Thursday, December 29, 2011

Link: J. S. Bang--Honkies Revisited

I keep stumbling on things that make me revise my decision that I was done blogging for 2011 already.  My esteemed associate J. S. Bangs wrote this funny expression of ambivalence about the "What this story needs is a Honky" trope in sci-fi and fantasy.  I don't happen to share that ambivalence myself because while I appreciate his appreciation of the contrast between technocratic "white" culture and more spiritually attuned non-white culture in Western narrative as a shorthand for the contrast within predominantly white culture I still can't give films like Avatar or Windtalkers a pass in the patronizing story line.  If you get Adam Beach and have John Woo directing the movie yet still make the film about Nicholas Cage's character you're going the most pedestrian route possible.  It's only explicable in terms of Hollywood.  You get an Asian directing a film about American Indians playing a role in World War II and it's still about the white dude.  Lame. 

With respect to minorities in Hollywood blacks have made some substantial gains in the last fifty years.  You don't have to actually like Will Smith movies to recognize he's a big box office draw.  I don't always enjoy the movies Denzel Washington is in but he's a reliable actor.  Spike Lee may not be as big a name as Spielberg but he's a name at all.  There may be too few blacks having such prominent places in Hollywood but as tokens go there are more of them than, say, American Indians.  The older I get the more I begin to notice that different racial groups have very different ways of understanding themselves in relationship to white culture.  Blacks "tend" to lean toward Democrats for the reasons that are not that hard to explain. 

American Indian author Sherman Alexie once said, somewhat as a complaint, that American Indians tend to be politically conservative.  If you look at how government activism regarding Indians looks compared to government activism regarding blacks in the last hundred years it's not going to be HUGELY shocking that American Indians might think the better solution is keeping the government further away from them.  Not all racial groups have the same incentive to go with Democrats or with liberal policies and not all racial groups have equally benefited from the progressive gestures.  At the risk of putting it this way, if Hollywood is any measure of the role of non-whites in mainstream society blacks may feel they have more progress to make but they have substantially measurable progress in the form of bankable leading men, directors, and networks.  BET may be offensive to some blacks and some people may think Univision is a bit daft but those networks are here for the long haul.  Asian cinema has completely saturated American film-making in ways that Americans may not even be capable of parsing any moer. 

By contrast, American Indians have got ... what, exactly?  Casinos and a corresponding opprobrium from certain branches of evangelicalism about the badness thereof.  One of the unfortunate side effects of a lot of American discussion about "race" is that it fixates in many settings on white and black, or white and Latino, or white and Asian.  Black and Asian racial strife, let alone animosity between American Indians and Mexicans.  As American Indians can see it EVERYONE else constitutes an illegal immigrant who came and stole their land, stole their jobs, and attempted to wipe them out in the process. 

Of course many of these tribes were also spending time trying to wipe each other out.  Part of the reason the magic Indian trope and the mystical society that accepts the honky outcast is so silly and annoying is because it is so steadily built into an imaginary past.  As a friend of my brother put it, a Hopi man who found Dances with Wolves insulting and tedious, the "heroic" tribe the white man joins spent generations attempting to wipe out the Hopi and take their land.  Even when Hollywood tries to somehow dignify Indians as being nobler than "us" in the "This Story Needs a Honky" trope, it turns out the circumstances of history make it inevitable that something goes off the rails. 

And the end result in the trope is that the magic white boy ends up being the hero. No disrespect to blacks in Hollywood or the struggles they face but if we can have critics complaining about Will Smith as a leading man then there has been measurable progress!  Jackie Chan may be a cinematic one trick pony but the world recognize his one trick has been pretty awesome for decades.  Bollywood has made some inroads.  The more homegrown Indians ... not so much.  They are still only good in Hollywood terms for the magic white boy, "This Story Needs a Honky" approach, it seems.  I'm afraid that the problem as it is will never get fixed by movies at the level of, say, The Business of Fancy Dancing.  Alexie has been an entertaining author but a film director he is not.  But in the end if no one risks in the arts no one can succeed.  A certain amount of trial and error is necessary in the arts.

Meanwhile, lest it seem that I'm only discussing American film and the entrenchment of racial or ethnic concerns, every culture has its own jingoistic expressions.  It's not like Ulysses doesn't come across as a smug, duplicitious creep to anyone who doesn't happen to share Hellenistic values and clan affiliations.  It's not like China hasn't been rolling out action films constantly revisiting the Japanese invasion of China and depicting the Japanese as bloodthirsty rape-happy cretins in the last twenty years.  There are compelling historical reasons for that depiction but it can still be seen as jingoistic in the way that American films about World War II can come off as unflinchingly self-congratulatory. 

But then in a way this all comes down to a more basic narrative trope in humanity, the need to conclude that we chose the 'right' policy in a situation in which the only options were varying degrees of horrific.  The touchstone here from the 20th century is Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb.  That the bomb constituted an unmitigatingly horrifying power to destroy human life cannot be avoided, but it cannot be avoided what the Japanese imperial forces did at Nanking and how far gone the destruction of non-combatants had already gone in the war. 

At the level of national and international policy the lesser of two to five evils can still be nothing less than horrifying to a degree that defies comprehension.  A teacher once put it to me this way, that Americans mistakenly think that the President of the United States has to decide "if" people will die because of a policy decision when the reality is closer to this, the President has to decide how many people dying from a policy decision is the most tolerable option.  This is not jaded cynicism but the miserable reality of politics.  We are constantly caught between wanting to have our cake and eat it, too.  We want to affirm how different we are from our dominant group even as our affirmation affirms our dominance.  We want, even in the midst of our privilege, to be able to embrace the status of outcast.  Evidently in some settings the easiest way to express this emotional and cultural moment is ...

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