March 28, 2010

Breaking Down Dividing Lines

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There’s something to be said about being on spring break and having the supremely dorky audacity to engage in meaningful conversation. Perhaps it’s the curse of the college student to always remain a college student, even well away from campus, on break.Something about a road trip through the American South and a subsequent Carnival cruise to Mexico occasioned deep thinking in my traveling companions and me. In cities through the South, we noted the conspicuous cleanliness of the streets, the comparatively uncongested roads and cities and the ubiquitous friendliness of the people. The cruise was run by the typically international Carnival crew: an interesting hiring technique by the company that makes for an intriguingly multinational cruising experience — especially when combined with the inexpensive tickets and resulting diversity among cruisers as well. Lastly, there was Mexico — the resort environment of Cozumel creating a dichotomy between the reality of daily life in the state of Quintana Roo and the multimillion dollar tourist industry on Cozumel Island.Somewhere amongst all of these lines dwells the well-camouflaged elephant-shaped specter in the room, lurking. The issue of race.Most Northeasterners unacquainted with the South only know the unofficial delineation left behind by the Mason-Dixon line and what it represents. Those uninitiated with the world beyond our nation’s borders may have been surprised or shocked at the palette of nations served up by the ship’s crew, and the vendors selling wares and everyday citizens trolling the streets in Cozumel amidst hammered spring breakers and suits on company retreat are another ever-present reminder of differences in race, that unscientific yet very real social condition that divides but hopefully rarely conquers.Does art imitate life or vice versa? Movies, TV and music are the media with which we communicate en masse. The use of these media to push boundaries and challenge notions is well-documented. Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar in the late 30s for her performance in Gone with the Wind, playing Mammy, ironically now the archetype for racist caricatures of Southern black women. Many expressed resentment with her forthright interpretation of the role, citing her to be too “familiar” with her white employers. The premiere was held in a theater with segregated seating, which made Clark Gable’s seethe with anger. The Academy-Award winning woman couldn’t even be buried in the cemetery she chose. Hmmm. Hollywood’s a different place now, and we’ve had films like Do the Right Thing, Mississippi Burning, Boyz N the Hood, To Kill a Mockingbird, In the Heat of the Night and quite a few others that have come out since to rectify. And Ms. McDaniel did win the award in the first place, on her own merits, with the Academy’s blessing, did she not? It makes one wonder, though.

Limp Bizkit was the omnipresent source of loud and foulmouthed teenage angst in the late 90s and early 00s, a band of five white Florida natives that melded metallic hard rock grooves with snotty rapped vocals and silly, often meaningless lyrics. As catchy and fun as “Break Stuff” and “Rollin’” were, the IQ of the rhyme content was in the single digits. Kill the grinding, Korn-influenced guitar work and add some Autotune and you get a Lil’ Wayne album. But that’s not the standard they were held to. Most in the rock or metal community refer to Limp Bizkit as the nadir of 90s culture, much less music. But if judged by mainstream hip-hop standards of silly catch phrases and danceable tunes with cascades of profanity and less-than-subtle sex references to outrank “Nookie,” the boys in Bizkit weren’t so bad. Singer Fred Durst guested on plenty of other artists’ albums like a gun for hire, and Bizkit albums featured plenty of artists from Method Man to Snoop Dogg. The “Urban Assault” remix of “Rollin’” is a great example of the band embracing hip-hop culture and hosting a crazy collaboration. Durst and the band acted and felt like hip-hoppers, or at least embraced the goofiness of pop culture limelight. When people critique the band for stupidity or inanity, they’re criticizing mainstream hip-hop as a whole. Why the hate reserved for L.B.? Because they’re white?That was around 2000. But that time wasn’t all bad. A movie came out that year that affected me as well as others. Remember the Titans was a favorite of mine, despite some mixed reviews. To this day, it’s a powerhouse film, with lots of now-established stars like Ryan Gosling, Kate Bosworth, Donald Faison and Hayden Panettiere in early roles, and the twin giants of Denzel Washington and Will Patton lead the film about the coaching of a newly integrated high school football team. For Disney, the movie had some sobering racial tension, although tame compared to the ugliness that actually took place in those riots in the wake of Brown vs Board of Education. How did it succeed? Through the unifying power of sports. Sports eliminates the subtle shading and complexity of daily life. Especially football. There are two sides, clear winners and losers, no bad guys, and you can freaking hit people. Titans came out after the fact, but it was a reminder to many of our generation of what was sacrificed in the past so we could all walk around a little less worried about who and where we are. It explains the larger-than life nature of this past year’s Invictus and The Blind Side.And Donald Faison came back in a big way, playing Dr. Chris Turk in the long (and surprisingly, still) running TV medical dramedy Scrubs. The show, for those unfamiliar, starred Faison alongside Zach Braff as a best-friend duo of surgeon and doctor, respectively, while openly addressing the frustrations black medical professionals might face regarding people’s expectations and stereotypes. Braff’s character also regularly referred to Turk as “Chocolate Bear.” No shame. No problem?

Maybe we’ve all made progress since Gone with the Wind. We should hope so, right? Hopefully we’ve also made progress since Fred Durst and company were spitting on the airwaves. We can only hope. Just some thoughts among my multinational companions and I as we sat in a Hardee’s outside Jacksonville, escaping the notion of intellectuality, even race perhaps … but not really.

Original Author: Naushad Kabir