Black American History

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Death at a Funeral Review
cookie monster: 'me gotta be blue'
recumbentgoat wrote in blackhistory
"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

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This is a really cool post. I really want to see Death at a Funeral-- I saw the first one and thought this one looked like it was funnier from the trailer-- I thought the British one was a bit of a mixed bag. I went to film school and did a lot of my theory work on adaptation and remake and I can't really think of a movie that, as you say, was given this kind of "American" adaptation treatment that didn't involve the white default. It really intrigued me when I saw the trailer for that reason.

I also love where you are going with the discussion of Eco...but I have to run to the apiary now!

thank you for your comment! yeah, i'm very interested in how books get adapted into movies and what does or doesn't make it into the movie. i actually had a digression on some films that were different/better than their book counterparts like Kubrick's The Shining vs the later version or the movie ending in Hannibal vs. the book ending. anyway, i hope you do see the film and support it in the theater. i'd be interested in if you think it's very different from the original.

I look forward to seeing this movie. I loved the British original and I like the casting choices for this film. The trailer was hilarious and I loved being able to track all of the jokes with the original.

You make a really valid point about white reviewers and their reactions to movies with POC in non stereotypical roles. I also appreciate the quote from Zoe. It angered me during some of the press for Star Trek and Avatar when people would argue that she was not black but latina, as if one could not be a black latina or be latina and identify as black. It angered me the same way it angered me when some white liberals and conservatives would argue that Obama was bi-racial and should not be called the first black president, but the first bi-racial president, as if their self-identification as black devalued them or that by trying to label them as not black they could reclaim them or somehow hold onto another thread supporting their preconceived notions of superiority.

oh god yeah, Obama. smh I feel like the more 'outrage' people have over that, the bigger their issues are. and i agree that it's not about slighting his white family, it's just been about his reality and his formative experiences. I'm really starting to appreciate Zoe as an actress more and more. Even though I couldn't support Avatar by paying to see it, I do want to follow her career and be a fangirl. lol i'm looking forward to shipping Aisha/Clay and i'm *so* ready to ignore the JDM stalkers who'll bitch about it. lol

but feel free to post a comment here on what you thought of death at a funeral. or even post your own review to the comm if new things strike you about it or from other fandoms. i'd like it if people could post more movie/tv reviews in a historical context. i'll probably make a new tag too if more people start doing that.

My reaction to it was very different. I . . . didn't have a good time because it seemed like a lot of stuff I'd seen before when it comes to Black comedy. I knew it was a remake of a British play beforehand, but - I don't know. Also, considering that Neil LaBute directed it, there was a certain kind of spectatorship of Black culture this American version created that made me feel very uncomfortable.

Yeah, i've been curious about the money behind this movie and I want to get the DVD and listen to the commentary if there is any. on imdb the screenwriter, Dean Craig is listed as an executive producer, and with the exceptions of Chris Rock and another black producer--the rest of the producers are white I believe. though that's not to say that the actors didn't exercise any creative control or input. i wonder if that's something their agents negotiate on their behalf--how much money they can make, how much creative control over the final cut (or if that's even an issue for them).

I'd love to know who got the idea of casting this. who approached who? Who optioned that script? I think the hiring of someone like Neal LaBute also is an attempt at getting that 'crossover' appeal, ie that white audience's money, since he's a certain brand himself in indie films.

but yeah, i think you raise a good question about who the audience is exactly. which makes me think about Kara Walker's art work, why David Chappelle left Comedy Central or even why Precious is so lauded in the mainstream press for it's 'authenticity'.

but then connect that issue with who sees/supports these efforts in the end. who sees value in it for whatever reason? because the media was quick to jump on its 'poor box office performance'. that's the only thing that matters with the hollywood formula. lol so i think that's yet another challenge for black comedians like Chris Rock or the other actors who want to stretch themselves beyond just doing comedy.

Honestly, I don't understand why comedians like Robin Williams and even Steve Carrell can make that transition from comedy to more serious fare and be lauded for it, and yet god forbid a black comedian like Rock or Murphy tries to make that attempt, because clearly it just doesn't go over well.

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