It started at Blog Cabins and, as desired, has spread like wildfire in summertime California: the alphabet film meme. The rules are simple:
1. Pick one film to represent each letter of the alphabet.
2. The letter “A” and the word “The” do not count as the beginning of a film’s title, unless the film is simply titled A or The, and I don’t know of any films with those titles.
3. Return of the JedI belongs under “R,” not “S” as in Star Wars Episode IV: Return of the JedI. This rule applies to all films in the original Star Wars trilogy; all that followed start with “S.” Similarly, Raiders of the Lost Ark belongs under “R,” not “I” as in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Conversely, all films in the LOTR series belong under “L” and all films in the Chronicles of Narnia series belong under “C,” as that’s what those filmmakers called their films from the start. In other words, movies are stuck with the titles their owners gave them at the time of their theatrical release. Use your better judgment to apply the above rule to any series/films not mentioned.
4. Films that start with a number are filed under the first letter of their number’s word. 12 Monkeys would be filed under “T.”
So, I decided that my list must include only movies that, consciously or not, deal with race and ethnicity in interesting ways. This doesn’t merely mean that it features, say, an all-Japanese cast; hell, most Japanese-produced films do this—that doesn’t mean they’re focused on these issues. Some of these feature race/ethnicity as pivotal concerns in the narrative or themes. In others, these will be only tangential issues that nevertheless strike me as the most interesting—or one of the most interesting—facets of the movie. In more than one case, I don’t particularly care of the movie. (Note that the original rules say to pick a film to represent each letter of the alphabet but does not state that it has to be a favorite film.) Mostly, I chose the movies because I liked them but often I chose them because they served as springboards for discussing larger issues of race and ethnicity, because I wanted an excuse to write about them at length, or wanted to link to favorite essays on the movie in question.
In short, this is just an excuse for me to hack away at a personal bugbear. The movies are listed by name, director and/or primary creative force, and year.
A: Annie Hall (1977). The quintessential movie about American Jews negotiating life in an America that’s wary of and sometimes hostile to them. Oh, and there’s a pretty good love story in there, too.
B: Besieged (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1998). Along with The Good Thief, The Truth about Charlie and Dirty Pretty Things, this movie belongs to an aesthetically restless, slowly growing genre about how African immigration is changing the face of contemporary Europe. The uneasy cultural flirtation between the continents forms the core of Besieged, a wholly compelling love story. Thandie Newton and David Thewlis are both marvelous.
C: “Crush w/Eyeliner” (R.E.M./Spike Jonze, 1994).
The chorus goes “I am smitten. I’m the real thing, I’m the real thing.” But it’s a throwaway line near the end that’s always sold me on this song: “How can I make myself be faker/ To make her mine?” The narrator’s obsessed with identity, with fake vs. real, and he’s half-mocking himself for being in love with a chimera. (His crush is on the girl’s makeup, not the actual face underneath.) Spike Jonze’s video extends the idea by having this American noise-rock song “performed” by Japanese youth on the nightclub prowl, They lip-synch as fiercely and convincingly as Michael Stipe sings. It’s another mask. R.E.M.’s band members are mere spectators, seen in furtive glances near the video’s end—they’re beneath the eyeliner of their own song.
D: Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989). A no-brainer, given the parameters of this list.
E: The Edge (Lee Tamahori, 1997). Here’s where I finally lost faith in David Mamet’s vision of the world or, rather, that his vision had any bearing on the world in which we live. The rich, cultured humanist millionaire (Anthony Hopkins) keeps his hair in perfect order, despite the ordeals of surviving a plane crash, battling a Kodiak bear, and enduring the Canadian wilderness in the depths of winter. The poor liberals at his side are licentious and crude fashion photographers. Get it? Fashion? They’re not serious people, these fashion people. Smug, venal Alec Baldwin is schtupping Hopkins’s wife, model Elle MacPherson. Baldwin’s hanger-on, Harold Perrineau, is completely inept—he’s also, not so incidentally for the film’s politics, black. Philosophically, the movie intends to examine what happens to a person’s morality when it’s faced with extreme circumstances. But the cards are so stacked in favor of Hopkins’s character—he knows everything; he never loses his composure or moral certainty; and is a survival expert to boot—that I never felt that he learned anything substantial from the ordeal. The circumstances merely prove how utterly right and brilliant he is. It’s hard not to view the film in allegorical terms, since it seems intent on distilling people to their cores. The Woman (MacPherson—the only woman in the movie) is ultimately revealed as fickle and impure. By the end, Baldwin’s character—sexual, lewd, and with human frailty—even admits that he’s “done nothing with his life.” Perrineau, as the “darkie” (and why not call things in the terms The Edge sets up?), must depend on the all-knowing white man to survive—and even then he doesn’t make it. And Hopkins gets to clench his teeth nobly in the wind and dismally cold rain, shoulders squared, shaking his fist in triumph at the wilderness. When he says at the end that others died “saving my life,” it comes across as less noble than self-absorbed, almost cocky. Does any of this shit seem remotely based in reality? Would Roger Kimball, Dwight Macdonald, William F. Buckley, Jr., or any of the other Latin-spewing New York Intellectuals survive an hour in the Alaskan wilderness? Of course not, but The Edge suggest them as the real he-men of America. The film is a pitched battle between the cultural conservatives and the relativist liberals; it’s the 1980s culture wars as action film. Technically, the movie is breathtakingly photographed, capturing the sumptuous beauty of Canada’s landscapes. (Director Lee Tamahori showed a gift for getting winter’s glory in the James Bond movie Die Another Day—another paean to bogus conservatism wrapped up as an action movie—as well.) But its competence makes it all the more dangerous—its deck of cards gleams so beautifully that you almost don’t notice how stacked it is.
F: Flirting (John Duigan, 1991). In my love letter to Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor, I wrote the following about Flirting: “Even [Newton’s] first film, shot when she was 18, shows both her formidable talent and her never-ending quest for ambitious cinema. Flirting is ostensibly a teen romantic comedy set in an Australian boarding school, but it’s so many other things besides that. It’s at once a touching interracial romance, an exploration of how whites respond to the introduction of a black face (Newton’s) in their milieu, and a political allegory about the West’s uneasy relationship with Africa. Intelligent, wry, funny, sexy, and charming, with almost ridiculously great performances by Newton and romantic co-lead Noah Taylor, Flirting should be considered a minor classic. Instead, despite the appearance of a young Nicole Kidman and a young Naomi Watts, the movie’s almost unheard-of. Even so, all of the themes that Newton continually pushes in her career—interracial romance, the complexity of black experience, womanhood beyond stereotype, Africa’s influence on the West and vice versa—are all there at the outset.” I’m still right.
G: “Got Till It’s Gone” (Janet Jackson/Mark Romanek, 1997).
Janet Jackson and director Mark Romanek imagine life in a 1970s South African nightclub, where the rich panoply of black life is on vibrant display. Each face has a backstory; each motion seems essential.
H: Holes (Andrew Davis, 2003). Most movies starring children fall flat because the kids’ performances do, though it’s usually not their fault. Kids, unlike most adults, don’t have a deep well of emotion and experience to draw on. So, when they try to telegraph chaotic feelings and tension, that’s what they do—telegraph, instead of feel. They need much more guidance than adults here, and so need a director with a firm grip and a clear sense of the movie’s emotional core. So, kudos to Andrew Davis for getting uniformly terrific performances from his child actors. These performances don’t feel like performances at all, but more like true feeling and intelligence coming forth from the actors. There’s little sap here. Part of it, of course, is the source material. Louis Sachar’s award-winning novel is plainspoken, tough, honest about hard labor and punishment, and yet also whimsical enough to provide for real laughter. The movie feels much the same. There’s a slight over-reliance on slapstick that I don’t remember from the novel but, otherwise, Holes stays true to both the letter and—much, much more importantly—the spirit of the book. Even when Davis strays from the novel, the deadpan and slightly bitter comic tone remains intact. Even the Disneyfied hip-hop soundtrack seems to be connected—lyrically, at least—to the events in the film. In fact, since all the boys give themselves hip-hop monikers like Zigzag, X-Ray, Armpit, and Caveman, the music seems to fit. Almost all of the boys are black, except for the protagonist (a young Shia LaBeouf), who learns from the black boys but also learns—and accepts—his responsibility to them.
I: Inside Man (Spike Lee, 2006). A quote from my review: “All of Lee’s concerns about race, class, and America are present. He’s gone inside Hollywood, but emerged unscathed and with a Hollywood budget and PR campaign. On the surface, Inside Man clicks like a well-oiled, ever-tightening machine.. Within it, however, is the invigorating, maddening mess of America.” Lee’s best movie in a decade, and one of the best of his career.
J: Jungle Fever (Spike Lee, 1991). And then Spike Lee lost me. Armond White pegged it when he complained that Lee is so blinkered that he couldn’t imagine a complex romance between a black man and a white woman, which is especially troublesome given that an interracial relationship is one that his own father was a part of. Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra are stereotypes, not characters; the issues raised are bullet points, not working facets of actual lives; the themes are outlined so broadly and simplistically that the movie has no resonance. Lee is interested more in pushing buttons and confirming preconceived notions than in exploring any sort of nuance involved in race relations.
K: Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977). Lyrical, languid, and almost anti-narrative, it’s continually compelling, even if you don’t initially know how all its moving parts will add up. As resounding and enigmatic a portrait of black life as you’ll ever see.
L: Lone Star (John Sayles, 1996). My favorite American movie of the 1990s. Walter Chaw gets it right succinctly: “Lone Star is sad and hopeful in equal measure, clear-eyed and rose-shaded and, in its quiet way, the most articulate expression of Sayles’ concerns for society, the working class, and the turbulent wake of the past rippling into the present. I love this film; it’s one of my favourite works of literature, one of my favourite pieces of film, and a reminder of the almost limitless promise of the medium to entertain, educate, and shine a light on the state of our human state.” I wish Chaw would write a full-length essay on Sayles’ masterpiece. I wish I would get off my duff and do the same.
M: Melinda and Melinda (Woody Allen, 2004). The movie, after over 30 films, features Woody Allen’s first major nonwhite character. (Hazelle Goodman, as a stupid prostitute in 1997’s Deconstructing Harry, doesn’t count.) But even Chiwetel Ejiofor can’t save this role but he at least makes it classy. The problems start with his name, Ellis Moonsong, and branch out from there. The character is so perfect and non-threatening to the white mainstream that he’s not an empathetic figure nor one that has any relationship to actual black experience. He’s pure artifice and not even interesting artifice at that.
N: The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005). The foundation of “America” and the fall of actual Native America, all right here in a single, exquisite, heartbreaking film.
O: Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998). A jazzy, freewheeling fusion of heist drama, dark comedy, and interracial romance, Steven Soderbergh justifies his career here. A quote from my review: “What most impresses me about the movie is its conversation between races and genders. [George] Clooney and Ving Rhames have a natural, rhythmic friendship that never devolves into liberal piety. Black character actors—among them are greats Rhames, Viola Davis, Don Cheadle, and Isaiah Washington—don’t all speak in the same narrow vocal register or level of diction; black folks, even minor characters, are allowed room to stretch out.” It’s pop filmmaking at its best, in large part because blacks and Hispanics are allowed to be central figures in this pop vision.
P: Pieces of April (Peter Hedges, 2003). The Thanksgiving movie as racial allegory. Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Derek Luke, and Oliver Platt give great performances in an underrated look at race relations in contemporary America.
Q: Quiz Show (Robert Redford, 1994). In which working-class Jews envy the New England upper class from a distance, and then from up close, and finally with a tinge of disdain. As with Spellbound and the new Slumdog Millionaire, televised gaming becomes a lens through which we view the social aspirations of ethnic classes outside the dominant WASP regime.
R: The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001). Here, we see the New England elite from the inside, as it implodes. As Danny Glover prepares to marry matriarch Anjelica Huston, we see how this decision causes social upheaval and absurd behavior. It’s a precise and knowing satire of the white upper class, charged because of racial tension that’s quietly spoken but always present. Gene Hackman, as Royal Tenenbaum, calls Glover “Coltrane” and a “buck,” and the phrasing resonates as harshly as “nigger”—which Royal is too genteel to say (but which we know he means). I think critics were ambivalent about it because Anderson both mocks and loves these people. He humanizes whiteness, old money, and intellectual elitism, even as he notes its necessary encroachment by the rest—ahem, most—of America.
S: “Stronger” (Kanye West/Hype Williams, 2007).
The connections between African American and Asian pop culture runs deep and strong, for reasons that I’m still trying to parse. La Bella, who works in music licensing for a soul/R&B record label, asked me why it licenses so many of its songs for use in martial-arts films. I didn’t have an answer, but mentioned that when I saw Hero and House of Flying Daggers on the big screen, both times on opening night, the theater was jam-packed, and 80% of the audience was black. Jackie Chan’s movies, when dubbed for release in the United States, often feature soundtracks full of rap and soul. But it’s Japanese anime that has loved black pop—see Cowboy Bebop’s appropriation of jazz and blues; Samurai Champloo’s riffs on hip-hop culture; and the perfectly titled Afro Samurai. It digests the tropes of African American pop, fuses them with Japanese pop concerns (the apocalypse, techno-driven futures, sensory overload, blue hair), and re-colors them according to anime aesthetics. But it’s rare that you see black artists returning the favor. Hype Williams’ video for Kanye West’s terrific “Stronger” takes on Akira, the most iconic of all anime features, matching the song’s robotic beats and vocoder-filtered vocals with the techno-thriller’s own imagery. Williams and West recreate scenes from Akira—a psych ward gone haywire, a motorcycle chase with contrails of light in the night, pandemonium on the daytime streets as Tetsuo/Akira comes to power, glowing and neon-filled night visions. West’s rapping—about getting laid, about getting stronger—seems vaguely sociopathic as he conflates himself with a protagonist who goes mad and carries the potential to blow up the world. It’s a vision of power that is frightening and rousing all at once. West’s willingness to portray himself this way shows the sense of humor he has about himself and his monster ego.
T: The Terminal (Steven Spielberg, 2004). Spielberg’s homage to Jacques Tati’s Play Time is a joyous, complex ode to the diversity and resilience of American life in the aftermath of 9/11.
U: Undercover Brother (Malcolm D. Lee, 2002). Not just a blaxploitation parody as with I’m Gonna Get You Sucka, Lee’s feature is an honest-to-goodness satire. The difference? The latter needles white and black popular cultures as opposed to just white/black movie and genre conventions. It’s my first introduction to Dave Chappelle. His response to a woman’s seemingly rhetorical question—“What’s behind every strong black man?”—still make me laugh out loud. (The answer, by the way, is “The police?”)
V: (Okay, I got nothin’ for this letter. Any suggestions?)
W: The Wire (created by David Simon, 2002-2008). The Wire is the most complex portrayal of racial dynamics, political structures, social institutions, and the ways in which these three interweave that has ever been seen on American television. If not for the existence of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, I’d say that the show is the most complex portrayal, etc., etc., in American culture, period. Discuss.
X: X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000). The superhero team as safe haven for outcasts and those on the periphery of the status quo. In the original comics, those outcasts can be read as nonwhites, homosexuals, deformed people, and other “others.” The symbolism was at times heavy-handed but the genetically produced superpowers allowed for some fascinating conversation, and Singer keep the comic’s vision intact.
Z: Zelig (Woody Allen, 1983). Woody Allen makes a documentary his way. That is, he doesn’t so much make a documentary—its protagonist, Leonard Zelig, is fictional—but a commentary on the art of documentary. Every technique is lampooned, from the use of talking heads (real Jewish intellectuals—Saul Bellow, Susan Sontag, Irving Howe, and others—actually appear in the film.) to the scratchy sound recording and whitewashing, blotched film negatives of 1930s newsreel footage. The cinematic techniques emulate the film’s moral concerns. Leonard changes his form to his surroundings, becoming black, Indian, Greek, and Chinese when around those of the respective ethnicities. More significantly, he changes his mannerisms and lifestyle as well. Around psychologists, he pretends he’s one, too. At the core lies a self-hatred—at his most unguarded, in grainy still shots, we see Zelig with his arm raised, palm extended flatly downward, in an imitation of the Nazi goose-stepping salute. To come full circle, his final change is to become a Nazi. It’s a groundbreaking film from which Forrest Gump stole its techniques and used for sappier purposes. Oh, and Zelig is funnier than Gump, too.
Have a happy Thanksgiving. See you soon.