23 January 2013

A Problem

I had a long talk with JG today about the resurgence of the black servant in media. Movies like The Help, Django Unchained, and the upcoming The Butler. Our discussion was focused on the inability of America to face our past discretions.

We are a country of teenagers. We crash our car while drunk. Our parents are indignant and ground us for a month or two only to give us a much nicer new car after the punishment.

That simplifies the problem but we have an inability to discuss these things. We look at films like Django and wring our hands, but is the message being absorbed? We acknowledge the problem but do nothing to fix it.

I wondered aloud if we even notice the problem. Isn't there a possibility that some see a film like Django or The Help and think that these problems were in the past? That we already did that civil rights thing?

I have the same issue with Zero Dark Thirty. A film that talks about important issues. America has spent 12 years fighting unwinnable, money draining wars. And what have we gotten in return? Bin Laden is dead, but do we feel better? Do those 3000 people come back?

The final shot of ZDT is of Jessica Chastain, alone on a military plane. Her face takes up the whole of the frame. She has just 'won'. She got Bin Laden. She saw his body. Her face twists and she bursts into tears. The battle that she waged for 12 years has left her hollow and destroyed. She has lost her friends. She has spent all her time and energy 'getting' this man. And for what?

At one point in the film Chastain tells a marine that he is there to get Bin Laden for her. To kill him for her. She says she was left alive to get Bin Laden. Clearly, the character becomes a stand in for all of America at this point. We are the lone woman, spoken of as being 'young' and 'fragile'. We are the one left standing, we are there to dole out vengeance.

Kathryn Bigelow has come under considerable criticism for the portrayal of torture in the film. I can't help but feel like the critics are just incapable of stomaching the truth of what America spent 12 years doing.

I conflate these two types of not dealing. Race and War. The arguments for and against each are more nuanced than what I have glanced at here. I can't help but feel that we suffer, as a nation, from PTSD around both of these issues.

We avert our gaze from what causes us nightmares.

Sometimes we acknowledge the events. But only in certain terms.

Disney won't release Song of the South on DVD in the US. It is widely available in the rest of the world. We spend more time discussing whether Tarantino can make a movie about slavery than what is int he movie. Bigelow is called out for historical inaccuracies and the ambiguity of her 'statement'.

We are doomed to spin our wheels. To repeat.

Octavia Spencer won an Oscar for playing a sassy maid in The Help. The first Oscar won by a black actor was in 1939, when Hattie McDaniel won for playing a sassy maid in Gone With the Wind. I think Spencer is a great actress, but is this the best we can do?