"When I go to the D.R., the press in Santo Domingo always asks, "¿Qué te consideras, dominicana o americana?" (What do you consider yourself, Dominican or American?) I don't understand it, and it's the same people asking the same question. So I say, time and time again, "Yo soy una mujer negra." ("I am a black woman.") [They go,] "Oh, no, tú eres trigueñita." ("Oh no, you are 'dark skinned'") I'm like, "No! Let's get it straight, yo soy una mujer negra." ("I am a black woman.")" ~ Zoe Saldana
Saw Death at a Funeral Friday night and had a good time. The script was the same as the original white British film made in 2007, both films sharing screenwriter Dean Craig, but each film eliciting really different reactions.
What's been interesting though is reading the reviews and I'm finding it funny how people hand-wring over original works, 'canon' if you will, like they're the damn Bible, yk? The reviews are very similar to the ones Guess Who? received in 2005, a remake of 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, which won two Oscars for Best Actress and Screenplay.
As it was with Guess Who?, many reviewers have characterized this remake as brash, loud, vulgar, black-faced (wtf?), coarse and obvious, which is odd because the audience and I laughed our asses off (for the most part, but like the original it has its slow spots).
How can two films have such completely different reactions to it? The only answer I can come up with is that the average white/mainstream reviewer doesn't think that 'British' humor can be done by black American actors and comedians. So someone like Chris Rock is wasted as the straight man and Danny Glover is mortifying as a cranky Uncle.
Despite both movies having the same lewd jokes, potty humor and sight gags, the original is described as quirky, imaginative and way funnier, because god knows black people can never be repressed, conservative or staid.
I'm racking my brain trying to think of foreign movies, like Death at a Funeral, getting 'Americanized' like this. And by Americanized, I mean not the white default. I'm coming up short right now, even though black versions of movies that white Hollywood made, particularly in the '20-'60s, were a necessary reality because of segregated movie houses across the US.
But these mainstream reviewers don't seem to value the images they're seeing. It just signals to me that they're still living a segregated experience in their minds and world view. It certainly seems easier for them to dismiss the more subversive messages here because they're 'just black comedies' and are ignorant in the differences between the images here and the images they're more comfortable with.
Why is it difficult for people to see Chris Rock playing the straight man? Or Danny Glover playing the resident curmudgeon? Or Ron Glass (OMG SHEPHERD BOOK!) being the tightass, meddling father to Zoe Saldana's Elaine? Why the resistance to that? Especially given the lack of good roles available to poc actors?
Which brings me back to the whole idea of 'canon' and why there continues to be controversies around films like the rebooted Karate Kid, starring Jaden Smith or the casting of Jason Momoa as Conan or the rumors swirling around Will Smith being cast as Captain America or even what it meant for Star Trek fandom when two iconic characters kissed and embraced. For me, I'm thinking--what's really at stake here? Why is the resistance so fierce, especially when 'it's just a movie'?
Being 'canon' is legitimacy for a lot of people, no matter what medium. Like the Bible in a lot of ways. I think about the Name of the Rose a lot when I read about 'canon' and the 'almost canon'. Eco explored a lot of class/religious history in medieval Italy in the guise of a murder mystery. He mainly focused on the question of poverty as exemplified by St. Francis, and the fight over the historical interpretation of Jesus' life between the Vatican, and by more 'extreme' adherents to St. Francis' message of living like Christ in poverty.
If the Pope/Vatican didn't like how you were interpreting the message of Jesus? They came and got you and called you a heretic. They tortured and killed you. And your friends and your family. Then they destroyed every scrap of physical evidence relating to the 'heretics' existence. The relics, the letters, the art work, the symbols, the books. Everything that said that there was another way of looking at Jesus' life. Within the Catholic church, that's the origins of liberation theology- of St. Francis and the 'question of poverty', of living Jesus' life as a poor man, of being in solidarity with the poor.
Those movements were powerful acts of resistance and when I think of the extent of the Church's involvement in colonization and religious conversion campaigns in what became known as the 'Third World', those acts become tied together in a long long battle over who gets to say what and how to say it, who has access and who gets shut out.
The difference is that the concepts of goodness, inferiority, villainy, morality and superiority have long been tied to skin color in the US (and elsewhere), and is continuously reinforced in white savior movies like The Blind Side, Freedom Writers, Last Samurai, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Dangerous Minds, Crash and Avatar (and on and on) at the expense of the many stories of poc helping themselves and others.
Despite the plethora of those stories throughout history (ask me which ones if you want your ear talked off), they're not made into movies. Well, there was Akeelah and the Bee which had to fight hard to get made, and of course recently there was Precious, though some will say that the images and stories (as with Hustle and Flow or even Get Rich or Die Tryin') are the ones that consistently get funded, rewarded and praised for authenticity by the mainstream audience.
But being colorblind, believing in bootstrap individualism or even supporting diversity doesn't mean so much when producers and moviegoers have a hard time accepting people of color as the main focus or are somehow, in their very narrow perspective, playing against type.
"They're out there - people just aren't investing in them. We can sit here forever discussing it, because it has a chicken vs. the egg quality. Bottom line, producers are business people. Hollywood is a money-making machine. At the end of the day, they have to produce numbers that will help them keep their jobs and companies alive. But we as consumers have a lot more power than we think. Women need to demand better roles and get audiences to see their films. Because if a film doesn't make $150 million, producers and studios aren't going to bankroll a similar film next time. If there were more filmmakers that were female, trust me, it would be all about women." ~ Zoe Saldana, on the current landscape of quality roles for actresses
Black American History
Truth burns up error. ~ Sojourner Truth
- Death at a Funeral Review