or the tides – both liquid but also inexorable.
But more than this is that our understanding of time, what we consider of time to be ‘real,’ is also an issue of politics, including perhaps especially the politics of cinema. While Tsai surely loves King Hu’s film, the choice of an action movie seems here to be pointed: cinema, in its mainstream iteration, employs fast editing and greatly condenses time, using speed as a means to engage and to maintain our attention.
So powerful is cinema in doing this, that when things move slowly or in ‘real time,’ ‘reality’ becomes ‘boring’ (and in our smartphone age, this leads many, or most, or perhaps even all people, to get out a smartphone or equivalent device in order to give themselves a shot of not ‘real’ time, but ‘cinematic time’). In other words, cinema and its offspring media have come to determine our sense of time – and even though ‘real time’ might be a byword for ‘slow,’ what it really points to is how our perception of time, what we understand time to be, what of time we think to be real, is determined by cinema. Tsai offers us up a slow movie that shows us what it is like to limp – because in the speedy world of impatient capital, those who limp, those who are disabled or non-standard, get left behind, cast if not exactly out of reality (we know that they exist) but outside of those who count to get to shape our reality (we forget them and their needs). Since it is cinema that encourages us, through its speed, to neglect those who limp (they are ‘long’ or ‘boring’), then Tsai must redress this imbalance through cinema itself, and that he does so in a film set in a movie theatre and featuring a classic wuxia film only makes him more conscious and conscientious of how cinema shapes our reality – of how cinema thinks the world. And if cinema typically thinks the world in a fast and rushed way (the way of busy-ness/business), then Tsai revels in those who are out of business, out of time, outside of that reality of time, and in a different, ‘real time.’ Tsai wants us to think the world differently, or otherwise – and to do this, he plays with time, or offers us up some ‘playtime,’ in which we come to play and to find delight not in some hi-tech super duper toy, but in the most basic and wonderful ingredients of life: the sound of shoes on surfaces, leaking water, the sheer wonderful strangeness of people, the fact that anything exists at all.
Being made in 2003, Goodbye, Dragon Inn also draws upon King Hu not by chance. For, in the years preceding and around Tsai’s film, Chinese-language cinema had enjoyed great global success with at least two other King Hu homages, namely Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, Taiwan/Hong Kong/USA/China, 2000) and Hero (Zhang Yimou, China/Hong Kong, 2002). These two action flicks kind of set the bar for money-making transnational Chinese film productions, meaning that in some respects King Hu functions as a clear forebear of an exportable (and nostalgic) ‘Chinese’ film style that is put together in a bid achieve ‘global’ success. While Tsai no doubt loves Dragon Inn, he also is making a kind of anti-King Hu movie.
Perhaps the above point is contradicted in the film by a wonderful moment in which two of the actors from Dragon Inn not only see themselves on the screen as members of the audience in Tsai’s movie, but they also then have a brief chat about the film in the foyer once it has ended. Miao Tien and Shih Chun, effectively playing ‘themselves,’ discuss how no one goes to watch movies anymore, and that no one remembers them.
However, I would suggest that there is no contradiction here, in that directors like Lee and Zhang recycle King Hu precisely so that we don’t have to watch his films (and thus can forget them). Perhaps this is one of the key and paradoxical uses of cinematic nostalgia, even: to help bury the past under the guise of resurrecting it. Old wine is put into new bottles – and it is the bottle that ends up being of greater value than the wine itself.
Being a playful film that limps along, Goodbye, Dragon Inn would seem to want us to take pleasure not in perfection, but in precisely imperfection, or that which is non-standard (I guess I am using this term as developed by the French ‘non-philosopher’ François Laruelle, whose work has so inspired John Ó Maoilearca, my former collaborator on Philosophical Screens in London, UK, and which functions as a clear inspiration for Cinema Thinks The World).
This is perhaps also why the building itself is falling apart and why the rain plays such an important role in the film: for, as the ticket lady limps, so does the building leak – both united in their ‘imperfection.’ But as the weather and water come to get in the way of people’s plans, disrupting our movements, so does Goodbye, Dragon Inn suggest not only that we all leak or take leaks, but in some senses that, even as we are encouraged to control and not to show in public, our imperfections, our porosity and the fact that we leak, these in some senses are our most precious facets.
Indeed, the Japanese man is in the cinema looking to hook up, it would seem. And even if he is not successful in this quest, some around him seem to be (as people move in and our of toilet cubicles that they seem to share fleetingly with others). The point I wish to make is that desire – particularly but not uniquely sexual desire – necessarily includes leakages, porosity, penetration, wetness and so on. Our very lives depend upon it (at least for the time being).
More than this, though, is that cinema is instrumental in inculcating and/or shaping our desire: we are encouraged to fall for movie stars and to seek ‘cinematic’ liaisons throughout our lives. We are, if you will, encouraged (and designed) to ‘leak,’ and yet we live in a world that disapproves of this.
Here the queerness of Tsai’s film (and his work in general) takes on extra meaning, for while desire is a necessary ‘imperfection,’ queer desire is an ‘imperfect imperfection’ – and so to embrace rather than to reject imperfection logically if not de facto leads us into the queer, a queer time, and so on. Perhaps it is only fitting that the Japanese man is frustrated in his quest for intimacy, even as that frustration can then also be shared by the viewer of Tsai’s film: what could be more imperfect than imperfect imperfection unfulfilled?
As the rain beats down, we also understand that cinematic time is a time not just of controlled bodies, but also of controlled time – time subjugated to the tempos and rhythms of capital (the fast pace of the action movie). The slow film, however, with its fits and starts, is kind of a time out of control.
Le temps: the French word for time and, of course, the weather. The weather is out of our control (and, thanks to climate change, getting totally ‘out of control’). To surrender to the weather, then, to let it leak in, to get soaked – this is also a queer gesture that paradoxically brings us closer to a ‘natural’ world, or a world in which we live, rather than a world that exists only as a picture.
In this way, while Chelsea Birks suggests that water is a deliberately empty signifier in Tsai’s film, it functions for me as a reminder of this lack of control, but also as a reminder of the afore-mentioned unstoppability of water, of the tides, of time.
That is, the quest to control time is effectively the quest to stop death, and it involves a quest to control the weather – a quest linked to cinema both in the sense that cinema can ‘preserve’ us beyond death (provided that people still go to see our movies!), and in the sense that cinema as made in studios (and in the season-less place of permanent sunshine that is Hollywood) involves the control of weather (making films outside in the mutable, un-Californian weather is a risky enterprise).
And yet, Tsai does not flee from death, just as he does not flee from the weather. Indeed, as Tsai films not just limping time, playtime and ‘real time,’ but he also films dead time, especially towards the end of the film when we hold on the empty cinema theatre for about a minute and a half, during a long take that involves the ticket lady limping with a broom through the hall after the screening of Dragon Inn has ended.
Tsai asks us love all of life, and part of life is death; part of time is dead time, not the singular beat of action-time. And part of cinema, then, is the empty cinema. And one might even contend that cinema uncontaminated by people is in fact ‘pure cinema.’ That is, Tsai offers us pure cinema, and yet it is a cinema that to many might be intolerable because it is so slow, dead, boring, limping, etc.
And yet, this is Tsai’s generosity, his love – both of cinema and of the world and its people: he has time, he gives time to everything, including that which apparently is ‘nothing.’ And for those who see his film, especially when they do so collectively in a movie theatre as we did on 2 June (and as Christine Evans remarked in her response to the film) is not just generous, but it also generates a new time, a new collectivity. Tsai is asking us, if you will, to see the world and time otherwise, and he is using cinema effectively as a tool to train us to do so (for those who are responsive to his ‘teachings’). Tsai asks, invites and gives us the means to think the world otherwise. Can there be a more loving gesture?
I shall end by saying that Ervin Malakaj intervened on 2 June to express some frustration that the Japanese tourist’s desire is indeed frustrated. In some senses, Tsai might be accused of promulgating a negative image of queerness here, one in which queerness has what Lee Edelman might term ‘no future’ (it does not belong to the time of capital). Or that while he might gives us some queer time, there is no ‘sexy time’ – with sex/sexiness being an especially leaky and ‘imperfect’ but crucial aspect of human life (might there be a time when we might even consider sex to be beautiful?).
Responses from the panellists suggested that if not in this film, Tsai does nonetheless broach sex as a topic in his other (or at least in his earlier) work.
However, I might take Malakaj’s point in a slightly different direction and invoke how the frustrated queer desire of Goodbye, Dragon Inn is nothing compared to the suppressed queerness of the film that currently dominates the box office globally, namely Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski, USA, 2022).
As many have joked, Maverick and its predecessor (Tony Scott, USA, 1986) cannot help but exude a kind of queer excess in their own quest to demonstrate a perfectly controlled cinema, a perfectly controlled masculinity, a perfectly controlled desire. If the first Top Gun film is about ‘the need for speed,’ then we can see how it is also an arch-capitalist film. And even if the new film is itself filled with powerfully nostalgic affects (I insist that Christopher McQuarrie has a key role to play in the success of many of Cruise’s recent films)… and even if in the new film, we see staged on at least two occasions characters in the film having to watch Tom Cruise do something virtuosic (thereby training us also to see Cruise as a virtuoso star, thereby forgetting temporarily all about his problematic involvement with things like scientology and the human costs that it can have; could Katie Holmes ever have whispered a word of criticism at Tom Cruise?)… it in this way becomes an arch-capitalist film, clinging to a manhood and masculinity and a cinema that we had perhaps thought, or hoped, was outdated. Clinging to a world, to a reality – thinking the world in a fashion – that is outdated.
Or is it?
As the discussion on 2 June drew towards its close, an audience member asked about how one might explain or teach Goodbye, Dragon Inn to the TikTok generation. It is an important question, because while we might never hear what Katie Holmes has to say about being married to Tom Cruise, we have heard from Amber Heard of late what it was like being married to Johnny Depp. And in what has been dubbed a trial by TikTok, Amber Heard has come off the poorer (whether or not she is especially ‘likeable’). That is, the offspring technologies of cinema like TikTok bring with them more of the patriarchal same that supposedly we got rid of thanks to everyone’s much-vaunted and new-found wokeness.
If Tom Cruise passes for a ‘maverick,’ never daring really to be queer, then Tsai Ming-liang is the real deal, a genuine maverick filmmaker, generous in his work, generating new times and places rather than trying to rehash the old times and values of American Manifest Destiny, of cinema in its mainstream iterations. Tsai’s films might put some audience members to sleep; but if ‘woke’ is simply capitalist heteropatriarchy 2.0 (or 3.0 or whatever), then maybe some sleep and some dream time, some unreal time, some dead time, are what we need. That is Tsai’s love of life, of the world, of cinema. And as Tsai himself says: vive l’amour!
There are numerous films about which I’d love also to blog and which I have of late seen, and yet it is Doctor Strange that motivates me most to make the time to write a post for a few reasons.
If foremost among these reasons is that the film brings together a bunch of ideas that are circulating in numerous other contemporary films, perhaps most especially the notion of a multiverse and the possibility of invisible spaces existing alongside/with(in) our world, it is not because Doctor Strange is the best of those films. Indeed, far from it – at least as far as this blogger is concerned.
Indeed, of recent explicit multiverse films, Everything Everywhere All at Once (Daniels, USA, 2022) is a thematically richer film, while Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria (Colombia/Thailand/France/Germany/Mexico/Qatar/UK/China/Switzerland, 2021), along with Ben Russell’s Invisible Mountain (USA, 2021) both in their own way link their engagements with a weird world to a ‘pataphysical history of imaginary/impossible and virtual spaces (which is not to mention a slew of recent horror films that are about unseen rooms in houses and unreliable, or non-Euclidian architecture).
That said, Doctor Strange does possess some uncanny parallels with another, earlier film, and which parallels can help us to unlock some its ‘secrets’ (perhaps ideological critique is what allows us truly to find the ‘Easter eggs’ hidden within films, above and beyond the usual ones that are designed as sales devices for much contemporary movies).
The film with which Doctor Strange has parallels is not Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (USA, 1946), a film that is referenced somewhat knowingly in Raimi’s movie when we learn that Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has/had a sister who died from falling through some ice when he was a child – which is exactly what happened to George Bailey (James Stewart) in It’s a Wonderful Life, except that in that film George rescues his drowning brother, Harry (Todd Karns), an event that does not allow him to go to war since it costs George his hearing in one ear, and which in turn means that he remains stuck for life in Bedford Falls, a situation that leads an angel, Clarence (Henry Travers), to show George a parallel universe in which he never existed. The experience leads George to accept his small-town life, meaning that parallel universes generally end up forcing us to accept this one world with which we do live (we must of course credit Charles Dickens, if not earlier authors, for coming up with the ‘here’s a world where things turned out differently’ – as per A Christmas Carol from 1843).
While I wish not to parallel Doctor Strange too much with It’s a Wonderful Life, I shall route back to that film later in this blog, since a telling difference between the two films is that where George in part accepts his fate because he realises that he was never there to rescue Harry, who thus is dead in the parallel universe that he visits, in Doctor Strange it never even crosses Stephen’s mind that he might try to find a world in which his sister is alive. Rather, all of his efforts are focused on finding a world, potentially, where he is together with the basic object of his desire, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) – while also being about the search for a world where Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) can be a housewife rather than a superhero.
The film I wish to compare Doctor Strange with is, then, somewhat surprisinglyBuster Keaton and Donald Crisp’s The Navigator (USA, 1924).
Full disclosure: I have written a book about Keaton’s film, Navigating from the White Anthropocene to the Black Chthulucene (Zer0 Books, forthcoming), and it is in part as a way of introducing some of the ideas to that book that I write this blog.
All the same, a couple of the parallels are, as mentioned, “uncanny” and thus worth elaborating.
For, Keaton and Crisp’s film involves a young man, Rollo Treadaway (Keaton), who gets caught on board a boat, The Navigator, that is set adrift by some saboteurs, and ends up running aground off the coast of a Pacific island. In a somewhat outdated and problematic (read: racist) fashion, Rollo, who is on board by chance with the object of his affection, Betsy (Kathryn McGuire), become threatened by cannibalistic and dark-skinned islanders, who try to board the titular ship, prompting Rollo and Betsy to try to escape via canoe and (these are all spoilers) finally to be rescued by a passing submarine.
So far, these might not sound like compelling parallels. But things get interesting when we consider that early on in The Navigator, Rollo decides that he is going to marry Betsy (who initially turns him down) at the precise moment that he sees an African American couple drive past the window of his sizeable mansion.
Furthermore, when the black cannibals abduct Betsy while Rollo is trying underwater to liberate The Navigator from the shoal upon which it has run aground, Rollo is attacked by an octopus, which he ends up killing with his knife (the slaughter of the octopus takes place behind a rock in Keaton and Crisp’s film).
Effectively, in the book-length project about Keaton and Crisp’s film, I argue that the octopus is, through the film’s editing patterns, equated with Blackness, in the sense that Blackness becomes, like the octopus, a sort of intelligent alien outside of “humanity,” which comes to be understood distinctly as white humanity – and that Keaton/Rollo’s desire to form a heterosexual and heteronormative couple is driven by the threat of African Americans functioning in a similar fashion.
That is, the heterosexual union of the African American couple is so jarring an image to Rollo, because from the perspective of hegemonic whiteness African Americans are, as Roderick A Ferguson has identified, perverse and outside of heteronormativity, that he himself must become heteronormative (and Betsy be damned if she does not actually want to marry Rollo). As a result, we might understand that the heteronormative couple is born out of antiblackness as much as it is supposedly a “natural” or “normal” thing to do. And Blackness is rendered “weird” through its parallels with the octopus, a creature noted for its weird otherness not least in its partial appearance in the horrific and apocalyptic creature Cthulhu, the invention of the notoriously antiblack writer, H.P. Lovecraft. By this token, I propose, working both with and somewhat against Donna J. Haraway’s concept of the Chthulucene, that the latter is, or will indeed be, black – while the Anthropocene, or the era in which humanity (read: white humanity) has dominated and corrupted our planet, is essentially white. That is, white supremacy has to end, both effectively and psychically, for us to stop destroying our planet.
But what does this have to do with Doctor Strange?
Well, as readers who have seen the film might already be thinking, Doctor Strange starts with the eponymous superhero attending the wedding of Christine Palmer to Charlie (Ako Mitchell), a black man who otherwise is undeveloped as a character (at least in this film). And what happens as soon as Christine and Charlie get married? A giant octopus creature attacks New York, prompting Stephen, his cape, and Wong (Benedict Wong) to do their superhero thing and defeat it.
So… here is the parallel (if it needs spelling out): in both films, we see the fulfilment of black heteronormativity as such a threat psychically to the white male hero that the latter will go on a quest across the reaches of space and time in order to try to put right that otherwise offensive situation. And in both films, this threatening black otherness is linked via montage to a cthulhoid, tentacular and weird monster, namely the octopus.
Note that Stephen only ever really asks whether his life ends up with Christine – and that he is not bothered about a world where his otherwise dead sister might be alive. That is, Stephen, who clearly has not cared so much about Christine that he has pursued her with any vim or commitment in this world, suddenly does really care about her – because she is marrying a black man.
We don’t need to get too much into how the history of cinema has – from Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, USA, 1915) onwards – rehearsed the idea of the white woman as the stake for racial discrimination, in that the threat of the black male reinforces the notion of the white woman as the white man’s possession, and in that the “loss” of a white woman to a black man is so humiliating to white masculinity that it reveals how white masculinity’s empowerment and heterosexual possession of the white woman is built upon antiblackness (otherwise the black man would be no “threat”). But we can see that this history is being played out once again here – with the plot reinforcing the hegemonic power of white masculinity not only because a chief obstacle to Stephen’s quest is Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), but also because Wanda, as craving domesticity over empowerment, reasserts female domestic servitude/subjugation as the “true” desire of all “decent” women.
And, finally, it is notable that the person who allows Stephen to do his universe-hopping is a woman of colour, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). For, white masculine empowerment really comes via an appropriation of the powers of the woman of colour.
In other words, for all that multiverse movies might allow us to imagine a world in which we might live or be otherwise (as Ashon T. Crawley might put it), Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness in fact uses the multiverse as a threatening trope that allows us to wish not for other worlds, but precisely for our own, white supremacist world. That is, Doctor Strange… provides us with white supremacist business as usual – and in this way is one of a slew of recent films that also seems to take horror at inter-racial relationships, be those told from either side of the colour line (don’t be in a relationship with a white person – as per Get Out, Jordan Peele, USA, 2017, or The Sleeping Negro, Skinner Myers, USA, 2020; or the more disturbing message that we get here – that a white woman marrying a black man is inadmissible to the white masculine imagination).
What this goes to show, then, is that even if Doctor Strange… is not explicitly a “white supremacist” film (as far as I assume, Sam Raimi is not a member of the KKK, for example), it is a film born out of a white supremacist world, and in proposing but failing to think otherwise, it appropriates what it means to “think otherwise” and, by not really delivering to us an “otherwise” world, it reaffirms white supremacy as the (hetero)norm.
The deaths of Celestine Chaney, Roberta A. Drury, Andre Mackniel, Katherine Massey, Margus D. Morrison, Heyward Patterson, Aaron Salter Jr., Geraldine Talley, Ruth Whitfield and Pearl Young all confirm that antiblackness is real, and that people are out there who believe that it is a legitimate enough worldview to justify a genocidal act like the one that took place recently in Buffalo. That antiblackness is not born in a bubble, even if we might blame Twitch and the internet for their roles in indoctrinating and giving a platform for the perpetrator of the mass killing. It is an antiblackness that is pervasive, sitting even in positions of great power, like that of the President of the USA.
To get rid of antiblackness, if it is even possible, requires not just decrying events like those in Buffalo, but in getting to the psychic roots of antiblackness in the white imagination (which imagines itself as supreme, and which cannot truck the threat of a black rival, as per Doctor Strange…). It is for this reason that I wanted to write my book about Keaton and Crisp’s otherwise classic comedy, and it is for this reason that I feel compelled to write this blog, even if, as mentioned at the outset, there are plenty of other films that I wish I could find time to write about right now.
I might update this blog and post a link to my book once one exists. Otherwise, if this blog has at all piqued your interest in the book, do keep an eye out for it.
Bearing in mind that there are more important things going on in the world, and that politicians tend to sneak through questionable legislation when people have their attention turned to celebrity and other entertainment-related issues, I nonetheless thought I’d write up a brief(ish) thought about the Will Smith-Chris Rock-Jada Pinkett-Smith debacle.
There is a lot that everyone knows already (or at least has already found out) in terms of backstory, and my aim is not to rehash that. I have no extra details to add, though I might make mention to some of the details already known. Furthermore, while there is perhaps necessary speculation in trying to ‘understand’ what happened, my aim here is not to ‘explain’ it on the level of personal psychology (what Will Smith, or anyone else, was feeling), but to discuss what happened, including why it seems to matter so much, in terms of wider structural issues.
That is, acknowledging my own position as a white, cis-gendered male film scholar, I nonetheless wish to ‘read’ this moment as giving the lie to the ongoing/perpetual white supremacy of the world, especially in relation to the imposition historically and in the present of blackness (what Zakiyyah Iman Jackson refers to as the process of ‘blackening’), which finds itself incapable of humanity as it must always be ‘superhuman’ or ‘sub-human.’
As many people have already noted, the events played out in a way that is very in keeping with Will Smith’s star persona. Although Smith has discussed a lingering fear that he is a coward in his autobiography, especially in relation to how he did not stick up for his mother when she suffered abuse from his father, he is also a ‘bad boy.’
A bad boy? But Will Smith is seemingly squeaky clean, no? Well, Will Smith does not swear in his records (the observation is Eminem’s); but between Fresh Prince, Bad Boys, Suicide Squad, Ali, and perhaps especially Hancock and Six Degrees of Separation, there is an ongoing association between Smith and a kind of rebellious, bad-tempered Blackness. Smith has himself of course made links between his behaviour and his own role in King Richard.
As has been observed, Will ends up in Bel Air in The Fresh Prince because of an altercation, an inversion of events that played out at the Oscars. But where Will ends up in Hollywood as a result of a punch in the show, this punch in theory could land him out of Hollywood (although I personally find this highly unlikely).
However, what plays out in Fresh Prince is that Will ‘passes’ for Los Angeles royalty when in fact he is not; and what we have happening at the Oscars is that the to-be-crowned Best Actor Oscar winner demonstrates a lack of ‘class’ in front of the Hollywood film industry, even as he was bated by Chris Rock’s joke about his wife (about whom, more later). In both cases, it turns out that Will is in Hollywood by mistake; this is not his place.
Meanwhile, in Hancock, we learn that Smith’s superhero can actually be a bit of a slob. And in Six Degrees of Separation, the young Paul (played by Smith) destroys the nice image that he has with the well-to-do Kittredge family when he is revealed not only as a fraud who is not the son of Sidney Poitier (as he claims), but gay to boot (he invites a guy round to the Kittredge house at night, only to get busted by Stockard Channing’s Ouisa Kittredge).
If we see Smith playing out a kind of version in real life of something that has happened repeatedly in his films (‘Will Smith disappoints people with his behaviour’), it is not that Smith’s roles have ‘got to him.’ There clearly is something at work in and with stardom whereby stars and their roles do become conflated (and if we wish to discuss how things are ‘written in the stars’ in the sense of being inevitable, we might semi-jokingly contend that there clearly is something going on with Libra men at the moment given that Smith’s fellow-Libra Vladimir Putin is clearly trying to let out some aggression via his invasion of Ukraine).
But more than how stars bring a reality to their roles that then feeds back into their real lives, the altercation at the Oscars must (I believe) be read through the lens of race, or more particularly critical race theory. In doing so, we can see how the way in which Blackness has historically been constructed in a hegemonically white society is clearly playing out on many levels in relation to what took place at the Oscars.
Smith’s star persona is a not a bad place to start. If in Six Degrees… he is the ‘fake son’ of Sidney Poitier, at the ceremony his turn to Denzel Washington for support and in terms of repeating his advice (‘At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you’) would also suggest his desire to place himself within a heritage of Black performers who are characterised by dignity as well as brilliance (one of the funnier Twitter comments suggested – with a nod to Washington’s recent role as the lead character in The Tragedy of Macbeth – that this is why you do not say ‘Macbeth’ on stage, as per the superstition that actors never mention the title of ‘the Scottish play’; for, the presence of Macbeth in the collective psyche is precisely about downfall during moments of glory, as well as about provoking such dire box office receipts that the theatre company has to do a production of Macbeth just to make themselves profitable again).
But Smith and Washington are very different stars, even as Washington’s own Best Actor Oscar came for a portrayal of stereotypical ‘bad’ Blackness in Training Day. And even though John David Washington plays someone perhaps a bit closer to what we might understand as the self-destructive Will Smith performer in the recent Malcolm & Marie, his father Denzel is generally much more associated with what we might term ‘uplift’ than rambunctiousness, as per Smith.
But what does this rambunctiousness mean when read through the lens of race? I might suggest that structurally it is an expression of an anger that has its roots in long-standing histories of racial inequality. And that it in some senses has at its root, then, a kind of justification, but which gets played out here in an unjustified and unjustifiable fashion, thereby demonstrating both the impossibility of Blackness in the contemporary world (it must become inhuman in its ‘perfection’; for it to be ‘human’ is always both to fail, and to fail in, a white-dominated world). Furthermore, I might underline that it is impossible because it has nowhere else to go.
Imagine it this way. Imagine that reparations took place. Imagine that the world was (finally) Black after having for so many centuries been white. What happens in such scenario? Well, without wishing to offer up too great a swerve, without making a comparison that is too off the mark, and without wishing in any way to justify white fear of a Black planet, what happens is that some righteous anger must get expressed. It is only human for this to be so, as we see in a place like Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe nationalised white-owned industries and properties, with anti-white violence also at times playing out (leading to about 90 per cent of Zimbabwe’s white population migrating out of the country between 1975 and 2012).
That is, even though he was not yet aware of his impending win, I might say that Will Smith’s angry outburst expresses some of the justified anger that needs to be released at the moment of Black liberation – at his moment of victory (bad tempered victory in sports is not uncommon; we are far less used to it in entertainment circles). For, such a moment cannot simply be characterised by gratitude; to be ‘thankful’ implies that one still is in the power of ‘the master’. And if it was unruliness towards the master that got one to a place of freedom, then that unruliness must continue – for it is the defining nature of that freedom.
Put differently, we might say that, like any power grab, this assertion of power must be violent – because structures of power demand that it is so.
We might seem to have hit a contradiction here: unruliness leads to liberation, and yet we are never liberated really from structures of power (meaning that we cannot and should not be violent in our takeovers of power, since that is to perpetuate the master’s value system of power-as-violence; this in turn leads to theorisations of ‘soft’ power [which I would suggest are always in fact accompanied by ‘hard’ violence]). Beyond being a reason to disapprove of Will Smith’s actions, though (he should have laughed; that would be the ‘real’ expression of his victory), this does place Smith in an impossible situation: at his moment of victory, he is supposed to change entirely, meaning that his victory is not a victory since the change would be to please the ‘master’ and the master’s demand for gentility/docility at all times, even when one is undergoing the violence that the master imposes on all blackened subjects, including by having them defined as black. That is, Will can only be free by renouncing his freedom; and if he refuses to renounce his freedom, he will be imprisoned – in the sense of morally condemned if not literally incarcerated.
So… the impossible situation (Smith is not free, whether he continues to be Will or not) is a possible structural reason for Will Smith’s outburst. But let us not be blind to what also took place, which is that Will Smith might have disrupted the Oscars, but he also did so by hitting another Black man, at a moment when that man effectively dissed his wife.
In order to get into how these details in fact are perfectly in keeping with, rather than exceptional to, the structural logic that I am trying to describe, let us run a couple of scenarios that no doubt have played out in many people’s minds. Let us imagine Will Smith punching Ricky Gervais for making the same joke. If he did it (which I personally doubt he would do), then my guess is that Smith would now be in prison. Furthermore, if he’d responded in the same way to Rebel Wilson’s jokes about him at the Baftas (Smith’s ‘best performance in the past year was being OK with all his wife’s boyfriends’), then Smith would also for certain be in prison.
Why? Because the semiotics of Smith punching a white man, and especially a blonde white woman, play out very differently to the semiotics of a Black man punching a Black man. The former is unacceptable because it is an image that contravenes – while also making apparent – the ongoing white supremacy of our contemporary world (not that Gervais or Wilson are card-carrying racists; but whiteness cannot be threatened in the way that Blackness can). The latter, meanwhile, is Blackness as usual (to paraphrase a comment that I read on Twitter, is the Oscars now black enough for y’all? – a reference to the 2016 #Oscarssowhite Oscars).
That Smith enacted his violence against Rock, then, is an expression of how the violence that is required to create white supremacy means that violence is perhaps the only means of challenging white supremacy – and both that if one wants not to succumb to the violence of white supremacy, then the violence must be directed inwards (Black on Black violence), and that the very inward-directing of this violence (Blacks fighting each other) is exactly what retains whiteness in its supreme position.
That is, it is impossible to be Black and for one’s life not to be violent. This impossibility is the tragedy of Black American life. And it is why, I might hazard, one’s feeling of anguish is so great at seeing it play out on a stage like the Oscars; for the anguish, the dread, is the dread of the inevitable, the impossible.
But we’re not done yet. Because there is still Chris Rock and, of course, Jada Pinkett-Smith to consider in this process.
Rock has widely been criticised for ‘punching down’ at Pinkett-Smith in making a joke at the expense of her appearance. But Rock is expressing the same violence – here verbal, not physical – that Smith is. If Rock made a joke about Pinkett-Smith at the 2016 Oscars, and if Rock can be read as something of a race ‘traitor’ for not boycotting those Oscars, then Smith is neither avenging an ongoing feud nor shaming the ‘house slave’ for being the white man’s stoolie.
Rock could have made a different choice back in 2016 (and of course he could not have made his joke in 2022), but these are not because he is a traitor to Blackness. This is not to excuse Rock (as the above is not to excuse Smith); however, it is to suggest that Rock could not have made any similar jokes at the expense of white women. I guess that somewhere inside him was a hope that the Smiths collectively would let him get away with it, which clearly they did not. But for him to give expression to his own feeling of the violence of a white supremacist world, now also revealed as misogynist, he had to direct his anger somewhere, and it got directed at Pinkett-Smith.
But why would Rock go after someone’s appearance/body in that way? Obviously, he ‘should’ not do so. But in some senses, Rock’s ‘joke’ plays out in a precise fashion that conforms to histories of anti-blackness in the west, the pressure created by which is perhaps inescapable, and which perhaps he was hoping to ‘own’ (or paternalistically to encourage Pinkett-Smith to ‘own’ her ‘condition’ – not of alopecia, but of Blackness).
Commentators have already described a certain irony that Rock mocked Pinkett-Smith’s hair (loss) having himself produced Good Hair, a film about hair in the African American community (subscribers to MUBI might want to check out Ghanaian-American filmmaker Akosua Adoma Owusu’s ‘hair’ trilogy, which currently is available on that service).
As Amani Morrison has pointed out, black women have in the past protested against white people’s fascination with their hair by carrying placards during protests that read ‘I AM NOT YOUR SARAH BARTMAN.’
The latter is a reference to the so-called Hottentot Venus,
a South African woman coerced by an English doctor to participate in a traveling exhibit in the early nineteenth century. Showcased as a curiosity because of her large buttocks and extended labia, Bartman embodied the racial, sexual Other—one whose body was testament to black anatomical and sexual deviance. (Morrison 2018: 84)
In other words, as Morrison goes on to argue, for Rock to interpellate Pinkett-Smith for her hair is to interpellate her as ‘deviant.’
Rock is thus trying to turn into a joke the way in which Pinkett-Smith might be or is structured as ‘deviant’ in a white supremacist society, with the alopecia being only a symptom of the deeper deviance of being Black. That is, what structurally upsets Pinkett-Smith and Smith is not so much that Rock mocks her alopecia as that he reminds them that they are Black.
I don’t mean here to say that Pinkett-Smith and Smith are personally ashamed of being Black. I highly doubt it (and do not believe that they or anyone should be). But I am trying to get at how Blackness is a condition historically imposed upon people, and in being ‘deviant,’ it is always a marker of ‘shame.’ There is no shame in being Black per se, but, as Frantz Fanon might argue, to be Black is always shameful if one is Black in a white supremacist world, since it always functions as a reminder of one’s powerlessness.
For Rock to make his joke then, is to remind the Smiths and everyone that the world is indeed white supremacist. Faced with that inevitability, how can Will Smith react? Just accept it? Or try to punch back?
But while Rock’s joke woefully misfires, I don’t think that he is offering this reminder of powerlessness on purpose. Indeed, in his appeal to a white film (GI Jane, starring Demi Moore), he might seem to be trying to legitimise not just his joke but also Pinkett-Smith.
However, because he ‘blackens’ them publicly, he enters inadmissible territory and therefore engenders Smith’s retribution.
To make it worse, in evoking a film (GI Jane) that historically was understood as challenging gender norms, Rock in fact highlights how Blackness has historically been thought to fall outside of the male/female and masculine/feminine gender binaries that are the constructs of white society.
That is, while it is okay for Demi Moore to pseudo-trans, or to embody a ‘masculine femininity’ in GI Jane, for Rock to call upon Pinkett-Smith to do the same is a painful reminder of how Blackness, and especially Black womanhood, has fallen outside of these binaries all along (and with the falling-outside-of-gender of Blackness being a tool for reinforcing the ‘correct’ nature of binaristic gender thinking in a white supremacist world that in truth is defined by countless complex sexes when we look across and even within species, including our own).
If you will, a white woman can be transgressive in challenging gender norms; a Black woman cannot because she always transgressed – and made normal! – those norms, as the Sarah Bartman case makes clear (and as scholars like Roderick A Ferguson and Marquis Bey have so brilliantly and cogently argued, among others).
When we add into the mix the complex sexuality that is at play in the Smith household (the couple seem to have an open relationship, the ‘deviant’ nature of which is clearly highlighted in the ‘joke’ made by Rebel Wilson at the Baftas), then we again see how there is at work a confirmation in the Smiths that Blackness involves ‘deviant’ sexuality as well as gender (Will as Paul in Six Degrees…), but with the rendering of that behaviour as ‘deviant’ being a way of normalising – and enforcing – the heteronormative and ‘non-deviant’ behaviour of white (Protestant) values (for a brilliant take on how we might think differently about such issues, check out the work of LH Stallings).
So… Rock is punching down. Rock, like Smith, is in the wrong. But where else does he have to go? Effectively he cannot punch up. He wants to legitimise Blackness as difference, and in so doing he must by definition make reference to bodies, since it is the body that is the marker of racial as well as sexual difference. But in doing this, he reinforces that Blackness has been rendered different (has been rendered ‘Black’ in the first place) by whiteness.
Rock is not just a ‘house slave,’ though, doing the work of the master – even as all comedy ‘roasts’ by awards ceremony hosts function in some respects as a way of both reinforcing while also policing celebrity power (these celebrities must not get too big for their boots, even as only the clown can answer back to them, much like in classical theatre; put differently, the Oscar winner is powerful, but not so powerful as the system that confers that power to them; Oscar winners can be Black, but the Oscars as a system are indeed white).
Rather, Rock is, like Smith, giving expression to violence, attempting to transmute it into comedy just as Smith must transmute his violent urges into a self-destructive violence against another black man. For Rock, as for Smith, then, there is an impossibility. Not that he ‘must’ host the show or tell that specific joke; but if he does not host the show, he is powerless; if he does but does not tell that joke, then he is not transgressive in any way, and therefore powerless; and if he does and he does tell that joke, then he becomes embroiled in Black-on-Black violence and is powerless. Faced with giving up at the start or taking it as far as you can go and seeing if you can find a way through towards liberty, you have to follow the path to liberty, no?
And yet/and so both Smith and Rock are rendered into a spectacle of Black masculine violence (not least because Smith, in order to counter any accusations of deviance, must demonstrate his masculinity, or so white hegemonic logic would have him think and behave), much as Pinkett-Smith, otherwise so vocal using her own media platforms, is rendered another silent Black woman, almost invisible in proceedings.
At this moment of Black triumph, then (Will Smith wins an Oscar), we have a reminder of the clear and ongoing structuring role of race in our white supremacist modernity. The events are a catastrophe, in that any racist will feel vindicated in their racism. But while on a ‘simple’ level it could have played out very differently (Rock could not have risked the joke; Smith could not have reacted in that way), on a structural level it plays out according to a clear, historical and violent logic.
It is, in this sense, as inevitable as tragedy – as inevitable as the tragedy of Macbeth, even. Black men are reduced to internecine fighting, while the Black woman is effectively reduced to nothing once more. To get around this impossibility requires superhuman skills – at a time when one wants to be accepted first of all, or finally, as human (as opposed to deviant).
In his display of humanity, Will Smith does perversely send out a message that clearly has its sympathisers, even as it will be read as ‘sub-human,’ brutish and animalistic by others. And as the Oscars seek to elevate and maintain some humans into the divine (non-human) realm of stardom, perhaps this ‘anti-stardom’ (this humanity) from Smith has some subversive potential (including as a means of subverting the Oscars – even as Smith expresses contrition in its aftermath – and even as it will also be read as illegal and certainly masculinist by others). But what ‘humanity’ emerges here is only a desperate one in the face of historical and ongoing dehumanisation, especially of the Black woman, whose invisibility renders her what has been theorised by Evelynn Hammonds and others as a ‘black hole.’
Some commentators believe that Smith should face criminal charges, since if he does not, then his example runs the risk of normalising assault. Without wishing to justify his actions or the lack of criminal charges, but I might add that of wider concern is how Black-on-Black assault is considered ‘normal,’ whether or not any particular instance involves prosecution. The obfuscation and invisibilisation of Black women is also ‘normal’.
And so while we think of the Oscars – and the movies in general – as offering to us an escape from reality, there lingers cinema’s other key potential, that of offering images of reality back to ourselves, even if writ large. Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that Rock was on stage to announce the category for Best Documentary – won by Questlove’s beautiful Summer of Soul.
Perhaps rather than seeking the master’s approval at the Oscars, maybe there should be no more Oscars. Or if the Oscars be white, then let them be white, and alongside them – replacing them in importance – maybe there should instead be more festivals like the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 that Questlove’s film explores (and which was organised by Tony Lawrence, a figure not wholly removed from Will Smith’s Paul in Six Degrees of Separation).
Nuclear war may be on the horizon as white men fight on the eastern edges of Europe. A celebrity dust-up in the west is in certain respects small beer compared to these and other issues. But in its own way, the events at the 2022 Oscars also carry the (impossible) weight of a world (hopefully) seeking to liberate itself from pernicious ideologies and tyranny. Perhaps it is for this reason that it holds not just such a curious appeal (Blackness as spectacle) but also an emotional affect (a kind of anguish at the whole affair) – because it really is an important turn of events in its own way, too.
I did not do a Films of the Year of 2019. At the time, I thought that it would involve some distasteful self-promotion, by which I mean that at times I think that to blog at all is mere self-promotion, as well as possibly a masturbatory practice in that no one cares to know my thoughts on films (and so why do it in public?).
All the same, with that fear put aside for the time being, I am doing a kind of ’round-up’ of films that I saw for the first time in 2020, which will include those that I thought were most strong, and some other thoughts/observations, which will range from being about my viewing habits to things that I noticed/thought/liked/disliked. This might make this post a bit random, and at times a work of ‘mere opinion’. I hope that this is okay.
On a further note, I also include a lot of the short films that I saw this past year, but not all of them. And the list includes for the first time a number of the television/streaming shows that I saw.
And so it is that I saw 468 films for the first time in 2020. I thought that this was a lot, but looking back on 2019, I notice that in that year I saw 454 films for the first time, and in 2018, I saw 407. So while there has been a slight increase, the number of films remains roughly consistent. And if we wanted to put the increase down to anything, it would be a result of the increased amount of time spent at home/not interacting with others as a result of COVID-19.
The massive sea change that has taken place, though, is the reduction in the number of films that I have seen at the cinema, and the large increase in the number of films that I have seen online. For, in 2020, I saw a ‘mere’ 47 films at the cinema (compared to 237 in 2019), while also seeing 11 on DVD/file (21 in 2019), 13 on television and/or PayTV (0 in 2019), and 11 on aeroplanes (17 in 2019). All of these are dwarfed by the 386 films that I saw online (compared to 179 in 2019).
I do not include in my list of films the movies that I watched as part of the fabulous Small File Media Festival, run by, among others, Laura U Marks of Simon Fraser University. Many of these were micro-films of barely a minute in duration.
But while there is surely much more to say about those films than the mere mention that I give to them here, evoking the Small File Media Festival also allows me to mention how Marks has been charting/estimating the carbon footprint of watching films in high definition and/or 4K at home – and the numbers are not pretty.
I am not sure how home consumption of films compares to theatrical consumption, but overall the former will be more detrimental to the planet per person, since far fewer people attend home screenings than do (at least in principle) theatrical screenings. That is, home viewing is far more energy intense, and thus likely involves a bigger carbon footprint.
As we continue to watch movies at home as a result of the pandemic, and as viewing habits perhaps shift permanently away from theatres (a trend that was already taking place, but which now has intensified as a result of COVID-19), then bearing this issue in mind must be of great importance… and you can read some of Professor Marks’ work on calculating and mitigating your streaming carbon footprint here.
Where normally I just keep a list of films and their directors, this year I have also kept a note of their year and primary country of production (many are co-productions, but I basically have gone by the first named country if indeed a given film is a co-production).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of films that I saw were from the 2010s (259 films), with films from the 2020s coming also perhaps an obvious second (113 films). [It stands to reason that I saw more films from 2019 in 2020 than I saw films from 2020, because there is/will always be a lag between production and distribution/exhibition.)
I otherwise saw 19 films from the 2000s, 16 films from the 1990s, 15 films from the 1980s, 20 films from the 1970s, 8 films from the 1960s, 8 films from the 1950s, 0 films from the 1940s, 3 films from the 1930s, 2 films from the 1920s, and 2 films from the 1910s.
This clear bias for contemporary films seems a shame to me, not least because, ultimately, I feel I watched a lot of crap this year, especially some thoroughly mediocre films that seemed to merit my attention because streaming, when I likely would not have watched such films had I the usual choice of work in theatres.
To assert the latter – that I typically have a strong selection of films in theatres – bespeaks how lucky I am that London is/has become a major film hub – and the pandemic has only made me miss institutions like the ICA, the BFI, and others, as playing a key role in my life. Furthermore, places like the Birkbeck Institute of the Moving Image (BIMI) are clearly of great value culturally both to me and to the city in general, and I should highlight Timité Bassori’s La femme au couteau (Côte d’Ivoire, 1969) as one of the true pleasures that I had at the theatre in 2020 – and which I saw at BIMI.
If London is a major film hub, it also in 2020 became no longer my home, as I moved from the UK to Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada, in order to live with my partner, who at the start of the pandemic discovered that she was pregnant, about which more later.
Being in Vancouver during the Canadian equivalent of lockdown (not as prolonged or intense as in London) has meant that I have not discovered the city or its cinemas as much as I would like, and perhaps it is unfair to say straight off that Vancouver does not seem to have the diversity of offerings that London does (with Paris having an even greater diversity than London), because I may yet discover (and/or be part of!) a range of offerings hitherto unknown to me.
That said, I have attended in 2020 (and on earlier visits) screenings at both the University of British Columbia and Marks’ Simon Fraser University, and which have featured films that I might not otherwise see in regular theatres, this year including Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum (Canada, 2020), a noteworthy post-apocalyptic zombie film in which First Nations inhabitants are immune to, and enjoy killing off those zombified by, the plague of the living dead.
I shall come back to First Nations films in a bit, but I might also mention how I have ventured to the VIFF Centre and the Cinemathèque also in Vancouver, seeing in particular the Dardenne Brothers’ Le jeune Ahmed (Belgium/France, 2019) at the latter, and I hope that in the fullness of time these can become firm favourites, with other independent theatres like the Rio similarly having given me the opportunity to see things like Les Misérables (Ladj Ly, France, 2019) and Fantastic Fungi (Louie Schwartzberg, USA, 2019).
What is more, since Vancouver enjoys a large Asian population, it seems clear that one can also see a range of Asian films at the cinema, as was the case for me this year with Feng Xiaogang’s Only Cloud Knows (China, 2019) and Yellow Rose (Diane Paragas, Philippines/USA, 2019).
In addition to the VIFF’s physical VanCity theatre, the VIFF (Vancouver International Film Festival) was also online this year, and, buying a festival pass, I surely got to see a good number of newer films that otherwise I might not have seen.
Perhaps needless to say, the shift to online film festivals this year means that in addition to VIFF and the Small File Media Festival, I have also enjoyed offerings from various other places, perhaps most notably the We Are One Festival on YouTube, a joint venture between 21 different fleshworld festivals, and which, in 2020 at least, offered up a range of non-premiere (or rarely premiere) work, but which nonetheless made for some good experiences, for example Fradique’s Ar condicionado (Angola, 2020).
I lamented above that I feel like I have watched more ‘crap’ in 2020 because alternative work is not showcased. And yet, since the internet is supposed to have everything that you could look for, it seems odd that I might say this. For surely there is nowhere that is as diverse as the internet for finding films.
And yet, what seems/seemed clear to me with a renewed intensity in 2020 is the importance of gatekeepers and curators. I have followed up on and chased down all manner of films in 2020, viewing stuff via the usual suspects (Netflix, Amazon Prime, MUBI), as well as taking out at least temporary subscription to places like OVID (and then leaving after seeing most of the content that appealed to me, and which I had not seen before; in particular this included being able to see Wang Bing’s monumental documentary, Dead Souls, China, 2018; Hôtel Terminus: Klaus Barbie, sa vie et son temps, Marcel Ophuls, USA, 1988; some shorter work by John Akomfrah; and finally the third part of Patricio Guzmán’s Battle of Chile, Chile/Cuba/Venezuela, 1979). I have also benefited from an institutional subscription to Kanopy, while of course also watching films on Vimeo, including Vimeo on Demand, and YouTube, including films released via YouTube/Google. This is not to mention various other online archives, nor iTunes, to which I equally turn on occasion if the title is right.
But across all of these, I have been browsing and/or tracking down titles. That is, I read about a film via a news story or what have you, and then I need to go and find out where to see it. Or, conversely, I hear that a.n. cinema, gallery, university or other is hosting an online screening of x or y film, and so I go to that venue for a single visit.
What to me seems clearly missing, however, is a single venue where one can go for the latest arthouse releases. MUBI comes closest to this, but a lot of the material that it shows is ‘archival’ (i.e. not new). Don’t get me wrong; I love MUBI, but it is not the same as the ICA, where three or four times a week I could physically watch a new film, generally ‘arthouse,’ and basically I’d trust that it would be halfway decent or worth watching because the ICA had decided to program it.
The VIFF may come to be closest to that in Vancouver, especially as it tries to rollout its festival year round. But even then, I think that its programming is less adventurous than that of the ICA going by what was selected for this year’s festival (much as I appreciated what I did see at the VIFF this year).
Now, I am not trying to sound ‘arsey’ or pompous by saying that the ICA hosts ‘arthouse’ films. But I mention its programming/curation specifically because I am not lacking for mainstream films online. Netflix and Prime both have their own productions, as well as hosting films from other studios, while HBO Max, iTunes, Optic, Disney+ and other venues allow me to see the full range of mainstream movies, even as studios have been withholding a lot of titles as they work out whether or not theatres are a safe option.
I will always be able to see those bigger movies. But being able to see a full world of cinema… that is what seems lacking, and a site that brings together and hosts the latest in world cinema – a bit like what MUBI is doing now, but with an emphasis on the contemporary – is what I think I miss most sorely about the ‘new normal’ of majority-online film viewing. Hunting for films can be fun; but time also becomes an issue – and especially if one has to take out a new subscription to a site, meaning that in addition to the one film that one wants to watch, one feels obliged to watch other material on that site… perhaps simply because it is there.
The issue of access to world cinema becomes clear to me when I consider where the films come from that I saw in 2020. The ‘medal table’ is as follows (with, for the sake of simplicity, co-productions being defined by the first named country only):-
Broken down into regions, I have seen films as follows (with there being some overlap and repetition below across Africa, MENA and Asia):-
North America – 193
Europe – 111
Asia – 76
Latin America & Caribbean – 31
Kurdistan – 21
Africa – 14
MENA – 11
Oceania – 10
(I wish to note that Kurdistan has a separate entry here because I was a juror for the London Kurdish Film Festival 2020, and so saw various films from the Kurdish region(s).)
While I think that the numbers of films that I have seen from Asia and perhaps also Latin America are respectable, it seems clear that online film viewing, especially with what the major streaming services offer (and even more especially with how difficult it is to search through them for non-western fare), is an overwhelmingly Eurocentric affair.
I am ashamed that I have only seen two Iranian films this year (including one short), and I am also appalled that I have only managed 1 Russian film. I feel like I normally see much more from, say, Portugal, Romania, Spain, South Korea, Turkey, Argentina and Mexico in a given year, even as this year has been (relatively) good for my viewing of Taiwanese, Brazilian, Japanese and Canadian films.
And so while I love it that Netflix randomly had the back catalog of Youssef Chahine turn up among its titles this year (accounting for 2 of the 3 Egyptian movies I saw in 2020), and while I know that I can find archives of Korean (and probably Russian, Argentine, and Mexican films) online, it is the fact that these are not brought together that leads to the imbalances. If you will, I guess I want/need someone to take care of my movie diet for me – hence my emphasis on the importance of curation/programming – rather than me having to source everything myself.
Indeed, a case in point would be the Iranian movies. This year I bought a subscription to IMVBox, and so in principle I can see as many Iranian films as I want – from classics to more recent ones. However, I have not seen a single film yet via this service. In part, this is because I continue to get sidetracked into watching ‘crap’ on Netflix, and so mea culpa.
But it also is due to the fact that having to get to yet another website, and then having to browse it to find something that I want to watch (from among IMVBox’s own swathes of ‘crap’ – with all due respect to Iranian filmmakers) just becomes too much work to do.
I understand that this is a First World problem (how can one get more ‘First World’ than complaining about one’s lack of access to work from the ‘developing world’?). But in order to address the hegemony of the West, and in order to resist the general ‘crap’ that Netflix and Amazon Prime put out there, there needs to be a site that brings together the best in world cinema.
FestivalScope is perhaps the site that is the beacon of hope for this, and I have watched a decent number of films on that site. But a) it is not a site that is readily accessible, in that one has to demonstrate a connection to the professional film world, and b) its selection is wonderful, but it also regularly very ‘dour’, it contains a large number of films, and there is no internal curation to help you pick them apart with any particular ease. Perhaps the perfect site would be a hybrid of the curational stye of MUBI – mixing ‘high’ and ‘low’ – and the emphasis on the contemporary of FestivalScope (and in some respects similar sites like DAFilms).
At this point, I might also mention how Dr Leshu Torchin at the University of St Andrews in some way stepped up to this would-be plate by (meta-)curating a series of playlists, in many instances of movies to be found online, and which did indeed spark a great deal of enjoyment for me.
While my viewing has been dominated by western films in 2020, I might say that from within these spaces, I have nonetheless watched a lot of what we might call ‘decolonising’ cinema. In part this was spurred by the efforts of places like the Criterion Channel in making available classic African-American films in the wake of the revitalised Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd, and also as a result of the concerted effort by VIFF to programme First Nations movies. I should perhaps also here mention how I saw a few First Nations films at the Cinema at the End of the World symposium organised by Dr Mila Zuo at UBC in February, where I saw the afore-mentioned Blood Quantum.
Some of the First Nations films are, dare I say it, hit and miss; I did not personally care for VIFF’s opener, Monkey Beach (Loretta Todd, Canada, 2020), nor The Incredible 25th Year of Mitzi Bearclaw (Shelley Niro, Canada, 2019), which screened at the Cinema at the End of the World.
The latter in particular is about a woman who has just turned 25, and so its title is mathematically ‘off’, in that the film is about Mitzi’s 26th year, and not her 25th. However, such pedantry on my part does lead me to wonder that my insistence on mathematics misses the ‘untimeliness’ of the First Nations movie, in the sense of considering the western world from an outsider’s perspective, as well as my imposition on to the film of my own ‘mathematical’ and western sense of measurement and calculation.
It has been contested that the world ended for Native Americans many centuries ago, in that the arrival of white settlers marked an apocalypse of genocide, illness and displacement. Now that the white west is worried about the ‘end of the world’ as our ecology collapses, what really is revealed is its ongoing delusion that its own experience is universal. As we reach a world of ‘aftermath,’ then, perhaps it is the ‘aftermathematics’ of Mitzi Bearclaw that is what we need, but I am too stymied by my ‘mathematical’ thinking to let this be so.
And so it is with the ‘cheesey’ aesthetics of Monkey Beach and Mitzi Bearclaw. I find the films mawkish, and much prefer the more austere offerings of, say, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn, Canada/Norway, 2019), or the historical dramatisation of real-world events depicted in Beans (Tracey Deer, Canada, 2020). But again, this is perhaps my own prejudice at work, and maybe we need the ‘sweet’ style of these films in order to accomplish a better world.
As it was a great pleasure to watch a number of films by indigenous filmmakers, including from Canada, the USA and Brazil (for example, Apiyemiyeki?, Ana Vaz, Brazil/France/Portugal/Netherlands, 2020 – a film mentioned by various others in their Films of the Year lists), so was it also a great pleasure to watch various landmarks and forgotten pieces of Black American cinema – with numerous being excellent, including (in chronological order): The Girl from Chicago (Oscar Micheaux, USA, 1932), Lying Lips (Oscar Micheaux, USA, 1939), The Story of the Three Day Pass (Melvin Van Peebles, France, 1968), Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (William Greaves, USA, 1968), Watermelon Man (Melvin Van Peebles, USA, 1970), The Spook Who Sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon, USA, 1973), Abar: Black Superman (Frank Packard, USA, 1977), Bush Mama (Haile Gerima, USA, 1979), Cane River (Horace B. Jenkins, USA, 1982), Losing Ground (Kathleen Collins, USA, 1982), Bless Their Little Hearts (Billy Woodberry, USA, 1983), The Killing Floor (Bill Duke, USA, 1984), She’s Gotta Have It (Spike Lee, USA, 1986), Sidewalk Stories (Charles Lane, USA, 1989), New Jack City (Mario Van Peebles, USA, 1991), Menace II Society (The Hughes Brothers, USA, 1993), Surviving The Game (Ernest R Dickerson, USA, 1994) and Down in the Delta (Maya Angelou, USA, 1998).
These joined a few recent landmark achievements in Black American cinema that I got to see, including Strong Island (Yance Ford, USA/Denmark, 2017), Queen & Slim (Melina Matsoukas, USA/Canada, 2019), The Forty-Year-Old Version (Radha Blank, USA, 2020), Time (Garrett Bradley, USA, 2020) and The Sleeping Negro (Skinner Myers, USA, 2021).
Indeed, I would place The Sleeping Negro and Time as two of my top top films of the year, with Skinner Myers’ film in particular being a revelation. Having seen the film somewhat by chance, I can only recommend that viewers seek it out; and I might add that one place to see it that I know of is at the forthcoming Slamdance Film Festival.
On this topic, I might note that the UK also had a strong year for Black film and television production, with I May Destroy You (Micaela Coel, UK/USA, 2020) being perhaps the stand-out television show, and Steve McQueen’s Mangrove (UK, 2020) and Lovers Rock (UK, 2020) also being superb. Alongside these I might recommend Remi Weekes’ His House (UK, 2020), as well as Onyeka Igwe’s short experimental piece, The Names Have Changed Including My Own and Truths Have Been Altered (UK, 2020).
Furthermore, I would like also to make a special mention for Juliet Ellis’ Ruby (UK, 2020), which is an extraordinary film made for £20,000 about a young girl and her seemingly sleeping mother, and which was made in Sheffield and Cleethorpes, having been rejected by funding bodies for having ‘no commercial value.’ For me, it is the best British film of the year, and also in my top top movies. The sort of cinema that really needs to be preserved and encouraged.
In addition to Black British and Black American films, I also managed to catch a few Asian American movies and shows, with Wayne Wang’s Chan Is Missing (USA, 1982) being for me a wonderful masterpiece.
And another underdog production worth lauding is Congolese rapper Baloji’s Zombies (DRC/Belgium, 2019), which in its short running time shows as much innovation and ideas as, say, Black is King (Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Emmanuel Adjei, Ibra Ake, Blitz Bazawule, Kwasi Fordjour, USA, 2020).
Perhaps predictably, the UK also produced one of the worst films that I have seen about race in 2020, namely Darragh Carey and Bertrand Desrochers’ A Brixton Tale (UK, 2020), which reproduces some of the worst myths about Blackness, and which sees a completely unrealistic Brixton fetishised through a white girl’s lens as exotic and gritty.
And while I don’t typically like to bad-mouth any film production, since I know from experience how hard it is to make a film and also how hard it is to control a film’s production, I mention this because I have noted that A Brixton Tale has also been selected this year for Slamdance.
The point I wish to make, then, is that for all of the good work that the Slamdance programmers have done in selecting The Sleeping Negro, which is perhaps the best film that I saw in 2020, that they select alongside it a film as inept in its treatment of racial politics as A Brixton Tale only goes to show that festival programmers sometimes do not have the wherewithal to know what they are looking at, with their ability to pick films about pressing issues such as race being as good as chance, rather than based on any astute analytical skills. And I would consider Slamdance to be a major festival. Given how many entries festivals get these days, and given how few films ultimately Slamdance is screening, it seems particularly a poor choice to screen such a film, thereby undoing the good work of selecting The Sleeping Negro, and indeed undermining their own claims to be making meaningful or progressive contributions to cinematic discussions of race.
I have situated the prominence of Black film in the UK and the USA alongside the resurgence of Black Lives Matter in the wake of the death of George Floyd. This is not to overlook films from other parts of the world that deal with race (for me, two of note that I saw in 2020 are Khalik Allah’s Black Mother, Jamaica/USA, 2018, and Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, Portugal, 2019). But I might also mention that following the angry-making execution of death row inmate Brandon Bernard, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy (USA, 2019) also seems a film to have taken on a renewed timeliness.
And 2020 cannot but be remembered for the passing of, among others, Chadwick Boseman. Seeing him play a ghost in in Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee, USA, 2020) was indeed chilling, even as that was one of several films and shows to give the Vietnamese pretty short shrift in 2020 (Watchmen, Damon Lindelof, USA, 2020, being another case in point, much as I otherwise enjoyed it). While his soliloquy against god in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe, USA, 2020) is of such power seeing it after his passing, that really it does become a performance with what Roland Barthes might call punctum. I’d not be surprised if that turn in particular lands Boseman a posthumous Academy Award.
It also felt sad to say good bye to Irrfan Khan, an actor whom I have loved since I first saw him in A Mighty Heart (Michael Winterbottom, USA/UK, 2007), where he acted everyone off the screen. I managed to see two films with him in 2020, the thoroughly mediocre Puzzle (Marc Turteltaub, USA, 2018) and the better Qarib Qarib Singlle (Tanuja Chandra, India, 2017). He plays eccentric lovers in both, and is completely amiable in both, but it seems a shame that in the former his much more interesting story is overshadowed by the hackneyed struggles of domestic life embodied by Kelly McDonald.
With Winterbottom in mind, it was pleasing as always to see Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon together again in his Trip to Greece (UK, 2020), which constitutes the original comedians- and/or karaoke singers-in-cars show, and which remains superior to all that have followed (and I suspect that Coogan would make for a significantly more entertaining companion than most of the people that Jerry Seinfeld decides to reveal as pretty boring in his coffee-driven Netflix show).
Sacha Baron Cohen had a busy 2020, appearing in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Jason Woliner, UK/USA, 2020) as well as The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin, USA/UK/India, 2020), in which he was in particular very good. These screenings accompanied my first-time viewing of earlier turns from him in The Dictator (Larry Charles, USA, 2012) and The Brothers Grimsby (Louis Leterrier, UK/USA, 2016). As a note, though, while The Chicago 7 had various pleasures, the superior courtroom drama of 2020 was for me Steve McQueen’s Mangrove.
Among the various actors who seem to have had a good year, I might mention Gina Rodríguez, who stood out in the otherwise mediocre Someone Great (Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, USA, 2019), and who in Kajillionaire (Miranda July, USA, 2020) was forced to play second fiddle to Evan Rachel Wood’s well-acted but otherwise wilfully quirky and white Old Dolio Dyne. Indeed, women of colour playing second fiddle to, or absent from the world of, white women seemed to be a common theme in films from 2020 – with movies like Babyteeth (Shannon Murphy, Australia, 2019) and System Crasher (Nora Fingscheidt, Germany, 2019) validating the (blonde) white girl as perhaps the stake of the future, posited by the latter film as a ‘system crasher,’ when in fact they are the beating heart of the (contemporary world, i.e. modern capitalist) system.
Some of the films about white women were better than others, with The Assistant (Kitty Green, USA, 2019) perhaps standing out, with this viewer not being as taken as others by Bombshell (Jay Roach, Canada/USA, 2019), Swallow (Carlo Mirabella-Davis, USA/France, 2019), Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman, USA/UK/Germany, 2019) or The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell, Canada/Australia/USA, 2020) – even as these films did have their merits.
Kristen Stewart perhaps gets a special mention as a performer whom I like a lot, but who appeared in a string of pretty forgettable films this past year, and in which her whiteness is at times core, including Underwater (William Eubank, USA, 2020), Seberg (Benedict Andrews, UK/USA, 2019) and Happiest Season (Clea DuVall, USA/Canada, 2020). While the latter is relatively pleasant in its depiction of coming out, its chief point of interest is the under-used Daniel Levy (from Schitt’s Creek), and whom I hope to see in many more films.
Indeed, in the year of ‘Karen,’ it seems as though the white-women-focused narrative seemed slightly off-kilter, and I might mention that White Chicks (Keenen Ivory Wayans, USA, 2004) seemed an appropriate film to watch for the first time.
It was also pleasing to see women taking the helm for otherwise average blockbusters like Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (Cathy Yan, USA, 2020), The Old Guard (Gina Prince-Blythewood, USA, 2020) and the disappointing Mulan (Niki Caro, USA/Canada/Hong Kong, 2020), with my estimation in 2019 already being that it is a sign of strength – at least in some respects – when women are as able to make, and do make, as basic films as men do.
That is, women directors – like directors of colour and indigenous filmmakers (as also suggested in the discussion of Mitzi Bearclaw above) – should always have jobs making not just the best films, but films from across the spectrum of quality or, put differently, making films for different audiences, with different budgets and so on.
I mean, I wish that every film could be a masterpiece and that there were no disappointments, or that there were not even merely forgettable films; but if there are going to be all of these types of film, then who gets to make them should be distributed equitably.
That said, of the 468 films that I saw for the first time in 2020, only 116 were directed by women, with a further 22 being made by male-female directing teams/collaborators. With a handful of films made by trans/non-binary directors, this nonetheless left the vast of majority of films being directed by men, or groups of men.
Of course, this could reflect my choices of films to watch rather than the state of the various industries from which I saw enough films to get a sense of the gender (im)balance in terms of directors. But really, I think that this reflects the ongoing gender bias in terms of few women getting to direct movies.
All the same, a number of films by women did stand out, as per various listed above (Yellow Rose, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, Beans, Queen & Slim, The Forty-Year-Old Version, Time, I May Destroy You, Ruby and The Assistant).
And to this list I might in no particular order add the notable A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller, China/USA, 2019), A Febre (Maya Da-Rin, Brazil/France/Germany, 2019), Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Céline Sciamma, France, 2019), Mignonnes (Maïmaouna Ducouré, France, 2019), Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, USA, 2020), First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 2019), Present.Perfect (Shengze Zhu, China/Hong Kong/USA, 2019), Little Joe (Jessica Hausner, Austria/UK/Germany/France, 2019), and Honey Boy (Alma Ha’rel, USA, 2019).
Should it seem that I am picking unduly on the narrative focused on the (bland) white female character, I should add that there are plenty of films that do the same with white male characters, although again there were some good exceptions to this, including Uncut Gems (Benny and Josh Safdie, USA, 2019), True History of the Kelly Gang (Justin Kurzel, Austala/UK/France, 2019), Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark/Sweden/Netherlands, 2020), Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello, Italy/France/Germany, 2019) and Siberia (Abel Ferrara, Italy/Germany/Greece/Mexico, 2019).
That said, watching older American ‘mumblecore’ films by the likes of Joe Swanberg and Nathan Silver this year, I did come to think that they seem dated now, not least in their whiteness, which in the language of Kehinde Andrews constitutes a psychosis (a term that Andrews uses in relation to Amma Asante’s Belle, UK, 2013, a film I also saw for the first time in 2013). And yet, mumblecore has produced a couple of playful takes on precisely psychotic whiteness, as evidenced in the two Creep films that I saw this year by Patrick Brice (USA, 2014 and 2017), and which star mumblecore mainstay Mark Duplass as precisely that white psychopath.
What is more, Mark’s brother, Jay Duplass, also was one of the stars, with Tatiana Maslany, of Pink Wall (Tom Cullen, UK, 2019), which was one of the standouts of the year and certainly the best relationship/end-of-relationship film that I have seen for a while. Wim Mertens’ ‘Iris,’ which plays over the closing credits, was also a revelation for me. Fabulous acting, smart script writing, getting to grips with the depth and difficulties of human relationships and emotions.
Returning to (or staying with?) psychotic whiteness, this also seems in its most horrendous form to be at work in a range of films that I saw about manhunts, including the afore-mentioned Surviving the Game, as well as Craig Zobel’s utterly unlikely – and not particularly likeable – The Hunt (USA/Japan, 2020), wherein, as a direct contradiction of the logic of the Proud Boys, it is Democrats that hunt down Republicans for sport. Superior to both, however, is Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, Brazil/France, 2019), which is definitely one of the best of 2020, and which tells the tale of poor Brazilians in the sertão hunting back the white hunters who come to kill them for their amusement.
I might mention that psychotic whiteness is also at the core of (the same) Mila Zuo’s short film, KIN (USA, 2020), which was one of the most affectively rich films about a group of disaffected whites in rural Oregon that I have seen. I must confess to total bias, since I co-wrote the film, but I also think it worth puffing how this short is a dense, complex and powerful look at white America today – with a searing edit by Dougal Henken that takes the film a long way from the script that I co-wrote with Zuo (and for the better!), as well as powerful performances from Frank Mosley, Sophie Traub and Cameron Shuman.
And this mention allows me to segue into how Mosley is himself on the up and up. Having worked last year in Thunder Road (Jim Cummings, USA, 2018) and Chained for Life (Aaron Schimberg, USA, 2018), in 2020 we got to see him in The Ghost Who Walks (Cody Stokes, USA, 2019) and Freeland (Mario Furloni and Kate McLean, USA, 2020), while also catching his directorial effort, Her Wilderness (USA, 2014) reworked as an online interactive movie. Here’s hope for more in 2021!
From Creep, we might also segue into Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s excellent Creepy (Japan, 2016), one of several films from the director that I saw this year. This is a film that at one point features a jellyfish prominently displayed on a television screen, one of numerous examples this year of tentacles and cephalopodic creatures, which were the focus of David H Fleming and my recent book, The Squid Cinema from Hell: Kinoteuthis Infernalis and the Emergence of Chthulumedia (Edinburgh University Press, 2020). Such creatures also turned up in the afore-mentioned Watchmen, His House and Underwater, as well as in Ad Vitam (Thomas Cailley, France, 2018), Chanson douce (Lucie Borleteau, France, 2019), My Octopus Teacher (Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, South Africa, 2020) and Lovecraft Country (Misha Green, USA, 2020). And with HP Lovecraft in mind, we might also mention Richard Stanley’s The Colour Out Of Space (USA/Malaysia/Portugal, 2019)… Indeed, it would seem that tentacular and cthulhoid creatures continue to abound in contemporary film and television, such that David and I should prepare a second book on the topic (which in fact we are doing).
From Kurosawa, I also saw Before We Vanish (Japan, 2017), one of numerous films that seemed to announce and/or to rehearse life under COVID-19, some of which were more powerful (Vivarium, Lorcan Finnegan, Ireland/Belgium/Denmark/Canada, 2019) than others (I was not particularly taken by She Dies Tomorrow, Amy Seimetz, USA, 2020).
In terms of horror, I might also say that I enjoyed retrospectively seeing Insidious (James Wan, USA/Canada, 2010), which was esteemed to be cognitively the scariest movie of all time, as well as The Wailing (Na Hong-jin, South Korea/USA, 2016) and It Comes At Night (Trey Edward Shults, USA, 2017), which I found much better than the same director’s subsequent Waves (Trey Edward Shults, USA/Canada, 2019).
With regard to COVID-19, there were a few productions made to reflect life during the pandemic, with the one that I shall mention being Cinema-19 (Courtney Stephens, Kalpana Subramanian, Usama Alshaibi, Scott Cummings, Lori Felker, Matt McCormick, Eman Akram Nader and Alex Megaro, Christin Turner, Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, Kelly Gallagher, Sarah Ema Friedland, William Brown and Mila Zuo, Amir George, and Adam Sekuler, USA/Canada, 2020).
As the list of directors surely makes clear, I am blowing my own trumpet again, but I toot it to say how I proud I was and continue to be to participate in a project with such exceptional filmmakers, with Mila Zuo and I collaborating on Coyote, a short film about which I also shall be writing an essay for The Projector in 2021.
If Cinema-19 is a compendium of films of life under lockdown, then Ai Weiwei’s CoroNation (China, 2020) functioned for me as the best documentary yet about the pandemic, as it depicts the emptied streets of Wuhan and the almost science-fictional procedures put in place to control the spread of the disease.
Perhaps predictably, COVID-19 produced a rash of films about confinement, with window films becoming increasingly common, be those the windows of the digital machines that we consult at home, or the windows that we look out of into relatively empty streets.
While this aesthetic has been announced by Alfred Hitchcock in Rear Window (USA, 1954), thereby making an implicit connection between the window film and disability/disease, it is an aesthetic that also bespeaks surveillance. And it is surveillance that we see taken up explicitly as a theme in Ulu Braun’s remarkable Saturne (Germany, 2020), shot in Berlin as if uniquely from the viewpoint of CCTV cameras as a man seeks to spread the ashes of his dead mother, among other things.
Not only might we note the ongoing legacy of Rear Window in films like Number 37 (Nophiso Dumisa, South Africa, 2018), but we might also begin to weave together how the window aesthetic, tied as it is to surveillance and illness/disability, is also tied to the pandemic, as per some of the Cinema-19 films and as per Mati Diop’s In My Room (France/Italy, 2020).
The quasi-academic/theoretical point I wish to make, then, is that COVID-19 is perhaps linked, at least aesthetically if not politically, to the rise of a surveillance society, and that this surveillance society constitutes a sort of illness (with those who are disabled perhaps being best placed to perceive as much).
As made clear by Mati Diop’s other work, including her renowned short Atlantiques (France, 2009), which I also saw for the first time in 2020, surveillance is also linked to migration. Indeed, the confinement/carceral aesthetic of COVID-19, as well as the window aesthetic to which it is related, is demonstrated in His House, with Christian Petzold’s Transit (Germany/France, 2018), a hangover film that I also only saw late in 2020, equally relating the contemporary moment to a moment defined by the plight of those undergoing forced migration. (A propos of Petzold, I found Transit far superior to his more recent and aquatic Undine, Germany/France, 2020.)
Finally, if we see the window aesthetic already at work in films like 9 Days: From My Window in Aleppo (Floor van der Meulen, Thomas Vroege, Issa Touma, Netherlands/Syria, 2016), a film that I saw when it came out four years ago, then in some senses the ‘COVID-19’ aesthetic was also already announced by the refugee crisis prompted by the war in Syria. And this carceral aesthetic also is linked to the radicalised carceral logic at work in the contemporary USA and so brilliantly analysed by Garrett Bradley in Time.
While I am proposing somewhat provocatively, then, that there is an aesthetics, thematic and indeed a conceptual through-line from Blackness to surveillance society to refugees to aesthetics of confinement and/or fenestration, then I say this also to introduce the final ‘best film of 2020.’
While documentaries like CoroNation, The Two Lives of Li Ermao (Jia Yuchuan, China/UK, 2019) and Goodbye CP (Kazuo Hara, Japan, 1972) were among the best that I saw for the first time in 2020, it is Abbas Fahdel’s Bitter Bread (Lebanon/Iraq/France, 2019) that is my final ‘best film of 2020’ – which is perhaps unlike anything else in its weave of staged and documented scenes made with inhabitants of Syrian refugee camps in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. The film is urgent and powerful, and in some ways it brings together many of the key concerns for our planet right now.
In a final bit of puffery, I shall also mention that I finished a film called The New Hope 2 (UK, 2020) this year, a sequel to my earlier adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and which was shot in London’s Hyde Park back in 2014. Set in London and Los Angeles, I think that the sequel is, like the first part, a deliberately punk, DIY and no-budget film that also hopefully says something for/to our ‘DIY’ and ‘guerrilla’ filmmaking times, and which I offer up for free (as usual). May it provide some comic relief in these tough days.
However, even as I ‘big up’ KIN, my book and The New Hope 2, the best production for me was the one announced in Coyote, the contribution made by Mila Zuo and me to Cinema-19, and which comes in the form of Radian Winter Zuo Brown, a daughter born to me and my partner in 2020. No film can match even an instant in her company.
In sum, then, my best of 2020 – meaning films from 2019 and 2020 – are as follows, ranked in a Halliwell-style *** and **** system, since I don’t believe in shoe-horning together 10 films (or 100 films) for a Top 10 (or Top 100) if there aren’t enough that are of sufficient perceived quality.
Numerous of the above-named are films do not feature below. This is not because I don’t like them; indeed, to my mind – and still thinking Halliwell – many of those films would would get ** or * and lots of italics for standout contributions. And there are plenty of films I’ve not yet seen and yet which I imagine I would like (and in fact have already seen in 2021 a couple of films that might well have a got a mention here if I’d seen them only a few days earlier: Shirley, Ammonite, St Maud, Fourteen, Saint Frances, Clemency, Rocks, the rest of Small Ax, Minari, etc)…
All the same, the *** and **** films are as follows:-
The Forty-Year-Old Version, I May Destroy You, Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Black Mother, Martin Eden, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, Vitalina Varela, The Assistant, Uncut Gems, Another Round, A Febre, Present.Perfect, Bacurau, CoroNation.
Ruby, Time, The Sleeping Negro, Pink Wall, Bitter Bread.
Should it be of interest, my top films of 2019 are/were as follows, according to the same system:-
13th (Ava DuVernay), Destroyer (Karyn Kusama), Dragonfly Eyes (Xu Bing), Ray & Liz (Richard Billingham), Long Day’s Journey Into Night 3D (Bi Gan), High Life (Claire Denis), Donbass (Sergei Loznitsa), Nuestro tiempo (Carlos Reygadas), The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot), Museo (Alonso Ruizpalacios), The Infiltrators (Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera), Le Franc (Djibril Diop Mambéty), Le Daim (Quentin Dupieux), Muna Moto (Jean-Pierre Dikongué Pipa), What You Gonna Do When The World’s On Fire? (Roberto Minervini), Monos (Alejandro Landes), Afrique, je te plumerai (Jean-Marie Téno), Campo (Tiago Hespanha), High Flying Bird (Steven Soderbergh), 24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami), Vulnicura VR (Björk/Andrew Thomas Huang), Beats (Brian Welsh), Cómprame un revólver (Julio Hernández Cordón), Leto (Kirill Serebrennikov), Talking About Trees (Suhaib Gasmelbari), The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent).
Happy Hour (Ryusuke Hamaguchi), Hale County This Morning This Evening (RaMell Ross), The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)
And now, for what it’s worth, here are all of the films I saw in 2020, followed by a complete list of the films I saw in 2019.
USA et al
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood
A Brixton Tale
Darragh Carey and Bertrand Desrochers
A Dance for Death
A Hidden Life
A Rainy Day in New York
A rosa azul de Novalis
Rodrigo Carneiro and Gustavo Vinagre
A Russian Youth
A Secret Love
A Shape of Things to Come
Lisa Malloy and JP Sniadecki
A Trip to the Moon
A Wrinkle in Time
Abar: Black Superman
Alfred & Jakobine
Jonathan Howells and Tom Roberts
An American Pickle
Are You Listening Mother?
As boas maneiras
Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas
Asako I & II
Así habló el cambista
Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
Khavn de la Cruz
Beautiful New Bay Area Project
Before We Vanish
Between Heaven and Earth
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
This post will segue from a discussion of Booksmart to a discussion of issues relating to the Karen meme.
The link might not for some readers be fully concrete, but in a week when Rusten Sheskey shot Jacob Blake 7 times, and in which Kyle Rittenhouse killed two protestors and seriously injured one more in Kenosha, Wisconsin – before going to the police, who, it is alleged, initially gave him water before sending him on his way (only later to arrest him), the wider contemporary context of Black Lives Matter seems worth bearing in mind, and, indeed, addressing.
This is not to mention the appearance at the Republican National Convention this week of Mark and Patricia McCloskey, after they pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protestors in St Louis, Missouri, back in late June.
I open a blog on a well-meaning and enjoyable comedy like Booksmart with an invocation of Sheskey, Rittenhouse and the McCloskeys in order to suggest that the white supremacy of the film perhaps requires a certain (‘black’) lens in order to be seen (or, after Denise Ferreira da Silva, the white supremacy of Booksmart might be seen if we look at it under a ‘blacklight‘) – something that is far less necessary when we consider the (more obvious) white supremacy of, say, The Gentlemen (Guy Ritchie, UK/USA, 2019).
In his essay, he discusses how the non-white characters in the film are reduced to minor roles, and that these are all somewhat stereotyped. Click on the link above to check out Wright’s brief but informative essay to get the full details of this.
But in order to summarise, I might simply quote Wright in order to say that, although Olivia Wilde’s film was well received critically,
[a] lack of both complex nonwhite characters and women of color who are the same age as the protagonists point to the fact that Booksmart was a white victory, and that with only white victories, there follows white superiority.
Beyond Wright’s important intervention, then, I would like simply to highlight two moments in the film – neither of which gets a mention in his short essay.
Susan B. Anthony
The first takes place early on in the film when ‘booksmart’ protagonists Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) discuss how they should be more rebellious, especially as they approach the end of school.
‘Name one person whose life was better ’cause they broke rules,’ says Amy in a challenge to Molly, who promptly names Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony as examples of unruly women who, indeed, broke rules and made a case for a more inclusive, and less sexist USA.
It is Anthony with whom we shall stick in this discussion, and her name might well be familiar to contemporary readers, not least because of this mention in Booksmart (which no doubt has prompted numerous Google searches), but also because Donald J. Trump recently called for Anthony to be pardoned posthumously for voting illegally in 1872.
Anthony is a formidable and venerable figure in the history of women’s rights in the USA, and the aim here is not to deny what work she has done in furthering the rights of white women in that country.
However, as Angela Y. Davis has outlined at some length in her classic text, Women, Race & Class, Anthony also was quite prepared to forego her interest in emancipation for Black Americans when the issue of the vote for white women was concerned.
Indeed, Davis reports exchanges between Anthony and Ida B. Wells, who founded the first Black women’s suffrage club, in which Anthony explains how and why she dis-invited Black emancipation campaigner Frederick Douglass from a visit being made by her Suffrage Association to Atlanta, Georgia.
As Anthony said to Wells, and as she is quoted by Davis: ‘I did not want anything to get in the way of bringing the southern white women into our suffrage association.’
That is, Anthony did not want the presence of a Black campaigner to diminish support for her bid for women’s suffrage – which here means white women’s suffrage.
Furthermore, as Davis goes on to report, Anthony ‘also refused [this is in 1894] to support the efforts of several Black women who wanted to form a branch of the suffrage association. She did not want to awaken the anti-black hostility of her white Southern members, who might withdraw from the organisation if Black women were admitted’ (Davis 1983: 111-112).
Davis goes on to detail various other ways in which, when faced with the choice between fighting for the rights of all women and fighting for the rights of white women, Anthony chose white women.
From a white perspective, we might say that Anthony was in an ‘impossible’ situation, and that it is better to achieve the vote for at least some people/one ‘minority’ than to achieve the vote for no one because one is demanding too much (by demanding for the equal rights of Blacks).
However, this does not change the fact that Blacks were effectively thrown under the bus – and Anthony sided with the powerful in order to achieve something for white women only, rather than siding with the oppressed in a bid to achieve something for everyone.
Perhaps a ‘realist’ would say that history does not remember idealists who ask for ‘too much.’ But even if this were so, it is a position that accepts as legitimate a white supremacist system that only continued as the USA progressed from slavery to Jim Crow.
Furthermore, if this position is ‘realist[ic],’ then it really is suggesting that white reality is a ‘truer’ or more legitimate reality than a non-white reality. That is, ‘realism’ is determined by white supremacy.
The appeal to reality and realism, while hypothetical (in that it is I who speculate what a ‘realist’ might argue, without having actually encountered such an argument), is nonetheless important.
For equally at work in Anthony’s choice of white women over all women is the implication that white women are worth more than Black women, and that Black women are somehow not women, or not ‘real’ women.
If one wanted to win the vote for women, then one must want to win the vote for all women; if one settles for white women only, then either one does not consider Black women to be women, or one does not really want to win the vote for all women at all.
And if a black woman falls into a secondary category ‘below’ white women, such that she may not, as Sojourner Truth might suggest, be awoman, then this only reflects how Blacks have not historically been considered real humans/have historically not really been considered human, in the USA and further afield (including the UK).
Not being ‘as human’ as a white, and perhaps not even being ‘human,’ means that Black lives are deemed not to matter as much as white lives, and that perhaps Black lives do not matter at all.
Black Lives Matter, then, exists to remind us precisely of the opposite; that Black lives do matter. And that there is not a hierarchy whereby white lives matter more than black lives, which is what we would call white supremacy.
By this token, we can indeed say that ‘all lives matter,’ but to insist on saying this when the contemporary USA, as well as a contemporary postcolonial globe, insists repeatedly on demonstrating that not all lives do matter (to paraphrase George Orwell, all lives may well be equal, but apparently some are ‘more equal’ than others) is what is typically (and problematically?) referred to as ‘tone deaf.’
(Perhaps it is problematic since, in eliding [quasi-]racism with both those without a musical ear and those who are hard of hearing, it is perhaps an insult to the latter two groups.)
To return to our main argument, though, to argue that ‘all lives matter’ misses the point that to assert Black Lives Matter is done in the face of clear evidence that for many people they do not.
Willfully to diminish the Black Lives Matter movement is in effect to reaffirm white supremacy; to insist that ‘all lives matter’ wants to deny a moment of Black centrality in order to restore the historical and ongoing status quo whereby white lives matter most.
For all of its charm, then (and I am happy to say that I enjoyed Booksmart upon initial viewing, even as it might also be critiqued not only from the perspective of race, but also from the perspective of class, in that all of the Angelinos that we see in it are basically rich kids), Booksmart invokes an historical figure who stood for white women’s suffrage at the expense of women’s suffrage – in order to inspire two white women to… party and get drunk for a night, surrounded by a supporting cast of less-developed characters of colour.
The fact that white women’s suffrage is here expressed in the form of getting drunk carries several important connotations. The first is that even if political engagement by the likes of Anthony is in hindsight understood as problematic and/or incomplete, such political engagement now justifies hedonism and consumerism.
As such, Booksmart might embody what in academic parlance is sometimes referred to as a shift from feminism to postfeminism: feminism reworked not against but rather for capitalism – something that we shall also see manifest in discussions of consumerism towards the end of this blog.
Furthermore, that Amy and Molly’s night of drunken mayhem is spent with various non-white characters suggests that hedonism is a kind of ‘slumming’ done here by whites among the non-whites who supposedly do it regularly – even though whites are more commonly arrested in the USA for alcohol-related misdemeanours.
Finally, and more importantly, is that when Amy is arrested precisely for being drunk, the entire scene goes down in an amusing fashion.
White perp walking
We in fact see the scene of Amy’s arrest via social media, in that Molly wakes up after her night out to a series of text messages lauding Amy, whom she then sees in a video getting arrested by the cops.
‘There are more prisons than colleges in the US, did you know that? And it costs $71,000 to house an inmate in the state of California. That’s more than Harvard!’ says Amy as she gets ‘perp walked’ to the cop car.
Then, as they move her towards the backseat, she says: ‘This seems excessive. Shotgun. Just kidding. I don’t have one.’
It is a moment that contains various important, if understated, details.
First of all, the ‘heroic’ arrest and/or moment of ‘hilarious’ insolence towards cops is a staple of the teen film, with a notable example being Superbad (Greg Mottola, USA, 2007).
(I have another blog to write at some point in time about how Seth Rogen’s films continue to demonstrate a pretty conservative streak, even though as a comedian Rogen might come across as ‘liberal’; for some notes in this direction, see a relatively recent blog on Long Shot, Jonathan Levine, USA, 2019; with the recent American Pickle, Brandon Trost, USA, 2020, moving in a similar direction. That Rogen plays a cop in Superbad would probably make for a decent starting point for considering this aspect of his star persona…)
What is more, this funny irreverence towards cops is not isolated to white kids, as per Superbad and Booksmart. Indeed, in 21 & Over (Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, USA, 2013), Justin Chon’s Jeff Chang dances on a cop car and gets arrested, suggesting that not only white kids, but also Asian kids (who are, after all, the ‘model minority’) can defy the authority of the police.
However, when we consider the way in which irreverence towards cops by Black characters can lead to death, as per recent films like The Hate U Give (George Tillman Jr, USA, 2018) and Queen & Slim (Melina Matsoukas, USA/Canada, 2019), then it seems clear that Blacks cannot ‘enjoy’ humour and heroism in the same way that white characters can.
And when we now consider not movies but real-world police shootings of Black people, like Jacob Blake and so many others, then we might understand that every time a Black American comes into contact with a police officer, there is no joking to be done – since one’s life is at risk.
To joke with the cops, then, is something that is acceptable for whites, tolerable for ‘yellows,’ and intolerable for Blacks. And so to show such a joking moment in Booksmart and for it to be funny demonstrates unthinking whiteness on the part of the filmmakers and an assumption of whiteness on the part of the viewer.
(It is not that you have to be white to find this moment funny; but I might suggest that you do adopt a white perspective when/if you do find this moment funny, regardless of one’s actual [perceived] skin colour.)
Now, I wish generously to suggest that the whiteness of Booksmart‘s white perp walking does not necessarily mean that the moment is white supremacist; in joking with cops, Amy is expressing her empowered white status, but she is not necessarily expressing antiblackness.
However, the scene does in many ways set Amy up as the typical white woman that Hazel V. Carby calls ‘the prize object[s] of the Western world’; that is, Amy is not only defiant of the police, but in some ways she is also protected rather than threatened by them, such that she can make a joke about having a weapon in front of them and get away with it. The police were never going to shoot Amy; they wouldn’t, because as a young white woman, it is her service and protection for which the police stand.
But more than this, Amy’s explanation to the cops about the cost of American prisons suggests not just a white logic but a white supremacist logic at work at this moment (if the two can actually be separated).
This might seem counter-intuitive, in that Amy speaks a truth about the incarceration system of the USA, and she is, after all, planning on spending a year in Botswana before going to university – unlike most of her friends who are heading straight for the Ivies.
That is, Amy might speak here as someone invested in social justice and Black lives – both in the USA, where African Americans are disproportionately kept in prison (as the same Angela Y. Davis, among other writers, has argued across various texts, including this one), and in Africa itself.
However, that Amy offers these statistics at the point of her arrest would seem to suggest that she does not feel that she should be arrested. That is, in saying to the cops that ‘[t]here are more prisons than colleges in the US,’ and that ‘it costs $71,000 to house an inmate in the state of California… That’s more than Harvard,’ Amy seems to be saying that she should NOT be used to swell prison numbers, that she is not the sort of person that needs to be arrested, not least because she will end up costing the American taxpayer more than if she went to an Ivy League school like her friends.
This moment might in some senses involve canny writing on the part of Booksmart‘s (white) screenwriters, in that Amy betrays here her own belief that she is the ‘prize object’ and not a ‘real’ criminal. However, it would seem that the film also endorses Amy’s perspective by playing this moment for laughs.
That the moment is also accompanied by a statement from a relatively wealthy white woman about prisons basically not being for her (she should not cause the American taxpayer any undue expense – because she is white) in effect reveals a truth: prisons are not really for white Americans, but actually ways for (white) American taxpayers to pay for Black Americans not to be otherwise out in society.
Forasmuch as it is ‘good fun,’ then, Booksmart demonstrates that good fun is much more readily accessible if your skin is white, even as it reclaims from Superbad the idea that irreverent and empowering ‘fun’ is uniquely a masculine pursuit.
In other words, empowering hedonism is only empowering to those who are already empowered; those who are not empowered simply cannot act in the way that Amy does here, since it might well lead to death.
In some senses, then, Booksmart offers to us perhaps exactly the legacy of Susan B. Anthony: white women are here empowered at the expense of non-whites. In this way, Booksmart in the contemporary moment arguably takes on dimensions of being a ‘Karen factory,’ while also showing how Susan B. Anthony might well be a proto-‘Karen,’ an association made between the two by Helen Lewis in her Atlantic article on the Karen phenomenon, to which we shall turn presently.
‘The Mythology of Karen’
What follows is going potentially to be controversial – because the term ‘Karen’ conveys several linked but slightly different meanings, and in choosing its white supremacist connotations as my preferred meaning of ‘Karen,’ I run the risk of negating the reality of those other meanings (which tend to focus primarily on the idea that the term is sexist).
All the same, I wish to suggest that the very conflation of Karen’s slightly different meanings (racial and sexist) functions as a means to negate the one positive political use to which the term can be put, namely to critique white supremacy.
In her article, Lewis carefully identifies the racialised history of the term, explaining herself that it started out as ‘an indictment of racial privilege,’ with a key example from 2020 being the accusation by Amy Cooper against Christian Cooper that he was threatening her in a park in New York on the day that Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd.
What is more, Lewis as mentioned evokes Susan B. Anthony, thereby further suggesting that the latter is/was a proto-Karen avant la lettre, not least for her notorious 1869 statement that ‘[i]f intelligence, justice and morality are to have precedence in the government, let the question of women be brought up first and that of the negro last’ – although Lewis does also contextualise this statement by saying that Anthony was ‘responding to the suggestion by Frederick Douglass that Black male enfranchisement was a more urgent issue than women’s suffrage.’
That is, contra Davis, Lewis suggests that Anthony ‘only’ put white women ahead of Blacks because Douglass threatened to put Black men ahead of white women.
Notably omitted in Lewis’ brief analysis of this moment is that for Anthony to insist in this way on white women’s suffrage over that of Black men, she must both have accepted that white men are superior to Black men (the ‘realist’ position defined above), and that men are superior to women (in that Anthony could not support Black women in seeking to get the vote, because this would de facto mean that Black men would have to get the vote, too; that is, Anthony accepts the patriarchal status quo if she cannot get on board with Black men and all women getting the vote – even as she tries to challenge it).
Furthermore, that Lewis dresses up Anthony’s argument for white women’s suffrage as a bit of tit for tat with Douglass demonstrates that for Lewis (as the interpreter of history) and for Anthony (as the historical agent), the Black man functions as a threat. That is, there is no seeking of alliances when push comes to shove, but only competition between these ‘minority’ groups.
We might say that the onus is on Douglass as a man (regardless of his race) to get on board with Anthony – and surely there is some (qualified) legitimacy in this claim.
However, this legitimacy is arguably qualified indeed, because while we should charge Douglass with overlooking the suffrage of Black women as he seeks the suffrage of Black men, Douglass is not really in a position to help Anthony because he is Black.
For, as a Black man, Douglass is not just in a perceived ‘inferior’ position to Anthony within the hierarchical American system, but also, even though now a ‘free’ man, Douglass is still not considered human (or not ‘as human’) as Anthony.
In some ways Douglass ‘cannot,’ therefore, call for the inclusion of white women as political/voting subjects within the USA.
I place ‘cannot’ in scare quotes because Douglass did, contra Lewis, support the cause of women’s suffrage until his death in 1895 (‘right is of no sex, truth is of no color’). However, his support of women’s suffrage was also in some senses impossible – and not just because to do so would be/was ‘uppity’ in the eyes of white men. Rather, and more specifically, it would be/was ‘uppity’ in the eyes of white women, who might well see in such an otherwise well-meaning gesture a threat to their position within society.
That is, a Black man cannot in effect help a white woman, since to do so would involve him telling a white man what to do (you should give the vote to white women, Black men, and Black women – which is not to mention people of other races within the USA). A Black man can only, in this sense, represent his own race (and as mentioned it is indeed a flaw in Douglass’ reasoning that he does/did not lobby for the suffrage of Black women, at least at certain points in his career).
Meanwhile, the obverse is not the case; a white woman can indeed (more easily?) lobby for Black men (and women) – and yet at a crucial moment this did not take place.
But more to the point, when Lewis casts Anthony’s rejection of Douglass as a bit of historical tit for tat (he wasn’t going to help her, so she didn’t help him), it denies the fact that Douglass, as a Black man and thus as a ‘non-human,’ was not necessarily in a position to help Anthony, as a ‘human.’
For, how can a human (Anthony) recognise help from and equality with a non-human (Douglass) without destroying the way in which the humanity of the one is dependent on the non-humanity of the other?
Put differently, Anthony might be a ‘prize object,’ but Douglass, as a former slave, is merely an abject (someone ‘cast out,’ from the Latin ab- + jacere = ‘thrown away’).
For Anthony to refuse to help Douglass, then, because Douglass did not help Anthony, is in some senses to misunderstand what Blackness means and how antiblackness works – and it is verily to play into the hands of white supremacy when one sacrifices Blackness for the furtherance of whiteness.
The proof of this difference in power between Anthony and Douglass is, as it were, in the pudding – in that while Black men were in principle given the right to vote in 1870 through the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment (which stated that ‘race, color, or previous condition of servitude’ could not be a barrier to voting), and while women were only given the vote in 1920 following the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, the introduction of Jim Crow laws in the immediate aftermath of the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment saw swathes of Blacks being denied suffrage on account of taxation, illiteracy, ‘grandfather clauses’ and other discriminatory procedures, right up until 1965 (although it could be argued that such measures continue in various forms until the present day).
That is, while Douglass tried to make a claim for Black male suffrage, and while Anthony made a counter-claim for white women’s suffrage, the history of Jim Crow would suggest that Blackness is a greater hindrance to empowerment in the USA than is femininity (but this is not to suggest that the history of women’s suffrage is easier or plain-sailing).
By this token, we might suggest that it is not the job of the most disempowered/the abject to help the more empowered (‘objects’) in their pursuit of more power – but that it is the job of the more empowered (here, an object) to help the more disempowered (here, an abject) to gain some power.
To apply this dynamic to the contemporary moment: it is not for Blacks to support an All Lives Matter movement, in that it is not for Blacks to march with whites who are seeking a reaffirmation of their own importance in contemporary society. However, it is for non-Blacks to support Blacks at this moment in time. It is for whites and other non-Blacks to march with Blacks. It is for whites to fight for the safety and inclusion of Blacks in an otherwise antiblack society.
However, what seems to be happening at this moment in time – and as perhaps is reflected in Booksmart – is a quasi-repetition of history: Black Lives Matter is being cast aside (abjected) for the restitution of white women as the prize object of capitalist modernity.
This is a thorny issue, and its expression is perhaps unconscious, while also emerging in subtle and not-obvious ways. However, we can see how this is so both in Lewis’ article and in a recent essay co-authored by Diane Negra and Julia Leyda on the topic.
Race and sex
In short, both pieces of writing boil down to suggesting that now that white men are using the term Karen to describe any white woman (but most typically a white woman ‘of a certain age’) who makes complaints and is unruly, the term has been co-opted away from its critical potential and now is being used to reinforce patriarchal values.
In some ways, this charge is a valid one – and it is a charge that I can and must level at myself (as a nominally cis-gendered, white male) as I consider my own unconscious biases, prejudices and so on. For, indeed, perhaps the term has now become in some quarters a kind of term used by male chauvinists to put down white women.
But I am not sure that this ‘mis-use’ of the term means that its initial point of critique, namely that white supremacy can be as present in white women as it can be in white men, is worth abandoning because white men now use the term against white women.
Having gone through a history and present of the Karen meme, starting as mentioned with Susan B. Anthony, Lewis makes an interesting turn when she distances herself from that history on the basis of nationality.
I quote a full paragraph, in which Lewis mentions how in the UK there was no case history like that of Emmett Till, a young Black man killed in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman. As follows:
The potency of the Karen mythology is yet more proof that the internet “speaks American.” Here in Britain, there is no direct equivalent of the Till case, and voting rights were never restricted on racial lines. The big splits in the British suffrage movement were between violent and nonviolent tactics, and on whether men under 30 should receive the vote before women. Yet British newspapers have rushed to explain the Karen meme to their readers, because Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram—the prime sites for Karen-spotting—are widely used in this country. (In fact, the Karen discussion has spread throughout the English-speaking internet, reaching as far as New Zealand.)
There is a confusion here in that Lewis initially asserts that the internet ‘speaks American.’ However, she then makes a clear distinction between the USA and the UK (which comes relatively close to asserting that there is no racism in the UK, in part because the UK does not supposedly have a history of slavery), before reaffirming that the internet is ‘American’ (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are widely used in the UK), before then suggesting that the internet does not speak ‘American,’ but rather that it is English-speaking, and finally registering some surprise (via the emphatic ‘as far as’) that the Karen meme is known and repeated in New Zealand.
The confusion is created by the zigzagging between positions here. The internet speaks American, but British people don’t speak American, except that they do speak American (and maybe even New Zealanders also speak American).
The internet is in some respects without geographical boundaries; firewalls, geoblocking, some censorship issues and linguistic abilities aside, one can (especially if one has the ingenuity to use a VPN) access and engage with the internet from anywhere with a computer, phone line and modem.
That is, it is no surprise that the Karen meme reaches New Zealand, because the Karen meme is not (just) ‘American,’ but on the internet. That it is presented as surprising that someone in far-flung New Zealand might have encountered the Karen meme suggests that Lewis – who otherwise expresses great familiarity with relatively specialised feeds on Reddit – does not really comprehend the internet.
In short, the internet in many respects breaks down national boundaries. And so for Lewis to resurrect those national boundaries involves a sleight of hand that serves to disavow how the Karen meme might apply to someone in or from the UK.
Lewis makes as much clear when she goes on to say that ‘[a]t some point… the particular American history behind Karen got lost’ – another suggestion that the point made in the most recent spate of Karen-outings do not apply to anyone in the UK, and that women like Amy Cooper are unique to the USA.
However, to suggest (or even loosely to imply) that racism, white supremacy and systemic imbalances of power along race lines are non-existent in the UK, such that they appear not to merit mention in Lewis’ argument, is simply false. The UK has its own fair share of issues of racism, as numerous authors, from the afore-mentioned Hazel V. Carby through to Reni Eddo-Lodge can attest.
What is more, while the USA had slavery within its own borders, as an imperial nation the UK outsourced its racist practices, running plantations perhaps not on its own shores, but across the rest of its vast Empire, and from which Empire the homeland benefitted enormously (to the tune of untold, unimaginable sums of money).
Lewis is surely correct to identify that white men calling white women Karen is a mis-use of the term – and that mis-use is surely worth critiquing. But the point can be as simply made as that: the Karen meme (at least in its most well-known iteration) had an initially and ongoing valid point of critique, namely to expose white supremacy/antiblackness, but that it can also be used as a tool for sexism.
To invoke a slightly twisted history of national specificity and problematic disavowals, though, suggests not a search for solidarity across what W.E.B. DuBois called ‘the color line,’ as progressive white women join forces with Black men and women alike to combat patriarchy (which in its most ‘simple’ guise is both sexist and racist), but rather a desire to shift focus away from issues of race and to place them once again on to issues of sex.
(In her book, Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, Lewis achieves a similar sleight of hand. While the overwhelming majority of her examples are white, she does report an encounter with two black feminists, who over coffee explain to Lewis that her commissioning work as a journalistic editor ‘was leaving out women of colour.’ Lewis does admit that in this encounter she became ‘defensive, when I should have simply done them the courtesy of listening’ – before then dismissing the complaints of the women as ‘driven by jealousy, or that heady mix of sadism and self-righteousness which characterises a moral crusade.’ That is, Lewis says not that she does or did listen – which she would only have done out of courtesy, but that she should have listened to them but did not, before then confirming as much when she dismisses the critique as being a case of envy.)
In other words, while Black Lives Matter rages, Lewis’ article comes across as an attempt to remind us not only that white women can be and are victims, too, but that they are perhaps the ‘real’ victims, with the article saying that of course the history of race is important, but that the history of sexism is even more pernicious.
And yet, I might follow in the line of numerous influential thinkers – scholars including but not limited to Frantz Fanon, Hortense Spillers, Sylvia Winter, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Jared Sexton, Katherine McKittrick, Frank B. Wilderson III, Rizvana Bradley and Calvin L. Warren – to suggest that antiblackness is the structuring antagonism (to use Wilderson’s term) upon which modernity is built.
And that modernity may well ‘speak American,’ but it is not American alone (and there is a strong historical reason why American people speak English). Indeed, modernity is not American, but global. And by virtue of being global, it affects us all – even the people in ‘far-flung’ New Zealand (far-flung for whom?).
The basic premise of antiblackness has already been outlined above: it is the treatment of non-whites, but perhaps especially Blacks, as not-quite or not-even human. It is to be treated as abject, or discarded – much as Lewis invokes a racial history of the racist roots of Karen, only to discard it, and much as Lewis claims to listen to her two black female critics, only to discard them and their feedback.
Towards the end of her article, Lewis draws upon Ta-Nehisi Coates, in particular his essay ‘The Great Schism,’ in order to remind us that Anthony’s fellow suffragists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sarah Grimké, were let down by abolitionists for having fought for the end of slavery, only for that not to lead to any progress in the pursuit of women’s suffrage. Or, as Coates puts it in relation to Stanton and Anthony, ‘the two spent much of their early careers very much devoted to the cause of black people, and took their share of abuse for it.’
Grimké ‘credited abolition with helping awaken her to the persistent oppression of women,’ while Frederick Douglass eventually reconciled with Anthony and Stanton, ‘singling out Stanton, in particular, for making him a “Woman’s Rights Man.”‘
That is, Coates attempts to understand the lack of solidarity between Anthony and Douglass, a fact to which Lewis appeals in defence of her argument (if Coates can feel solidarity with Susan B. Anthony, then so should Blacks today feel solidarity with Helen Lewis).
However, where Coates does indeed ‘forgive’/condone/contextualise the white supremacy of Anthony, Lewis seemingly expects the same forgiveness and condonement, but without offering anything in return. For, while Anthony did spend years ‘devoted to the cause of black people,’ Lewis in this article and in her interaction with Black women journalists in her book only seems to pay lip service to that cause as a means to bring us back to the real cause: the fight against sexism.
It is not that sexism is unreal; sexism is very real and must be addressed – but to use sexism as a tool not to address racism is not progressive, and even if it does not come across fully as a (probably unconscious) white supremacist manoeuvre, it can still come across as ‘tone deaf,’ especially at a moment when Black Lives Matter is attempting (and needing) to gather momentum in the USA and globally.
Now, Coates is most famous for his essay ‘The Case for Reparations,’ which is reproduced in his book, We Were Eight Years in Power. That particular article outlines how and why contemporary American wealth is built upon the racialised exploitation of Black slaves – as well as outlining a particular and overlooked moment of violence in the history of the USA, namely the Tulsa race massacre that took place in 1921.
We shall return to ‘The Case for Reparations’ in the face of consumer society imminently, but it might also be worth noting that the article inspired Damon Lindelof to set his highly regarded ‘adaptation’ of Watchmen partially in Tulsa in 1921 – exploring the race massacre and its afterlives throughout the show.
I mention this for two reasons. Firstly, antiblack oppression leads to a Black protest in that show, where a young boy kills a police officer by firing a gun at him at point blank range. It is ironic, then, that during a pro-Black lives protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, it was not a young Black who shot a (white?) police officer, but a young white boy who shot three protestors, killing two of them.
That is, while Watchmen takes a moment to depict Black vengeance, the reality is that whites continue to enact violence on Blacks and their supporters.
And the second reason I mention this is that allegedly Trump held his Juneteenth Rally in Tulsa as an antagonistic reminder of the race massacre; that is, Trump took the event to Tulsa in order to intimidate Black (democratic) Americans regarding how history might repeat itself (even as the history of that massacre repeats itself constantly – with every massacre of an innocent Black American).
If Trump took his Juneteenth Rally to Tulsa in order to antagonise his opponents about the racial history of the place, then Trump’s call to pardon Susan B. Anthony in the run-up to the 2020 Presidential election can also be read as an attempt to appeal to a certain kind of feminist voter, specifically a white feminist voter.
Even as Anthony herself might roll in her grave at the mere thought of Trump using her spirit to win votes (and as the Susan B. Anthony Museum rejected Trump’s pardon), the move by Trump does convey the way in which she and he both – as people linked to the Karen meme, including by Lewis – use whiteness, or more specifically antiblackness, to further their own, white cause.
Put differently, while Lewis and Negra/Leyda (to whom I shall turn imminently) recognise but then obfuscate (if not deny) the racial politics of the Karen meme, Trump himself (the ‘ultimate Karen,’ as Lewis acknowledges) and Anthony (as a figure heavily invoked in Lewis’ article on Karen) are indeed Karens in a struggle that has at its core not sex, but race.
From slavery to consumerism
However, like Lewis, Negra and Leyda seek in their essay to highlight how the Karen meme is not just about race, but also and perhaps more about sex. In particular, they write that
Karen is doing particularly important work to mark an interface between (actual or attributed middle-class) white femininity and individuals/communities of color in a period in which everyday situational racisms are being increasingly called to account. She summons a boundary point between recidivist whiteness and “wokeness” at a time when many white people are both becoming more sensitized to racist micro-aggressions and put on alert to threatening breaches of public decorum. And it is apparent that Karen’s utility has heightened relevance now, in a pandemic moment marked by the charged nature of commercial (and other social) spaces. Less frequently noticed, however, may be her role in conservatively reinforcing prohibitions on white female agency in an arena in which that agency has historically been significant – that of goods and services/shopping.
Negra and Leyda then spend the remainder of their essay more or less explaining how frustrating it is to engage in consumer complaints in the contemporary age: customer service is on the wane, contacting someone who can actually help resolve a complaint is increasingly inaccessible, and so on.
It is not necessarily clear how and why white women engage in customer complaints more than any other demographic – although Negra and Leyda seem to suggest that it is because they have the time to do so.
Since apparently no one else has to or can, then, it would seem that the ‘Karen’ as they define them is in fact doing the world a favour, because they are the only demographic that can stand up for consumer rights in a time when those rights are being eroded.
In the face of the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many more, and given how these killings connect both with the calling of the cops by Amy Cooper (the implication for Christian Cooper is that his life is in danger, even as Amy Cooper fears for hers, because once the cops arrive, they might well shoot him), and given how these killings connect with the armed defence of property that we saw via the McCloskeys (notably also used antagonistically at the RNC to demonstrate that the upcoming US election is not about sex but race), to sit on a customer service complaint line seems small beer at best.
To imply that to do so is in fact not the act of a Karen but in fact doing the world a favour likewise begins to seem ‘tone deaf.’
Indeed, Negra and Leyda quote Sara Ahmed, who herself reports ‘a conversation with an Indigenous woman academic,’ who says the following:
the project of surviving the violence of colonial occupation led her both to complain and not to complain. Both actions – complaining and not complaining – were for her about survival, not just her own survival, but the survival of her family; her people.
That is, Negra and Leyda situate complaint as a political act, even as complaint has swiftly become more of a capitalist/consumerist act by the time that they discuss waiting on endless phone lines in order to complain about customer service.
More than this, to equate sitting on a customer service line to ‘surviving the violence of colonial occupation’ seems in somewhat poor taste, with Ahmed’s example being staged as a matter of survival, something that also applies today to Black Lives Matter… but something that really does not apply to sitting on a customer service phone line at all.
Negra and Leyda conclude by suggesting that the Karen ‘seems to seek an ontological reassurance that consumer capitalism is on her side (and on the side of whiteness). We suggest it is productive to consider the sources of “Karen’s” misdirected anger.’
Or, put differently Negra and Leyda do usefully posit in the end that Karen does indeed want to know that their sense of being in the world (Karen’s ontology) is not under threat – and that this sense of being rests in large part on Karen’s (unthinking) whiteness.
But while in some senses it might be ‘productive’ to know that the ‘misdirected anger’ of Karens as they complain about the low quality of customer service stems from a sense of disempowerment as complaining about shopping becomes increasingly difficult in the contemporary age, this again seems to miss the mark of engaging with white supremacy.
This is not to mention how, even if white women (of a certain age) are the ones who purportedly have the time to sit in endless call queues to get through to an exploited customer service worker (who might well be non-white), this experience is not confined to white women at all – and indeed everyone who wants to complain about crappy service has to go through the same process, regardless of age, race or sex.
That is, everyone is disempowered as a consumer in the contemporary moment, and yet Negra and Leyda seem to make a special case that the white woman (of a certain age) is ‘especially’ disempowered, or disempowered in such a fashion that it requires a special explanation.
And yet, forasmuch as being treated poorly as a consumer is in effect universal, so is equally universal the concomitant ‘ontological’ disruption. And yet, it is Karen alone who apparently feels the need to be reassured against this disruption, a singleness of thought that seeks to reduce to nil the other, more dangerous ontological disruptions taking place at the moment, and which in its very singleness reaffirms that Karen must be a ‘prize object’ in capitalist modernity.
(In this blacklight, the recently acclaimed Systemsprenger/System Crasher, Nora Fingscheidt, Germany, 2019, can be seen as a working example of the tantrums that are induced when the white woman does not get her way. The film also seems to endorse the unruliness of its central character, the out-of-control 9-year old Benni, played remarkably by Helena Zengel, since the scenario sees her forgiven repeatedly by all in the film for her appalling behaviour, including bizarre sequences when a care worker, Micha, played by Albrecht Schuch, allows this dangerous child to play with his own children, before then running after Benni to make sure that she is okay, even though Benni has just threatened the life of Micha’s own child. That Micha’s child is mixed race, since he is married to an Iranian-German, Elli, played by Maryam Zaree, only furthers the idea that the white girl, Benni, is indeed the ‘prize object,’ who supersedes in importance all of the other children that surround her, even as she hospitalises many of them. Perhaps this is how fascism in its most hideous form comes truly to erupt into our world…)
And yet, to return to Karen’s need for ontological reassurance, which supposedly is at the base of Amy Cooper’s desire to call the cops on Christian Cooper: the ontological disruption that causes it shrinks into nothing when we understand that to be a Black American (if not a Black in many parts of the world) is constantly to experience what Calvin L. Warren has defined as ontological terror.
That is, while Karen needs reassurance because her ontology has been disrupted – by having to wait in line just like everyone else in order to make a complaint and/or because her white supremacy and/or consumerist tendencies have been pointed out to her – the Black American (and many other Blacks around the world) have no such luxury.
Or rather, such things are the least of their worries – as being pulled over by the police, going for a jog and/or wearing a hoodie might be reason enough for a cop to ***kill*** you.
Perhaps Amy Cooper is indeed upset about call waiting times, and perhaps this does help to explain where she is coming from when she attempts to set the cops on Christian Cooper. But the imbalance between these two ontologies is almost unfathomable; to try to balance them seems to me misguided; to appropriate the language of ‘survival’ in the face of histories of colonialism seems to me (precisely) inappropriate (it is an in-appropriation).
Negra and Leyda quote Audre Lorde’s influential essay, ‘The Uses of Anger,’ and yet they seem to pay little heed to Lorde’s actual words when she writes that
Women of Color in America have grown up within a symphony of anguish at being silenced, at being unchosen, at knowing that when we survive, it is in spite of a whole world out there that takes for granted our lack of humanness, that hates our very existence, outside of its service.
For white women to claim equivalence to this experience – in effect, to deny race – is to undermine and to demean the argument of those People of Colour, especially Women of Colour; it is to repeat the silencing that Lewis by her own admission enacted on the two black journalists who confronted her; and it is not to listen to what the major proponents of the Karen meme are trying to say.
As per Booksmart, white supremacy can be at work in even light-hearted, fun and ‘progressive’ movies, as well as in everyday moments in life. Sexism is also regularly at work; to deny one in order to put forward the other, especially when doing so results in an erasure of race and a repetition of the silencing of non-whites, especially Blacks, is counter-productive.
I have to check my own privileges, as well as to acknowledge my own propensity for unthinking sexism and racism. However, I am wary that to use sexism against racism is not going to take the world where we need to go; Anthony, Douglass and others have all made mistakes along these lines. But it is time to not repeat these same mistakes and for anti-racist and anti-sexist activists and sentiments to be working in concert in order to overthrow an antiblack world order.
Remembering the way in which Karen can ask us productively to address unthinking white supremacy, rather than trying to deny it, excuse it, or indeed to morph it into a renewed sense of (uniquely) white victimhood, seems to me a hopeful path to follow. To enjoy Booksmart and yet to check its blindspots equally seems to me a hopeful path to follow.
As Coates might say, ‘I invite the professionals to fill in the gaps here — both in terms of actual facts and context.’
However, I hope that this blog does go some way to enabling a more progressive, holistic and/or ‘intersectional’ approach to key issues that today have our world hanging in a precarious balance…
Over the past two weeks or so, it has been a huge honour and a great pleasure to act as a member of the jury for the 2020 London Kurdish Film Festival (as well as to do a workshop/’masterclass’ on no-budget filmmaking with them).
I was lucky enough to catch 30 short films during the festival, including the 26 that were in competition for the festival’s main prize and special mentions. Many of these are available online here. (And you can, if you so wish, see my ‘masterclass’ here.)
However, rather than repeat anything from that masterclass, and rather than try to place into a hierarchy of better and worse the 30 films that I saw, I’d like to offer up some general observations about the films.
That is, rather than analyse any one film especially, I’d like to consider the 30 films as a single body in order to say what the LKFF was telling us this year about Kurdish cinema, Kurdish culture more generally, and Kurdistan itself, be that in the sense of a geographic place or as a ‘national’ concept (and I place national in scare quotes to signify/acknowledge the contested status of Kurdistan as a recognised, autonomous country/region, or, if you will, collection of countries – in that Kurdistan spans at least what today are recognised as parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey).
By making some observations and suggestions about what the LKFF films are telling us, we can potentially, if warily, make some extrapolations about what Kurdish cinema is today telling us – in that the concerns and techniques that repeat themselves across numerous of the LKFF films clearly do therefore repeat across Kurdish cinema, even if the films selected for the festival cannot represent the totality of Kurdish cinema.
Naturally, perhaps, I should start by saying that of course the films that I saw demonstrate a diverse and complex set of concerns, with films set in not only Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, but also films about the Kurdish diaspora in, for example, Norway (see Brwa Vahapour’s The Shepherd and Christopher Wollebekk’s My Brother Amal). Various languages are spoken across the films, including several sequences where characters cannot understand each other (especially Return, by Selman Deniz).
What is more, the films received funding from a mixture of sources stretching beyond the five countries mentioned above, and into places like Germany and the UK (although not seemingly beyond the Middle East and Europe).
Finally, the films involved various different styles and genres, ranging of course from fiction and documentary to animation and more.
But beyond these perhaps expected provisos about the vibrant diversity of contemporary Kurdish cinema, I’d like to focus in particular on repeated patterns and tropes across the films.
First of all, I would say that the majority of the films were set in the countryside, meaning that while there may not at present be an internationally recognised country called Kurdistan, the latter does exist as a land, as its very name suggests, in that Kurdistan means ‘land of the Kurds.’
If Kurdistan emerges as precisely a land thanks to the repeated use of landscapes and rural settings, this does stand in some sort of contrast to urban spaces, which do appear in a few of the films from the festival, but in a minority to say the least.
Indeed, those films that do feature cities tend to feature urban spaces as spaces of diaspora, ruin and/or lost memories. For example, Two Ends of a Bridge (Muhammed Seyyid Yıldız) features a man selling Turkish flags on a bridge as a protest seems to erupt in Istanbul, and who walks past a beggar – with the implication being in some respects that the two are Kurds, which is why the flag salesman gives some money to the silent beggar (although not as much money as he might).
Meanwhile, in The Worn Beak of the Crow (Ferhat Özmen), the city is a space that prevents an old woman from (if I am not mistaken) carrying out the traditional practice of burying cheese in the ground in order for it to mature.
Finally, in Last September (Gülsün Odabaş), an old Greek man wanders through the streets and finds his old home, where he hopes to meet his sweetheart from adolescence, and from whom he was separated by the so-called Istanbul Pogrom that took place in September 1955 following the bombing of the house of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
In all three films, then, the city, especially in its contemporary iteration, in some senses gives shape to the isolation of the Kurdish (and in Last September, Greek) characters; that is, unlike the land/countryside, the city does not really function as a home, and even when it does, as in Last September, this ‘home’ is impossible to maintain owing to political events.
Meanwhile, in films like the State we’re in (Savaş Boyraz & Mahkum Abi), There Was a Country (Hebun Polat) and The Heart of Raqqa (Rita Duarte), urban spaces (especially in Syria) have been reduced to rubble, further suggesting that the city is a threatening space for Kurds.
This dichotomy of the city/countryside is worth exploring in a bit more detail, but before we get to that, I’d like to point out that the ‘traditional’ is at times contrasted with the ‘modern’ in ways not just suggested by the rural versus the urban.
In a fashion similar to The Worn Beak…, for example, Trouser (Tahsin Özmen) sees traditional rural clothing being praised for its durability, while modern clothes, including a pair of trousers that various characters share for journeys to the city (where they are not allowed to wear their traditional clothes) wear away after few uses – this despite the fact that the main character, Dilo, is desperate to get to the city.
Furthermore, we see various other Kurdish traditions, customs and practices being threatened by the limitations of the contemporary world in a range of the films, from dancing in A Dance for Death (Zanyar Azizi), weaving in The Pattern (Azad Jannati), making pottery in The Heritage (Baran Reihani), and perhaps even hanging clothes in Are You Listening Mother? (Tuna Kaptan).
The latter, like The Worn Beak… and Last September, features an old woman who basically refuses to follow orders and who as a result creates some chaos in the place where she now lives. Indeed, the trope of the unruly older woman can also be found in Life Gone With the Wind (Siavash Saedpanah) – with each of these examples perhaps signalling that the borders imposed upon and dividing the Kurdish land are arbitrary, especially to a certain generation and gender that does not feel the need to respect the patriarchal practice of creating and fixing national boundaries and privatising space, and even if Kurdistan is a country that has no national boundary since it is not internationally recognised as a nation at all.
Are You Listening… is about a mother who keeps getting into trouble with the law when she sets off her police tag for wandering too far from home – something that she cannot help but do every time she tries to hang up her clothes (in a similar clothing trope to the one explored in Trouser, the mother here seems to be wearing the police tag for having been arrested for knitting an inappropriate sweater for her prisoner nephew). In other words, the film also tells a story where borders are reaffirmed by the official state (here Turkey), while being disruptive and alien for the actual inhabitant.
The arbitrary nature of the border is also highlighted in a film like The Heavy Burden (Yılmaz Özdil), in which we see an old man’s livelihood being decommissioned when his carrier-donkey is deemed too old for service. A young man, Salih, has a replacement donkey – the only catch being that it is back over the border, seemingly in Syria. He goes to collect it, only for the donkey to step on a mine on the way back.
The border itself is represented by a wall – with walls being things that proliferate in urban areas (indeed, the more ‘urban’ a space is, the more walls it has). The border might be represented only by one wall, then, but it nonetheless signifies how borders themselves are part of an ‘urban’ and modern mindset, which can be contrasted with the land, which is open and boundary-less.
What is more, the border is not just represented by a wall, but it is also something that is constructed through media. There are television screens present in a good number of the films (Are You Listening Mother?, The Heavy Burden and For Camera, by Mustafa Shahrokhi, to name but three), but the State we’re in starts in particular with a bravura shot of a distant city that recedes from view as the camera pans (and perhaps tracks) backwards, eventually passing through the screen of a broken television, which then functions itself as a ‘border’ between the city in the distance and the countryside that surrounds it and the camera itself (and by extension us as viewers).
In other words, the films collectively suggest that modern technologies like walls and media alike shape our reality, indeed determining what is ‘real’ (a country like Syria, for example) and what is ‘not real’ (a country like Kurdistan).
However, it is not simply that the countryside and the land alike are a bucolic paradise, even if the status of Kurdistan as, precisely, a land (and not an urban space) would seem to suggest as much.
For while there are beautiful vistas and ethereal lighting in a number of the Kurdish films on offer at the LKFF, the outside is also depicted repeatedly as a dangerous space.
This is represented not just by the landmine in The Heavy Burden, but also by a landmine that kills a young toy-maker called Picasso in Showan (Bijan Zarin). Picasso is, like the lead character Sirvan, reduced to doing illegal smuggling work as a result of the lack of opportunities in the countryside. And while climbing through the mountains with their own ‘heavy burden,’ not only does he succumb to the landmine, but he also is shot at repeatedly by unseen forces monitoring the border space that the smugglers are crossing.
A couple of notes. The first, which hopefully is not too tasteless or wistful: the ‘landmine’ in its very name comes to suggest the way in which common space (the land, or what we might by way of contrast call ‘landours’) is rendered a possession (‘landmine‘) – and the violence that is involved in grabbing land in this way.
The second is that the outside is thus not a happy, peaceful space, but a space that is dangerous, and where numerous characters die – as per The Heavy Burden, Heritage, Return and Akam (Hossein Mirza). And/or it is a space where fights take place, as in Slaughter (Saman Hosseinpuor).
Indeed, as much as there are beautiful landscapes in brilliant light, so do we see exterior spaces that are snowy and unwelcoming. But the impression that one gets is that they have become more unwelcoming as a result of the imposition of borders and the imposition of a modern logic whereby it is increasingly difficult to survive in rural spaces via traditional means.
This seems especially to be the case if one is not to be left behind technologically; people either face suffering and death by staying behind, or they are forced increasingly to shift towards urban spaces, where they are disenfranchised and unhappy. But not only do they go to the urban spaces, be that for better or for worse (in that a character like Dilo in Trouser really wants to go to the city), but the ‘urban’ and ‘modern’ logic of walls and the ‘city’ comes to them in the form of borders and, indeed, weapons like landmines.
This modern logic can also be seen at work in flags, with the main character in Two Ends of a Bridge selling Turkish flags to passersby, while lead character Sami in My Brother Amal is tasked at one point with raising the Norwegian flag, something that he summarily fails to do.
That is, the modern concept of nationalism and, by implication, the nation itself (as defined by the flag) is denied to Kurds and thus comes across as alien to them.
I shall return later to My Brother Amal, but I would like presently to discuss how in contrast to the media being tools for reaffirming national boundaries (and we can think of the flag as exactly a medium for nationalism), this stands in some contrast with art as it features in the films.
For while traditional art forms like dance, as per A Dance for Death, and traditional instruments like the erbane in hush! (Çaxe Nursel Doğan), might well help to define Kurdish culture, the films collectively also suggest that art in fact goes against the modern and ‘urban’ logic of the nation/the national.
This can be seen in a few examples, including via a couple of references to Pablo Picasso. The first is in the afore-mentioned Showan, where the artist-sculptor-toymaker character nicknamed Picasso would seem to represent a creative spirit unnecessarily destroyed by the modern world of media and borders.
The second reference to Picasso is, meanwhile, in the State we’re in, whereby after its opening shot, Picasso’s famous painting Guernica (1937) is used to give expression to the execution of Kurdish activists in the Turkish town of Cizre. It is not that art somehow ‘saves lives’ or some such; however, art does stand as a means to critique state violence and the violence of states, since art itself is stateless and borderless.
A similar lesson might be learnt from I Am Raining Down into the City (Kasım Örderk), in which a poem by the superlative Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad functions to bring peace to the otherwise struggling family that ekes out an existence in a crumbling town.
Finally, The Mandarin Tree (Cengiz Akaygün) features a young girl who draws paintings for her father, who himself is in prison for being an ‘anarchist.’ Even though only a child, the girl’s images of fruit, birds and even of a tree are suspected as themselves being propaganda.
However, after a prison guard nastily destroys one of her images, the girl has the last laugh when she sneaks into the prison some sunflower seeds, that the father then uses to imagine enticing birds to come feed from his hand, and which nest in the tree that she has drawn for her father.
In other words, art here helps to break down prison walls and, by extension, the ‘urban,’ ‘modern’ and ‘nationalistic’ use of walls in general, at least in an imaginary fashion. In this way, art helps the imprisoned father to be out amidst nature’s flora and fauna once again.
And fauna, perhaps especially livestock, are themselves a constant presence in the films, including as major figures in the film’s stories, as per The Heavy Burden and Slaughter. What is more, birds perhaps inevitably signify a kind of desired freedom in the films – although the State we’re in suggests somewhat pessimistically towards its end that the ‘bird of peace’ is dead (a moment to which I shall return below).
While we might think that working relationships with animals signify a kind of ‘primitiveness,’ the constant presence of animals nonetheless bespeaks a borderless existence, in that animals have no knowledge nor care for national boundaries and human squabbles.
In some senses, then, humans would do better to learn from their animals rather than simply to exploit them; that is, to live symbiotically with animals rather than just using them would be part and parcel of a perspective/way of life that is not ‘modern’ or ‘urban,’ and thus detached, but which instead is entangled and respectful.
Indeed, My Cat (Imad Mahmadany) features a young man trying to commit suicide in his spartan bedsit, only for his efforts to be thwarted by a cat that cunningly keeps on making its way indoors and distracting him.
While My Cat presents a potential case of death taking place inside (as opposed to the many deaths that take place outside), the presence of the animal notably prevents it (meaning that even if Kurdistan cannot exist ‘outside,’ it cannot conversely be killed inside)…
This being said, the treatment of animals is not necessarily romantic, just as life in the countryside is not uniquely romanticised, with the outside being a dangerous place, as mentioned.
For, the interior can at times also be a dangerous place, especially for women, as is explored effectively in For Camera, a film that uses documentary techniques to give the viewer the impression that they are seeing a found footage/home movie of domestic abuse.
In this film, notably we see an authoritarian father figure, who is a captain in the police force, abusing his family, especially his wife. The film suggests that Kurdistan has problems ‘inside,’ beyond the problems that Kurdistan faces ‘outside’ (Kurdistan’s issues stem from the Turks, the Syrians, the Iranians, the Iraqis, and so on), and beyond the idea that ‘outside’ is a problem to/for Kurdistan (in that Kurdistan is not recognised internationally as a ‘legitimate’ nation) – as many of the other films in the festival suggest.
Indeed, the domestic spaces that characterise much of For Camera suggest that Kurdistan is not simply a country beset by a dangerous exterior, but that it also has a dangerous interior.
Something similar perhaps happens in hush!, where the girl who wants to play the erbane, Zere, is forbidden from doing so not by, say, an oppressive Turkish system in which traces of Kurdish culture are to be eradicated, but rather by her own grandmother, who feels that music is not an appropriate pastime for her (meaning that this grandmother stands in stark contrast to those unruly older women in the other films mentioned above).
What is more, the Kurdish films collectively suggest that we live a world not only where wars can leave people crippled, but where disability can affect anyone. From deafness in Akam, to memory loss in Last September, to lost limbs in Testament (Kamiran Betasi), to Down syndrome in Slaughter, to lameness in The Summer of the Swans (Maryam Samadi), there is a sense here that Kurdish existence is in some senses always dis-abled, in that it is barred from leading a ‘regular’ and ‘modern’ life…
As not all of the films depict problems only bombarding Kurds from the outside (see For Camera), so do not all of the films depict plucky Kurds overcoming dangerous odds. Not only are many of the films pessimistic (a point to which I shall also return below), but they can also critique Kurdish existence.
It is notable, however, that the main film that does this, namely For Camera, carries such a self-conscious title.
For, not only does this title complicate the ‘documentary’ ‘truth’ of what we are seeing, but it also suggests indeed that the nation as a concept is tied to images (all nations really exist for the camera). Furthermore, since Kurdistan is a land without a nation (or a nation without a state), so is it in some ways a nation without an image (something akin to what I have argued elsewhere in relation to Afghan cinema). Or rather, For Camera does not try to create a positive and propagandistic image of the nation (a national image that is posed for the camera, much as we check our hair and put on our best smiles when we are asked to say cheese), but rather it seeks to deconstruct the constructed nature of all images, including perhaps the ones that we see in this film itself.
I might briefly add that this deconstruction is achieved remarkably through the use of handheld digital cameras, with the cinematography and the editing of the film being far more ‘choppy’ than perhaps the majority of other movies, which are much more ‘slow’ and ‘cinematic’ in the perceived ‘richness’ and ‘beauty’ of their images.
In other words, For Camera in many ways is a kind of anti-image of Kurdistan, but in becoming as much, it also becomes anti-images in general (in the sense that it makes us wary not just of the images that we are seeing, but wary of the constructed nature of all images, and perhaps of all national images in particular). This in turn suggests perhaps that Kurdistan (the ‘real’ Kurdistan?) exists beyond images – and beyond the nation (again, Kurdistan really exists inside and not outside; it cannot, if you will, be seen, but can only be felt).
This critique of images we might compare to My Brother Amal, which notably is a film made by a Norwegian director. I am not sure of the filmmaker’s connection to or knowledge of Kurdistan; but in being a relatively generic, if well-made, tale of a boy haunted by the ghost of his dead brother, who seems in the young Sami’s paranoid fantasies to hate Sami for coming close to assimilating to Norwegian life, the film rang oddly false.
While many refugees may lament not being in and with the land of their home, for Sami to be safe would surely be of greater importance than his not being at home (he cannot ‘betray’ Kurdistan by leaving, since this is only the ‘outside’ of the nation, and thus simply an image; he could only betray Kurdistan inwardly, but his very memories of his brother mean that this cannot happen – in that he will always remember his brother).
Put differently, we might critique the film by asking from a pragmatic level who would not wish their own brother happiness, even if in a new land?
And yet, as mentioned, Amal’s criticism of Sami (Amal’s seeming desire for Sami not to be happy) is the latter’s paranoid fantasy; Amal is not really there and it is Sami who is worried that if he makes an effort to fit into Norwegian life then he is the one betraying his roots. But while this is comprehensible, it perhaps is not sufficiently signalled that this is not really Amal, and so it just seems as though the film is an exercise in using the tropes of horror to ‘spice up’ a film that would surely be interesting enough when dealing with a young refugee not on cinematic terms (using stylistic tropes from horror), but on a more, can I say?, realistic level.
That is, My Brother Amal posits the inner life of Sami as precisely cinematic/an image, as an exterior/an outside, when our inner lives are in fact ‘beyond’ images – something that makes the film differ sharply from the other movies made closer to the Kurdish region.
But this is perhaps a minor quibble, and across all of the films a love of cinema as much as for Kurdistan and Kurdish culture is what is apparent. Indeed, I enjoyed how there are heart graffiti painted on walls in various films – a minor detail and likely a coincidence, but something that semi-consistently seems to connote love as part of the ‘Kurdish’ mise-en-scène (furthermore, various films also feature toy soldiers, as if to suggest that there is an inherent childishness to contemporary violence?).
In the use of landscapes and in their pacing, many films reminded me of the work of Abbas Kiarostami, while in the handheld films, and in the landmine and mountain movies (especially involving smuggling), as well as in various films’ use of music, including the erbane/daf in hush!, the influence of perhaps the most famous Kurdish filmmaker, Bahman Ghobadi, seemed also to be felt.
While Sami finds a bird that then dies in My Brother Amal, while the bird of peace is dead in the State we’re in, and while a deer dies that a man tries to rescue in The Shepherd (among many other downbeat endings – as mentioned above), films like The Mandarin Tree, hush!, Last September and Life Gone With the Wind all suggest that hope may yet be found for Kurdistan.
Certainly, based on the breadth, quality and intelligence of the films screened at this year’s London Kurdish Film Festival, which themselves reflect the vibrant nature of contemporary Kurdish culture, there is much about which to feel hopeful and positive.
Furthermore, while a film like The Heart of Raqqa not only gives to us another heart in its title, akin to those hearts featured on the wall graffiti of ruined houses, it also in its celebration of Mehmet Aksoy, a journalist who lost his life in the service of reporting on the work of Kurdish forces against ISIS, inspires viewers to think about the role that cinema can play in helping to change the world – and hopefully for the better.
With the example of Aksoy in mind, may many more Kurdish cinematic flowers bloom.
*** Many thanks to festival organiser Kaveh Abbasian both his invitation to take part in the LKFF 2020, and for his help in clarifying a couple of plot points around some of the above films.
Perhaps the biggest problem with racism in the UK is the UK’s belief that it does not have one.
The ‘it’ from the previous sentence should be defined as pertaining most specifically to the UK’s white population, perhaps especially those white citizens who identify solely as British nationals.
And yet, when we watch a film like The Gentlemen, it seems clear that racism is alive and well in the UK, including in British cinema (which is not to say that cinema as a whole might be a tool built upon racism).
Or, at least, The Gentlemen would wish to suggest that its white, male and Anglo-American values are ‘cinematic,’ while other, diverse forms of expression belong to smaller, ‘inferior’ screens.
We’ll get to the treatment of race in The Gentlemen shortly. First, however, we should get to grips with what I mean when I include the phrase ‘white supremacy’ in the title of this post.
For, in order to understand how white supremacy works, it is important to understand what it is, and because The Gentlemen is not especially subtle in its white supremacy, it functions as a good tool for us to think about how and why white supremacy is at work in the film.
So, as perhaps needs to be said every time one engages with the issue of race in the UK, white supremacy, as well as racism more generally, are not uniquely defined by hood-wearing white people lynching non-white people.
Rather, white supremacy is, simply enough, the belief that whites and whiteness are of greater value than non-whites and non-whiteness, perhaps especially blackness, but for certain in The Gentlemen, more valuable than yellowness.
The immediate defence mechanism that a white supremacist will put into play is the idea that I just betrayed my own racism by using ‘racist’ terms like black and yellow, as well as perhaps white.
To be clear, ‘yellow’ especially is a term that is loaded with a racist history, not least because it has historically been and continues to be a term applied by whites (and others) to various Asian peoples in precisely a derogatory fashion: the ‘yellow peril,’ for example, has long expressed the fear of whites that the Chinese (or others) will ‘take over’ the white world – a fear that is overtly at work in The Gentlemen.
All the same, while Asian people rarely and perhaps only ever with some sense of irony define themselves as ‘yellow’ (unlike Blacks, who do define themselves proactively as black, even though what ‘black’ really is or means has never been accurately or exactly defined – except perhaps by whites), I use the term(s) here to get us to think about how white supremacy works from the inside.
By this, what I mean to say is that white supremacy sees whites and whiteness as being superior to all other colours. In order to do this, it has to cast those other, non-white people into those other colour categories (black, yellow, brown) in order specifically to highlight that they are not white.
Having made this conceptual distinction, which allows the white to value himself above the non-white, the white takes the ‘supreme’ position from among the different colour categories. It is not that there are different colours, so much as a hierarchy of colours, with white at the top. Hence white supremacy.
Thereafter follow myriad ways in which whites and whiteness receive preferential treatment, get more opportunities and so on and so forth, all because they are white, while those non-whites (yellow, black, brown and so on) get inferior treatment, fewer opportunities and so on and so forth.
The point that I wish to make at the outset, then, is that you don’t need to be an overt racist to be a white supremacist or, at the very least, to benefit from a white supremacist system, or to thrive within a society that is white supremacist.
Nor, I might add, do you need to be white to thrive in a white supremacist society. You can be non-white and thrive; and you can be white and not thrive.
But if you are white, then the chances are significantly increased that you will thrive, or at least be more comfortable than if you were not white; and if you are non-white, then you will have significantly greater barriers before you to both comfort and, better yet, thriving.
And so if you benefit from such a system or thrive within such a society because of your whiteness, and if you do not do anything to change the advantages that you have, by, for example, refusing to share that advantegeous position, then, simply put, you are a white supremacist out of complicity, if not out of explicit action.
(That said, how we might separate explicit action from ‘mere’ complicity when we are considering the entire fabric of a life seems quite difficult to me; ‘doing nothing,’ or allowing disadvantages to continue for others simply because this gives you greater advantages, is an explicit action, just as not helping your neighbour is an explicit action… whether or not you run the risk of seeming like a chump to other advantaged people, who will think that you are betraying them because you see, understand and try to do something about the disadvantages presented to some – with the same advantaged people perhaps also thinking you stupid for not taking the same advantages as they do, even though you have those advantages before you. In short, the easy option – allowing things to stand as they are – negates the difference between complicity and explicit action; taking the harder option is always harder, and part of why it is harder is because others will make your life harder for taking that option – calling you names, making you feel bad about yourself and so on.)
Anyway, one of the next defence mechanisms that a typical white supremacist would throw out in order to deny racism, be that their own racism or that of the system from which they benefit, would be an appeal to history.
That is, and as per the notion described above of complicity/allowing things to stand as they are, a white supremacist (be they explicitly racist or simply happy quietly to benefit from white supremacy), would say that the UK is historically ‘white’ and that blacks and other non-whites of course are welcome here, but that they have to come and work their way ‘up the ladder’ and that of course this cannot happen overnight and so on and so forth.
However, while the appeal of such a view is perhaps inevitable to an unthinking white supremacist and to an overt racist alike, it is also false and an act of white supremacist thinking in and of itself.
Its falseness would probably take too long to deal with here in full. But put bluntly, the view is false because the idea that the UK is ‘historically’ white elides in this case race with nationalism – using race to define what is ‘British’ as that which is ‘white.’
But if ‘British’ and ‘white’ are now supposed to be synonymous, then we quickly get into hot water, as many comedians have pointed out – including perhaps most memorably Stewart Lee – since what ‘British’ is has no clear or exact meaning. We are a nation historically made of up Angles, French, Vikings, Norsemen, Celts, the Welsh, the Cornish, Germans, Greeks and more. (Many more!)
To suggest that Britishness and whiteness are historically synonymous is false, then, not because these other nations (Angles, French, Vikings, etc) are non-white (although more on this detail in a short moment), but because if ‘British’ is a single identity that in fact springs from a wide range of different identities, then there is no reason to suggest that ‘British’ is a single identity that has to have a specific skin colour.
What is more, the idea that the UK is historically white is also false and in and of itself white supremacist because if those non-white people who supposedly are ‘now’ British were indeed ‘British,’ then they would simply be British – and there would be no need to tell them that they were somehow ‘not British enough’ because of their skin colour.
That is, when history is used as an appeal to justify ongoing imbalances along racial lines within the UK, it places those non-white people in the category of ‘not quite British’ or ‘not British enough’ – as if having British nationality and/or permission to live and work in the UK were not the end of it.
To be treated as ‘not quite British’ means that history is being used as an excuse to preserve white Britishness in its supreme position, with that supremacy now based upon whiteness (i.e. it is white supremacy), since it is the non-whiteness of the other that renders them ‘not quite British.’
(Nationality can also be used instead of race to classify someone as ‘not quite British.’ For example, one might be Irish or Polish in origin, and this non-British origin is now used as a reason to define the other as ‘not quite British.’ In other words, white supremacy can also work alongside a sense of nationalist supremacy. It is not for no reason, though, that the Irish and the Polish have historically sometimes been referred to as the ‘blacks of Europe.’ That is, nationalist supremacy and white supremacy often go hand in hand, and even though the skin of many Irish people is ‘white,’ and indistinguishable from the skin of many British people, the Irish have not always been considered ‘fully white,’ just as they have not always been considered ‘fully British’ – whatever that means. As a result, ‘whiteness’ is a set of values not always wholly linked to skin colour alone.)
(Furthermore, the appeal to history also is inherently conservative in that it assumes that the past is more correct than the present and the future – a perspective that contradicts the notion of ‘progress,’ which can be equally problematic, and which claims that the present is more correct than the past – and that the future will be more correct yet than the present. In other words, such a view suggests that historical whiteness overrules present diversity and future non-whiteness. Given that history has favoured whites, such a conservative view of the world is thus to my mind itself a culturally ‘white supremacist’ view.)
‘But,’ our white supremacist might contend in their next line of defence, ‘if we don’t look out, then we’ll be overrun by foreigners’ – which is the ‘yellow peril’ line of argument at work in its clearest fashion (although the peril need not always be yellow; it can also be black and/or Polish and so on).
What this line of defence suggests again is that the now-British person is again not quite British enough, and that rather than Britain changing in its complexion in order to match its citizens, it is citizens who must change in their complexion in order to match the nationality.
Again, if we are all only really ‘now-British,’ in that everyone is non-British if you go back far enough, then it is both senseless and racist to say that the newer ‘now-British’ are ‘not quite British’ or ‘not really British’ because of their skin colour (or former nationality). That is, none of us is ‘really British’ when we look hard enough at it, with Britishness – as well as whiteness – simply being imaginary constructs.
The contention comes in again: how can you say race is an imaginary construct when I can see that a black person has a different colour of skin to a white person? I am not ‘imagining’ that difference at all…
In some senses, this white supremacist defence is not wrong; many people defined as black do indeed have darker skin pigmentation than many people defined as white.
However, it is how these differences are meaningful that is an act of the imagination.
For, if I am six foot tall, I am definitely taller than someone who is five foot six. And while some tall people do think that they are superior to shorter people, we nonetheless do not at present exclude people from a group (except perhaps for ‘those who can enjoy certain theme park rides’) as a result of their height. No, theme park rides aside, that would be completely arbitrary and meaningless.
And yet, while we do not (in principle) offer different opportunities to people who are taller than to people who are shorter, white supremacist societies, including the UK, do offer different opportunities to people because of their skin colour.
If we lived in a world where, say, people with size 8 shoes and below were discriminated against, while people with size 9 shoes and above enjoyed the majority of the opportunities and spoils, then we’d not look at skin colour but at shoe size in order to differentiate between people. In such a world, someone with darker skin would still have darker skin, and we would still be able to recognise as much, just as in our current world we can still tell if someone is short and/or has a smaller shoe size. But as we are cool with grouping up with people of different heights and/or shoe sizes in our world, so would we be cool in that other world of grouping up with people of different skin colours – just as long as they had the right shoe size or were the right height!
Since on the whole we are cool with grouping up with people of different shoe sizes, it seems weird that some people are not cool with grouping up with people of different skin colours.
With this example, then, I hope to have suggested that while there are indeed different skin colours (indeed, there are so many different skin colours that there are perhaps no two people with exactly the same skin colour, just as there are perhaps no two people with exactly the same shape and size of feet), what is an act of the imagination is how skin colour determines so much meaning and value in our world.
In the world where we discriminate by height and shoe size, skin colour would still be real, but it would determine so much less. In our world, height and shoe size are still real, but for some reason they determine relatively little (but definitely not nothing) in how much we esteem and value people, while skin colour determines a lot. That it is one and not the other is because of how we imagine people to be and how we imagine people to have or to accrue value.
That is, for some reason the contemporary world sets a lot of importance by skin colour, while it doesn’t supposedly set that much importance by height or shoe size – even though these differences are all real. Why it is skin colour that is so important a marker of difference is an act of imagination; we imagine that this one marker of difference is somehow so much more important than any other (although skin colour is by no means the only important marker of difference, with even height and shoe size sometimes being important enough a marker of difference to make that difference meaningful).
This is a long and roundabout diatribe that has not yet dealt much with The Gentlemen, but which I write at the outset of what is potentially a new series of occasional blogs about how white supremacism creeps into and is at work in contemporary cinema because it is important to demonstrate how the films in question engage with and suggest how whiteness is indeed attributed greater value in the western world, if not globally, and especially in the UK as per Guy Ritchie’s film.
With this in mind, we can turn to various moments in the film that demonstrate its white supremacist values, before then suggesting why it is important to point out the film’s white supremacy, even as it risks spoiling the ‘fun’ of this piece of what would like otherwise to be ‘harmless entertainment.’
Relatively early on in the film a mixed group of youths enter into the otherwise all-white and traditional space of a chippy. The group, which is marked by having non-white members among their number, approach the counter and start putting in orders without paying attention to the other clients – and while speaking in the vernacular of British urban youths.
However, what the youths do not know is that at the counter also awaiting his chips is Coach (Colin Farrell), an Irish boxing/fight coach who just wants peacefully to get his chips without being insulted by these ‘obnoxious’ youths.
What follows is a scene in which Coach beats up a couple of the youths before they recognise who he is and defer to him. As he does this, he also delivers a basic lesson in manners, all the while meeting the nodding approval of the chippy staff, who thus suggest that they have had enough of these young people, too.
The scene plays out as a fantasy of violence enacted against young, mixed groups – whose threat to the otherwise white clientele and workers at the chippy is signalled by the mixed, that is, partially non-white, nature of this particular group.
In other words, The Gentlemen here encourages us as viewers to enjoy seeing violence enacted against these young, urban kids – especially because they are lower class and non-white/mixed.
That this takes place in a chippy is significant: what more of a ‘British’ location could you get then a chippy, given that we are internationally famous for our fish’n’chips? Furthermore, given that a chippy is a ‘working class’ establishment, we can now understand that the youths are not unwelcome there because of their class – because, the chippy owners and the other chippy clients are all ‘working class.’ No – the reason that they are not welcome is because some of them are not white.
That the youths defer to Coach as they get beaten up suggests not only the imposition of a white supremacy over the course of the scene (re-establishing that whites are in charge after their supremacy has been threatened), but also that the youths themselves endorse and support this white supremacy.
That is, The Gentlemen does not just stage whites beating non-whites; it also has the non-whites basically tell the whites that they were correct to do so, since their white ways are better than the non-white ways of the youths – an important lesson that the non-whites learn over the course of this otherwise innocuous-seeming scene.
Having established Coach in his position of white supremacy – a position so supreme that even non-whites recognise his authority – the film then involves a scene in which two boxers at Coach’s gym have an argument. Indeed, one boxer calls Ernie (Bugzy Malone) a ‘black cunt,’ to which Ernie objects by suggesting that this is racist.
Coach interrupts Ernie and explains that it is not racist because Ernie is both black and a cunt, and therefore calling Ernie a black cunt is by definition not racist. Ernie agrees with Coach and goes about his business.
In other words, in this scene we have Coach delegitimise Ernie’s feeling that the other boxer has been racist (which is not to mention misogynist in his use of the term ‘cunt’). But more than simply telling Ernie he is wrong, Coach also gets to give Ernie a lesson in how to call someone a ‘black cunt’ is not racist – with the implication being to call someone a ‘black cunt’ is right. Furthermore, not only does Coach tell Ernie he’s wrong, before ‘proving’ to him why he’s wrong, but the script to The Gentlemen also has Ernie accepting Coach’s argument and basically agreeing with him.
It is important that this ‘lesson’ follows Coach having schooled the youths in the chippy. For now that his authority has been established in the former scene, it is in this second scene simply reaffirmed and not questioned. And this allows for the filmmakers to achieve a deeply problematic triple whammy: to sneak overt racism into this scene, to have that racism explained as non-racism, and for that racism then to be accepted as non-racism by the person to whom this racist slur was directed.
For those unwilling to accept this triple whammy, and who might rather posit that Ernie is indeed black, so it is not wrong to call him black, I should reply: Ernie is not called black, but specifically a black cunt. That is, blackness is here elided with cuntness in such a way that it is made to apply to an entire race, thereby making the discourse racist.
Furthermore, while the c-word does get bandied about in The Gentlemen with some frequency, it is never used in association with, say, white or whiteness. While Fletcher (Hugh Grant) and Ray (Charlie Hunnam) might call each other cunts, neither calls the other a ‘white cunt,’ for example.
Perhaps they don’t have to call each other a ‘white cunt’ because each of them is white; for Ray to call Fletcher a ‘white cunt’ (or vice versa) would be redundant and so it is simpler for them just to call each other a cunt.
However, Ernie must be specified as a black cunt. According to the logic of The Gentlemen, then, race apparently has nothing to do with cuntitude except when you are black, at which point in time it is always worth reminding the cunt in question that they are specifically a black cunt.
The upshot of this is that whiteness becomes invisible (whiteness is not even worth mentioning or specifying), while blackness must always be marked – because blackness is a mark – whether or not cuntness, deeply misogynistic as it is, is also a mark.
That blackness is a mark suggests that all deviations from whiteness are abnormal and need to be defined, most often negatively (Ernie is not a cunt, but a black cunt). The need to mark deviations from whiteness is part and parcel of white supremacy – with the filmmakers here going so far as to mark this marking also as correct, and not just by the white characters, but by the affected black character himself.
That Coach is Irish could conceivably mean that we have a ‘metaphorical black’ talking to a ‘genuine’ Black (the Irish as the ‘blacks of Europe’) about race; that is, these are ‘brothers’ talking. But really The Gentlemen seems here as in the chippy scene to want to use Coach’s Irishness to cover over what is otherwise overt white supremacy.
As is typical of much white supremacist cinema, The Gentlemen does not give much screen time to non-white characters. If you look at the poster for the film, you will see that the main cast is white with the exception of Henry Golding (who plays Dry Eye); while there are non-white characters, then, these generally are cast in subservient and secondary roles.
Furthermore, the only non-white character who does have a leading part and who appears on the poster, namely Dry Eye, is of course the film’s antagonist, or villain – an uppity young Asian man who threatens to take over the business of the whites who otherwise monopolise the marijuana business within the UK.
Now, Dry Eye is not just uppity towards the white overlords. No, The Gentlemen takes care to make sure that Dry Eye is also irreverent towards his Asian boss, Lord George (Tom Wu).
However, while this might with some gerrymandering mean that Dry Eye is just a ‘bad egg,’ and that actually there are some ‘good’ Asians, like Lord George, in the film… in fact the film also makes sure to show that Lord George is also a bad egg.
This in particular takes place through a scene in which weed kingpin Mickey Pierson (Matthew McConnaughey) goes to Lord George’s base and poisons him. Not only does he poison Lord George’s tea such that the latter vomits and soils himself – a humiliation in which Mickey seems to take some pleasure – but he also offers Lord George a lecture on vices.
For, at the start of the scene, Lord George explains that gambling on horses is his only vice. Cue Mickey explaining that Lord George, as someone who deals in cocaine and heroin, has many vices, even if he does not take those drugs himself (and this is not to mention the other rackets with which he is involved). This vileness Mickey compares to his own weed dealing, which in his own eyes is simply an innocent and not life-destroying drug, even as Mickey has knowingly slaughtered his rivals (notably black!) in order to be the biggest weed dealer in the UK and perhaps further afield.
This attribution to the Asian other of evil – which applies to Dry Eye, but especially here to Lord George – is not only another scene of the white telling the non-white about their place within the white world order, but it also involves a curious erasure of history. For, as has regularly been noted, it is the UK who supplied and got countless Asians, specifically Chinese people, addicted to opium during the so-called Opium Wars – and all in the name of Empire. And yet, here it is the ‘evil’ Chinaman (with his pompous faux British name!) who is guilty of doing the same…
Again, then, whiteness reigns supreme in the world of The Gentlemen.
The Gentlemen involves a sequence in which Ray goes with his colleagues, including Bunny (Chidi Ajufo), on to a housing estate in order to extract the daughter of a lord, Laura (Eliot Pauline Sumner). This they do, but not without mistakenly throwing a Russian heir out of a window and to his death.
The body is then filmed by a further group of youths, from whom Ray and his colleagues must take their phones in order to ensure that the mission is not recorded and placed on social media.
This then prompts a sequence just like the one in the chippy: white Ray confronts the mixed/non-white youths and then out-toughs them with a machine gun. While Bunny is indeed on Ray’s ‘side’ during this confrontation, as per the sequence in the chippy, the council estate sequence situates the viewer in such a way as to take pleasure in seeing these youths as humiliated, first by marking them as a threat (especially by keeping Ray’s machine gun hidden not just from the youths, but also from us as viewers), then by marking them as defeated.
Again, then, white supremacy creeps in.
And yet, just as Bunny works for Ray, so does urban youth culture work for the film, since the inclusion of celebrity performers like Bugzy Malone is surely done in a bid to boost the appeal of The Gentlemen beyond a white audience.
And what this means is that black/urban music features on the soundtrack to the film also in a bid to sell it – and in order to increase its coolness.
Toni Morrison has written about how white media regularly use encounters with blacks, especially black music, in order to signal a transition (a character suddenly is galvanised to do something tough by listening to hip hop, for example) – and it is clear in the history of cinema more generally that black music is regularly used to signify ‘action’ and ‘excitement’ in films that otherwise have unmarked white characters taking up the vast majority of the screen time.
This exploitation is also at work here in The Gentlemen, then, where all that is non-white is derided and yet used profitably by whiteness, including the humiliation of non-whites for the pleasure of white audiences. (There is even a series of jokes at the expense of a character called Phuc, played by Jason Wong.)
And yet, for all of its use of blackness to increase its caché and chances of making a profit, The Gentlemen also has the temerity to deride black culture.
This it does relatively subtly towards the beginning of the film. For, Fletcher explains to Ray that he has written a film script about the whole plot in which he finds himself involved – for Fletcher is an investigative journalist who has been following the exploits of Mickey Pierson now for some time… and he is with Ray, as Mickey’s sidekick, to extort some money from him so as not to have Mickey’s business exposed in the tabloid press (represented here by Eddie Marsan playing newspaper editor Big Dave).
As Fletcher explains to Ray, his script is cinematic, and he outlines what ‘cinematic’ is and means by comparing it to television or even something that one might watch on a small screen on the internet. As if to confirm Fletcher’s argument that cinema is ‘superior’ to these other media, the makers of The Gentlemen consciously change the dimensions of the screen in order to convey how the bigger/more ‘cinematic’ an image is, the more powerful it is.
That is, cinema is upheld in The Gentlemen as the supreme audiovisual format.
But more than this, cinema is also upheld as white when it transpires that Coach’s non-white protégés, including Ernie and others, have not only stolen some of Mickey’s weed from one of his plantations (a problematic term that I use provocatively by choice), but that they have also recorded their exploits and uploaded them to social media.
In other words, non-whiteness is here implicitly associated with the small screen, which in turn is defined as an inferior medium not just by Fletcher, but also by the film itself, since the film consciously changes the dimensions of the screen in order to demonstrate Fletcher’s point, i.e. to demonstrate that Fletcher is correct.
It is for this reason, then, that the makers of The Gentlemen elide whiteness with cinema as a whole, with whiteness being supreme, especially in this ‘supreme’ medium. Non-whites are associated with inferior media, which in turn confirms their ‘inferior’ societal status.
And yet, for all of their supposed aesthetic ‘inferiority,’ The Gentlemen is very happy to replicate the aesthetics of social media for the purposes of telling its story, including by showing in full one of the music videos created by Ernie/Bugzy Malone in the closing credits.
White supremacy, then, relies on the non-white for its own power, and yet denies this reliance even as it overtly uses non-whiteness to its own advantage.
Of course, a white supremacist might just finally contend two things. Firstly, that someone has to be the bad guy, and so why not the Asian other/Dry Eye? To which one might respond that no one has to be the bad guy at all, especially if we understand that anyone who does ‘bad’ things generally does them for reasons beyond simply being ‘evil’ – even if The Gentlemen cannot be bothered to take the time to show the reasons behind, say, Dry Eye’s greed (meaning that he is simply allowed to be or to become a ‘bad’ Asian).
(I might suggest that cinema as a whole does not generally bother to spend time investigating or exploring complexities of character, a wider issue that is related both to conventions of storytelling, and to the kinds of films we watch, how long they run, where they play and so on. That is, films generally cannot be bothered to explore complexity because it would require slower, less ‘interesting’ and more thoughtful films. This would in turn mean that cinema would run the risk of not making as much money; and so, capitalism as a whole is in part responsible for the lack of thoughtful movies, meaning that cinema is a race to the bottom in terms of indulging unthoughtfulness. How and why thought and thinking are so unappealing in our attention-driven and capitalist society is an issue that will have to await another discussion.)
Secondly, a white supremacist might contend that The Gentlemen need not be bothered to show such complexities because it is, after all, ‘just a movie,’ just ‘a bit of fun,’ or just entertainment – as the film consciously suggests by choosing The Jam’s ‘That’s Entertainment’ as the song that plays over the start of the final credits.
But, as Richard Dyer has also suggested, that which is put forward as ‘only entertainment’ is often far from being such.
Or, put differently, we don’t have many pro-KKK films (although we should worry about their existence and the popularity that any such films enjoy). And yet, we do have issues of white supremacy and racism in our society. And white supremacy persists in our societies not only because of overt racism, but also because of white supremacy is fed to us in ‘mere entertainments’ such as The Gentlemen.
I might push further and suggest that not only is there white supremacy in our society, but that we live in a white supremacist society as a whole; that is, our society is built upon white supremacy, among other things (including classism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other issues – and all of which are present in The Gentlemen, too). Since our society is built upon white supremacy, we cannot change white supremacy without changing society.
I might also suggest that cinema as a whole is white supremacist and that we cannot change white supremacy in cinema without fundamentally changing cinema.
The reason to write a blog (series) such as this, then, is to suggest that we should indeed be looking to change cinema – by encouraging producers, editors, writers, directors, cinematographers, actors, all crew and cast, and even all cinema goers, as well as critics and so on – to be attuned to how white supremacy is at work in the medium, and especially in films like this one.
If we don’t put in such work – if we don’t kill some of the ‘joy’ that people take in white supremacy – then white supremacy will continue. And it is time to put an end to such white supremacy – not necessarily by making only films about paraplegic black lesbians or whatever other sarcastic response a white supremacist might put defensively in place (although why not have many more such films?), but by being and/or becoming more responsible for how we think, how we express our thoughts, and how we live with each other today.
That is, if we can spread a wider understanding of how white supremacy works, then perhaps the fabric of films like The Gentlemen might change. Producers, actors, writers, editors and so on would not want to make such films, and so such films would change. This in turn might change cinema. And by changing cinema we might in turn change society.
Such changes need to be made…
* Another white supremacist contention might be aimed at the writer of this blog as a white (cisgendered) male, etc: am I not also implicated in white supremacy, the recipient of many of its benefits and so on? That is, am I not just a virtue-signalling hypocrite in writing anti-white supremacy blogs? I am indeed complicit in white supremacy, and this has emerged in different ways at different points in my life – and it likely will never not be the case. However, as I grow increasingly to understand the workings of white supremacy myself, I feel it important not only to seek to change my own behaviours and complicity with that system, but also to share what it is that I am learning in a bid to bring about wider change. The process of learning has not ended and likely never will end. To bring it to an end, though, is what we might call a project: a part of one’s life work, something that goes on until death, but which may well give meaning to such a life, rather than persisting in meaningless complicity.
I came to Blue Story with a pre-formed mix of admiration and expectation.
The admiration arises from Rapman’s meteoric rise as a rapper from ends being signed to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation – much on the back of Rapman’s music videos/online series, Shiro’s Story (UK, 2018).
Shiro’s Story involves some solid storytelling – with Rapman himself functioning as a kind of chorus over events as they unfold, involving love, betrayal, struggle and so on. I shall return to Shiro’s Story as a point of comparison to Blue Story later on.
The expectation that I had for Blue Story arises not only from the existence of Shiro’s Story as a decent piece of online media, but also from recent news stories that, for better or for worse, have helped to give the film a great amount of exposure in recent days, in particular a reported gang brawl involving c100 people at a Birmingham multiplex on 24 November 2019.
Not that the brawling has anything per se to do with Blue Story, but it nonetheless increases expectations about the timeliness and importance of the film. Indeed, the screen at which I saw the film (at the Odeon Covent Garden in London) was near-full (c160 tickets sold).
Furthermore, the vast majority of the audience were young and non-white – on a scale that I have rarely if ever seen at a central London theatre, suggesting that the film is connecting with an audience that otherwise does not often make the trip into such spaces. Clearly, London and the UK in general need more films like Blue Story in order to bring people together – especially to see demographics represented onscreen that all too often are overlooked, tokenised and so on.
Indeed, as has been reported, the decision by VUE to pull Blue Story from its screens (with Showcase having reinstated it shortly after removing it following the Birmingham brawl) is considered to have an element of structural racism associated with it: cinemas are white spaces where black and other non-white British (and other) people appear neither in person nor on screen.
And yet, if we are to have the wherewithal to recognise the importance of structures in the exhibition policies of British cinema chains, as well as perhaps in British cinema as an institution, then it is the absence of structures in Blue Story that constitute its most serious failings.
The film is not without many things to commend it: the performances are across the board intense, with leads Stephen Odubola and Micheal Ward clearly standing out; there are some moments that beautifully capture the awkwardness of youth (with audience members responding audibly about the familiarity of party and clinch situations during the screening I saw); and Rapman’s own appearances, rapping as if a Greek chorus in between acts. These latter in particular take the film into the territory of the musical that is fresh and engaging.
What is more, Blue Story clearly fits into a genealogy of black British and other filmmaking, with Noel Clarke looming as a key influence, even if Rapman himself first made a version of Blue Story for YouTube in 2014 – i.e. before Clarke had even finished his -hood trilogy, which culminated in Brotherhood (UK, 2016).
What is more, Rapman’s music clearly bears traces of what might seem an unlikely point of reference, namely Bruce Hornsby – he of ‘The Way It Is’ fame.
Except that Hornsby’s influence is not as unlikely as all that when we consider that ‘The Way It Is’ is a song about the American Civil Rights movement, with the song making reference to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as racial segregation in the form of the ‘color bar’ (‘When all it sees at the hiring time / Is the line on the color bar, no / That’s just the way it is / Some things will never change’).
What is more, Hornsby has been a regular collaborator with Spike Lee, writing music for nine of Lee’s films, including Clockers (USA, 1995), Bamboozled (USA, 2001), Chi-Raq (USA, 2015) and BlackKklansman (USA, 2018), as well as his Netflix production of She’s Gotta Have It (USA, 2017-2019).
In other words, Lee’s legacy is felt at least indirectly in Blue Story, suggesting that the latter wishes on some level to situate itself within a history of politicised and political filmmaking – and music.
But as Blue Story struggles to recognise structures, so does it struggle to render its story political.
Here I encounter some ambivalence. As a white male film scholar, I am wary that I should be moved to write a blog about a black British film, especially when I am going to be critical of it.
For, why should I critique a black British film when I let so many white British films go for being mediocre, troublesome or problematic (I simply don’t have time to write about all of the films I see)?
It is not that I consider Rapman to be under pressure to represent the totality of the black British experience. But while I want to be supportive of Blue Story (and I hope that in writing this blog at all, I am demonstrating that in many ways I am), I also cannot let the film go for deficiencies that would for me be problematic in any film (all the while acknowledging that I am perhaps ‘no one’ to be able to comment on a film at all).
A read of bell hooks’ wonderful Black Looks: Race and Representation (1992) would quickly highlight various of the film’s problems. As hooks takes none other than Spike Lee to task for the phallocentric nature of his cinematic universe, so, too, is Rapman’s cinematic universe one dominated by men, especially as mothers and girlfriends disappear over the course of the first half of the film.
Conceivably Rapman is commenting on precisely the issue of sexism and the toxic nature of masculinity. Nonetheless, his female characters become background over the course of the film (while also being referred to repeatedly – and with intended humour – as ‘tings’ by the male characters who basically stare at them at parties). As a result, women function here as excuses for the men to puff their chests at each other – with barely a nod to the queerness of such behaviour being allowed in such a film.
However, I remain unconvinced that Rapman is commenting and inviting us critically to reflect upon black British masculinity, since the writer-director does so little to engage with where it comes from, how it is constructed and so on. That is, Rapman does not engage with the structures that bring about the aggressive black masculinities on display here – and in this sense his film plays more for entertainment than it does for politics.
This is a pity. Because in Shiro’s Story, for example, we get to see Shiro (Joivan Wade) working in a warehouse before he is then offered a break as a drug dealer. While there is some mention in Blue Story about how Timmy (Odubola) is sold out by a bribe from a rival gang, the world of film is not situated in any economic reality at all.
Furthermore, while there is the odd mention that the threatened and real violence that we see in the film is pointless given that the gang members do not ‘own’ their postcode, there is no sense of history here: how is it that London has come to have ‘ghettos’ and how is it that many young black men (in particular) come to feel hopeless and/or disaffected in such a way that they join gangs.
Rapman is clearly astute to how violence can breed violence, but he barely does more than namedrop the bigger issues that bring about the violence that seems endemic in black British urban society.
Indeed, from Shiro’s Story we know that Rapman can contextualise his stories; and so that he does not here is not because he is a first-time writer-director and thus inexperienced. That is, I shan’t let him hide behind that excuse, especially as he is not as young as all that (in his 30s, apparently), and even if his film does have some dodgy plotting (would a van door really be so hot that one could not touch it even for a quarter of a second in order to open it, especially using, say, a sleeve over one’s hand?).
Rather, the lack of explanation as to why these men are engaging in this behaviour is a choice made by or imposed upon Rapman. That is, he chooses not to show us, for example, the mother of Marco (Ward) and Switcher (Eric Kofi-Abrefa) working two jobs, preferring instead to show us her two sons, who seemingly come only to care to seek ‘beef’ with the paigons (pagans) from another postcode.
I say ‘imposed upon,’ because Rapman possibly delivered a film that pleases not so much the audience of his film as a ‘white’ financing institution like the BBC. That is, a kind of structural racism might have been at play in bringing about the end result that is Blue Story in its current form – and one that Rapman has either not been able to criticise, or with which he is happily complicit.
However, the result is the same: without going into the underlying issues that bring about violence, Blue Story becomes little more than a showcase of black men arguing and trying to out-macho each other.
In making little to no attempt to tell us why what we are seeing is taking place, these black men become simply spectacles of violence – and the film reaffirms (I assume without wanting to) the (racist) message that ‘black men are simply like this.’ Or: that’s just the way it is.
However, when Hornsby sings how ‘that’s just the way it is,’ he is of course employing irony because history has shown us that segregation could not continue in the USA, even as racial inequality continues via what Angela Y. Davis has repeatedly identified as the prison industrial complex (including most recently here).
Rapman, meanwhile, provides no history (with the lack of history wrapped up here in the trope/cliché of the absent father, which is repeated across both Timmy and Marco’s families) and in some senses no irony – even if there is ‘dramatic irony’ in that good friends become worst enemies.
To be clear, I am not saying that Rapman needs to offer us a happy ending in which people overcome rivalries and enmity. Indeed, there is a strong tradition of pessimism in movies about race, including in now-classics like John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (USA, 1991).
This in turns means that it is not quite fair to ask us to think about how Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet (USA, 2019) is playing on UK screens with very little fanfare when compared with Blue Story – since in its hopeful tale of historical female heroism it perhaps does not grasp a sense of despair that black and other non-white British audiences potentially connect with, rather than the white bourgeois sense of hope that a film like Harriet perhaps evokes.
But at least in Singleton’s film, the audience is constantly being reminded of a world beyond its Crenshaw setting, as well as the possibility of another world; there is always a choice, and there are economic, social and other structural pressures at work that make the personal lives depicted also political (even as Boyz n the Hood is formally quite conservative).
Notably, when Rapman’s film refers to anything beyond SE13 and SE15, it is generally to Rapman’s own music and/or the LinkUp TV channel that published his early work.
That is, Rapman foregoes political engagement for self-promotion. Again, this is Rapman’s choice; but as he prefers to promote himself over any genuine attempt to engage politically with the structural aspects of race and gang crime in the UK, so does he – in the language of the Dead Prez – choose a Lexus over justice.
Furthermore, as the film becomes repetitive in its succession of scenes in which black men argue, it conceivably ties into a history of what James A. Snead describes in his glorious essay as ‘repetition in black culture.’
But again, there is no motivation for this – meaning that gangs simply exist, without being concerned with territorial business interests connected to the grey or black markets, alternative economies, or social conditions. Apparently simply being born in Peckham will induce in black men a hatred for black men from Deptford – and vice versa, and that’s just the way it is.
Given the coverage that it has enjoyed, it seems a shame that Blue Story wastes a rare opportunity to offer up a scathing critique of structural racism in the UK.
In this sense, the coverage of the Birmingham brawl in fact becomes emblematic of the film as a whole: rather than making a film that incites audience members to take militantly to the streets in demand of social change, Blue Story instead becomes an excuse for young ethnic British people to fight each other.
Sure, this spectacle of self-destruction takes place in an otherwise white, consumerist enclave, and thus it does in some senses unsettle readers of national newspapers. But it also simply reaffirms and reinforces a white fear of a black Britain – reducing minority youths to hoodlums in hoodies who simply are violent, with no need for the rest of society to reflect on their own implication in this mess.
That is, blackness becomes a spectacle for white consumption.
The nihilism involved both in the brawl and in Blue Story is troubling – and in this sense there really is something to get behind here. What is more, there clearly is a British sensibility of nihilism, as we have seen in countless movies related to class (and now race): there is no way out of the British class system (meaning that the UK is truly corrupt since it sees change as impossible; history ended in the UK first, with numerous black and other non-white bodies being excluded from mainstream society).
Maybe it is my white sensibility that is at play when I say that I would hope for more, and maybe it is unfair to ask Rapman to be anything other than human, i.e. flawed and imperfect. But if we believe there is something wrong – as Blue Story would seemingly purport – then it is our duty (so say I) to understand why, so that we then might understand how to change it.
Without understanding why, and without any sense of history (because there is no history?), then it will simply perpetuate – as a spectacle as well as in the form of a reality that affects the lives of real people. The lack of critical engagement here is telling, but also self-defeating.
As Shiro’s Story demonstrates, Rapman can do better. Let us hope, therefore, that next time he will engage with a bigger picture and that he realises not just his commercial potential, but also the political and ethical potential of his considerable artistic talents.