By ZACHARY ZAHOS
If empathy is a sorely lacking human virtue, and if “movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” as Roger Ebert once said, then why does a Hollywood movie diet leave us so empathetically barren?
I long took it at face value that ‘the movies’ — the popular, American ones — reflected life in a truthful fashion, bad parts included. For the ‘bad parts’ find attention and awards at the Oscars, where a certain fusion of trite liberalism and belittling sentimentalism thrives. Every year I watch a number of new films that claim to engage with ongoing issues, racism being number one (because this is America). The Help, for instance, would very much like its bourgeois viewers to think that they now know what true racism is, when really its plot boils down to a binary conflict between good and evil that precipitates a best-selling memoir by Emma Stone.
But can a preachy Oscar-movie do good? If it falls short of subtle artistry, can it wield its cudgel of enlightenment toward open, discursive ends? Last year gave us an abundance of awards-caliber films about black American life, such as Fruitvale Station, The Butler and 12 Years a Slave, which all happen to be helmed by black directors. I’m still arguing with myself over the greatness I saw in The Butler, where the story pits an obsequious but hardy breadwinner — Forest Whitaker’s White House butler Cecil Gaines — against his militant, proudly black son, played by David Oyelowo. That dialectic, and the ennobling and tear-jerking way it resolves at the end, flirts with the profound on its own, and it is the rare melodrama to take a firm stand on politics, only after taking a hard look at the pros and cons to both sides.
Yet I worry if I praise the film because it flatters some white middle-class-ness in me, and then I worry if I should be worrying. I recall my initial reaction, which I shared with a friend after watching it, was that I learned about 1960s civil right history from that film. I had known about sit-ins, Freedom Riders and the Black Panther party since middle school, but I did not grasp their do-or-die importance until seeing three-dimensional characters enact them and quarrel over their implications. Part of this belated education no doubt owes to my largely homogenous areas of residence, yet I imagine that, for some few younger black viewers, too, the film filled an embarrassing gap not of information but of empathy for the brave players in this era of history.
The same can be said of 12 Years a Slave, only more so. It’s not a perfect movie but it is one of the few truly necessary ones, for it renders a pre-cinematic American institution in all its aloof and unceasing savagery. I was angry to find the film such a revelation, for how surprised I felt that slavery was, indeed, this bad and that my public education up to that point had failed to drive that point home on its own. That’s white guilt, I guess, and no doubt the film seeks to wring that out. By tearing a free man, Solomon Northup, from comfortable suburbia, where he kisses his children before bed, and abandoning him, alone, onto a plantation to fend for himself, the script does not force identification with a lifelong slave but with a man whose vague, given notion of freedom reflects that of the viewer, be him black or white or brown.
12 Years a Slave or The Butler should age well, since they already take place in the past, but it can be fascinating to see how Hollywood addressed systemic problems in problematic times. A week ago, Cornell Cinema screened 1968’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, inaugurating a semester-long series on Blaxploitation. In her introduction, Prof. Cheryl Finley, history of art, clarified that this Oscar-winning film directed by Stanley Kramer does not qualify as “Blaxploitation” — it’s too middlebrow, too restrained, too Hollywood for that.
But it’s an incredibly valuable text, more so than its creators likely intended. That is not to dismiss its superficial, Hollywood pleasures: Sidney Poitier’s awkward laugh, Beah Richard’s trenchant monologue, all the expected tears and fire from Katharine Hepburn. It’s good entertainment. But it’s the story of a rich white girl who brings home a black man, so it’s clearly trying to say something. There are some delicious complications: Her shocked parents, Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, raised her a liberal; he is a rich, philanthropic, genius doctor, whose only ‘problem’ appears to be the color of his skin. It is a given that they both love each other very much.
The film builds to a treacly ending where Matt (Tracy), the girl’s father, approves of this interracial union because, as he says, “The only thing that matters is what they feel, and how much they feel, for each other.” But with stuck with me is not his words but the way he went about them. By that point, the women in the house (including Poitier’s African-American mother) needed no more convincing; the burden of change lay on the men. It is Matt who sits the two families down, tells them to “Shut up,” and gives them that climactic spiel on the power of love. It’s good writing, but it betrays the patriarchal view that the final, and right, word belongs to the man, and the white man, of course.
I’d get up in arms about this conclusion if not for the fact that it’s true, and that regardless of what Kramer intended, his film offers a remarkably clear-eyed, self-incriminating view of white privilege that is almost Frederick Wiseman-esque. I’m not sure the average viewer would come to this same conclusion — especially with the Wiseman namedrop — and the movie has fallen to legitimate claims that it’s part of the problem, not against it.
Yet there was something to Matt’s arrogance that prohibited me from swooning over his final speech. Due to the film’s construction, my political inclinations or maybe just my useless white guilt, there stood a barrier of empathy between me and this powerful man on-screen. I became aware that, to the end, the simple nuances of Matt’s behavior, not even his words, prevented others from having a voice. I thought of myself. To watch and revere a film that empathizes with the victims of history is one thing; to see the bad guys for who they really are, family men who have no clue of their own aggressions, is another education entirely.