Can a White Person Make a Movie about African Americans?

Director Kathryn Bigelow at the premiere of Zero Dark Thirty in 2012. (Reuters photo: Mario Anzuoni)
Some on the left say no.

Not content with harassing white people who wear their hair in cornrows and branding as “cultural appropriation” everything from college cafés serving sushi to Beyoncé donning a sari, now the new racial purists are coming for film director Kathryn Bigelow. Her crime? She’s a white woman. More specifically, she’s a white woman who dared to tell the story of the 1967 Detroit riots in her latest movie. It’s wrong for whites to tell black stories, apparently, because they can never truly understand those stories. It’s a profoundly philistine argument that exposes the misanthropy of the racial thinking that passes for radical commentary these days.

Bigelow’s Detroit is a blistering movie. It focuses on one incident in those crazy days of July 1967: the stand-off in the Algiers Motel between a group of young African Americans (and a couple of white girls) and the Detroit police and the National Guard. Through distilling the Detroit disturbance into one bloody clash, with a huge bulk of the film’s action taking place in a single motel corridor, Bigelow captures the racial and social tensions of the ’60s in a way few other filmmakers could. It’s both taut and expansive; part thriller, part social commentary. In that corridor, in those black heads pressed in fear against the wall, and in the jitteriness and hatefulness of certain of the cops (not all of them, though), the audience is given a stirring picture of a nation on the edge.

But Bigelow’s artistic achievement with Detroit, alongside that of her longstanding screenwriter Mark Boal, counts for little in the face of her racial heritage, it seems. Her whiteness apparently voids her artistic vision. No sooner had Detroit hit theater screens than she was being “called out” — PC for publicly shamed — for her cultural arrogance.

A Variety cover story asked: “How could Bigelow — a white woman raised just outside San Francisco by middle-class parents and educated at Columbia University — understand and illuminate [this] kind of raw experience?” This movie speaks to “the problem with watching black pain through a white lens,” said a writer for the Huffington Post, as if Bigelow were reducible to her whiteness; as if she turned up to work on Detroit every morning thinking and behaving as a white woman, a racial creature, rather than as a storyteller. This is a “white filmmaker [using] the spectacle of black pain as an educational tool,” says the HuffPost, which is bizarre, since Detroit doesn’t feel educational at all: It invites both emotional and intellectual responses, but it never once feels like a lecture.

At Slate, Dana Stevens argues that film directors — and surely by extension, all artists — cannot escape their origins when telling stories: “The people behind the camera . . . will create a different film from a different perspective depending on the lives they’ve led and the bodies they inhabit.” Bodies — here we get to the ironically dehumanizing element of PC racial thinking, where people are mere skin, driven, sometimes without realizing it, by their bodies, their biology. “The fact of the filmmakers’ whiteness can’t help but inflect their depiction [of racial history],” says Stevens. Can’t help. This resuscitates the very fatalism that lay at the heart of older varieties of racial thinking — namely, that we are prisoners of race, that our racial origins shape how we view and act in the world.

“This is a film by white people, for white people,” says one reviewer. Apparently, “a story about black pain is not necessarily Bigelow’s to tell in the first place.” Why not? How far should we take this argument? Was it wrong for Shakespeare, a Brit, to tell a Roman story in Julius Caesar? I’m pretty sure Gustave Flaubert was never a doctor’s wife who had hot adulterous affairs, but that doesn’t make Madame Bovary feel false or “stolen.” Did he culturally appropriate the female experience? From Bob Dylan singing about poor folks’ hardship to any modern novelist who’s invented characters that differ from him or her in terms of race, class, or sexuality, art is peppered with people writing stories that are not their own. That is very often the point of it: It’s the exploration of the human condition itself, by any human, regardless of whether they’ve lived in the specific condition being dramatized.

How far should we take this argument? Was it wrong for Shakespeare, a Brit, to tell a Roman story in Julius Caesar?

The new PC racial purity grates against the entire enterprise of art. It is an affront to the universalizing dynamic and human empathy that make art possible and underpin history’s greatest works. It imprisons the imagination, telling people to limit themselves to telling their own stories, to observing their own navels, and to never leap beyond what they know in order to take both themselves and their readers or viewers to new worlds. Worse, it further racializes everyday life. It boxes us off according to color, insisting that whites cannot really understand blacks, and vice versa. What a dispiriting, divisive ideology: a segregation of the imagination.

Bigelow, in my view, has done great justice to the Detroit story. In her previous films, from Point Break to Hurt Locker, she developed a profound ability to capture male bonding (cultural appropriation?), and she puts it to great effect here, in both the hopeful male bonding of the victims and the sinister male bonding of their persecutors. And as she demonstrated in Zero Dark Thirty, the outstanding movie of the war on terrorism, she is Hollywood’s mistress of moral ambiguity, always preferring narrative complexity to the simplistic politicking favored by much of today’s shallow, self-congratulatory Oscars set. That eye for moral complexity runs through Detroit, which gives us only one character who is unquestionably bad: The others all straddle the moral spectrum. White lens? No, this is the Bigelow lens. This is the work of an individual storyteller, and it ought to be clear to everyone who sees it that it is driven by a deep humanist instinct rather than any kind of unwitting racial urge.


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