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James Baldwin famously said that, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” While not in a rage these days (in between shootings of unarmed black folk) I find myself just sitting in a haze trying to consume popular culture that is not built for my consumption because it’s the only thing on the menu…
I went to the local funky movie house to see While We’re Young.
Like most Hollywood films, it features an ensemble made almost completely of white actors. This was no surprise to me as I have read the 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report conducted by UCLA, that found 83% of the lead actors in film are white. I knew this also because I live and breathe, and have eyes. As an artist who is a person of color, I knew these facts already, I have experienced them, I have lived them. I didn’t need a report to see the truth. Film presented via the white heteronormative male gaze is mostly all there is to watch these days at the cinema in America. Well not exactly, there IS the Kevin Hart minstrel show that is Get Hard. 👎🏽
While We’re Young is about a married couple in their early forties, (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts, who exemplify white privilege) trying to get their groove back after encountering a young couple who reminds them of who they used to be. Stiller has been making a documentary that’s going nowhere for a decade and lives off of the grant money for the never ending film project. Watts has a famous father and is paid to work for him. They are well meaning liberals with no people of color in their sphere of existence (ok 1 Asian Doctor in a 10 second scene, that hardly counts as in their lives) Their best friends are a white married couple who’ve just had a baby and are forcing Stiller and Watts to consider parenthood. I went to this movie because I enjoy Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as actors. I did not expect the film to cause me to ponder what audience the piece was written for. As people of color often must do, to enjoy the film, to even swallow the art, I had to see things through the white male gaze.
People of color only come into the film twice. The first appearance of a character of color is a throwaway brief introduction of a named character whose only line is “Hello” to Naomi Watts. The next appearance serves as a sight gag, as Watts is thrown into a hip-hop dance class by her new 25 year old friend.
Ah yes, look at the white girl who can’t dance… ALL the blacks can. They are a monolith don’t you know, simply a mass, not to be considered individually at all.
Look fast! It’s the one black character with a name next to Naomi! Don’t blink or you’ll miss her!
I’ll spare you major plot points, as the film is well written and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. The fact is, the movie is delightful, if I do the following things:
1. Consider only the plight of the white straight male universal.
2. Forget my personhood and see through the eyes of the white straight male.
3. Try not to be curious about the life, backstory and wants of the woman of color who appears briefly onscreen.
If I manage those…I can enjoy the film…
I hope you get the point. I SHOULD NOT HAVE TO ERASE MY CULTURE TO ENJOY A FILM! If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is my worth in words if I am not in the picture? Seeing yourself onscreen forms the American psyche. For black lives to start mattering, we must be visible. We have to be IN the picture. Not on the periphery or outside. IN!
Why is the white story considered universal? Why is it perfectly normal to have a film ensemble that’s completely white and be considered “mainstream”?
The film is entitled, While we’re Young. This includes a WE. WHO are we talking about? I have to wonder what “we” are we talking about?