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The problem with viewing films by demographic.

The problem with viewing films by demographic.

Via Angry Asian Man, a great article that makes a point about the ineffectiveness of protests about racism in mainstream Hollywood films. Basically, if we don’t patronize the good portrayals created by our own filmmakers, we’re unlikely to see much change in the racist dreck being cranked out by the Hollywood factories, because they pay attention only to money.

But then, the conversation turned to the work of Asian American filmmakers. And it turned out he had not paid to see any of the following films in the theaters—Better Luck Tomorrow, Saving Face, Finishing The Game, The Motel, In-Between Days, The Debut, Journey From The Fall. In fact, he couldn’t think of one Asian American indie he had paid money to see theatrically—the closest he came was the last Harold and Kumar movie, which hardly counts as an independently produced Asian American film. He was talking passionately about how we need to force Hollywood to change and show respect to our community, but even he admitted he had not done much to support our artists and our work.

Unfortunately, this brother’s story is not isolated. And herein lies the problem—it’s great that we’re willing to speak out when we see something that offends us. But until Asian Americans as a whole are willing to put down our money to support the work of our Asian American filmmakers—nothing will change.

It’s a good point. But something about it bugs me.

Because it assumes something that I’m not sure is true, and feeds into a bigger problem. What Phillip suggests is that if Asian Americans just go and view more Asian American films, this will show Hollywood there’s a significant demand for positive portrayals. The same reasoning, IMO, underlies African Americans’ patronization of black films (and African American Interest books, and so on) — we’ve taken to heart the racist rationalization that if we don’t make it ourselves, and go see it ourselves, we can’t expect the mainstream to follow suit.

Except… African Americans have been making it ourselves, since the Sixties. We’ve been going to see those films, too, enough to create several blockbusters, catapult several African American filmmakers to auteur status, and launch a few subcultural film/theater movements.

But has all this success — all this proof that we will support our own — really changed anything in Hollywood? We’re still getting slapped in the face with grotesque stereotypes, and “allegories” for the black experience of racism that Fail miserably. (I’m kind of dreading Cameron’s much-hyped Avatar, ya’ll. Looks like yet another “what these people need is a honky” derivation.) There’s still only one black male per generation permitted to reach A-list status — first Sidney Poitier, then Denzel Washington, lately Will Smith. And more often than not that black male is paired with a non-black female, out of the apparent belief in Hollywood that one black person on screen is tolerable, but two — especially if they’re showing love for one another — is just too damn many. (BTW, name a current black female A-list actress. Go on, try. Good luck with that.)

So basically, African Americans have been doing exactly what Phillip advocates for 50+ years now, and it hasn’t changed a damn thing in Hollywood. Which suggests to me that there’s a fundamental flaw in Phillip’s premise. He’s suggesting that money is Hollywood’s guiding philosophy. I think he’s forgetting the role that racism — some intentional, most aversive — plays in the way Hollywood people think. Money is just the excuse/rationalization that they use.

And to counter this racism, we have to do more than go and view films by demographic, as Phillip suggests. One of the justifications used by the producers of whitewashed films like 21 and The Last Airbender is that PoC aren’t “universal”. That actors of color might be able to appeal to audiences of color, but to really make the leap to broad mainstream (i.e., white) appeal, white actors must be inserted, even into PoC’s stories. This is racist bullshit, yes, but it’s racist bullshit that Hollywood keeps trying to support with numbers which show that PoC actors don’t pull the audiences that white actors do. So does it make sense to urge Asian Americans to go see Asian American films? That actually proves the Hollywood racists’ point — because of course those PoC actors won’t be able to pull big numbers if they’re only pulling an audience from within their respective communities. If only Asian Americans go to see Asian American films in any numbers, and only African Americans go to see black films, and so on, the racists can point at this and say, “See? PoC only appeal to their own.”

And yeah, I get the irony here. The whole reason these demographic-specific film industries have cropped up is because Hollywood has historically excluded us… but they’ll also use the existence of these industries to exclude us further. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

But here’s my proposed solution: all of us, regardless of race, need to go and see all good films, regardless of their target demographic. We need to see more Latino/a viewers attending events like the Asian American film festival. We need to see more black filmmakers creating films for that event, and more Asian filmmakers making stuff for black and Latino/a film festivals. We need to see more American Indians behind the camera, and sticking their shit into every festival with “American” in its title, regardless of the racial qualifier that comes before it. And so on.

And we as audiences need to attend all of it. Yes, I mean you, fellow black Americans. Put down that ticket to Tyler Perry’s next monstrosity; he’s gotten enough of our money and hasn’t done shit with it. (Well, except this. But he’s got to do a lot more before I’ll forgive him for all the rest.) Pick up your mouse and find a film by some other ethnic group that’s playing in your area. You can still stick to black people — we still need to support our own, especially given that there’s better stuff out there than Perry’s work. (If you can’t find anything recent, go see some older stuff that never got enough attention.) But in addition to work by African American filmmakers, maybe you can go see a Nollywood film too. Then branch out more. Did you go see Sleep Dealer when I told you to? Lazy ass. Now you gotta go buy it. (Shoulda listened to me, but nooo, you had to be hard headed.)

We still need to protest, IMO, because racism won’t change on its own. But I’m taking Phillip’s point to heart; we need the carrot as well as the stick. We’ve got to support the positive portrayals that are already out there. And that includes work by other PoC, because all this stuff feeds into each other. We’ll get more successful black actors in Hollywood once we prove that Latinos/as will go and see them. We’ll get more Asian actors when we can prove they appeal to black audiences. We’ll see fewer pretendians when audiences start going to see real Indians. And so on.

So. What films by/about another race are you planning to see this year?

35 comments to The problem with viewing films by demographic.

  • The “pay to see the right films and they’ll make more” strategy assumes that capitalism actually works the way it is supposed to work in theory. The problem I see is that it just doesn’t. Corporations work very hard to sell us on what they want us to buy, and even when the support is there for something they’re not interested in, they often ignore it, because they don’t want to sell it.

  • capra

    Zoe Seldana? Or is she not A-listy enough yet?

    As for movies, I’d really like to see Older Than America, directed by Georgina Lightning, the first Native (Cree) female director of a feature-length film.
    http://syndicated.livejournal.com/newspaper_rock/1247763.html

  • swartzfeger

    I’ve gotta chime in here. Background — white conservative, specfic fan, enjoy the blog here. Great resource for race fail/mindblowing SF list info.

    To be honest, much of the commentary here flew over my head because, now that I’m up to speed, privilege pretty much kept me in blinders. Not that I’m in lockstep with every racial issue out there, but things are starting to fall into place.

    The first ‘eye opener’ for me was 21. I’m an avid card player/counter, into the theory of it all, etc. So when I heard about this too cool MIT story being translated to the big screen I was hyped.

    Having the cast whitewashed was just plain *dumb*. I’m a white guy. I can handle Asians in my movies, thank you very much. The dumbing down of the flick with Bosworth/relationship/cheesecake angle was just plain dumb. Tossing in token Asians was dumber. I wanted a hardcore flick, I ended up with 90210 + Blackjack.

    Funny thing with racism and privilege, we (non-PoC) don’t see it it until it hits home with a favorite theme/topic/field. Better late than never I ‘spose.

    Another A-list guy in my book — Forest Whitaker. His movies are automatic must sees for me now.

  • swartzfeger

    One crass point I failed to make in my first comment — did they *really* think that whitewashing 21 was going to translate into major box office bucks? Would Asians have truly kept ‘white folk’ away from the theaters? What did 21 pull in? I’m guessing 20 million tops. It’s not like scrubbing a film like 21 is going to generate X% more revenue, so why not stay true to the source?

  • nojojojo

    Alan,

    Halle Berry might be A-list. I’m not sure she’s at the point where she can get any role she wants, as Will Smith can, but she’s at least got an Oscar. But has she headlined a Hollywood movie since Catwoman? AFAICT, she’s usually in ensemble productions like X-Men, or outshone by bigger names like Billy Bob Thornton. She ain’t Julia Roberts level, I’m thinking.

    The rest, though — are you kidding? When was the last time you saw Alfre Woodard in anything that wasn’t a TV movie or a Tyler Perry production? Has Vivica Fox gotten a single big-budget film role since Kill Bill? Has Jada, since the Matrix?

    Remember, I said A-list. Not merely existing.

    • ladyjax

      I believe Halle’s last leading role was in the movie, “Things We Lost In the Fire” in 2007 with Benicio DelToro. There’s a number of other upcoming productions listed for her on IMDB including “Tulia” which I’m really excited about but for the most part, she’s been off the screens for two years.

      Vivica is down to playing parts in direct to DVD releases in some cases.

      The irony is that as much as Tyler Perry’s movies bug the hell out of me on so many levels, he puts people to work. He has enough bankability to get a film greenlit in Tinsel Town which is really the main issue. Kasi Lemons, John Singleton, Julie Dash? When’s the last time you saw something come from them as directors?

      • nojojojo

        True, Perry puts people to work, and he can get a film greenlit — but only if it’s a certain kind of film, and he’s only offering a certain kind of work. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

        • ladyjax

          I know, I know. All his stuff is pretty much gospel plays on a bigger screen and the final message (“Ladies, all you need is a good man and the Lord!”) burns my biscuits.

          At that point, the question becomes, why Tyler Perry? Is Hollywood so invested in this one-note image of Black folks that no one else can get through? Hell, even Spike Lee doesn’t have that much juice to keep turning stuff out at such a high rate.

          I have some hopes for directors F. Gary Gray, Antoine Fuqua and Angela Robinson but I’m not holding my breath.

  • nojojojo

    capra,

    I think Zoe Saldana has the potential to be A-list, but she’s not there yet. When she moves up from being an ensemble character to being the star of a few films, she might be there.

  • I don’t know if the perception is different stateside to over here in Australia, but I’d have listed Morgan Freeman and Samuel L Jackson as A-list (or previously A-list) men. I agree there isn’t a single black woman who makes the list though. Halle Berry looked like she was on her way, but made the mistake of doing Catwoman and is still being punished for it (meanwhile white women like Nicole Kidman or Julia Roberts can make box office flop after flop …)

    As far as the film industry goes, I think it does care primarily about money, but it’s also very risk adverse: see the number of sequels that get made. There was a saying in the IT industry that “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”. The implication being that it’s better to play it safe and go with the accepted wisdom, it’s not worth risking your neck even if the unconventional choice is better. I think that’s really what’s at play when films about PoC (or women, or other minority groups) don’t get made. It’s not that the powers that be don’t think they could be profitable, it’s just they know if they flop it’d be blamed on them for making the movie about PoC. So they play it safe, if you follow the conventional wisdom and the film fails then you can’t be blamed.

    I’m not sure how you break this cycle though.

    • nojojojo

      Morgan Freeman? Maybe. He seems typecast to me, stuck playing Magical-Negro wise old mentor roles (or spoofing them, a la “Wanted”). Though I missed “The Bucket List”, so I don’t know.

      Samuel Jackson — OK, you might have one there. Seems to me he can make a stinker (e.g., “Snakes on a Plane”) and still have a career, whereas Berry’s still dragging around the “Catwoman” albatross.

      And yeah, I’d agree that the industry is risk averse. (I’m so goddamn tired of sequels and remakes and franchises. I haven’t been to the movies in months. Though I am eagerly awaiting this one.) But isn’t that how racism perpetuates itself? Going with the comfortable, the known, the tried-and-true, despite evidence or logic to the contrary. That kind of lazy thinking leads to the most insidious kind of racism.

      • Yes I agree it’s how it’s perpetuated, which is why I say I don’t know how you break the cycle. The only way for casting PoC to not be seen as a risk is for it to be normal, the only way for it to get to be normal is for people to take a risk and do it.

        I mean this is the industry that after The Brave One flopped decided it was obviously because audiences didn’t want women main characters. I’m not sure audience support can really work to change this if all it takes is one flop for the studios to go off running scared.

  • One of the justifications used by the producers of whitewashed films like 21 and The Last Airbender is that PoC aren’t “universal”. That actors of color might be able to appeal to audiences of color, but to really make the leap to broad mainstream (i.e., white) appeal, white actors must be inserted, even into PoC’s stories.

    Because apparently PoC are harder to relate to than, say, clown fish. Or cars. Or robots. :|

    • nojojojo

      Or animals. Don’t forget Disney’s first attempt to appeal to black audiences, “The Lion King”. Only reason they’re bothering with “The Frog Princess” now is so they can sell Princess toys to our little girls too. ::grumble::

      • okay sure but, at the same time, Black Princess. And she’s beautiful. I know nothing about the portrayal, of course, but when they unvield her character at Disney World and they hired this beautiful, chocolate-skinned woman to be her and then took pictures of girls of various races, including white, dressed up as her, I thought: AWWWW yay! Disney falls down and fails a lot, yet sometimes they get it right. Like Aladdin’s Jasmine, not only in the movies but the TV show. Sad how they messed up Pocahontas, though.

  • helloooo

    I would disagree with only one thing in this finely written post, that if poc’s support each other’s films then that would wake hollywood up to all the financial possibilities of featuring poc’s.

    I think that if it was purely about money, then hollywood would behave in a much more consistent, money-grubbing manner. Instead, they consistently turn down many opportunities to make money off the poc demographic, and they consistenly go out of their way to insult that demographic.

    Let’s compare to major league baseball… they pretty much brag that they’re international, touting the large number of south americans and japanese and european players. They are proud to have so much diversity, and it shows.

    Hollywood, not so much. And it shows.

    • DK

      I don’t quite agree since they ARE trying to use the “We’re diverse!” tag on films like The Last Airbender. (They used the same tag for Earthsea.) And by “We’re diverse!” they really mean “Our white main character is supported by PoC who get to play extras or villains.” Not much of an improvement.

  • He’s suggesting that money is Hollywood’s guiding philosophy. I think he’s forgetting the role that racism — some intentional, most aversive — plays in the way Hollywood people think. Money is just the excuse/rationalization that they use.

    So true.

    Thanks for the link to Sleep Dealer on Amazon! I didn’t know it was out already! Yay.

    I also want to see Still Black (a documentary on Black trans men).

  • Cripes, I don’t even know where do start. Do you mean A-list or superstar? Do you know the difference, in BO terms or otherwise? Will Smith has to cut deals with producers just like the lowliest character actor. (Which is how abominations like “Wild Wild West” happen.) So does every other actor in Hollywood. Do you know why? My guess is, from your dismissive, superior, typically pwogwessive condescension, that you don’t.

    • nojojojo

      All right, that’s fair, though I’m not sure if your vitriol is. I certainly didn’t mean to be dismissive or superior towards these actors, most of whom I admire greatly, and I don’t claim to know diddlysquat about acting or actor categorization or whatever terms people in the business use. I don’t particularly care what people in the business use, since what we’re talking about here is PoC actors who’ve managed to escape the apparent restrictions of race in Hollywood; that’s a matter of public visibility.

      But since you clearly want to drop some knowledge here, then by all means please enlighten us: what is the difference between A-list and superstar? And how does this apply to, say, Vivica A. Fox?

  • Chuck B.

    Thank you nojojojo: I am curious too, because Jada’s out hyping HawthoRN on facebook and I don’t know of any major deal the others are doing where they can name their price and produce what they want.

    Oh and Wild Wild West? Will picked that over the Matrix, that was his business decision, a poor one, but still he was in the position to make it. And he did NOT have to make that deal like a character actor, he got to choose that script. He also made a the song of it, that charted well, and he still got more money from it on the front end than Barry got from Monster’s Ball total. In fact a sign of superstar and A list would seem that you make money off a flop.

    Show me Barry’s packaging power, Alan, cause I don’t see it. If she takes a script she sure isn’t bringing in Aniston, Kidman, or Megan Fox dollars. Show me the 3 projects that she is producing that will get major studio muscle promising a high profile opening slot along with a hefty front end buy-in. See, that’s what Smith gets. That’s what Aniston can demand.

    Oh and one other thing, show me the movies she dropped that became mega hits without her and she still got the ears of major directors and producers to buy in on shows she wants to see made…again Smith does this. (Matrix passed, Pursuit of Happyness he wanted done)

    So I am VERY interested in your definition, Alan.

  • shah8

    /me shudders…

    I have had conversations about Halle Berry. I have had guys rationalize their lust for Halle Berry by saying she’s whiiiiiiiiteee. I don’t want to revisit that again.

    On topic? TV and Movies are recognized propaganda devices by TPTB. They help uphold white supremacy, and I do believe that is an explicit if obscured mandate of those industries. Nothing will change until the costs, in terms of bad/boring/inappropriate(like DragonballZ, Airbender, 21, etc, etc) movies turn off movie-goers. While there is a heavy source of pushback against it, Fashion is our friend. Yes, there will always be demand for mindless entertainment that is insensitive to race elements, it should eventually start getting associated with losers.

  • Speaking of Hollywood and Asian people, what do you think about the new Starburst commercial, that says being Scottish and Korean is a contradiction?

  • DL

    I stumbled upon this blog article via another one I read. Good article and I fully support your thoughts that all people should create and/or support other types of films and festivals. A few years ago, I went with an old high school female friend (Latin-American) to the SF Asian American Film Festival. Interestingly enough, two films piqued her interest. One film was a comedy featuring a Latin-American lead character. The other was a documentary talking about Chinese restaurants in Latin-American countries.

    A couple of months later, the same friend asked me to go see the SF International Film Festival. I let her pick the majority of the films, but one of the best was a Latin-American feature. To this day, the ending of that film still sticks in my head.

  • Kat

    I’m a white, middle-aged longtime film buff (and longtime lurker here – love your blog!). My big complaint is somewhat the flip side of this coin. I think a huge problem is that white audiences (still a majority of movie-goers) won’t patronize films made by or starring (most) POC in any big numbers to signal to the studio execs to get their asses in gear.

    Hell, how many wonderful international films, especially made outside of or on the fringes of largely white Europe, fly under our radar screen because of our (and I am being very kind here) passively xenophobic cultural attitudes? Popular tastes in general tend towards the mediocre in any genre, so serious and thoughtful, even when funny, somehow get branded as “no fun” or “too much work” and not “real” entertainment. And, of course, the racism (and ageism, lookism, sexism, homo/transphobia – always good for cheap yuks, etc.) that drives much of the making and marketing and patronizing of popular movies is perennial. And the studios know it, and play to it and feed into it and reinforce it.

    Having said this, I love nojojojo’s suggestion here to submit films people are planning on seeing this year. I am looking forward to Yesim Ustaoglu’s “Pandora’s Box”, as I loved, loved her film, “Journey to the Sun” a few years back. Very understated but searing critiques of minority oppression, capitalism, and the social alienation caused by modernization, incorporated into great storytelling.

    I would also love to have everybody drop their favorite films, directors, and actors (both in the US and abroad) that were overlooked due to all the reasons outlined in the post, so we can all check them out and make a better effort to patronize them or others following in their footsteps in the future.

    I loved Eve’s Bayou, re: your link. Also check out films directed by Haile Gerima, Rahim Bahrani, and Ivan Dixon (who most recognize as the actor from Hogan’s Heroes (ugh), but who was also a phenomenal, socially conscious director and actor in his own right), or, if you like documentaries, the works of Simone Bitton or Stephanie Black. Euzhan Palcy’s “Sugar Cane Alley.” “Moulaade” by the late, very great Ousmane Sembene. Any of the early films by Zhang Limou (just for the sheer beauty of the cinematography alone), or any film at all by Abbas Kiarostami. Or directors like Carl Franklin, who not only directed great films with largely African American casts (like Walter Mosley’s “Devil with the Blue Dress”), but also small indie film gems staring mostly white casts, like “One False Move.” The list goes on and on. So, those are my suggestions to start with. You could start a whole new blog feature on films, there is so much great stuff out there, past and present!

  • shah8

    Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness by Hernando Vera and Andrew Gordon is a fun read for something approaching this topic. Quite Fruedian, though.

  • Zahra

    This post makes me feel so glad I paid to see Saving Face in a theatre. LOVE that movie. Still one of the best romcoms I’ve ever seen. I think it’s an excellent point–no one community alone is going to register on the Hollywood radar, but if we all band together?

    I really like the idea of listing what we’re looking forward to, because I’m always looking for more films by & about people of color to put my dollars behind. Here’s my list (I’m white, btw, so it’s not hard to get out of my race):

    Mississippi Damned (Tina Mabry). Three kids from a poor, rural black family try to make it out despite abuse, addiction, & violence. Looks intense, but absolutely amazing.

    Ghosted (Monika Treut). Romantic thriller about German-Taiwanese culture clash. With lesbians. And reincarnation, maybe. Anyway, I’m there.

    Casi Divas. Shallow fluff about 4 women competing for a spot on a Mexican TV show. I am a total sucker for these character ensemble pieces.

    Amreeka (Cherien Dabis). A Palestinian single mom moved to join her family in Illinois and then has to deal with repercussions of the US war in Iraq. With humor.

    Pomegranates & Myrrh (Najwa Najjar). Romance between 2 Palestinians, a free-spirited dancer whose husband is in prison and a returnee who takes over as her choreographer.

    Medicine for Melancholy (Barry Jenkins). 2 black middle-class people on day-long date in San Francisco. Might already have missed it.

    And yes, I really do want to see the Frog Princess, even though I think it’s going to be full of cringe-inducing moments.

    I’ve seen & recommend: Caramel (5 Lebanese women whose lives are linked by a beauty parlor), I’m Through with White Girls (another of the best romcoms ever), Family (6 black lesbians make a pact to come out together)….

  • MissZ87

    I agree to a certain extent that white audiences feel that they cannot relate to POC characters. The bottom line is that it is subtle racism that they won’t admit to. However, I never see POC films marketed they way these foolish (yes FOOLISH) white films are forced down our throats ever two seconds before they are released.

    Correct me if I am wrong, POC are not “relatable”?!! POC make up 2/3 of the world’s population. It always amazes me how the world’s smallest demographic can brain wash the rest of us. The truth is that white people are the minority in the world but since they control so much of the world’s industries it feels like the opposite.

    The bottom line is how can we correct this? What are our solutions? In my opinion, our only option is to create our own production and distribution companies. Tyler Perry’s success is great but his content isn’t always up to par. We need a plethora of voices in film and other mediums and we have to do it ourselves. Or we’ll be waiting around for another 400 years.

  • I wonder if watching films on netflix helps any. I don’t see many films in the theater, but I am constantly netflixing tv shows and films.

  • Your analysis can and should be applied outside of the Hollywood arena as well. Fantastic blog.

  • Rob Hansen

    “Can Ted Danson play the father?”

    One for the files. A Muslim-American tries to get his play about a
    Muslim-American family produced. Read the responses he got from producers and weep:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wajahat-ali/the-domestic-crusaders-ma_b_277216.html

  • I said the same thing on blog. I’m sick and tired of books, blogs and films getting separated by race. Meanwhile ‘white’ books and films get marketed toward everybody, but change the characters’ races and suddenly the marketing budget drops…

  • Zahra

    Adding to my list:

    Dil Bole Hadippa. An Indian woman disguises herself as a man & becomes a star cricket player. Waiting to see if this gets distributed outside NYC, because it looks like a lot of fun.

    Fame. Waiting to see how many actors of color are in this. I love the TV show.

    Good Hair. Documentary by Chris Rock about hairstyles in the black community.

    Amelia. Because even though it’s about a white woman (Amelia Earhart, being played by Hilary Swank), Mira Nair is directing, and I would really like to see a woman of color helm a big Hollywood hit, if only for the clout it will give her later.

    Precious. The film based on Sapphire’s novel Push. Looks profoundly depressing but a must-see.

    Red Cliff. Military costume drama about a war in 3rd-century Han China. I’m a sucker for big historical epics, and this one looks gorgeous.

    Before Tomorrow. An Inuit family in the mid-19th century.

    Sincerely Yours. An Indonesian woman & a Thai man fall in love in Taiwan.

    That’s what I’ve got so far…