Tag Archives: race

Wise Old Masters

I have a very clear memory of being ten or eleven and watching Cartoon Network. I didn’t have cable growing up, so this was at a hotel or someone else’s place. I’d left Singapore and was in that whole growing-up-on-a-ship phase of my life.

Anyway.

Johnny Bravo was on, and for some reason or other the titular character had to learn some martial art or another. So he goes to a dojo, meets the guy, and asks him to teach him “the secrets of the East.”

This took me aback. That was their takeaway? Not, y’know, the whole modern metropolis thing or the food or anything; the old Asian guy teaching some martial art or another was their view of ‘The East’? Also, the heck is up with calling it ‘the East’?

I suppose it’s kind of special to be able to pinpoint your first conscious encounter with systemic racism (special in the way that it’s special you remember what class you failed in High School), but it is certainly something amusing to be aware of. Because, wouldn’t you know it, that is one of the prevailing images of East Asians in popular culture: the wise old master ready to teach you some oriental martial art.

And I suppose that’s one reason why I wasn’t bothered by Tilda Swinton being cast as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange. It’s not just because it adds another woman to male-heavy cast in a male-heavy franchise, but it’s because it moves away from a particular stereotype.

Now, would it have been great to have an Asian actor cast as The Ancient One? Sure. But I’m sick of Asians having to fit into a few prescribed roles (wise old master, funny foreigner, engineer/doctor/smart person). There are these places where stories tend to default to having an Asian character, not unlike how the default everyman is a white dude. The wise old master is so ingrained into the popular consciousness that one of the funnest turns in Batman Begins is that Ken Watanabe isn’t Ra’s al Ghul, but is actually Liam Neeson (uh, eleven year-old spoiler, I guess).

The problem at hand is only letting people be a certain thing. If the only time/only way we let an Asian character be of importance is by making them a wise old master/funny foreigner/smart person, it perpetuates the idea that that’s all they/we are. It’s the same thing as the whole all-Asians-are-martial-artists thing where that is the only thing worth knowing about Asian countries. It’s why I celebrate Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for making an Asian character idiot bro. There is definitely a discussion to be had here about people and roles, but, again, I’m plenty happy with Tilda Swinton in the role, especially because she does such a great job at it. And hey, how often do we get to see women be the wise old masters?

I’m not so sure I’d call it white-washing either. I’m not terribly familiar with Doctor Strange’s backstory in the comics, but there’s little about The Ancient One that seems Asian outside of the, y’know, old master on a mountain top. His race (or gender, for that matter) isn’t too tied to the material: this isn’t kung-fu or karate (s)he’s teaching, it’s magic. Not Chinese magic; magic magic. I understand the problematic nature of taking a character who’s a minority in the source material and making them white in the adaptation, but there’s also the excision of a particularly frustrating stereotype from a narrative at play here. It’s not a simple one-or-the-other predicament, it’s a nuanced, messy situation. One that requires dialogue, not dogma.

Besides, Doctor Strange does decent in diversity elsewhere, with Benedict Wong’s Wong being a particularly enjoyable one-note supporting character (and the source of some of the best gags). Plus, the other sorcerer-students and doctors in the background are noticeably diverse, and the movie is one of few to feature a villain with henchwomen. It doesn’t mean it’s enough, but a cast photo that looks like this is a step in the right direction.

Now, there is room for discussion here and for me to be wrong – there always is. I suppose I’m just happy to see a wise old master that, well, isn’t an Asian guy with a long beard.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Why I Take Issue With Johnny Storm Being Black

So y’know that new Fantastic Four movie coming out next week? It caused a bit of uproar when casting was announced since Michael B. Jordan’s playing Johnny Storm, a  character who, in the comics, has been white. This is further complicated by the fact that his sister, Susan Storm, is being played by Kate Mara, who is rather obviously white.

This ‘race lift’ given to Johnny Storm has caused quite the hullabaloo. In an apparent case of trying provide a quick and superficial overcorrection a lack of diversity in super hero films they went and changed Johnny’s race, rather than having a different superhero join up. Making things even more convoluted is that his sister’s white, meaning either one’s adopted, their parents remarried, or are a very rare quirk of mixed-race parents.

Which, y’know, is fine. Representation is a big deal; it’s always great to see different sorts of people on screen. Marvel’s comics have been taking great strides to diversify their heroes, Ms. Marvel’s a Pakistani-American teenager, we’ve Spider-People of all a variety of race and genders, Sam Wilson took over as Captain America; it’s cool for the movies to follow suit (even if Fantastic Four isn’t part of the MCU).

The issue is that it’s just Johnny who got his race changed. And it has to be Johnny; not Reed ‘cuz he’s the main character, not Ben because he spends most of the movie rocky, and especially not Sue because she’s the love interest. Johnny being black — and only Johnny — belies a much more systemic problem in pop-culture in general. And it’s not the tendency for casts to have a token minority (though that is an issue too).

There are a few things central to the Fantastic Four’s mythos: they get their powers from a scientific project, Doctor Doom is their greatest foe, Ben and Jonny are somewhere between rivals and friends, and Reed and Susan are lovers.

And that last one is where things would get hairy if the siblings were both now black.

There’s going to be a romance between Reed and Sue, because of course there will be. But a mixed race couple simply isn’t something that you usually have in a movie; especially if it’s between a white man and a black woman. Fantastic Four wanted to make someone a minority but also keep the romance subplot.

Which really bugs me. Because the whole Johnny-is-black-but-not-his-sister-Sue thing smacks of a fear of having a mixed couple in a major movie. It’s something I find really frustrating. Look, I’m biased; I’m the son of a couple who got married when interracial marriages had less public approval than same-sex marriage did in 2011. It’s one of those things that I want to be more present in pop-culture because it’s something very present in my life. It’s 2015; c’mon, let’s get with the times already. The President of the United States is the product of a mixed-race relationship!

Seeing a movie bend-over-backwards narratively to ensure that the white protagonist’s love interest isn’t black is incredibly frustrating. It’s not director Josh Trank’s fault, or even that of studio Fox: it’s systemic.

At the end of the day, I think I’m disappointed more than anything else. There was a chance here to, even in a small way, shake things up a little bit. ‘cuz I’m cautiously eager to see this movie, and I’m glad that they’ve taken steps to make Susan Storm’s powers more practical/offensive than in the last film. I also really liked Trank’s work on Chronicle. I guess I just wish if they were gonna switch a character’s race, they took the next logical step and did the same thing for his sister.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Unflinching

I finally got a chance to see Fruitvale Station on a flight last week. In short, it’s a movie that definitely deserves upping my Top Nine Movies of 2013 to a list of the Top Ten Movies of 2013 (though which spot it deserves I can’t decide). The initial expectation for why it’s a great movie is obvious: it’s topical! A movie dealing with race and prejudice in the contemporary USA? If you’ll like this you’ll seem cultured, yes!

 
But to describe it as such not only does it a great injustice but also hardly describes the movie in full. Fruitvale Station is not a tract. Rather, it presents a sequence of events without actively telling the audience whether what’s happening is right or wrong. Rather the film presents the events leading up to the shooting of Oscar Grant as scenes in everyday life.
Here’s where Fruitvale sets itself apart from similar movies like They Help or 12 Years a Slave. There’s no heroizing of Oscar. He’s presented as, well, as a person.In the film Oscar is, unflinchingly, neither clearly morally good or bad; instead he, like people in general, fluctuates between the two. Sure, he helps a stranger at a grocery store, going so far as to call his grandmother for help, but he also lies to his mother and girlfriend about being unemployed. Shortly after we first see Oscar we see him stashing a big bag of weed in his closet, yet he’s also someone who’s willing to spend what little cash he has on his mother for her birthday. Oscar’s complex, a man of dualities.

 
It’s rare that we see a character this morally gray. Malcolm Reynolds, of Firefly, almost reaches the same heights of Oscar. Mal too is a man comprised of a duality: he’s rude and borderline mean to Book and Inara, yet he’s quick to defend them should anyone else threaten them. He’s someone who will return stolen goods to a sickly town but soon after unhesitatingly kick an unarmed man into an engine intake. He’s hardly someone who follows the straight and narrow.
Malcolm Reynolds, however, remains fundamentally heroic. He may not be the goodest of the good, but he’s still someone who not only tends to do the right thing but also usually comes out on the heroic side. He robs an Alliance hospital to help two members of his crew and only because the hospital will be restocked in no time. Mal, unlike Oscar, has a moral code. It may not be the most righteous one, but it’s there all the same. Oscar, like ‘normal’ people, has no such clear moral compass. Instead he’s just a guy.

 
If anything, Oscar is a man with the potential to be good. Yes, he’s an ex-con, but he’s trying to turn his life around. Rather than having the audience invest in Oscar because he’s the ‘good guy,’ like 12 Years a Slave did with Solomon Northup, we invest in him because we see ourselves reflected in him. Oscar’s a guy trying to make his way in the world, trying to do right by the people he loves.

 
Along with that, Fruitvale Station asks us to empathize with people we may not like in real life. When Oscar drives he blares rap music, like those degenerates who woke you up when they drove through your neighborhood last night. The film has us look beyond first impressions and see the people underneath. Furthermore, Fruitvale Station never tries to tell us to like Oscar, rather it shows us who they are and thereby get to know them.

 
Which is what makes the shooting all the more tragic. It’s not presented as a case of “look how awful racial prejudice is,” instead the tragedy stems from seeing the life of a young man trying to better himself and beloved by his family cut short. Oscar’s death is the loss of a person full of hopes and flaws. That it comes as a result of prejudice only serves to deepen the tragedy and illuminate problems of the system.

 
So yes, Fruitvale Station is topical, far more so than film like 12 Years a Slave. This relevance, however, never gets in the way of the characters and plot. It’s a slice of the life of a twenty-two year old man, albeit one which ends in his murder.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized