July 22, 2013

Diversity rant - Snails, Zebras and Donkeys

As part of the dialogue on race we’re all supposedly having in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, I’d like to ask: can we pleeeeease ask Hollywood why they seem reluctant to make an animated kids’ movie with a central black or Latino character?? 

To escape the heat and threat of rain, I took the kids to see "Turbo," the latest Dreamworks kid flick about a little snail with a big dream: to win the Indianapolis 500.  Through a series of unlikely happenstances (it’s a kids’ movie, after all) the snail sees his dream come true – courtesy of a pair of Latino brothers from Los Angeles, one of whom believes in the snail and his dreams.

Though the movie’s pretty predictable and not the worst animated feature film I’ve ever seen.  The obligatory central message imbedded in the movie – dream big, and work to make it happen – is supported by a less obvious,secondary affirmation: diversity is a good thing. 

The snail, who comes from the suburbs, is befriended by the aforementioned brothers, whose taco restaurant is the lynchpin of a down-at-the-heels urban strip mall. Their mall "family" includes a female Latino mechanic, a sassy Korean woman who owns a nail salon and an old white man who runs a hobby shop. It's a far cry from the well-scrubbed castle of "Cinderella" or the antiseptic woods in "Snow White."

Given that, Turbo does better than most movies of the genre; there’s real economic and racial diversity on the screen. But the bar is pretty damn low.

Michael Pena and Luis Guzman are outstanding in decent roles that push the story along. But most of the story – and the heroic moments that had me and my kids enthralled -- are told through or focused on Turbo, the star of the movie. 

A friend noted there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and I agree: the movie is, after all, called “Turbo,” not “Turbo the African American Wonder-Snail.”  But why not have Turbo voiced by a black or Latino actor? How come precious few movies are made with a black hero? Do they think whites won't relate to black characters? Or that the movie won't make enough money at the box office? 
Which brings me to Pixar, creators of my two favorite movies, and not just in the animated category: “Cars,” and “The Incredibles.” Both feature great storytelling, believably flawed, three-dimensional characters who have depth and texture. And they're visually amazing.
Clearly, those guys are geniuses.

Yet of Pixar’s blockbusters – “Cars,” the “Toy Story” franchise, “The Incredibles,” which is poised for a sequel – there are only a handful of characters who aren’t black, and they’re ALL SIDEKICKS.  Frozone, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson in “The Incredibles,” is blond, blue-eyed hero Bob Parr’s loyal buddy. Flo and Ramon – she an African American “show car ” from Detroit; he a Latino body painting artist from Los Angeles – are part of the town, but they barely factor into Lightning McQueen’s road to redemption.

And if memory serves, “Toy Stoy,” “Toy Story 2,” and “Toy Story 3” – which made billions of dollars worldwide in box office receipts alone, spawned several catch phrases and arguably put Pixar on the map as a kids’ entertainment force – didn't have a single character of color in the whole cast. I could be wrong but I don’t think I am.

I wish I could say I’m surprised by the fact that diversity hasn’t caught on.  But I’ve been watching animated films for 14 years now and, other than “The Princess and the Frog,” which made headlines because it featured a black princess and a mostly black cast, I can't remember seeing a movie where the main characters look like my kids.

And there’s no sign of improvement: at the “Turbo” screening, we saw about five trailers for children’s animated features coming up for the holiday season – including what looked like lame sequels for “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Lego Movie” – and none featured identifiable characters of color.

So why does it matter? After all, my kids don’t seem to mind, mostly because they’re kids. “Turbo” hooked them: they laughed, they cried, they cheered when the hero went for his dream instead of playing it safe.

Well, this is why it matters. And this. Also, as the father of a young black boy, I think this is kind of important, too. 

In the New York Times article on "Princess and the Frog," the reporter quotes Michael D. Baran, a cognitive psychologist and anthropologist who teaches at Harvard and specializes in how children learn about race. He was asked specifically about "The Princess and the Frog," but his answer pretty much applies across the board.

It matters, he says, because of Disney’s outsize impact on children. 

Think merchandising: Products from hit animated films are everywhere in our kids’ lives.  Toys. Backpacks, Sheets, pajamas, toothbrushes, salty snacks, breakfast cereal, yogurt packs, video games. Ad executives have even hooked up those stupid yellow, capsule-shaped Minions from “Despicable Me 2” with Flo, selling insurance between McDonald's Happy Meals commercials. 

My daughter, when she was a toddler, had a Disney Princess gown and wand. My son has a pair of slippers shaped like Mater, Lightning McQueen's buddy in "Cars." When those messages of approval -- and exclusion -- invade your child's world, 24-7, for years at a time, it takes a strong kid and an even stronger parent to push back fight back. 

Says Baran: “People think that kids don’t catch subtle messages about race and gender in movies, but it’s quite the opposite.”

Even Chris Rock, who co-starred as the motor-mouthed sidekick Marty the Zebra in the “Madagascar” movies, got the memo. 

At the 2012 Oscars, Rock told a national audience that voicing kids' films are an actor's dream because, “in the world of animation, you can be anything you wanna be.” 

“If you’re a fat woman, you can play a skinny princess," he said.  "If you’re short wimpy guy, you can play a tall gladiator. If you’re a white man, you can play an Arabian prince.

“And if you’re a black man,” he said, “you can play a donkey or a zebra.”

Sometimes, not even that

July 19, 2013

Going nuclear with the 'N-bomb'

Guest Post by Jamie Ruff

No, white person, you shouldn't use the 'N-word." . 

I would like to say you can’t, but, of course, it's a free country, as you like to remind us.  So no one can stop you. And I decided a long time ago that white people who seem bothered that they can’t use the N word are probably just bothered that they can’t say publicly what they have always said privately.

For decades there's been a persistent debate among white people, and even some blacks, as to why black people can drop the 'n-bomb' with impunity -- especially since hardcore rap has gone mainstream, and one groundbreaking group -- featuring a guy who's now making millions hawking high-end headphones and rap's angriest young man who now stars in dopey kids' movies and silly beer commercials --  named themselves after it.  

So, let me try again to explain why black people can use the word and why white people shouldn’t. The simple answer is the shared cultural significance of the word -- the historical context between the races.

Don’t get me wrong, there is certainly a stink to the word, a stigma, even when I hear it from one black person to another.  But it is worse when it passes through white lips.

Like it or not, there is a nuance to the N word when black people say it to each other – an expression of love, of anger and frustration, but always of camaraderie -- a bond based on a shared historical experience. Slavery, hardship, discrimination; the investment of blood, sweat and tears in a country that, when it comes to African Americans, has never given as much as it has received. 

By contrast, there has never been any nuance to that word when uttered by a white person.Throughout history, when whites say it, its meaning has dripped with hostility and hate and the promise of violence – worse, violence without any threat of retaliation.

 Historically, when a white person has used the N-word it has been as a metaphorical bullwhip -- a reminder that your blackness makes you as defenseless as whiteness makes them all powerful. When spoken by a white person, the N-word echoes the perception of superiority and the promise that whatever I do to you, I do with unchallenged, unquestioned, merciless and absolute power. It says, 'No cop would arrest me, and if he did, no jury would convict."

I doubt we can imagine for how many black men the N word – uttered or yelled but in whatever case filled with every drop of the hate and hostility that it carries -- was the last thing they heard as they were being beaten to death, shot or lynched.  

The N-word  put you in your place, with the threat of violence to back it up           .

You see, when black people use the N word among themselves –  in jest or in anger – it is not inherently threatening or menacing, but an acknowledgement that the lash of the word and all that comes with it (last hired, first fired; higher incarceration rates despite similar rates of criminal activity) has been felt, and probably will be again. 

But when the N word is spoken by a white person – be it whispered, uttered, yelled or even written – it is a reminder to the historically powerless of their relationship with the historically powerful.

That’s why we can use it and you can’t. It’s as simple as that.

I tell you what, white people, when the N word stops meaning what we all know it means, I’ll have no problem with you yelling it from the rooftops and dropping it into everyday conversations. But something tells me that if it didn’t have the same meaning, so many of you wouldn't feel so pressed to use it.

July 18, 2013

Echoes of History

I wrote this post Saturday night, just after I received word that the Sanford, FL, jury hearing the George Zimmerman murder case had acquitted him of all charges.  I was on Twitter at the time - hence the 140-character paragraphs.  I decided to keep my thoughts in their original format, as kind of an experiment in micro-blogging. 

late Saturday, a friend called in tears: "they found him not guilty. his mama had to listen to him kill her baby. what am I supposed to do with that?"

good Q reminded me of when my son was born. joy, then a tiny bit of heartbreak: "shit. we brought a black boy into this world."

around that time - 2004 - I was city editor for a regional paper, but still a black suspect, esp. on an empty city street blocks fr. home in "liberal" Cambridge, MA.

1 a.m., pocket full of cash from ATM run - cab fare for a trip to the airport the next day. at a corner, I saw a cop car. my antenna went up: they saw me.

any black man knows what I felt next: "fuck." ice in the gut. cop car followed me, slowly, for two blocks, then turned w/me up my street. "shit. here we go again."

one block from my urban middle-class home - one stinking block - blue lights; spotlight in my face. then, questions: "where are you going? where were you?"

fought panic: wad of cash in my pocket, no ATM receipt. remined myself: stay cool. don't get angry. "got ID? stay there." spotlight. blue lights. anger. humiliation. frustration. stayed cool.

radio traffic on the cop car: "no, that's not him." spotlight goes out, car pulls away. no apology. no explanation. no surprise. no justice.

same thing happened to my dad, an aspiring artist: Philly,1950s, before Miranda & brutality lawsuits. cops beat him up, tossed him in jail, then let him go.

his crime: walking while black. in a white neighborhood. in broad daylight.

that night in Cambridge was 3rd or 4th time I'd been stopped while black; once, they were looking for a mugger. my wallet: on my dresser, forgotten. cop's hand was on his gun.

 never beaten or jailed, but the rage never vanishes. city editor? White House journalist? black man. suspect. "prove you're not a criminal."

Stand your ground is a bad law that cost a teenager his life; still, it's repealable. less so: WWB, an unwritten law that's generations old.

WWB seduced the Sanford watchman; Stand Your Ground was a convenient defense.

WWB landed my dad in jail and nearly got me shot. more than once. Trayvon is only the latest victim: Michael Stewart, Amadou Diallo, Emmit Till.

it's egalitarian: newspaper reporters, bus drivers, college professors - think "beer summit." even cops, sometimes shot by their own homes.

 WWB survives like a roach after nuclear war.  a black president can't change it. it's invisible to most whites, incl. the Supreme Court.

I have a son, a 10 YO black boy with autism: hears, sees the world differently. I'll love him, teach him best I can. and pray for progress.

but history tells me he'll face a cop - or a neighborhood watchman man with a license to kill - who thinks his skin color and gender = suspicion and/or guilt. WWB gets applied.

will he play it cool, alive but with a wound that won't heal? will he buck and fight like Trayvon?

will I have to identify his screams on a 911 recording in a police office or courtroom? I pray I won't.

 but the echoes of history are too powerful to ignore.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...