The Politics of Film

It’s been radio silence for a while, what with university exams and what not, but it’s difficult to ignore what is going on in the world. With Coronavirus, it didn’t seem like the world could get more crazy, but it has. The murder of George Floyd sparked a global movement that has hardly been precedented in the modern world. We are truly living through history, which is simultaneously awe-inspiring and scary. It’s a strange time to be a South Asian person of colour. While our experience does not come close to the black experience, we also do not experience the same white privilege that is at the forefront of people’s personal education at the moment. I can’t speak for other South Asians, but for my two cents worth I would say this: at the moment, we owe it to the black community to acknowledge and act upon the struggle and historic oppression that they have experienced.

There are benefits afforded to Asians that are simply not afforded to black people, and as people who know what it is like to be ‘othered’, we have a duty to stimulate conversation between our white friends, as well as to educate ourselves on both our own history and black history. This is a time where we should embrace disagreement rather than tune it out. If friends or family have a different view to you, this is a time to have those difficult conversations, talk about the issues and try to come to a more progressive understanding. Too often we resort to blocking out people who disagree with us, labeling them as ‘wrong’ or ‘racist’ (which they may well be), and it solves nothing. We must have the conversations with people. That is the only way we can all educate ourselves and further our community.

I have no position to really delve into this issues. I doubt I have any perspective to share that would enlighten anyone. I’m an English Literature student, who has read a lot of the literature being thrown around at the moment, which I’d be happy to discuss, but I’m not one of the voices remotely worth listening to. Where I can offer some level of ‘expertise’ is on the films that people are watching to further their understanding of the black or Asian experience. I think it’s a great think that white people are confronting their privilege and doing this through the medium of film, but just for the love of god, please don’t watch The Help or Green Book to do that and call yourself woke.

Hollywood is a very good microcosm of Western civilization. Sport, music and film/TV are really the main things that we use to entertain ourselves, and so they are often a reflection of our own everyday society. I’ll eliminate sport from this discussion. Sport may well be the only profession in the entire world that exists as a pure meritocracy. We may bemoan their salaries (which are often ludicrous) but isn’t it refreshing that it exists as pretty much the only job in the world where you can only get certain positions based on how good you are at it. Of course there’s minor politics, but that only occurs as a difference of the top 0.001%. In sport, the best man/woman/team wins, and if you are not good enough it shows. You cannot be a professional sportsman on anything but merit. That’s pretty cool. There are certainly issues of race to be addressed there – from fan incidents to diversity of players, but at least everyone at the top level deserves to be there.

Moving to Hollywood. As we saw from Harvey Weinstein, it is an indsutry that wields its male, white power, and is not controlled by talent as much as it is by greed. In an industry where aesthetic and physicality is crucial, that very aesthetic is bound to become commodified. And in Hollywood’s case, it has built foundations of reducing actors and actresses down to their appearances, a fact which has been exploited in disgusting ways by high-ranking officials. If you think that Hollywood is a meritocracy, you’re objectively incorrect. Nepotism is frequent, and often the industry becomes an issue of who you know, rather than how good you are.

The ways in which Hollywood has treated its minorities is fascinating. Sidenote – I try to avoid using the term BAME, it reduces us down to one melting pot of ‘otherness’ which personally I would rather not be in, so I will attempt to discuss black people and Asian people differently. So forgive me when I must occaisionally refer to us all as ‘minorities’. Minority representation in Hollywood has been largely a movement that started after 1990. Look at older summer blockbusters such as Jaws, featuring precicely 0 non-whites. Or smaller films such as Kramer vs Kramer, again, 0 non-whites. Where parts were offered, they were stereotypes or extras. Black people were sassy, Indians were taxi drivers. Fast forward to the 2000s, and we’d had a number of black-led blockbusters. I say a number; I mean a few. And we’re hardly talking amazing ones. Bad Boys, Blade, and everything made by Spike Lee was progress. There were certainly problematic representations of black people. When Africa was represented, it was uncivilized. When Latin or Asian women were represented, it was in a sexual sense, often as the exotic love interest of the white, male protagonist.

Let’s fast forward again, to now. The place of black people in Hollywood is not finished – it is an ongoing revolution for equality. But there have been landmarks and progress. Black Panther gave us the first black-led and black-directed superhero movie. Moonlight gave us a sobering love-story and portrait of black masculinity. BlacKkKlansman was an incredible glance back to a true story. Us gave us black protagonists in a horror movie. Waves had black protagonists in a position on wealth and affluence. There were more: If Beale Street Could Talk, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Queen and Slim, Widows, Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting and Detroit were other incredible black led films. Who can forget Get Out, which combatted the growing liberal fetishisation of black people. Watch all those movies. Not in a “ooh, let me sample some blackness” way. In a “let me watch a fucking great movie” way. By no means is the revolution over, but it has begun, and it is underway. Since the 90s, there have at least been some role-models in the industry for young, black people to look up to. They weren’t always in progressive roles, but they were on screen and occasionally behind the camera, and could at least give young, black people hope that they could make it. Unlike society, in Hollywood, change had begun (albeit at a snail’s pace).

Let me turn now to a few weeks ago, watching The Lovebirds on Netflix with my dad. I love Kumail Nanjiani, so we watched it and actually, it was surpisingly good. He and Issa Rae are hilarious, it won’t change your life, but it’s worth watching. I say it won’t change your life…but there was one scene in that film that I really think I may mark down as one of the most significant in my time watching film. At around the 3/4 mark of the film, Kumail’s character comes downstairs wearing a tux, and the camera and music frames him in a way that you would traditionally associate with James Bond entering a casino or a beautiful woman entering a party. The film barely mentions once the fact that Kumail is Pakistani, but it frames him as a good-looking action star who is desirable to women. That is hugely significant. Growing up, I can’t really remember the first time I saw someone that looked like me on TV. It was probably someone playing a taxi driver. As a main character? It was probably The Big Bang Theory, a crude stereotype of an Indian, incapable of talking to women. I mean, Raj takes longer than Sheldon to get a girlfriend. As a main character that wasn’t just an Indian stereotype? It was probably Aziz Ansari in Master of None. My point is, Asians have been criminally under-represented in film. We don’t have a superhero. Even The Ancient One in Doctor Strange was meant to be East Asian, but they cast Tilda Swinton. And that wouldn’t have represented me.

When Indians were represented (which was barely), we were stereotypes. I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen a South Asian character whose race was irrelevant to his personality. I’d direct you to this essay written by Riz Ahmed (one of my heroes). So, when Kumail was cast in The Eternals, I was buzzing. I’m 21 years old, and have been obsessed with superheroes/Star Wars/fantasy since I was about 3. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a character in one of those films look like me. That’s crazy. Do you know how many people that look like me have been nominated for acting, directing, writing or producing at the Oscars? Two. Kumail and Ismail Merchant. How many have we won? Zero. Zero times has someone that looked like me ever gone up on that Oscars stage for one of the main categories. As an aspiring screenwriter who dreams of winning one, that’s scary. The frequent defence I hear is that Bollywood is its own thing, and to that I say: what the fuck are you talking about? Asians make up roughly 6% in both the UK and USA. We are a presence that is not being represented.

The revolution that is being undertaken across the world is a great start. It’s great people are aware of what’s going on, and becoming more aware of their privileges. But if you think posting a black square on your Instagram, and telling all your other white friends about the exciting new book you read is going to change things, you’re wrong. You mean well, but it does nothing. Turning racial sensitivity into a trend is not good. Trying to look woke in front of your other white friends is not good. Making a difference by talking to people is good. Educating yourself and having tough conversations with yourself about your own privileges is good. Do those things. Watch the right movies. Read the right books. Don’t watch The Help. Don’t get me wrong, the intention is good, and the net gain is positive, but it’s important we get this right. In film, we have to allow different voices to be heard and tell our own stories. I’m speaking from the perspective of a British Asian, so I’ve tried to steer away from making sweeping judgements about things I don’t know about. I don’t mean to shift the conversation away from black people, I mean to engage in the debate happening in the UK about its colonialist past.

Lots of Indians I know looked up to black role models. Maybe it was appropriation, and trying to be something we weren’t. Be it footballers, actors or rappers. It never felt right. It never felt empowering, because we settled for role models that didn’t look like us, they were just the closest thing we had. Now? Kumail, Riz, Aziz, Dev, Hasan. As a young Asian man aspiring to the industry, that’s what I’ve got now. It might only be a small roster, but it’s got more talent than most groups of people I can think of. I can’t wait to see that group get bigger, and to see Hollywood become increasingly more diverse. It was powerful seeing Kumail come down those steps in The Lovebirds, it really was. We have to address the balance of power in Western civilization. But I’m confident that we’re coming. The 20s will be the decade of, to use a generalisation, the minority in Hollywood.

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