Everyone feels marginalized at one time or another even when they’re not. You know it when it happens to you – even when you’re generally safe, comfortable and in the majority. It’s the moment when you perceive you’re not being treated fairly or the time where you helplessly watch as an undeserving person or group achieves a goal that should’ve been bestowed on you or yours. Or, at the very least shouldn’t have been theirs.
The downside of this is that furor reaches a tipping point – sometimes nationally or even internationally – and sends the planet into chaos.
The upside is it’s responsible for great art. And sometimes even change. And, in rare times, both.
The above accounts for the national temper tantrum currently being thrown by White America via the Tea Party (uh yeah, they’re mostly WHITE) and the determination of their national representatives to shut down as much government as possible under the rule of that Kenyan Muslim Communist Marxist or just plain Black President Barack Obama.
But it is also reflected in such boundary pushing current movies as 12 Years a Slave, Blue is The Warmest Color and Dallas Buyers Club. If it were not for the miscarriages of justice each illustrates on the part of the African-American, gay, female and poor and sick communities, none of these films would exist in their current form.
No one wants to support human suffering in the name of potentially great art – except perhaps a writer or two. As a member of the general population of the latter group, I must admit I have wondered where I’d be creatively were it not for the traumatic moments in my childhood that I managed to spin into stories of snide yet noble survival that reflected what I perceived to be some of my own unfair misfortune (Note: Is there fair misfortune? Something to think about).
Still, that’s an entirely other, too personal subject and strays away from the main point. In clear-minded moments I choose to believe if given the option I would gladly trade in the art in for a more blissful beginning. But deep down I’m not so sure if, knowing the eventual good outcome, that kind of trade would even be possible.
No one is safe from perceived oppression even if the facts are that you’re not particularly oppressed. That’s because human nature being what it is, we will all experience real slights, often based on nothing more than the way we look or what particular group we’ve been marginalized into via race, religion, body size, sex or sexual preference, athletic skill, age, money (too much or too little) or some other incendiary category. (Note: Yes, some slights, though they may be real hurts to you, do pale against the more big-ticket items).
The question is: what do you do to counter, cope or overthrow what’s going on – or what you think is going on? How do you marshal the forces to get your point across? What creates change, or at least catharsis? How long does it take? How do you live with it? Or better yet – can we ever eliminate it all together and, well….all just get along?
Not likely. But as we currently say – eventually – it gets better. No one movie or song or TV show will do it and it will likely not happen in a sinlge year. And certainly our political systems move at a snail’s pace – even as they’re prodded by art and cultural upheaval. Often it takes generations and creates change so glacial and imperceptible for the current generation that it becomes difficult for them to really understand the severity of what existed decades before they were even bought into or became part of the world.
Last weekend I watched both 12 Years a Slave and Blue is the Warmest Color back to back – and bully for me because that’s 5 and a half straight hours of dramatic filmmaking, a rarity these days – I became acutely aware of how similar all of our struggles against oppression are. And yet, how individual and dissimilar certain elements of them are when we’re put into the position of watching them dramatically unfold in no consecutive order other than the timing at the scheduled movie theater and screening.
12 Years a Slave was my first lesson – and yes, it often felt that way. There will be no spoilers here other than to state what you already know from the title and the trailer. An upscale free Black man with a loving wife and family from the North gets snatched off the street in the mid-1800s and sold as a slave to the South in the halcyon days of the Confederacy. Much of the movie is rightfully grotesque and hideous as we watch this classic case of the worst kind of mistaken (or perhaps engineered) identity play out. This is not a Gone with the Wind, Amistad or even Django Unchained kind of story. Director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley, both of whom are Black, are determined to tell the unvarnished truth of what it meant centuries ago to be a human being who is owned by other humans in much the same way that a farmer owns any animal that he intends to use for work and/or eventual (perhaps even likely) slaughter.
There is rightness to this film, if for no other reason than to make up for the century old legacy of movies that have presented slavery as anything more nuanced than the above. But there is also a heavy dramatic price to pay for what we’re watching. Countless repetitious moments of bloody torture. A mostly one-sided depiction of cruelty by broadly drawn villains from another time. Rarefied dialogue that often feels written – alternating between speechy or spoken in a period syntax that occasionally comes off as grandly Shakespearean or just a little too plain grand.
And yet – you can’t leave the theater unhappy that this movie was made or that it is getting some attention. No, this is not liberal guilt. This simply is. Why hasn’t a big, solely dramatic movie ever been made that gives us such an unrelenting picture of what it was like to be a slave from the point of view of being a slave? Has it really taken this long? And why has it taken this long? This story, and the book it is based on, has been around for decades.
On the other hand, as someone who likes multi-layered plots and characters I couldn’t help but feel that I was being left behind for some broader political statement that was being made – one that has been earned but one that is, in the final analysis, not very complex. I don’t want the Southern White guys to get off too easily as simply monsters from another era. I wanted to see more depth, more layers of perceived oppressions from both sides – strange as that sounds. What is it an old writing teacher once told me – a hero is only as well written as the villain who is oppressing him. In this case, there’s not much there there.
In light of the rave reviews and overwhelmingly positive cultural reaction so far to 12 Years A Slave (Note: Cue the news shows, the talk circuit, the awards and the Oprah), as I write this I’m feeling as White Male Privileged as I’ve ever felt. That is even if, in my mind, I’ve never really felt a part of that fortunate majority as a short, gay, Jew. Is it because this is not my history that this movie didn’t resonate for me in the way that…uh….Schindler’s List or, well, Parting Glances did? Perhaps. But as an American this IS my history. Or is it? Well, let’s just say it’s part of my history – actually our history. Whether we’re Americans or not, we are all human.
Blue is the Warmest Color has another issue. It is a three-hour French film with no plot other than what will happen in a love relationship. Will the lovers stay together or will they break up? Usually a movie logline continues and sets the relationship against –-
- The backdrop of war
- Feuding families
- A skating or piano competition
- A boxing match.
It is to this film’s credit – and partly due to the fact that it is French because no one makes better and more leisurely films about romance than they do – that Blue offers no such counterpoint. Oh, well other than the fact that in this case these two lovers are both FEMALE – nee GAY.
The achievement here is that the gay is fairly incidental in this love story. Perhaps that is why it was so widely lauded as the Grand Prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival and is on every critical prognosticator’s list of top films of the year thus far. Can the fact that there is a film starring two gay characters that doesn’t really seem like it should be a considered a film that primarily examines gay issues be considered, in itself, progressive? Oddly enough, yes.
A gay mentor of mine from the early eighties who is no longer around once said to me that it is when we treat being gay as an integrated and almost incidental part of our characters in books, movies and on television that we’ll know we’ve made real progress. In this case I think he was right, as he was on many subjects, though it pains me that partly because of our lack of progress on gay issues at the time of his death he is no longer around to see his pronouncement become a reality.
I am again not engaging in spoilers when I tell you that Blue traces the sexual awakening of a high school girl who instantly becomes fascinated with a blue-haired young woman four years older and many more years experienced than she is. But beyond its very initial stages, the story pretty much ignores the LESBIAN issue in favor of what happens when two matched yet mismatched young people fall in love. It’s leisurely, evocative, erotic and very real. And it is especially, for this type of film, very long.
In Blue, character doesn’t enrich the plot – character IS the plot. There is nothing else. Gay, shmay. It’s not about that. Which is part of what I loved about the movie. And part of why I suspect I could so relate to it and didn’t particularly mind the length. My romanticized versions of some of my early relationships were reflecting back at me from the screen – all I had to do was change a few body parts. Okay, I wasn’t a high school girl but I certainly felt like a high school girl, at least archetypically, in the midst of those experiences. And now, in one of those rare times, I was watching them being played out onscreen– in French, no less!!
On the surface, I didn’t at all wonder why I ultimately preferred Blue over 12. I’m much more of a love story guy than a historical action guy. But the more I thought about it, the more I knew that it was more than that. Who we are and what we’ve experienced is the window through which we feel and it will significantly determine how we’re moved and why we’re moved. It is the reason why I keep not going to screenings of Dallas Buyers Club, a movie set in the mid-80s AIDS crisis where there were no effective drugs available and at a time where primarily gay men in the US were getting sick and quickly dying at record speed.
I watched the bodies of too many people I knew involuntarily emaciate the way the film’s lead actor, Matthew McConaughey voluntarily did when he went on a 1300 calorie a day diet to lose 49 lbs and become a skeletal version of his onscreen persona. Never mind that he plays a heterosexual, bigoted White Texan – the image more than works for me. Actually, too well. Though I will see the movie and, at least from the trailer, it feels accurate, I’m not rushing out to the theater. Yes, just as we need to relate our experiences to what we view and who we empathize with, the contrary is also true – some things can, at their very core, hit even much too close to home. And you just need to gird yourself in order to get in the mood.
That is not to say that a story of Black America can’t move me as much or more as a love story between two contemporary gays, or even a plethora of dying gays and the friends thereof. Only that, all things being fairly equal (which they never are) I can probably forgive a lot more in a film about the latter two because they more closely resonate to where I’ve been and who, at heart, I perceive I am.
As a wee child in the 1960’s through today, I have always believed, spoken and written that the struggles of each oppressed or marginalized minority were on some basic level the same. That is the fight for equality and acceptance – the acknowledgement by others that we be considered no different than the person next door despite how we looked or where we came from.
I now see it is somewhat deeper than that. Until we can recognize that there are some struggles that we can never fully understand, but yet can honor in the same way as our own, we will never quite be free of our divisive pasts. This is not to proclaim I think about 12 Years a Slave any differently. Only that I acknowledge that, given who I am, my perceptions about art and a lot of other things, are merely opinions rendered through my own personal lens. This is equally true for everyone else on the planet – a fact that might be worth remembering next time we bridle at the radical personal, business or political statements of protest that comes from someone on the other side of an issue we might think we clearly see.