An Open letter For Quvenzhané Wallis

An Open letter For Quvenzhané Wallis

In response to child actress Quvenzhane Wallis having to deal with adult ignorance and bullshit… wait- it’s kind of like the experience of her character in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Art imitating life, or life imitating art?

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Reflections on the P.O.C in the Oscars’ “Best Films”

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As I get ready for an Oscars-viewing party this afternoon, I do so in a different light than previous years. For the first time ever, I feel like I’m “in the loop” to what’s going on this evening. I have seen most of the films nominated for Best Film (I decided to skip out on Argo, and Dark Zero Thirty), and have opinions about who should and should not win. (In my opinion, Silver Linings Playbook– while a good movie—is the underdog of this evening’s celebration in all categories, and while I have mixed feelings about Django Unchained , which I will post in the coming days, I will not deny its power).

But, let me take a step back for a minute. My intention for participating in watching the supposed most prolific films of 2012 was not to necessarily get swept away in the entertainment. As I said in my response to “Best Film” contender, Beast of the Southern Wild, I’m curious about the ways that people of color get to participate in this prestigious ceremony. Who gets to be the storytellers in American film?

As I set out to watch each film nominated for “Best Film”- Lincoln (the victory film), Silver Linings Playbook (the light-hearted film), Beasts of the Southern Wild (the disturbing ‘fantasy’ film), Amour (the tearjerker film), Life of Pi (the adventure film) Les Miserables (the romantic film), and last, but far from the least, Django Unchained (the

American hero film)—I decided to take mental notes on the number of people of color I saw in each film, as well as how they get portrayed.

Anupam Kher and Chris Tucker represent the two P.O.C's in Silver Linings Playbook.
Anupam Kher and Chris Tucker represent the two P.O.C’s in Silver Linings Playbook.

In this game of P.O.C counting (which I’m actually quite good at, as I do it often), I found that aside from Amour, and Les Miserables, each film had at least one person of color who had a speaking part. In Silver Linings Playbook, we have a jolly, Indian therapist, Dr Cliff Patel (Anupam Kher), and a drug-using, mental patient, Danny (Chris Tucker), who adds just

enough of urban humor, to remind us why he’s there.

Irrfan Khan (L) and Suraj Sharma (R)  both play Pi Patel in Life of PI.
Irrfan Khan (L) and Suraj Sharma (R) both play Pi Patel in Life of PI.

Life of Pi– a film mostly taking place in the middle of the water, but begins in India—has Indian characters, most notably, the protagonist, Pi Patel, who is played by Suraj Sharma and Irrfan Khan. There are a group of Mexican men who save Pi in the end when his boat floats to Mexico, but they don’t have speaking parts. There are also two unnamed Japanese reporters who interview Pi in the end.

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Beasts of the Southern Wild’s main characters are Black. Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a very poor, strong child who takes care of herself, because her father (Dwight Henry), is too angry, mean, and hooked on the bottle to properly raise her. Click here for my full review.

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I found it interesting that, this year, we have two films—Lincoln and Django Unchained—that take place during slavery. In Lincoln, Black characters are placed along the margins, as they watch the white men fight back and forth with rhetorics for their freedom. Even when we learn that the 13th Amendment has passed, the camera focuses on the white men celebrating their victory, while the Black characters in the balcony serve as extras. In Django, the hero is Django (Jamie Foxx), a bad-ass ex-slave turned bounty hunter, whose goal is to kill white masters, and save his wife (Kerry Washington). None of the black characters in these films addressing set during the times of slavery are nominated for an Oscar.

I find it  problematic that while there are so many background conversations about the rising Latino population, only two muted characters (Life of Pi) in all of these films appeared Latino. Life of Pi is also the only film that had Asian characters, and is the only film directed by a person of color (Ang Lee). None of the films are written by people of color.

So, as I put aside my Oscar “gown,” and get all dolled up for my friends’ Oscar-viewing party, I do so with the feeling that I know what’s going on, but my sentiments aren’t much different from what I thought they would be: people of color are very limited in films that are noted as “prolific.” With the exception of Life of Pi, P.O.C, are limited to stereotypical roles– the slave/ ex-slave, the funny-guy, the jolly person, the unparented child. And aside from Kerry Washington’s limiting role (Quvenzhané Wallis is a girl child), women of color are merely ghostly matters. But what worries me even more is that people of color aren’t the ones telling our stories. How would the roles of P.O.C look if we were the ones telling our story. If we aren’t the ones telling our stories, then how can we expect others to tell our stories responsibly?

WATCH Ava Duverney’s short film THE DOOR

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Put 10 minutes aside to watch  “The Door”– a beautiful short film by Ava DuVernay. Your welcome.

DuVernay– who, last Spring, was the first Black woman to win the Best Director Prize at Cannes for Middle of Nowhere— has teamed up with Miu Miu for their second short film series called “Women’s Tales.” Inspired by “the transformative power of female bonds,” as well as the power of fashion, DuVernay’s film showcases pain, healed by female love, and personal renewal. Dialogue is replaced by gentle, yet soulful melodies and lyrics, as music is the character moving this film forward. DuVernay’s attention to aesthetics, and detail leaves you breathless, as you create your own dialogue for each character.

Oh, and the characters! DuVernay brought it when it came to her casting: Gabrielle Union plays the lead, and is supported by Alfre Woodard, Adepero Oduye, Emayatzy Corinealdi and Goapele. While this story follows the protagonist as she comes out of her pain, the characters, combined with DuVernay’s choices in scenery, sound, and fashion, make each scene feel like a cinematic treat.

The Black female synergy in this short female has me thinking: What would it look like for cinema, if Ava DuVernay, and Black women directors like her (she’s not the only one with all of this talent!), received the clout, and money for more films, they deserve? What stories would get told about Black women in cinema?Oooh- and what if a Black woman director was the one behind the Nina Simone project— how would the story, and casting change? What stories about Black women would get told, overall, if Black women were the ones who got to write, direct, and publicize their own story?

An Unsettling Viewing of the Southern Wild

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Yesterday—instead of watching the Superbowl—I went to see Beasts of the Southern Wild. I know… I’m late.

When I saw the trailer last spring, I decided I wasn’t going to see the film for a couple of reasons:

1. White folks telling their story through characters of color rarely goes over well.

2. The title itself confirmed point number 1: Since when is it okay to use “Beasts” synonymously to Black (or any) characters of a film? I don’t care about the universal meaning of “beasts” in this movie, and I don’t care about anyone’s metaphorical reading of the title—it still doesn’t sit right with me.

So, I guess the question may be, why did I go to see it? My best friend is having an Oscar’s party, and in an effort to be spirited on the occasion, I’m seeing most, if not all, of the movies nominated for the “Best Film” category. I’m admittedly a snob when it comes to film preferences (I’m more of a documentary/ independent/foreign film kinda gal), but I’m attempting open-mindedness by seeing films the Academy views as “prolific.” To resist the feeling that I’m wasting my time, I’m also considering how many people of color are featured in each film, and what roles they get to play. In other words, 30 years from now, if someone was to analyze American society in 2012, what would our most “notarized” films tell them about how we depict race and people of color?

This brings me to Beasts of the Southern Wild– a film adapted from the play Juicy and Delicious (still a weird title, but I prefer it to Beasts) by Lucy Alibar, who is also childhood friends with the film’s director, Behn Zeitlin. The play was written in attempts for Alibar to make sense of her tumultuous relationship with her dying father. She, like her director-friend are white, but the protagonist, Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), and Hushpuppy’s scary father, Wink (Dwight Henry), are Black. This isn’t supposed to matter, right? Especially since we’re living in a “post-race America”? But let’s pause for a second, and imagine the conversation that must have taken place to choose Black actors as the main characters. What was said? What was the reasoning behind this choice? What emotions were they trying to evoke from the audience by choosing Black characters, rather than white, Asian, Latino, or even an interracial father/daughter pairing?

Race, of course, isn’t brought up in the film—why would it, when this film is about so much more than race? It’s about survival, strength, the reclaiming of agency, as well as the politics of home. As one reviewer points out, the main characters could have been played by white actors, and the story still would have been powerful.

But they weren’t, and that means something.

For me, the absent mother, and lunatic, alcoholic father reminds me of the perpetual tale of the fallen Black family. Wink’s inability to express love to his daughter, who he projects tall-tale-lessons of masculinity onto, reminds me of the assumptions that Black men cannot “daddy” their children. His screams and roars, and desperation for alcohol reminds me of the scary-Black-man the media has always wanted me to see. Wink terrifies me; I want Hushpuppy to be rid of him.

And Hushpuppy… poor, little Hushpuppy—motherless, might-as-well-be -fatherless, and too-often trouser-less, reminds me of all  America’s children of color, who, we are told, are not properly parented. We are to feel sorry for her, but mostly I am angry. I am angry when she appears on screen with only her panties. I feel violated by witnessing this child’s violation. I’m irritated with her hair. I can’t help but imagine the film’s creators thinking that her hair—reminiscent of my own—would give an added wild, beastly, quality.

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But mostly, I’m pissed off at how strong she is, yet I know I’m supposed to applaud her strength. Hushpuppy is a child—but she, like many Black and brown children in real life—is expected to be emotionally, mentally and even physically stronger than adults. In bell hooks’  critique of the film, she writes that Hushpuppy is “a miniature version of the ‘strong black female matriarch.’” We are made to believe that although she lives in poverty, and has not been properly parented, she’s so strong, that she can fiercely survive without the love and care she deserves and needs. While we see Hushpuppy console animals, white children, her father, she, herself, is not consoled-though, at one point, held—not consoled. She is too strong for this act of human kindness; we are to accept that she doesn’t need it; she will survive; she is super-beast-child; she even confidently confronts a beast!

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But this film is about so much more than race! It’s about survival, strength, the reclaiming of agency, as well as the politics of home. As one reviewer pointed out, the main characters could have been played by white actors, and the story still would have been powerful.

But they weren’t, and that means something.

** Disclaimer: While I find the film’s casting decisions problematic, I do not want to take away from the fact that both Quevenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry do a remarkable job portraying their characters. I hope they both (though Dwight Henry did not choose acting; this role chose him) have the opportunity to showcase their talents that go beyond stereotypes projected onto them, and their (our) community.