In more films, less con­tro­versy over racial dif­fer­ences


Can cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion ever be ap­pro­pri­ate?

A gen­er­a­tion ago, Spike Lee took the vet­eran di­rec­tor Nor­man Jewi­son to task for di­rect­ing “Mal­colm X,” in­sist­ing that the nu­ances of the civil rights ac­tivist’s story would be bet­ter served by a black film­maker. Af­ter a let­ter-writ­ing cam­paign to Warner Bros., Jewi­son dropped out of the project, and Lee went on to di­rect the film him­self. Just a few years ago, the di­rec­tor John Sin­gle­ton wrote an es­say in the Hol­ly­wood Re­porter be­moan­ing the num­ber of films about black peo­ple made by white di­rec­tors. Cit­ing such dra­mas as “42” and “The Help,” he wrote, “It’s as if the stu­dios are say­ing, ‘We want it black, just not that black.’ ”

Some­thing seems to have shifted, at least this year. By the time 2016 comes to a close, a num­ber of white film­mak­ers will have tack­led nom­i­nally “black” sto­ries, and will have been greeted with far less con­tro­versy: This past sum­mer, “South­side With You,” by Richard Tanne, and “The Fits,” by Anna Rose Holmer, earned plau­dits for be­ing thought­fully con­ceived and well ex­e­cuted sto­ries about a young Barack Obama and an African Amer­i­can girl com­ing of age, re­spec­tively. Next month, “Hid­den Fig­ures,” a drama about fe­male NASA math­e­ma­ti­cians and re­searchers by Theodore Melfi, will ar­rive in the­aters. And this week­end “Lov­ing,” the drama­ti­za­tion

of the story of Mil­dred and Richard Lov­ing, the Vir­ginia cou­ple whose Supreme Court case le­gal­ized in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage, kicked off what prom­ises to be a fruit­ful awards run.

At a time when ar­gu­ments about race, gen­der and au­tho­rial power have roiled the lit­er­ary and art worlds, cin­ema has inched to­ward es­tab­lish­ing what might be a set of best prac­tices for white artists rep­re­sent­ing re­al­i­ties out­side their im­me­di­ate purview. Over the past sev­eral months, while the nov­el­ists Lionel Shriver and Jonathan Franzen clum­sily ex­plained their feel­ings of en­ti­tle­ment and dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion when it comes to imag­in­ing sto­ries out­side their own si­los, film­mak­ers have qui­etly demon­strated how the fraught ter­ri­tory of “writ­ing across dif­fer­ence” might be nav­i­gated with self-aware­ness and sen­si­tiv­ity, rather than un­ex­am­ined priv­i­lege, solip­sism and gen­eral un­woke-ness.

For the writer-di­rec­tor of “Lov­ing,” Jeff Ni­chols, the key had to do with iden­ti­fi­ca­tion: He had no qualms about bring­ing the story to the screen, he told me, and not just be­cause Richard Lov­ing was a white man, too.

“I saw my grand­fa­ther in him, al­most to a tee,” Ni­chols ex­plained af­ter “Lov­ing” made its North Amer­i­can pre­miere in Toronto in Septem­ber. Re­call­ing his grand­fa­ther, a propane de­liv­ery truck driver from Altheimer, Ark., as a man “in­ca­pable of enun­ci­at­ing his emo­tions and frus­tra­tions,” Ni­chols, a Lit­tle Rock na­tive, said, “I saw right into the heart of that char­ac­ter.” Like Mil­dred, he added, he has an abid­ing love of home and place when it comes to the Amer­i­can South. “I felt like I un­der­stood [her] point of view. And as long as I at­tached to that, I felt like I’d be okay.”

It turns out that Ni­chols was bet­ter than okay: “Lov­ing” is a grace­ful, in­ti­mately mod­u­lated por­trait that not only cap­tures the un­pre­pos­sess­ing tem­per­a­ments of its main char­ac­ters, but also the sin­gu­lar at­mos­phere of Caro­line County at its most trib­ally com­plex and re­as­sur­ingly serene. Un­like a more con­ven­tional drama­ti­za­tion fo­cus­ing on court­room bat­tles and stir­ring speeches, Ni­chols’s film gets the weather right, lit­er­ally and emo­tion­ally.

The con­fi­dence, tem­pered with re­spect, with which Ni­chols ap­proached “Lov­ing” stands in stark con­trast with the pained am­biva­lence many white artists have ex­pe­ri­enced as they’ve con­sid­ered whether to bring black sto­ries to the screen. In 2007, Jonathan Demme — no doubt still stung af­ter the luke­warm re­cep­tion of his adap­ta­tion of Toni Mor­ri­son’s “Beloved” — told me that he pulled out of adapt­ing Tay­lor Branch’s civil rights his­tory “Part­ing the Wa­ters” as a fea­ture film be­cause he “didn’t have the stom­ach” to di­rect black ac­tors and ex­tras to en­dure abuse at the hands of their white col­leagues. Even­tu­ally, he said, he turned to Branch and ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Harry Be­la­fonte and said: “Guys, we’ve got to find a young African Amer­i­can to di­rect this. That’s who should be di­rect­ing this.”

The adap­ta­tion of “Part­ing the Wa­ters” even­tu­ally ended up at HBO, where David Si­mon is sched­uled to pro­duce it as a minis­eries, with Branch, Ta-Ne­hisi Coates and James McBride co-writ­ing. Tellingly, in the in­ter­ven­ing years, Ava DuVer­nay di­rected “Selma,” about the 1965 civil rights march, and Lee Daniels de­picted the move­ment in his movie “The But­ler.” DuVer­nay and Daniels are part of a grow­ing com­mu­nity of highly re­garded film­mak­ers of color that in­cludes Gina Prince-Bythe­wood, Dee Rees, Justin Simien, Amma Asante, Ryan Coogler and Ter­ence Nance, to name just a few.

And that com­mu­nity is cru­cial. In the 1980s, when Jewi­son planned to make “Mal­colm X,” Spike Lee was the most vis­i­ble of a hand­ful of well-known African Amer­i­can film­mak­ers. This year, along with “South­side With You,” “The Fits,” “Lov­ing” and “Hid­den Fig­ures,” au­di­ences will have seen such var­ied films as “The Birth of a Na­tion,” “Queen of Katwe,” “Moon­light,” “Al­most Christ­mas” and “Fences” — all by and about peo­ple of color. The sat­is­fac­tion of white film­mak­ers get­ting black sto­ries “right” is only grat­i­fy­ing to the ex­tent that they ex­ist along­side films au­thored by an in­clu­sive pop­u­la­tion of artists free to make movies of ev­ery genre, style and point of view.

As part of the cur­rent van­guard of African Amer­i­can film­mak­ers, “Moon­light” di­rec­tor Barry Jenk­ins, who adapted the film from a play by Tarell McCraney, about a young man com­ing to terms with his sex­ual iden­tity, noted that he’s not im­mune to ques­tions of ap­pro­pri­a­tion. “I’m a straight guy who’s made a film about a gay pro­tag­o­nist, and I had the same ques­tion,” he re­flected dur­ing a re­cent visit to Wash­ing­ton. “I was like, ‘Am I the right the per­son to tell this story? Be­cause there’s an as­pect of this per­son’s iden­tity that I don’t have a first-per­son per­spec­tive on.’ ”

Jenk­ins said he re­al­ized he could take au­thor­ship of “Moon­light” be­cause he grew up poor in the very same Mi­ami neigh­bor­hood where the story is set, and he de­cided at the out­set to pre­serve as much of McCraney’s voice as he could, the bet­ter to avoid be­ing “an in­ter­loper or an em­pa­thy cru­sader.” Stay­ing true to the play­wright’s voice, he said, “gave me agency. It made me feel like I could get to that point. So if I can do it, I can’t say that an­other film­maker shouldn’t or can­not do it.”

In many ways, the cine­matic medium it­self might hold the key to the dif­fer­ence be­tween cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion — whether in the form of cyn­i­cal co-opt­ing or earnest con­de­scen­sion — and mean­ing­ful, in­ti­mately ob­served sto­ry­telling. Not­ing that “em­pa­thy is the gift of cin­ema,” Ni­chols echoed sen­ti­ments ex­pressed by Tanne and Jenk­ins when he added, “I em­pathized with the sit­u­a­tion of these peo­ple.”

But em­pa­thy, as any­one who has suf­fered through a painfully well-in­ten­tioned para­ble about racial un­der­stand­ing will tell you, is rarely enough. Holmer, who di­rected “The Fits” from a script she co-wrote with two women — all of them claim­ing dif­fer­ent eth­nic and ge­o­graphic back­grounds — said that once they re­al­ized the story would be set in an African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity in the Mid­west, they work­shopped it ex­ten­sively with their ac­tors, en­cour­ag­ing them to re­write their lines un­til they felt au­then­tic and true to life.

“I’m barely an author­ity on my own per­spec­tive,” she noted. “So to as­sume that you un­der­stand any other sin­gu­lar point of view, I think, is a danger in the cre­ative process. What it boils down to is open­ing up, adding voices and lis­ten­ing.”

For Holmer, the fact that “The Fits” dodged so many of the pit­falls of cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion can be cred­ited to film’s in­her­ently col­lab­o­ra­tive struc­ture. “What’s so beau­ti­ful about cin­ema as an art form is it re­quires so many voices to work,” she con­cluded. “It’s a col­lec­tive art form. And even as a col­lec­tive art form, from the cre­ators and the au­di­ences it’s serv­ing, to crit­i­cism, to ev­ery strata of the busi­ness, it’s ex­clud­ing voices. So we have a great debt to make up to those voices. But [get­ting to] a place where we can have syn­the­sis and ex­change and col­lab­o­ra­tion, re­gard­less of what type of story we’re telling — that’s the hori­zon we’re head­ing to­wards.”


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