Preview Approved: The Race Card at the Movies

 

Those who create popular art often characterize their creations as being a “reflection of reality,” a mirror image that reflects the world around us. I’ve always thought that description was somewhat misleading. Popular art doesn’t so much reflect “reality” as it reflects what we as a society believe to be real – or what we think is real.  

 

When it comes to human beings, everything is based on perception. The creative minds behind our popular art forms are still human. The art an artist creates is largely informed by how he perceives the world around him. Perception often varies from person to person. We all have our own way of seeing the world. However, there are constants and similitudes. These similarities are what popular artists often zero in on.

 

Movies, in particular, have always been plugged directly into our collective Id. They don’t reflect our reality so much as they reflect what we, as a society, have on our minds, our desires and our perceptions. Most intriguing though, is what the movies reveal about how we see each other. Over the years, films like Do The Right Thing, Crash and Babel have given us an artistic glimpse of the narrow perceptions people often have of each other, and the ways we view each other in terms of labels and categories.

 

Nothing is wrong with these labels in and of themselves. The problems occur when we are unable to see past these labels and put them in their proper context. We begin to see each other as types, a set of predetermined characteristics that fit neatly into a box. No form of art reflects this tendency in human beings more than the movies.

 

It is important to note that we, as a society, tend to be selective in terms of what stereotypes we will or won’t allow. For example, Black folks tend to rail against hood flicks and rap videos that promote stereotypical images, only to applaud so-called “positive” black films and shows that also contain stereotypical images.

 

The films and plays of Tyler Perry are chock full of stereotypes and caricatures, but are given a pass because they promote “positive” and Christian messages. In my mind, a stereotype is a stereotype. They all lend themselves to limited thinking, and make it easier to place those who are different from us into a box. 

 

It’s kind of silly to get mad at our popular artists for reflecting these tendencies back to us, but I’m sure we will continue to do so. Here are a few upcoming films that are sure to offend someone in the coming months: 

 

Tropic Thunder (August 13)

 

In this action/comedy directed by Ben Stiller, three self-indulgent movie stars (Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr.) are cast in an expensive epic film about the Vietnam war. The production team decides to abandon the troublesome trio in the jungle when their diva-like behavior becomes too much to bear. The actors themselves are completely unaware of their predicament. They still think they are filming a war movie, when in fact they are in the middle of a real war. Hilarity ensues.

 

Robert Downey Jr. plays actor Kirk Lazarus. Lazarus is cast in the role of Sgt. Osiris, a character who was originally written as African-American. Being the consummate method-actor, Lazarus decides to play the role as written. He even goes so far as to dye his skin in order to play the part “convincingly.”

 

I’ll start off by admitting that I find the basic idea behind the Kirk Lazarus to be quite amusing. The guy obviously takes himself and his craft way too seriously. As described, he comes off as the very embodiment of pretense. This is the kind of thing that can go either way. It will either be the funniest performance in quite some time, or the 21st century version of Soul Man

 

For Robert Downey Jr.’s sake, I hope it’s the former instead of the latter. He has generated a substantial amount of goodwill via his star-making turn as Tony Stark in Iron Man. I’d really hate to see him squander that so

soon.

Towelhead (August 15)

 

Jasinda, a young Arab Girl, is sent to live with her strict Lebanese father in a small Texas town. This living situation forces her contend with a number of social issues that cause her personal turmoil. She is confronted with racism both inside and outside her home. Her neighbors and classmates harbor prejudices against Arabs, and her Lebanese father disapproves of her Black boyfriend. As if all of this weren’t enough, Jasinda is trying to understand her budding sexuality and raging hormones.

 

Wow! This is such a potential powder keg… I don’t know where to start. The movie has already made quite a splash at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals. This film contains a number of issues that Americans have a hard time dealing with, not the least of which is a 13-year-old girl coming to grips with her sexuality. That alone is more than enough to send the more conservative audiences into a panic.

 

The film also examines how foreigners sometimes take on the bigoted attitudes of Americans not out of malice, but simply out of a desire to fit in. Jasinda’s fathers’ racism is motivated by his concern for his daughter. How will she be accepted in American society if she dates a Black man?

Lakeview Terrace (September 19)

 

Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington play Chris and Lisa Mattson, an interracial couple who have just moved into their dream home. Their next door neighbor, LAPD Officer Abel Turner (Samuel L Jackson), doesn’t approve of interracial marriages. He starts harassing the Mattsons on a regular basis, and as it escalates into outright terrorism, the young couple has no choice but to retaliate.

 

Again, one cannot avoid parallels to an older film. In this case it would be 1992’s Unlawful Entry, in which Ray Liotta played a mentally disturbed cop who begins stalking a rich couple after

responding to a break in at their home. That film was something of a guilty

pleasure in its day, as essentially a well made B-movie. With the backing of Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment, Lakeview Terrace looks to be very much in the same vein, only this time the antagonist is Black. Could that be considered a sign of progress? 

 

Maybe, on some level, I guess it’s good that Hollywood now sees its way clear to allow Black actors to portray villains in B-Level thrillers. The motivation of the Abel Turner character is also interesting. Now, Black villains are allowed to be just as hateful as their white counterparts.

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