Films marred by ethnic politics

Films marred by ethnic politics

The browsers ecstasy

Films marred by ethnic politics

An unusual number of Oscar nominees for best picture this year seem to be involved in debate about ethnic politics. I cannot recall any other Oscar race that feels this polarised. Right after I saw ‘Avatar’, I had misgivings about the flick. But, I didn’t pick up on the troubled politics of the other films, until recently. It’s the movie — ‘Precious’, about an abused black teenage girl, which is the most affected in this regard.

On the date of its release, it received rave reviews from nearly every mainstream newspaper and magazine, which helped it find a place in the nominations list for best picture at the Oscars. But not long after, African American critics began to write about how outraged they were with the movie, which is full of racist clichés, stereotypes of African American poverty and victimisation. 

Mixed reactions:  ‘Precious’ has  received flak from many black film critics. Describing a scene from ‘Precious’, black film critic Armond White wrote — “A scene such as the hippopotamus-like teenager climbing a K-2 incline of tenement stairs to present her newborn, incest-bred baby to her unhinged virago matriarch, might have been met howls of skeptical laughter at Harlem’s Magic Johnson theatre.

Black audiences would surely have seen the comedy in this ludicrous, overloaded situation, whereas too many white film habitués casually enjoy it for the sense of superiority and relief, it allows them to feel. Some people like being conned.” He also called ‘Precious’, “a sociological horror show offering racist hysteria masquerading as social sensitivity.” The New York Times praised it, but a couple of weeks ago, it ran an op-ed piece, condemning the film.

In ‘The Blind Side’, a white suburban woman played by Sandra Bullock takes on a African-American teenager and inspires him to become a triumphant sportsman. A predictable feel-good movie that seems to have moved even the most cynical film critic, is now being viewed as condescending and insidiously racist. It is more about the white mother than her adopted black son whose victory has more do with the Sandra Bullock’s white character than his own achievement.

‘A Serious Man’ and ‘Inglorious Basterds’, two films with explicit Jewish themes and sensibilities, have left some Jews feeling that they actually do more disservice to the community by being hyper-Jewish. Joel and Ethan Coen who made ‘A Serious Man’ soak the film in Jewish culture and in their trademark surreal and mordantly witty style, satirise the ghetto Jewish community they grew up in. But, a Jewish critic felt that said it was “buried beneath an avalanche of ugly Jew iconography”.

On the other hand, Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds’, as most of us know by now, is a reverse revenge fantasy with the Jews killing the Nazis in Nazi style. Jews in general (and a non-Jewish audience cheering with them) felt it was good fun for once to see the Nazis being the victims.

However, several Jewish intellectuals have voiced their dismay over Jews shown behaving like Nazis. What was the lesson we had learnt from the Holocaust they asked — that we should become like the Nazis? Is that good even for a revenge fantasy?
I thought that at least ‘An Education’, a likeable coming of age tale written by funny-sad Brit writer Nicky Hornby, would be free of controversy. But, here too there are low rumblings from critics who sense that it is subtly anti-semitic.

It’s the story of a bright high school English girl (played by pert, likeable Carey Mulligan up for a best actress nominee) who chucks her dream of going to Oxford when her dream-man comes along. Except, he’s much older to her, Jewish and the only unsympathetic character in the film. You can see it coming — he is going to let her down. The girl’s obnoxious headmistress (Emma Thompson) is openly anti-semitic.

Do they balance out each other or only add to the tinge of anti-Jew feeling in the movie? That ‘Avatar’ is an allegory of the way Native American’s were massacred by White settlers is widely acknowledged and written about. However, a growing number of not just critics, but even movie-goers feel, it is one more story of how a white man saves an indigenous civilisation. Whites are our saviours and rescuers again, making our liberation possible.

I was honestly enthralled and informed by such a rich debate among American film critics and wondered why in India we don’t ferret out such hidden undertones and subtexts in our movies, rife with caste and religious politics. We have many sharp critics who can, but they don’t dig deeper for what’s buried in all the ‘masala’.

We are kept pretty distracted by a slick hit. Didn’t anyone find the obsequious ‘Southie’ character of Chatur Ramalingam offensive — one more caricature of a Southerner in a long line of Bollywood caricatures. And what about the embarrassing jingoism of Rang De Basanti? Even while we talk of how entertaining and skillful these films were, why isn’t it possible to point out in the same review that some aspects of the story or characterisation were troubling?

American critics, at least  the better ones have learnt not to be intimidated by Hollywood. Not all of them were swayed by ‘Avatar’s’ eye candy or by the self referential brilliance of ‘Inglorious Basterds’. It will be interesting to see how much the debate on the troubled and dubious politics of the Oscar nominated films this year, affects the voting itself.
 Are the Academy voters actually reading critics and bloggers? Will they decide against a movie or a performance that they had already made up their mind to vote for? In this regard, Hollywood is not very different from our own film industry, which awards populist films. Never mind what the politics of a film is or isn’t.
 

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