High school junior year. A new friend! He, a proud nerd, myself, considerably of the anime/video-games cloth. I’m open with him, in a way I am with most of the people in my life at this point: Don’t suffer new ideas with second thoughts. “Hey,” I say. “Last night they had the NAACP Image Awards. What’s that about? I bet if they had an all-white awards show, people would be pissed.”
College, junior year. Sitting in a class ostensibly devoted to the study of journalism. The professor, a prior journalist herself, does her best, but can do unfortunately little in the ways of quality control in her classroom. “Yeah,” this one goes off, this motherfucker sitting at the computer next to me. Trayvon Martin is in the rounds, so I’m doing my best not to explode. “They have black and Hispanic clubs on campus. And yet you can’t have a white club…”
In answer to my before mentioned wager, yes, people would be pissed if there was an all-white awards show. They’d call this show: the Oscars 2015. Course, the upset people are on the other side of the arena.
It exists in a few places. One, the black female director of Selma, Ava DuVernay, wasn’t nominated for Best Director, despite her film being nominated for Best Picture. Two, American Sniper was in the news, and had a record-breaking opening, while Selma got by on… or didn’t. Even on MLK Day, my theater was mostly empty, despite the presence I bring to any large room.
American Sniper is a film whose setting, both physically and psychologically, is the Iraq War. As people feared, there were scary brown people in it. But also some scared brown people. On the Internet ablaze, there was also some talk of how oh, last year, 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture. And the President of the Academy (the only time in all my 21 years I’ve ever seen a picture of the current President, and so often), is a black female!
But people know going in that Boyhood is the clear winner. You idiot liberals. In all your hackles over race, you completely forgot to complain about gender. A film called “Boyhood,” slipped right by you.
This would almost be a time to celebrate, whether the accomplishments of talented filmmakers, or that ‘film as social critique’ and as something highly valuable in the influence on society is being discussed. But it’s being discussed urgently, and tiredly, and sadly. We’re regressing. Kids on Facebook are watching American Sniper and emboldening their own hatred, prompting them to stream out terrible words online in the manner of excitement over killing Arabs.
And thereby invalidating the hope that film is art, or a social critique, or any wonderful thing. That it’s possible, upon reaching a quality so limp-wristed, so poorly-attended to in directing and writing, proof once more that Tarantino’s right about one thing: memoirs over biopics, always — tell a fucking story — for a film to become blank, open to free and wild and even passionate interpretation.
The balance Eastwood and the writers were trying to strike is clear, between actual reverence for a soldier, and reconciliation with his reactionary, hateful nature. The character repeatedly refers to his enemy as ‘savages,’ most likely because his real life counterpart did. And that’s actually the reason. There’s no creative decision there, other than to leave things as they are. This is a man who led an interesting life that ended tragically. He wasn’t a man of complex ideology, and the film, its form inherently complex and ideological, reflects that in a wrongheaded way. Does Clint Eastwood agree when he says ‘savage?’ Probably not, coming from the director of the two most sensitive war films in history, Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. But this is also the man who gave us Gran Torino, in all its hysterical fits of Tom Clancy rage.
Why don’t we look at a movie like Menace II Society, which did what American Sniper should have done, and about twenty years earlier. Menace isn’t a great film either, despite its similar ambition, but the Hughes Brothers director duo managed to portray a character both objectively, and compellingly. He’s a complex individual, and allowed instances of sympathy in tandem with those of distance. It’s a careful, thoughtful approach, however to something that maybe isn’t emotionally satisfying. So what of the film that approaches the same, with no thesis?
No, American Sniper shouldn’t have been nominated for Best Picture (notably, Eastwood was not nominated for Best Director), but what offends me most about it isn’t even its byproduct of stirring racial anxiety (which should be the reason). But as an aspiring storyteller and creative-type, with about a hundred and counting unfinished credits to my name, it angers me to no end that a piece of media can get the pass — the ultimate pass — based purely on its context.
Some part of our culture had unconsciously agreed, long before laying eyes on the final product, that American Sniper was good. Because it isn’t really American Sniper. It’s American Hustle. Or Lincoln. Or The Artist. Or any number of genuinely sub-par films that were nominated for Best Picture because… in what world would they not be? This is a prestige film. It’s not a good film, but it is prestige. It’s based on something, for one, and that thing is important, for two. It’s by one of the great directors of our time. It’s starring an awards-season vet (bonus points for also being an up-and-comer — small, closing window on that jibe). And the most important ingredient of course, is that it was released in winter. There are about 300 major films released each year in America. For critics with their top ten lists, and for the Academy, that’s an extensive Google Doc keeping track — best to start paying attention in November.
This movie really could have been anything. And it sort of was. A film whose entirety is also its trailer. “This is the most lethal sniper in US history,” is very interesting. Full stop. Other than a line of text at the end, which tells a sad story in itself, the film offers nothing more in its exhaustive effort to be fair to the source material.
And then there’s Selma, a film in the opposite boat, storytelling-wise. I didn’t even know what this movie was when first I heard it being criticized for its portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson. Going in, I assumed that facts had been played up in that very obvious way, like the middle-finger to Canada in the end of Argo, or invented moments in Fruitvale Station, as well as that film’s very careful but not careful-enough handling of the final scene.
Specifically, with Fruitvale Station, people were upset that that non-angel was seen dumping a bag of weed into the ocean — a fabrication on the part of the creators, but a wordless and brief one speaking to a lot in character and culture. In Selma, we gave Martin Luther King Jr. a range of villains to play against — the physical force of Jim Clark, the snide moustache-twirling of George Wallace, and the dynamic arc of President Johnson. He begins a tenuous ally, and falls to a low point in reaching out to J. Edgar Hoover, who was earlier seen as a downright foil. And finally, he becomes the symbol of white privilege and power who’s turned wholly by King’s words.
The fictional aspects of that arc are not so outlandish as to call the film’s integrity into question. They change nothing to the point of the story, nor the smaller points being made in between the disquieting opening, and the sweeping end. This is storytelling. It’s a creative pursuit, not a hard duty/exercise to translate a text flawlessly. The end goal of either film, Selma and American Sniper, is the same: the noble hope of educating a nation, being eye-opening. Yet, even if the noble goal is in mind at the start, it gets put on the backburner the moment Final Draft is opened to a blank page.
And although the binary is set, this is not to say that Selma was unimpeachable, despite being a show of excellent filmmaking. Though this might seem vindictive, given the scene-setting at the top of this post, the movie is evidence of master-class direction. On a purely technical level, we don’t see color and composition like this in our home country anymore. Taking that precision of young markets like Korea or Norway, and combining it with an old tale, is an unusual mix. Yet, Selma too has the handicap of being adapted from that narratively lumpy and unimpressive mess we know as… ‘life.’
There’s a scene in which Andrew Young talks an angry protestor down from gathering weapons and striking back at the bridge. They’d just been overrun by police, whose antics are only antiquated by the equipment they wield, the whips and reins. Young has Dr. King speak through him, though certainly his own convictions about the combat-philosophy are strong and profound.
Yet, this base dramatization of Dr. King’s preachings recalled to my mind Boyz N the Hood — at which point, in this post, I’ve exhausted our collection of black people movies. In Selma, this character is talked down from gun violence with recycled lines, rather than something that felt weighty, and somehow also spontaneously from the heart, as in “Give me the motherfucking gun, Tre.” In that perfect scene from the Singleton film, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character is step one down a path of no return, and yet — we want him to take it. It may be written in stone, but those assholes killed Ricky. The film has taught us so much about the alien world nestled within California, and it’s clearly done so emotionally. We all thought ‘revenge,’ before it crossed Tre’s lips, not that it literally did.
And if that’s so — if I’m capable of being emotionally guided in this way, or suckered, how could I resist non-violently if I was returning from the bridge, one disastrously unsuccessful non-violent protest later? It would take so much psychological strength — and as a tiny person I understand what it is to get high on anger, feeling on fire. But maybe the difference was that Dr. King had rallied forces, and built a community. There was something much larger brewing. Revenge… is petty.
Back in the day, ‘the community’ was powerful, and after great victories in civil rights, the community gradually and painfully became ‘black people.’ No longer a mass visible on the bridge, but the everyday people around you. So confident did we suddenly become, that now the progressives are trying to push it further and turn ‘black people,’ into ‘people,’ which represents one school of thought on the future of race relations — my personal preference.
We’ve been halted in this latest bold adventure. ‘Police brutality’ smiled wide the day it was blessed with such a label, because it’s an epidemic and catalyst and most importantly, a viciously motivated homicide in its individual moment. But it’s just police brutality.
No longer a community, but ‘scattered’ all over their own country, the next victim may not react in the old ways. How could they be expected to? And once that happens… where are we in time and space?
There’s a broad but powerful connection to be drawn between our ticket at the box office, and the predestined confrontation between police officer and young black man. This I believe with all my heart. The silver screen gave the young black man those devil horns, but recently it’s been trying to give him a voice. The Oscar season is endlessly frustrating for movie fans, and for a legion reasons, all different for each person — this kind of exhaustion inevitably spirals into the ‘fuck it’ attitude, the realizing that it is just public masturbation on the part of already very public, masturbatorial people.
But American Sniper and Selma, two films related only by their sharing space on a ballot, form a greater narrative, one that whispers a question so awful I hesitate to voice it here — but we’re all thinking it. As Selma rolls to a close, and Common’s on the credits, rapping, invoking Ferguson, we think about how far we’ve come. Martin Luther King was a great man, one of the greatest. But have we undone his legacy?
A student who goes to college asked why, in essence, we can’t have an all-white NAACP Image Awards. And then the all-white NAACP Image Awards happened.