Posted on January 10, 2011
This article can now be found here:
January 11, 2011
Nice post. Interesting point that HF is indeed a racist book, for reasons having little to do with the word I dare not even type. I don’t recall how old I was when I read HF, but I remember feeling oddly embarrassed by what a laughable buffoon Jim was. Thinking about it now, I can imagine an African-American reader finding it extremely hard to take, whether “that word” is in there or not.
I’m reminded of my attempt in my early 20s to read Oliver Twist, which I aborted due to the noxious anti-Semitism. This is a good book, I thought, but there are other good books that won’t turn my stomach this way, and life’s just too short for this. Of course OT and HF are very different books, and Jim certainly a more charitably conceived character than Fagan, but still.
I’m not sure how people miss it. Its one thing to use it as an example of teaching about that moment in time, of how limited even good-natured attitudes about African Americans were, and how unlikely it was to see a nuanced, interesting portrayal of an African American. But the way I’ve seen most people elevate it to a timeless comment on racism….I just don’t get it.
January 12, 2011
Chalk it up to America’s limitless capacity for self-congratulation, I guess. How could the Great American Novel be anything other than purest virtue?
January 15, 2011
Despite all the flaws, I still love Huck Finn.
I took the True Grit scenes of Cogburn kicking the kids off the porch simply that they were just really shitty kids that he’d had previous experiences with, and he didn’t want to take any of their shit. Cogburn is clearly not a sympathetic character in any way, so it’s not like this behavior was rewarded.
The hanging scene was well done. There would have been no point to the scene if the Native American gave his speech, instead of being cut off and hung. I’m trying to remember more about the Native American character that took the dead body. I don’t recall him being used as any sort of ridiculous manner.
I guess it just comes down to what you feel a filmmaker’s responsibility is. What’s better, decent people making movies that are racist, or racists like Mel Gibson making a film like Apocalypto with no white people in it at all?
I get what you’re saying. But overall, my point is that we settle for these stories. There’s always a good explanation as to why a character is doing something, why characters of a certain race are portrayed in any given scene…but what we don’t have is enough films that star people of color in complex nuanced roles about race issues from another point of view. For example, I brought up the idea of making a film about an African American regiment of volunteers for the British army during the American Revolution. It made much more sense for African Americans to fight on the side of the British, because they had banned slavery by that time, while Americans were literally fighting for a slave-based economy. Tarantino should have done this long ago, a “Basterds” of sorts.
Slowly, there are one or two films emerging in this way. I don’t know if you saw Frozen River (speaking of Tarantino, he was apparently a big backer of it). I really recommend it as a film trying to bust through the traditional white, person of color narratives…
Now I’m babbling.
January 18, 2011
As a white Minneapolis guy who loves Cohen brothers movies I’m hopelessly biased, but I’d like to push back against your take here.
“Of the seventeen films they have been responsible for, none have had a non-white lead or significant protagonist. None have dealt with issues concerning non-white communities.” Is this a criticism, or a statement of fact without judgment?
“More significantly, many of their films do include people of color in peripheral roles, but as objects of derision, exotic inscrutability, violence or comedy.” I had to look up the filmography and dredge the memory for this one. I haven’t seen a couple of the recent movies, but counter-examples include O Brother and Hudsucker Proxy.
“But its the film’s perspective, not the characters, which seem to harbor antagonism to non-white characters, as if in trying to convey the racist realism of the 19th century, the film itself grew to appreciate it.” There is no “film’s perspective”. There is the Cohen’s perspective, which could include deliberate ambiguity, and the audience’s perspective. As for the girl, she condescended everyone, with maybe a hint of softening towards LaBoeuf. The hanging scene is much too obvious for a charge of subtle prejudice. You’re going way too far with the Native American children. Do you really expect every scene to provide “commentary about the morality of the act”?
“we’re still settling for realistic portrayals of white racism from earlier times at the cost of substantive and interesting portrayals of the non-whites they abuse.” Is this really a zero-sum game?
“And we still fail to see how our self-satisfaction with our race discourse has kept us frozen in space and time, in a race-discourse not much different than it was fifty years ago.” Some people do and some people don’t realize our race discourse is a stunted version of what it could be, but to say that discourse is not much different than it was in 1961 is ridiculous.
PS You forgot about the Chinese grocer smoking opium on his cot.
I’d argue that O Brother Where art thou proves my point more than it does yours. Let’s take a step all the way back. In the first place, why is this film about White people? We have an all black chain gang, we have the KKK…certainly, if we accept the hegemonic convention that mainstream films are primarily by and for white people, it makes sense to this film starring white people. Otherwise, its a bit of a head-scratcher, particularly combined with the fact that the Cohen’s have never made a film with a non-white protagonist. There’s simply no good reason for this, except that they don’t make films about non-white people. I’d also argue that the black characters in the film are sympathetic, but not nuanced, interesting or meaningful.
I think you can make the counter argument, combining this film with True Grit, that the Cohen’s are actually challenging people to notice this rather obvious convention and to make them uncomfortable with it. I don’t think they are, or at least they’re not doing that very well, but that’s an argument that one could make.
And as I wrote, its not the violence against the Native American children, its the portrayal of their passive, emotionless acceptance of it, and the way the perspective of the film treats them…the protagonists have a conversation right in front of these children two seconds after Bridges abuses them, though they’re off screen. That can’t be ignored.
Lastly, I do think that a film has a perspective. Its the film itself telling you the story–as something that is greater than the sum of its parts–not the Cohen brothers. A writer is responsible for everything he writes, but a movie is something more than that, because a gestalt is created between the actors, the landscape, the lighting, the film stock, the dialogue, the setting, the time period, the audience itself, etc…the movie does become the story teller, rather than the producers and the directors, though the producers, writers and directors are responsible for the characterization of protagonists through their choice of writing and direction and protagonists…
And no, actually, the Chinese opium smoker is the only decent non white character in the movie! I know Chinese people smoked opium, that’s not the point! He gets a couple of one liners at least.
…oh and one last thing, that may sound ridiculous, but I’ll put it out there. If you haven’t seen the film Booty Call, I suggest you see it. Its mildly funny, it could have been dumber, but its probably the only film where i’ve seen nuanced portrayals of non-white minor characters… Although the Asian and South Asian characters in the film are portrayed with a certain veneer of stereotype, they are funny—not laugh at funny, but they have great lines. And they get the last word. The trick is not to achieve some incredibly perfect rendition of non-white people that ruffles no feathers…rather its that they end up being fully formed characters that are fun to watch, not just devices…also Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, its logical descendant…
Okay, you can laugh at me now for bringing up Booty Call as some transformational moment in the legacy of cinema. I believe history will prove me correct…
“all black chain gang” Excuse me, but Clooney, Turturro and Nelson were all part of the chain gang. Turturro is on one a second time. I was thinking of the Robert Johnson character, but now I remember the Nestor character on the hand car was black too. But these are small points.
“There’s simply no good reason for this, except that they don’t make films about non-white people.” Is that necessarily a bad reason? If a black writer/director doesn’t make movies about non-black people, is that also necessarily bad?
“Lastly, I do think that a film has a perspective.” Does a film no-one sees have a perspective? My point is that a film’s perspective* doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it only exists in the mind of the audience. I think the Cohens are sophisticated enough to understand the nuances of the art / audience relationship.
I don’t remember the shopkeeper’s one liners. Does that make me prejudiced? Although I also approve of smoking opium, so I didn’t take that as a negative.
* meaning might be a better word to convey this. Would you agree that a film’s meaning is only given by the audience?
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