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Friday, June 13, 2008

Race and Representation on Film

Recently, Spike Lee and Clint Eastwood had a bit of a scuffle.

While I think this was mainly the press baiting controversy from two talented directors (yes, I do believe Spike's got talent, and I know many who disagree with me), it opened up an interesting bit of commentary on the nature of race in Hollywood. Is it "revisionist" now? Is it reverse racism?

Spike Lee's latest film, Miracle at St. Anna (that's the article where I got all the above links), follows an African-American soldier's story. Like most true stories, I'm fairly certain it takes liberties with history to make an interesting story, but it's based on something that may have happened.

Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima has no black extras or actors, despite some evidence that black soldiers were there. Unfortunately, due to the fact that camps were still largely segregated back then, it would be largely inaccurate to place some of these soldiers in the larger scenes. In fact, they would be relegated to background in combat sequences. These soldiers served heroically, and would deserve more recognition. To do so would shift the focus of the narrative to issues of race and segregation. It is, at its core, a story about soldiers and propaganda. White soldiers and there propaganda. Since Flags of Our Fathers is about the use of imagery in propaganda, the irony isn't lost.

Yes, Spike Lee has a point.

But so does Clint Eastwood.

In another example, Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor" follows a narrative about fictional white soldiers and a fictional white nurse in a fictional love triangle tied into the story of American involvement in World War II. Inserted into the narrative is the story of Doris Miller, the first African American to receive the Navy Cross. Despite a good performance by Cuba Gooding, Jr., this story seems inserted in, and not an organic part of the story that the film was trying to tell (talk about revisionist, the scene where Roosevelt stands to deliver his speech about going to war is atrociously revisionist - especially since American entry into World War II was reluctant, not proactive).

Countering this, in the world of this film there are apparently little, if any, Hawaiians on the island territory of Hawaii. The children looking up to the sky were white, blond, and blue eyed. As an Asian-American, a Pacific-Islander-American, I couldn't help but notice the lack of representation. As a lot was filmed in Hawaii, it wouldn't seem difficult to find the occasional Hawaiian extra to be in Hawaii.

A few years ago in my screenwriting class, I wrote a screenplay about Asian-American representation. My white teacher applauded me, and brought up how you'd never, say, see a Chinese gunslinger. One of my colleagues, a white student, said "Isn't that historically accurate, though?"

That comment specifically led me to research said history. Not through "revisionist" sources, but through news reports of the day.

The answer is yes, and no. There were no gunslingers in the traditional sense. The gunslinger is also a fabrication of propaganda. There are newspaper reports here and there about Chinese men having confrontations involving guns. In back issues of The San Jose Mercury News, dated around 1890, there was a huge search for a Chinese servant who murdered his boss. The Chinese Massacre, probably the first L.A. race riot, began, according to some reports, by two Chinese men pulling guns on each other, killing a white policeman in the crossfire.

Of course, because of this, I'm plotting out a Western at the moment involving the Chinese experience in Old West. There is no denying that they were there. The main character is fictional, doesn't know kung fu, and almost serves as Shaft in the slum of Chinatown. The story is actually set in San Jose, but plays around with geography of the Bay Area for narrative's sake. At least one event (the San Jose Chinatown Fire of 1875 - remains of which can be found at the University of Santa Clara museum) is actually true. It is, essentially, Gangs of New York set in the Bay Area.

Is it revisionist? Hell yes. Our main character serves as an amalgam of gunslingers, Chinese figures, and, well, Shaft. However, it pulls from many sources, including "The Barbary Coast" a blatantly racist tome about Chinese and Australian gangs in San Francisco, from Herbert Asbury (who also wrote Gangs of New York).

Am I Chinese? No, I'm Filipino-German-American. I have had a minority experience as well as a non-minority experience, and while I grew up in San Jose and the Bay Area, I never grew up in the Old West. I maintain that I need to be a certain race to tell a certain story oversimplifying.

My hope is that no one would read it as historical. It's a Western, after all, and it's rare to find one with any real accuracy beyond researching a dime novel.

Still, though, remember when I said that Spike had a point?

While it may be impossible for one person to understand another person's experience, I must maintain that the Minority Experience is universal. Take a look at My Big Fat Greek Wedding, especially in how it was marketed. It was my "Big Fat Italian...Danish...Jewish...Chinese... Greek Wedding". It reminded me of how tight-knit minority families react similarly in weddings, partly to preserve their culture, partly because they're close out of necessity. The premise of the marketing came from that particular surprise - that people from all minorities respond similarly enough to relate. The last time my cousin got married, and now that my sister is going through the same, I see elements of that film throughout this joining.

Ultimately, what must be done is true to story.

In most Hollywood films and TV shows, minority characters are rarely front and center, and most of the time part of an ensemble. In this case, they must stand in for whole peoples, and rarely can be seen as fleshed out characters.

"Ugly Betty" is an excellent exception to this. A family of hispanics are the main supporting cast. A work family of crazy, zany, white people and Vanessa Williams make up the rest of it. The appeal is universal. Two gay characters (well, one that may or may not be gay, but certainly shows the younger gay experience) also make up the cast - one as a sympathetic nephew, the other as a villain with some sympathy.

"Lost" is a more complex example. While one of my favorite shows, and one of the most diverse shows, it deals with race oddly. Michael Dawson returned, abandoning his son, and died. Harold Perrineau had a lot to say about that. And he does have a point. Out of the three major black characters (I use "black" opposed to African American since Mr. Eko is African, Michael is African-American, and Walt is African-American-Australian-American) in the cast - Mr. Eko, Michael, and Walt - we had a drug warlord, and now a murdering father who abandons his child, and a child who longs to know why. All black stereotypes. Two of the three of them are dead now. That being said, it was a more complex story - Michael didn't abandon Walt to begin with, her mother took Walt away and then Michael clinged to his son once he accepted the responsibility. Walt than took to his grandmothers after learning his father had killed two innocent people. Here we have two characters that didn't begin as stereotypes, but organically became them. None of these characters are two dimensional either, they are products of their environments, and one could understand them.

A new Korean-American character named Miles has just arrived on the island. He's actively defies a stereotype, playing an impolite, driven, con-artist and ghost-talker.

Both Korean National characters are played by Korean-Americans. They speak mainly in Korean, and use a dialog coach to get there accents right. One speaks in broken English as he learns. These are interesting characters in and of themselves, but, speaking as an Asian-American, I can't help but see a stereotype at work there. Still, Daniel Dae Kim became a sex symbol because of this show, the first Asian-American male to do so since Bruce Lee, and that makes me proud.

Then, there's my new favorite - Eric Foreman on House. Race rarely enters as an issue, and when it does it isn't contrived. Eric Foreman is simply a brilliant physician, and a punching bag for House (which could have racial implications but never does). He does get the brunt of racial teasing by House, but then again, House is an equal opportunity asshole - he drives everyone away from him. It's one of his quirks. New minority characters - a bisexual female and an Indian-American man (with the non Indian surname "Kutner") have joined the cast. They've received recognition of their minority makeup, as well as some playful teasing, but this seems to come out of themselves as well-rounded characters, not "token" minorities.

Wow, that's a lot.

These are examples that I just wish to put forth, look at, and analyze.

Was Spike right? Was Eastwood right?

Yes and no, and not entirely.

I realize that, like Lost, I've just raised more questions than I have answered. This is a complex issue that deserves complex discussion. I hope it can continue.


The Rush Blog said...

Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima has no black extras or actors, despite some evidence that black soldiers were there.

Actually, I did see a few black extras in "FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS".

The Rush Blog said...

"Lost" is a more complex example. While one of my favorite shows, and one of the most diverse shows, it deals with race oddly. Michael Dawson returned, abandoning his son, and died.

Michael Dawson DID NOT abandoned his son. Walt abandoned him or refused to see him, after discovering that Michael had killed two people (well, killed one and accidentally shot the other) in order to get him back.

Get your facts straight.

As for Michael, I have my own complaints about how Cuse and Lindehof handled his character.

John M Osborne said...

Hey Rush - Great Blog. I've added it to my list. Anyway, thanks for the comments - I was reacting, specifically, to the points made in the original linked article.

As for "Michael abandoning his son", that was from the actors' own comments in an interview after leaving the show originally.

You're right about the research thing, instead of just reacting and responding I should back things up more.