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Writing About Race

42 MovieMy daughter Claire, who’s 11, said to me the other day that she was disappointed to learn that the new movie about Jackie Robinson, 42, is rated PG-13. See, as if she wasn’t already just about the most amazing child ever to live, she’s a baseball fan, too, and she’s particularly fascinated by Jackie Robinson’s story. So she wants to see the movie, but was afraid she wouldn’t be allowed to because of the rating. I told her that it probably got that rating on account of some rough language, given the subject matter, and that maybe it would be okay for her to see it. Let’s wait and see some of the reviews first, I said.

But, see, here’s the thing. I’m not really all that concerned about the PG-13 rating or the language. She’s a smart kid, and I don’t believe in shielding her or her brothers from reality. As long as they’re mature enough to handle it – and she is – I want them to know the truth about this country we live in.

No, the real reason why I wanted to learn more about 42 before taking her to see it is that Hollywood movies almost always botch sensitive topics like race, even in historical pictures like 42 where there’s an actual record to draw from. In particular, Hollywood almost always tells stories about race and racism from a white perspective, even when the main character in the story is a person of color. Mainstream films on race tend to focus either on white heroes who “save” black folk, or white hand-wringing over how badly white people treat black folk; and in either case, the people whose stories really matter are mostly in the background.

Unfortunately, this exchange between Think Progress’ Alyssa Rosenberg and Travis Waldron suggests that 42 falls into that same trap. Rosenberg describes the film as “a cliched, hackneyed mess that exists more to lionize [Brooklyn Dodgers owner] Branch Rickey than to explore the real journey to desegregating America’s game,” and Waldron points out:

[T]he writers couldn’t resist the “goodness of the heart moment,” when toward the end an injured, bloodied Robinson asks Rickey again why he pushed for integration. Rickey offers a long-ish monologue about black players he saw in the 1920s and hating himself for not doing more to help them, finalizing it by telling Robinson, “You made me love baseball again.” In a movie full of trite cliches, it was the cheesiest line of all, one that fed right into the “Branch Rickey saves the day” feeling of the film.

Obviously, I can’t condemn a film I haven’t seen, but if what Rosenberg and Waldron report is accurate, it’s one more film purportedly about race that’s really about white people. Yes, white people were awful racists who kept African Americans out of Major League Baseball for decades … but, hey, one or two of us (you know, horribly wealthy, influential dudes like Branch Rickey who profited from centuries of racism) finally got around to doing the right thing. So: Yay, us!

It’s a tiresome theme. But it’s particularly disconcerting to me because it makes me wonder whether a white writer like me can ever tell a story about race and racism without doing essentially the same thing. I’ve spent a good part of the past twelve years writing and re-writing a story – a short novel, really – about a racist incident that actually happened when I was a kid, but I’m starting to doubt that I can tell my story any better than, say, Brian Helgeland, who wrote and directed 42, or the writers of any of the dozens of Hollywood movies that try, but fail, to talk about race and racism in a credible fashion.

My story is relatively simple. When I was a kid, there was an interracial couple – black husband, white wife – who owned a small shop across the street from my parents’ house. One summer afternoon, the husband was out in front of the shop, sweeping the sidewalk or something. A group of white teenagers drove up, jumped out of the car, and attacked him. Beat the hell out of him. I was maybe 10 or 12 at the time. I saw the whole thing from the front porch of my parents’ house. My parents came out to help, the kids ran off; my dad called the cops. I never found out what happened to those boys; given the times, I suspect not much.

Anyway, it’s an incident that’s haunted me my whole life. It was scary as hell. I never felt so much rage, so much actual hatred for other human beings, as I felt for those teenage boys. In a way, I’m glad I was too young and too small to do anything about it, because what I really wanted to do was to kill them. Or, perhaps, to beat them to within an inch of their lives. And had I done that, I would have been the one who ended up in deep trouble with the law.

But the point is, an incident like that has an enormous impact on a young kid. So, many years later when I decided to take a break from working at a downtown law firm to try my hand at writing, that was the story that came to me. I had to write that story. It’s been an indelible part of me for as long as I can remember.

And so I tried. I wrote and rewrote that story over and over again. I’m still working on it, on and off, but, honestly, I just don’t know. In the end, it’s a story about how a racist attack affected a white kid from the suburbs. How is my telling that story any different from all those Hollywood movies I criticize? What if this story that’s been part of me forever is a story I can’t tell?

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4 Responses to Writing About Race

  1. That Guy With The Ponytail

    It’s also worth remembering that reviewers often review a different movie than other people see. Sometimes I think many reviews are more about the writer than the picture.

    For a biopic, the real question ought to be whether the story is presented in a way that reflects what really happened.

    Roger Angell wrote a nice piece on Robinson and what “42″ prompted him to recall. Bear in mind here though that Angell is a baseball writer, not a film critic.

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/sportingscene/2013/04/jackie-robinson-again.html

  2. I think it would be valid for you to write about your childhood experience from your own point of view, more or less as you just did. After all, that’s the only point of view any of us really understands. The problem comes when the white writer tries to understand the black person’s point of view. Just for example: last spring I attended a “stop violence in Oakland” meeting, organized by a couple of churches and a citizens’ group, pushing the Ceasefire program which we are (I think) finally doing right. At that meeting I learned that every black person there, every one, knew someone or was related to someone who had been shot. I can hear that; but I’m not sure I can really understand it. And these were not “street people”; these were well-dressed, middle class black residents of Oakland, and every single one of them knew or was related to someone who had been shot. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen black and white people actually seem to listen to each other. For a moment.

  3. I think it’s fine to write your story from your perspective, Dave, because it’s your story. Racial issues affect everyone, and as long as you don’t do what you describe the movie to be doing (and if it’s not, plenty of others have), it’s fair game. To me, a big problem with the white people saving the black people meme isn’t that they’re tackling racial issues from a white perspective, but that they are purporting to be professing some kind of universal truth. If you’re honest in the telling, that shouldn’t be as problematic.

  4. eclecticbrotha

    Dude, don’t let some bizarre, self-righteous email convo between Waldron and Rosenberg about a pretty good movie stop you from telling your story.

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