In the summer of 1997, when I had just turned eleven, my mother decided my sister and I knew nothing and that it was up to her to fix it. We took a train to Washington, D.C., left our bags at an uncle’s house, and began a five-day odyssey through what felt like all of the museums that could possibly exist in the world. I was given a composition notebook, with instructions to take notes.
I’ve retained little from our frenzied speed walking through places like the U.S. Mint, the Washington Monument, the Air and Space Museum, the Natural History Museum, and the Arlington National Cemetery, except for what I wrote in the capitalized block letters I’d adopted as my handwriting of the season. The single incident I’ve committed to memory took place in the Museum of American History, at an exhibition on Jim Crow. I was gazing up at large artistic renderings of black people sitting in the backs of buses, not being permitted entrance to swimming pools, drinking from water fountains below the word colored, when a white boy, younger than I was, and his father, drew closer. The father was earnestly explaining how long, long ago, those people couldn’t sit in the same part of the bus as these people. I was struck by how he never said “white” or “black”: in my family, when you mentioned a new acquaintance or friend, the first question was always “White, black, or Ethiopian?” and then judgments were made accordingly.
“Why?” the boy asked his father.
“Well, back then, some people couldn’t do what other people could.”
“Which people?” asked the child, now thoroughly confused.
Desperate, the father looked up, saw me, and jabbed a finger in my direction.
“People who looked like her. They couldn’t do anything.”
The boy and I stared at each other, our differences stripped bare in the middle of that crowded room, for what could have been seconds or minutes or centuries, before he pulled his gaze away, asked his father something else, and they drifted off. I, a mere casualty of a lazy historical education (where was the boy’s notebook?), didn’t move until my mother found me and whisked me off to another location where there were words to be transcribed. I didn’t tell her what had happened, partly, I think, because she wouldn’t have understood: to her, we were Ethiopian, and thus somewhat above and beyond the race wars that raged around us.
Explorations of race in mainstream nineties movies (except those of black filmmakers like Spike Lee, Carl Franklin, Julie Dash, et al.) followed rules identical to the above encounter: race was either unnamed or it was clumsily portrayed in a way that resisted nuance and good sense. However, the narrative potential of the adversity faced by black Americans was too good not to be mined, and so filmmakers found ways to make white characters suffer similar indignities: in this way, audiences could enjoy the tragedy without the guilt.
Take the alternative realities depicted in Gattaca (1997, directed by Andrew Niccol) and White Man’s Burden (1995, directed by Desmond Nakano). In the former, we see a society in which only those conceived through genetic selection can advance; in the latter, one where black people dominate and white people are considered second-class citizens.
Welcome to the nineties!
Gattaca’s protagonist, Vincent Anton Freeman (Ethan Hawke) is an invalid, meaning that no geneticists were involved in his conception to ensure desirable traits like longevity and blue eyes. As Vincent explains it, “I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science.” We see that bigotry in full force when Vincent applies to high-level positions and is consistently rejected, despite his intelligence and qualifications. He is relegated to menial labor, while genetically perfect specimens like Jerome Eugene Morrow (Jude Law) are given everything. He gets his dream job and must scrub his skin every morning, lest any particle of it sully his elevated surroundings. He is exposed for the invalid that he is, and despite his years of excellent service, is relentlessly pursued by the police.
This is a cleaner kind of systemic injustice, devoid of a slave-owning past or a racist present. With the erasure of race, we get to see a beautiful white man suffer outrages historically visited upon those with black skin. (Note how in this world where genes alone matter, the only black person we see on-screen, briefly, is Blair Underwood. It seems that even when skin color doesn’t matter, it absolutely still does.) Vincent acts as an emissary via which audiences can experience a compelling narrative of subjugation and beating the odds, while never having to contend with the messier questions tangled up in race-related discrimination, not least of which is their own involvement in its history. You get all the drama with none of the trauma (if you will).
As the title suggests, White Man’s Burden takes an entirely different approach, as each shot, each conversation, each interaction screeches its good intentions at you, with little concern for history or subtlety. Take the opening scene, where Thaddeus Thomas (Harry Belafonte) and his stylish, affluent family and friends are toasting their successes. He and a guest get into a heated argument:
Thaddeus: There is something inherently wrong when a people historically and repeatedly burn down their community—
Guest: Listen, “inherently wrong”, what does that mean? What, are we politely talking genetics now?
Thaddeus: I’m not politely talking anything. White people are genetically inferior or they’re culturally crippled or they’re socially deprived. All those arguments mean absolutely nothing. The bottom line is a very simple question: are these a people who are beyond being helped?
Do you get it?
To call the movie’s plot “heavy-handed” is to call Henry James’s sentences “not short.” When factory worker Louis Pinnock (John Travolta, whose performance begs the question, is he trying to sound black or have we not been paying attention to his voice?) is fired from his job for staring at Thaddeus’s wife (this movie could be retitled “Spot the Relevance”), Louis kidnaps Thaddeus. Louis ultimately dies trying to save his former boss; along the way, we see black characters discussing fatherless white children, a world in which TV is dominated by black people (which was actually pretty satisfying), and the police brutally beating Louis, the movie’s stand-in for all white people.
The irony is that by attempting to shed light on the horrors visited upon black Americans, the movie forgets that there’s little joy to be had from watching another person suffer needlessly. By placing the main black character at the heart of a cruel system, he still emerges as the villain. The writing is too weak to make the connection between systemic racism and power, except in the most simplistic of ways. In the end, it accomplishes only the dubious maneuver of reframing the context in which one can hate the black character and root for the white one.
Beyond its switcheroo parlor trick, White Man’s Burden does precious little to explore or satirize the complexities and implications of its characters’ societal roles. It assumes that white audiences will understand what lies at the heart of racial tension and violence if someone who looks like them is the victim, forgetting that if one can’t acknowledge the humanity of another because of their race, then empathy is in short supply, no matter the plot.
The filmmaking tactic of either applying simplistic explanations in fits of guilt and moral high-mindedness or ignoring race completely is not an artifact of the past. The naïve bluntness of White Man’s Burden has since been reiterated in numerous movies that distill racism into blocks of right and wrong (The Blind Side, Black or White, The Help), while the recent glut of movies set in dystopic realities allow for the injustices endured by people of color on a daily basis to be reenacted by white actors for the greatest emotional impact, without a confrontation of reality (Divergent, The Hunger Games).
With the gradual increase of prominent filmmakers of color, there are more and more multidimensional stories being spotlighted, ones where characters run the gamut of life experience, race, cultural background, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender. With these films comes a collective sigh of relief from white filmmakers the world over (You’ll take on the burden of telling your own stories? Awesome!). But the trend whereby minority artists are relegated to telling stories about their own communities, while white artists can tell stories about anything, has prevailed for far too long. Not to mention that you can’t talk about prejudice without also mentioning the people who have historically benefited from it, so white artists have plenty to contribute to the conversation.
Here’s the thing: there is no blueprint for the right way to cinematically tell stories that involve race. But it’s just as weird to write a story that’s about race as it is to write one in which race is not there (as opposed to writing a story about a person, an event, a community … you know, a story). I suspect that many white filmmakers keep falling into one of these two narrative traps because white people don’t really have to think about race at all, if they don’t feel like it. They get to exist as people, in both fact and fiction, and the idea of defining someone by skin color only happens when a nonwhite person enters the scene. I get that and, in some ways, I envy it. But I don’t get thinking it’s acceptable to leave out the parts of discrimination relevant to a story just because they make you uncomfortable or they mean you have to hire a nonwhite actor. I don’t get how it isn’t obvious that being able to sit wherever you like in the bus doesn’t eliminate a past when you couldn’t or a present in which bus service and quality vary depending on the neighborhood.
I don’t get how you can live in America, especially in 2018, and not see how race dictates so much of who gets represented, what we receive, what we feel owed, and how we live.
Nafkote Tamirat is the author of The Parking Lot Attendant.