Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Racism Served Hot or Cold

How would you like your racism served to you, sir?

First on the menu, we have William Monahan’s The Departed, which won him this year’s Oscar for Best Writing. Let us see how he serves us our racism.

The Departed begins with Jack Nicholson saying the following lines (and since this is a family-friendly column, I’ll bleep the least offensive word in there): “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me. Years ago, we had the church. That was only a way of saying, we had each other. The Knights of Columbus were real head-breakers, true Guineas. They took over their piece of the city. Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a f***ing job, we had the presidency... May he rest in peace. That’s what the niggers don’t realize. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it’s this: No one gives a deal. You have to take it.”

So the audience hears this. Is it then outraged? Do some people walk out the way they did on Michael Richards? Probably not.

That’s because Monahan does two things, and he does them simultaneously.

First of all, he’s blunt as hell right off the bat. He slams those expletives right in our faces, getting us to prick up our ears. But at the same time, he does something else. The lines are written in such a way as to signal anyone who hears or reads them that this is the way the character speaks and not the stance of the writer. In fact, the text is written in such a way as to make us say “Yes, that’s right, that’s how he’d say it” almost as soon as the expletives are uttered. So with the first punch, Monahan gets us to stand up, then immediately sucker-punches us, getting us to sit back down.

Monahan forces two thoughts into our brains: ‘This is wrong’, followed immediately by ‘This is how people like the Nicholson character speak’. And then we’re left to ourselves to combine those two statements into one conclusion.

Later on in the movie, Nicholson and his Irish gang have a ‘business meeting’ in an abandoned warehouse with an Asian gang. The two gangs face each other, and Nicholson says, “I’m concerned about a Chinaman who thinks it’s wise to come to a business transaction with automatic weapons.”

The leader of the Asian gang answers in a foreign language. Before listening to the translation, Nicholson says, “For his own good, tell Bruce Lee and the Karate Kids that none of us are carrying automatic weapons. Because here, in this country, it don’t add inches to your dick. You get a life sentence for it.”

It’s the “in this country” that’s actually racist in those two lines. It carries with it a truly superior air. In this country, it implies, we do things like civilized beings; in other countries, you do thing like chimps.

Monahan does it to us again, because as we read/hear these lines, we also immediately think: “This is how Nicholson’s character would, in real life, say it,” Getting us to sit back down again. And getting us to think that pesky third thought again. If you didn’t catch yourself thinking the second or the third though as you read the last two lines from the movie, test yourselves as you read this exchange:

A minute or two later, as the two gangs are still standing opposite each other in the warehouse, Nicholson says: “If these Chinks want to nuke Taiwan any time in this century, they better shape up and show me one million dollars.” When the rival gang fails to react, he continues, “What we generally do in this country is one guy brings the items, and the other guy pays him.”

Catch yourself thinking those thoughts Monahan tried to put in your brain? In any case, the story still continues, and what happens next is not about racism. But that meme, that pesky, intangible, wordless third thought is still somewhere in your head. And something later on, in the real world, will remind you of it. And what you’ll do with that... Well, that’s your business. That is the thinking, conscious or otherwise, of a writer who puts words and concepts together in this manner.

In these examples, only our brain was employed, not our hearts. Monahan went after our thoughts. And so he gave us a dish of racism, served cold.

Let’s see how racism would be served hot.

Conveniently, Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco give us the perfect example in the script that won them Best Writing for the previous year. In a scene in Crash, Matt Dillon, who is white, is a cop talking on the phone to Loretta Devine, who is black, trying to get his father the medical care he needs. Devine explains it isn’t an emergency and asks him to make an appointment in the morning (it is now dark). When he asks for her name, she says “Shaniqua Johnson”. “Shaniqua?” he says. “Big f***ing surprise that is.” Upon which, she hangs up on him.

Matt Dillon makes his way to the car, with his new partner. Over the radio, they hear about a truck, stolen by two black men. A similar truck just passes them, with two black people in the front, and they speed after it. As they compare license plates, they see that this is not the stolen truck. But Matt Dillon turns on the siren and forces the truck to the side of the road.

He walks up to the driver, played by Terrence Howard, who is black, and asks for a driver’s license and registration. He and his wife, played by Thandie Newton, also black, are clearly upper-middle class, if not higher, and not only had she just ‘satisfied’ him as he was driving, the two are clearly amused by the situation. Howard gives Dillon the registration, and he goes to check it. The two are left behind, laughing.

Dillon returns, asking Howard to step out of the car. Howard turns more serious and says he hasn’t been drinking. His wife says he doesn’t drink. “He’s a Buddhist, for Chrissake.” Howard says it’s all right, and steps out of the car. Dillon gives him the full treatment, checking him for intoxication. Howard follows all the steps, but Newton opens the car door and says, “I told you, he doesn’t drink.”

“Ma’am, I’m only gonna tell you one time: Stay in the vehicle.”

Newton, who is a bit tipsy, steps out of the car, saying “Don’t you ma’am me.” Howard tries to calm his wife down, and Dillon says “All right, both of you, turn around, put your hands on top of your heads and interlock your fingers.”

Now Howard begins to argue, though still calm. Dillon asks them again. And again. And then, just as Howard says he’s a television director, Dillon slams him against the car, then asks his partner to pat Howard down.

Dillon then moves on to Newton. She curses her husband, who tells her to do what the cop says. Newton turns to the cop, “And you keep your filthy, f***ing hands off me,” hitting him on the chest. He overpowers her and pushes her against the car, holding her hand behind her back. Her husband, more excited now, tells her to stop talking.

“That’s quite a mouth you have,” Dillon says, then winks at Howard, “Of course, you know that.”

“F*** you,” she says. “That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? You thought you saw a white woman blowing a black man, and that just drove your little cracker ass crazy, didn’t it?”

Howard shouts: “Will you just shut your f***ing mouth?”

Dillon says, “I’d listen to your husband, ma’am,” and begins to pat her down. He tells her to open her legs. And as he feels her dress, he asks her about whether she has any guns and knives on her. “I’m wearing a cocktail dress, what do you think?” she says. “You’d be surprised at some of the places I’ve found weapons,” says Dillon, continuing to pat her down.

Dillon’s partner, also white, pronounces Howard (called Mr. Thayer) clean. Dillon’s hands move down to Newton’s ass, squeezing it hard, as he asks Howard, “What do you think we should do about this, Mr. Thayer?” His hands continues to feel intimate places. “My partner and I just witnessed your wife performing fellatio on you, while you were operating a motor vehicle.” His hands have moved down her legs and are now moving up her dress, as Howard watches, thinking what to do.

Dillon continues, “That’s reckless endangerment, which, incidentally, is a felony. You will be charged with your wife here with lewd conduct and performing a sexual act in public. Now you say you’re a block from home. Now we can use our discretion,” his hand goes up and up her legs, “and let you go with a warning, or we can cuff you,” and we hear by Newton’s reaction that he has now touched a place he shouldn’t have, “and put you in the back of the car.” Howard and Dillon’s partner look on, uncomfortable.

Dillon asks, “What do you think we should do, sir?” And he waits for an answer, with his hand up Newton’s dress.

Now Howard has to make up his mind.

After a few seconds, he says, “Look, we’re sorry, and we would appreciate if you just let us go with a warning. Please.”

Dillon decides to let them go with a warning.

Now, that’s racism served piping hot. It goes for the guts because it comes from the guts and then churns our guts. We feel the outrage, we feel the woman’s violation, and, most of all, we feel the anger. We feel the husband’s anger, the woman’s anger, but we also feel the cop’s anger. We’ve felt it before. We’ve felt the anger that gets people angry enough to abuse their power, even if we’ve never actually done it.

As we watch this scene, we see – and think – how fast things can get out of hand, that this is how innocent people get sent to jail. It’s so easy, as a racist, to throw someone into jail. And just as easily, just as simply, if things would have continued, race riots could form. We also think that as successful as Mr. Thayer is, at the end of the day, he’s a black man, he’ll always be a black man, and because of that his world can crumble any time.

But at the end of the day, this is not a scene about racism. Matt Dillon’s character isn’t doing this because he’s a racist – he’s doing it because he’s frustrated that his father is sick and he can’t help him. He’s taking it out in this way.

There almost isn’t a scene in Crash, which doesn’t have racism. And each and every time, at the end of the day, people are only using racism as an excuse, because it’s so easy. Hispanics, blacks, whites, Asian – everyone in the movie uses racism as an outlet, but everyone also sees everyone else as people. Matt Dillon’s character is later redeemed, when he has to save Newton from a burning car. He doesn’t see race, then, he only sees a person he can save, even if he has to risk his life for her. That’s a statement from the head to the head.

But the major statement in the scene described above is from the gut to the head. This is how Haggis and Moresco did it: Our anger thudded in our ears like drums as the cop’s hands went up the woman’s legs. And we felt how easily that anger becomes racism. And then our heads kicked in, understanding how racism is formed. Dillon faced frustration and injustice, and he did this. Now, this couple had an injustice done to them, they can easily turn it into something mean and bad. We felt racism form inside us.

Which is a better tactic for the writer? Hot or cold? Which convinces more? Which lingers more? Which gets the audience to spring into action?

And how would you, the audience, like to view your racism? Hot or cold?


Benaiah said...

This is a pretty clueless article (albeit with one good point, that Dillion wasn't acting out of racism). There are infinite varieties of racism, and hot and cold (as you define it) basically just means actions versus words. For example, in the movie Confederate States of America we see racism presented without commentary. People simply are racist. There are images that are so insanely racist that I felt guilty just watching them, and yet they are provided without a wink. This isn't hot or cold, it is nuclear. It is searing, and yet it is satire.

Nicholson's racism doesn't say anything about racism, it says something about Nicholson (his character anyway). Haggis's racism says very little about racism too, it shows that it exists, but I don't think anyone was wondering about that. On the other hand there are movies like "Triumph of the Will" or "Birth of a Nation" with real racism, which says something about race but more importantly, about the people making the movie. Their depictions of race are hopelessly backwards and ignorant and the movie itself is a useful picture of the attitudes of racism. Meanwhile, a movie like CSA talks about race in a larger construct. It points at specific examples of racism (most famously, the television show "Cops" which is depicted as "Runaway") in our society, racism that still lingers but we ignore it. That is truly hot racism, racism that is about us, not about the facile straw men coincidences in Crash.

Instead of looking at racism as a writer's tool, why don't you look at movies that are in and of themselves racist today: 300, Norbit and to a lesser extent Watch Over Me.

M.Dot. said...

It’s the “in this country” that’s actually racist in those two lines. It carries with it a truly superior air. In this country, it implies, we do things like civilized beings; in other countries, you do thing like chimps.

Monahan does it to us again, because as we read/hear these lines, we also immediately think: “This is how Nicholson’s character would, in real life, say it,” Getting us to sit back down again. And getting us to think that pesky third thought again. If you didn’t catch yourself thinking the second or the third though as you read the last two lines from the movie, test yourselves as you read this exchange:

I saw departed twice.

I agree.

I reccomend that you break you articles down w/ subheadings.

Makes 'em easier to read.

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