Hollywood, race and the Age of Obama

by Christopher Kelly

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

26 December 2008


Gook. Dragon lady. Swamp rats.

These are but a few of the cringe-inducing racial epithets spewed by Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski in “Gran Torino,” the cringe-inducing new drama directed by Eastwood. A grousing, growling racist from the Archie Bunker old school, Walt finds himself as the last white person still living on a now entirely Asian-American street in a run-down neighborhood in Detroit.

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Gran Torino

Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Cory Hardrict, Brian Haley, Brian Howe, Dreama Walker, Christopher Carley

(Warner Bros.)
US theatrical: 12 Dec 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 20 Feb 2009 (Limited release)

Review [12.Dec.2008]
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Seven Pounds

Director: Gabriele Muccino
Cast: Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Barry Pepper, Michael Ealy

(Columbia Pictures)
US theatrical: 19 Dec 2008 (General release)
UK theatrical: 16 Jan 2009 (General release)

Review [19.Dec.2008]
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Director: Paul Haggis
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Fichtner, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Michael Peña, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate

(Lions Gate Films)
US theatrical: 6 May 2005

In real life, of course, Walt would probably just sell his house and move. But this being a Hollywood movie, he stays put and finds moral redemption.

Obnoxious and idiotic in equal measure, “Gran Torino” normally wouldn’t be a worth a second thought. But it arrives in theaters seven weeks after President-elect Barack Obama instantly rewrote the narrative of race relations in the United States.

It also arrives a few days after “Seven Pounds,” the latest drama starring Will Smith, who - much like Obama - seems to occupy a unique place in “post-race” America: An African-American who, for better or worse, is rarely regarded for his skin color.

We find ourselves at a critical juncture in popular culture. Recent events would suggest that America is ready for a new kind of onscreen dialogue about race. Yet the same old narratives of race in America just keep getting trotted out.

This year brought “The Express,” a rote inspirational saga about an African-American football player who transcends adversity (and raging racists) to win the Heisman Trophy in 1961. Also currently playing is “Nothing Like the Holidays,” a “heartwarming” comedy in which a close-knit Latino Chicago family eventually learns to embrace the Jewish woman (Debra Messing) who has married the brood’s oldest son (John Leguizamo).

Meanwhile, Smith has made it his mission to remove race from the equation entirely when choosing his parts: The skin color of his characters - whether it’s the last man alive in “I Am Legend” or the ne’er-do-well superhero in “Hancock” - is just one of many traits they possess, not to be ignored, but not to be dwelled upon either. That’s certainly a laudable and brave way of carrying forward, but it also tends to short-circuit the question of race entirely - and sometimes ignores the elephant in the room.

So what’s at play here? Why does the Hollywood community - which, of course, did more than its fair share to help finance Obama’s victory - seem so far behind the cultural curve?

Part of it likely has to do with the fact that, a year ago when movies like “Gran Torino” and “Nothing Like the Holidays” were being developed, conventional wisdom suggested that Hillary Clinton would be the historic trailblazer who ended up in the White House. Given a little more time, surely some artists will attempt to explore what it means to live in an age where even the last remaining Archie Bunkers of Michigan, Ohio and Indiana were willing to pull the lever for a black man.

But another part of me wonders: Do American audiences, four decades after Sidney Poitier gingerly turned up in Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s dining room in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” still prefer to be taught lessons about race relations that are easily digested and morally lucid?

Consider both the box office and awards success of Paul Haggis’ “Crash” (2005), a showy and melodramatic portrait of a group of Los Angelenos simmering with intolerance. The movie is nothing if not an earnest attempt to get audiences talking and thinking about race. (In a couple of astonishing sequences - particularly the one in which Matt Dillon’s police officer humiliates an upper-middle class married couple played by Terence Howard and Thandie Newton - it also agonizingly reminds us that, for many African-Americans, progress up the social ladder is fundamentally meaningless when you come across pure savagery.)

But “Crash,” much like “Gran Torino,” is a fundamentally Archie Bunker-era portrait of race relations. It shows us a world where intolerance is entirely on the surface, and everyone’s initial instinct is to call everyone else a name.

In contemporary America, however, invective isn’t shouted so much as it’s quietly thought to oneself. And most white people aren’t so much panicked about the racial melting pot that our nation has become as they are uncertain how to carve out a racial identity for themselves.

As “Crash” was earning plaudits (and a Best Picture Oscar), any number of much knottier and more daring movies were being ignored by viewers entirely. Spike Lee’s “She Hate Me” (2004), a freewheeling, vastly underrated consideration of, among many other things, white America’s anxiety about black male sexuality, managed to earn only $366,000 at the domestic box office - by far the lowest-grossing movie of the director’s career. Alan Ball’s brazen and compelling “Towelhead” (2008) - a portrait of a Lebanese-American girl molested by a white neighbor, who also has an African-American boyfriend - died a similarly quick death.

Even more mainstream efforts have had trouble connecting. The movie I tend to regard as the most important one made this decade about race relations is a knotty romantic comedy-drama called “Something New” (2006), about a black woman (Sanna Lathan) who believes she can’t find a decent black man to date and who eventually decides to go out with a white man (Simon Baker). Its mixture of tenderness and severity, cynicism and hopefulness, proved consistently arresting - and yet it pulled in only $11 million.

Perhaps white viewers - after decades of having the dictates of political correctness pounded into their heads - were not ready for a movie that dared to suggest there’s something to be said for dating within your own race. Or perhaps black viewers did not appreciate the movie’s stark portrayal of racial tensions with the African-American community.

Most likely, it’s that people like the idea that we’ve moved beyond race, and that we’re all a deeply tolerant and civil society. What they don’t like is any work that dares to argue otherwise.

Barack Obama’s election was an undeniable game changer. Now it’s time for American artists and audiences to start broadening their perspectives considerably and recognizing that the country in which we live is a lot different from the one in which the likes of Walt Kowalaski (and Clint Eastwood) came of age.

There needs to be more works like Rebecca Gillman’s extraordinary 1999 play “Spinning Into Butter” - about a politically correct, liberal university dean who is nonetheless deeply intimidated by black men. (A film version was completed in 2007 but remains unreleased in the U.S.) A decade after it was written, the play remains the only work I can think of that shows how racism and tolerance can co-exist in the same brain and feed off each other.

It might also be time for someone like Will Smith to take advantage of his status as a “post-race” superstar - a man who can probably get any movie he wants - and serve up something that makes people uncomfortable. Smith recently told me that he seeks out “universality” - material that can appeal to people of different ages, nationalities, religions and races.

But for all that unites us, there’s also much that remains unsaid about the things that continue to divide us. And without artists and performers willing to address these subjects, the wounds will go on festering. We might very well be a “post-race” nation, but that’s hardly to say that race doesn’t still matter.

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