White Supremacist Cinema: The Gentlemen (Guy Ritchie, UK/USA, 2019)

American cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Uncategorized

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).

So…

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.

Killer Joe (William Friedkin, USA, 2011)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, Neurocinematics

Killer Joe tells the story of trailer trash Texan family the Smiths. Son Chris (Emile Hirsch) owes money to some local gangsters and so hatches the plot to kill his mother, Adele (Julia Adams), in order to take home her savings via an inheritance.

To do this, he hires a local cop-cum-hitman, the titular Joe (Matthew McConnaughey), as well as roping in his dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), his stepmother Sharla (Gina Gershon) and his little sister Dottie (Juno Temple) – with whom he’ll split the money four ways. The reason he has to involve the rest of his family is because Adele savings are apparently all to be left in her will to Dottie.

Since the money is going to come only after the hit, Chris and co offer Dottie as ‘collateral’ to Killer Joe. And Joe takes Dottie – presumably depriving her of her virginity in the process.

The film is blackly comic – with some amusing deadpan humour, plain funny sight gags, trailer park gawping, and unsettling violence – which is often sexualised.

The film is, as a former colleague of mine has pointed out to me, pretty harsh on its women: Adele barely features, Sharla is a conniving slut, and Dottie, having been deflowered by Joe, seems to fall for him pretty bad.

It’s not that the male folk fare better: most people in the film are copper nanotubes (Google it), the men included. But the women don’t really get a look in, being sexual objects, somewhat fatales, pretty incapable of autonomous action, and something of a backdrop for the men to be men together.

However, aside from these shortcomings, and no doubt some interesting things that could be discussed in terms of neo-noir and other films of its ilk – The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom, USA/Sweden/UK/Canada, 2010) and U-Turn (Oliver Stone, France/USA, 1997) came to mind while watching it – the film is interesting for a couple of things that I’d like to discuss now and both of which, in short order, suggest that the film is reflecting on the cinematic experience.

I am in the midst of reading Gabriele Padullà’s In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators after the Cinema. The book basically tries to explain what the cinema experience is like – and while I have not finished it to know Padullà’s argument exactly, it seems as though he basically wants to account for how filmgoers watch movies because they enjoy them.

This requires a bit of explanation, since Padullà’s argument will seem obvious (duh, of course we watch movies because we enjoy them). How it is interesting, though, is the way in Padullà dismisses earlier interpretations of the film viewing experience.

For example, early film theorists often compared cinema to Plato’s Cave. The philosopher for Plato is the person who realises the most humans unthinkingly are sat in a cave watching the projected shadows of reality, but not reality itself. Cinema is a bit like sitting in such a cave and watching projected shadows of reality. Ergo, cinema might be a bit like Plato’s cave.

Except, for reasons practical if for no other, then cinema makes ‘philosophers’ of us all (but does it really?), since we all know that reality does not conform to the movies (but do we?). Now, the Plato model perhaps was employed for the political reason that to compare a mass medium like cinema to a great like Plato helps to legitimise cinema as an authentic art form. Indeed, that cinema can and perhaps does make philosophers of us (something I argue in my own published work – but not quite in this fashion/for these purposes) also no doubt helps to legitimise cinema as a ‘meaningful’ form – when most people view it as crash, bang, wallop blood-splattering fun.

However, the Plato analogy cannot stand up when it is clear that we choose to watch movies that we know are just illusions. Furthermore, since we now view films not in a darkened room but, as Padullà puts it, in broad daylight, further means that the Plato analogy is outdated.

Furthermore, Padullà rejects the idea that cinema is a mirror or something like a dream screen for the same reason: we can and do get up during film viewing, we talk, check our phones (my example, not Padullà’s) and the images are far more precise than a dream image.

So, given that these models of what the cinematic experience is or is supposed to be, Padullà’s suggestion (so far) that we watch films because we want to and because we enjoy them takes on some ‘revolutionary’ force.

Why this sidetrack into Padullà?

Because I wonder Killer Joe seems to reflect directly on viewing practices in the contemporary era – and I shall give what I consider to be two clear-cut examples. And I’ll give them in reverse order (in that the one I discuss first happens later in the film than the one I discuss second).

Minor spoiler: as Joe explains to Sharla and Ansel how he is going to deal with Chris following the (expected) botching of the plot to win Adele’s money, Ansel’s attention is drawn to a television depicting monster trucks.

Joe reacts poorly, heading over to the TV and destroying it.

Why this is important to me is because Ansel’s attention cannot but be drawn towards the monster truck screen – in spite of the fact that Joe is talking to him.

While Ansel no doubt likes shows with monster trucks in them, this also signals how the screens that fill our contemporary world are designed – even in broad daylight – to capture our attention. That is, even though we are supposed to be concentrating on something else (here, Joe talking), we find that we look at the screen not because we want to, but because we have no choice but to.

I know that Padullà addresses what we might call the attention economy in a section beyond where I am right now in In Broad Daylight, so apologies to him if I guess incorrectly the nature of his eventual argument.

Nonetheless, I wonder to what extent we are prey to the moving images on the ubiquitous screens that surround us the whole time (which is not to mention the loud sounds that we hear everywhere, too). Indeed, various essays that I have written argue that cutting rates and various other techniques, that colour, that the depiction of human emotions, and (this one’s not published – yet) that the beauty of film stars, are all designed – advertently or otherwise – to attract our attention, whether or not we actually like or enjoy a film. To this extent, cinema – and other screen media – draw upon our attention naturally, meaning that our minds are spent considering neither our natural environment (inasmuch as we might consider screens to be ‘unnatural’) nor attending to what we choose to.

No doubt the cognitive pleasures in having our attention aroused (we feel ‘alive’ when we are searching for prey, predator or mate – apparently) have caused a situation of feedback: that is, we go looking for rapid image fixes rather than attend to what we ought to – as my students looking at their iPhones during film screenings in class attests.

Nevertheless, not only would this seem to suggest that we do not strictly look at screens because we enjoy it (we can and do enjoy it, but how much choice we have in looking is up for grabs – anyone who has tried to hold down a conversation in a pub showing even the most banal television perhaps knows this feeling), but it also suggests that we might (wilfully!) be heading into Plato’s Cave – whereby we look at screens, at the play of illusions, rather than at reality, even though we know reality is out there.

In this sense, while Padullà’s critique of the Plato analogy is powerful, he might conceivably overlook the way in which the Plato analogy might also be prophetic.

(And note: when we do not look at what we want to, or when we cannot but hear the sounds of screens that surround us, then to an extent, these sounds and images are doing violence to us. I think of it thus: when I have been trying to sleep and I hear a television, I find the jolts from light sleep caused by the television to be truly jarring and disturbing, violent even. Perhaps you have had a similar experience…? Okay, so it is good for us to be alert and ready for violence – as the Darwinians would have us believe – but cinema and the other screen media would also have us believe that we were made to live in a hyperstimulated state, when a world without screens would have some – real – violence, but nothing like the constant barrage that we have now…)

The second moment, which comes earlier in the film, is when Joe ‘seduces’ Dottie for the first time. During this scene, Dottie undresses for Joe, who turns his back on her and then gives her orders as he undresses himself.

Okay – we the audience members see Dottie, and so there is a complex interplay going on here between our own voyeurism (heterosexual males if no others are drawn to Dottie’s figure for ‘natural’ reasons) and Joe’s projections.

What I mean by this is that in not looking at Dottie, but instead getting her to approach him from behind, he gets to imagine what she looks like – preferring his imagination to actually seeing or looking at her.

In other words, while Joe is pissed off at Ansel for looking at the TV and not at him, Joe himself has a strange relationship with reality, such that he prefers to create projected fantasy worlds rather than to engage in what is actually in front of him.

As much is borne out later when Joe gets Sharla to simulate fellatio on a piece of K Fried C that he holds over his crotch. Joe does not want real contact with Sharla, it seems, but gets off on simulated contact. In other words, it seems that Joe is also as addicted to images as Ansel, and that he prefers images to reality.

Now, since we do see Dottie undress, we might say that Joe has his own foibles, but that we as viewers prefer actually to look. Except, of course, that we are watching a film and not reality. In other words, director Friedkin seems to be bringing to our attention the way in which he, too, is constructing (male) fantasies that we see played out, and which perhaps we prefer to ‘reality’.

The fake BJ scene is most telling in this respect: Joe has just smashed in Sharla’s face when he forces her to suck the chicken leg. If Joe is somehow an ersatz viewer, then Friedkin seems in some respects to be throwing back into our (male) faces the fantasies of sexualised violence that Joe enacts. Indeed, Friedkin ramps this up by seeming to have the seem play out in a titillating fashion (even though the scene is shot from a combination of long, medium and low angle shots; the arch lighting might also enhance this effect).

Joe even suggests with Dottie that he and she are 12 years old as they enact their fantasy sex – an ironic comment, it seems, on the regressive powers of cinema for making us engage not with the real world, or with real people, but with fantasy images of people instead.

Again, then, it seems that Padullà might have been premature (though, again, he might twist back on himself in the book – we shall see) in dismissing both the notion of the mirror and the notion of Plato’s cave as analogies for the film experience.

For, the predominance of screens in the contemporary world – and their power to hold our attention ahead of the reality – seems to suggest that we might be moving willingly into something like Plato’s Cave. And the way in which film can muck about with our sexual fantasies, which of course are based on mental images as much as on reality, suggests that we cannot only watch films because we enjoy them (even though this is a primary motivating factor). But it can be for more perverse and deep-seated reasons than that, ones that cognitive psychology can do little to answer for, and which still need something along the lines of psychoanalysis (with warnings/provisos) to at least begin to contemplate.

Killer Joe is not necessarily a great film, nor the best by Friedkin. Nonetheless, Friedkin belongs to a generation of directors that Padullà says were obsessed with cinema as it was: busy, bustling, loud auditoria, not the museum culture of silence and worship that we have today. As such, it seems unsurprising that his film – in so many ways a throwback to an older generation of noir – would seem nostalgic for former film viewing experiences. Ones where we not endlessly distracted by other, smaller, faster moving screens. And ones where our own fantasies helped to fill in the gaps left by the film world – rather than seeing everything because the cinema shows everything…