Culture Shock, Language and EthnoCentrism

It is not for me to say that I am not racist. That can only be an observation made by someone else. I will make no bones about being ethnocentric, and I am about as okay with that as the subtle pang of inadequacy I get from not being fluent in French at the very least, or Mandarin or any other number of languages.  It is supposed to stave off the onset of dementia.  Whether it is the visual language of cinema or an enjoyment of words, whatever background is the tool chest you have to work with.  If my reference points and pop culture call-backs are too old, or if wordplay in my dialogue will not translate overseas, that is on me and I have to accept that.

If you are from a mostly white city, it is fair to assume that most of your friends were white but also most if not all of your enemies and bullies were white. As an adult, I think everyone I can count as an enemy is the same complexion and speaks the same language and pretty much has the same politics and likes many of the same movies.

In first year of college, I rented a room with an African couple and eventually we got along. I called the police when the husband hit his pregnant wife with a phone and that bought me a lecture from his visiting brother. In second year, I rented from the girlfriend of a Jamaican guy I had made a music video for. I could write a whole blog about that but it was mostly okay. One time he was drunk and pointed to his girlfriend’s kitchen calendar that bikini shots and said, “Do you like black women?” I listed a few movies stars like Haley Berry and he said that doesn’t count and I called him on his little game. In third year, I was renting with a classmate and his girlfriend and I remember arriving at the place. Neighbors gave a rousing welcome and wave and I thought gee, that’s friendly.  My friend was more cynical and accurate, indicating his white arms and that they were celebrating new people of the same complexion. Our landlord Manjit had his kids, drawings on the fridge and it was clear that Father Knows Best sensibilities still existed.

Maintaining a bit of contact with someone from a directing workshop I attended, I was asked to recommend a movie to study for the craft of direction.  I immediately said Back to the Future by Robert Zemeckis. The person responded with a link to a movie the title of which I don’t recall but it began with an elegant shot gliding over the Ganges to people on the shore.  From that, what I got was that he was not really asking about movie direction. I’m not interested in simply recalling the material 1980’s American pop culture sensibility and imposing that on anyone, and I only have the most remote interest in deep diving into the specifics of politics, life and religion around the world. I am right handed and I would feel as much anxiety about writing with my left hand as I would moving out of Canada. I can still enjoy Forest Gump as a heartwarming story and others will call it, “Americacentric, baby boomer references with a man-child representing the naive USA.”  David O’Russell made a dismissive remark about Raiders of the Lost Ark, that it was, “The American adventurer invading and exploiting other cultures,” or words to that affect. Meh.  Nobody asked him, even though he was being interviewed.

There are jokes I may still laugh at that involve or comment on stereotypes and where those come from. The chickens have already come home to roost for my religion. Some Popes are better than others, and there are good people and yadda, yadda, yadda. I lived the first third of my life a couple of blocks from our parish church, and got my newspaper carrier job, lumber mill job and sacristan job there. (Sacristan has the keys to the church, opens and locks it, and sets up for services and sells the religious articles and vigil lights, that kind of thing.) I went to Catholic elementary schools and a Catholic High School, and we knew the Stages of Human Evolution.

People can dig at “Classic” literature and films, but they have yet to come up with lasting replacements. Should the works of Mark Twain, or anything on slavery or the American Civil War be stricken from schools?  I don’t know if it is any more necessary than prayer in schools.  I was an indifferent student and only eagerly read science fiction or horror as a teen.  In my twenties, when I didn’t have to, I ended up reading books I had faked reports on and only then could I have appreciated them.  People may need to find their literature and their religions later in life. I could sit in church and only perk up if a priest mentioned the Ark of the Covenant or made a pandering reference to The Force.  The Original Star Wars Trilogy is the other religion I had.  One would think these brands are deigned to please everybody, but…. well, I’ve ranted on those divisions in other blogs.

The Dam Busters was a major source for the final battle of the original Star Wars, so I finally watched it and though it is interesting to hear dialogue George Lucas directly pulled from that movie it is distracting right off the bat that somebody has a dog that is black and casually calls it by a word best left to rappers. King Kong is held up as great, but the original natives of Skull Island may not play today.  That said, I don’t advocate erasing anything from history. I once had a read-along Disney book from Song of the South called “Brier Rabbit and the Tar Baby” which seemed innocent at the time. I distinctly remember sitting with my family at age 9 watching the Roots Mini-Series, and yet I likely thought nothing of the name Toby someone gave our black cat.  I say that even if if it is embarrassing. If I had my way, Blazing Saddles might not be taught in school but I would find a way to make sure everybody I know saw it.  Might be a way to scare off the safe space culture that wants to retro-fit everything.

I don’t have to refer to bygone times to excuse anything.  There are people, no doubt, in the internet hive that would be up in arms over a show like Quantum Leap because no matter whose life he takes over he would be dismissed as a “white savior” fantasy.  I wonder whenever another Radio Raheem in film or George Floyd in reality is killed by aggressive police whether I would have the balls to fumble out my cell phone or other camera and record this and make myself a target of other cops, let alone also speak up or stand between a back person and the cops in case guns are drawn.  My expectation is that I would freeze.  I could surprise myself so I don’t have to be haunted for the rest of my life.  And in the most selfish sense, honest and sane cops and white people who do not count themselves as ists or phobes or criminals or maniacs have every reason to be furious not only about the murders but also about increased perceived division and shade thrown on those of us considered privileged.  Violence causes radicalization.

In Do the Right Thing, to be honest, I still don’t know what the title refers to. The mayor tells Mookie, “Always do the right thing.” He says, “Is that it?  Got it.” Years later, Mookie appears in another Spike film, Red Hook Summer where he is still delivering pizza for Sal but in another neighborhood.  So where did that get him.  The cop who choke holds Radio Raheem is responsible for his own actions. But what led up to it is Buggin’ Out who has spend the movie trying to radicalize everyone to make them boycott Sal’s pizza for only having photos of Italians decorating his wall despite most customers being black. (Something Buggin’ Out does a double-take to as if he has just noticed, despite going there since he was a kid.)  I don’t want to hazard a guess as to who is the Buggin’ Out of today, but there will always be instigators and hot summers and short tempers among the citizens that police have to serve and protect.  And there is no point getting into the weeds.  When Tarantino spoke at a Black Lives Matter rally after another rash of police violence incidents, the public face the New York police brought out to speak to the press said things like, “We’ve got a surprise for Mr. Tarantino.”  And, “He does movies about crime so he is in favor of crime.”  THAT was the PUBLIC face they brought out.

Never mind that much of the progress of history has alongside of it atrocities and exploitation and leaders looking the other way as empires were built. I don’t see The Spanish Inquisition or Pope Pius XII shaking hands with Hitler when I look at a priest, nor do I assume they are all pedos. If fact, being a priest seems pretty brave today.  Some of us want to see ourselves as the Canadian Brad Pitt character in Twelve Years a Slave, not condoning slavery. (Yet it was only last year that I heard about the Simcoe act and had any knowledge that Canada did at one time have slaves.)  At the same time, the last thing I would want is to come off as magnanimous for not behaving like a racist. That bar is set too low.  We are all being forced to look at the lowest examples of human behavior and an overly wrong-headed American President that Stanley Kubrick would find unbelievable.

When people mention reparations, we try to do the math and realize there would never be enough money even from the deepest pockets. Google says it means transitional justice.  I looked it up for the hell of it.  But we also have Jeff Bezos getting by without much tax and raking in money as a sort of coronovirus profiteer.  Gun manufacturers get subsidies. But with all the scum in office and their funding to keep the general public uninformed the fix is in.  Maybe the problem with looting and destruction is that it is not focused enough. But we can’t get too specific because nobody wants the secret service at their door.

Do the Talent Thing

When I have a run-in with woke folks on social media, as recently happened in a writing group triggered by Stephen King saying that he doesn’t consider diversity – only talent – when deciding who and what films to nominate as a voting member of the Academy, what comes to mind are two movies: Alien (1979) and Do the Right Thing (1989).

I  fairness I’ll say right off the bat that the go-to terms like SJW, NPC, or Woke are not ideal designations or classifications for those with whom I clash but we make do with what we have at hand in the current state of discourse (a sorry state).  I might place myself just left of the middle of the political spectrum but have no respect for either the extreme right or extreme left.  That out of the way, onto the point.

A pivotal moment in Alien is when John Hurt’s character has been attacked and the crew want to bring him inside but Ripley says no as he should be quarantined and it could be a disaster to bring him in.  The (spoiler alert) android takes the position that the right, moral and compassionate thing to do is to let them in with John Hurt.  Ripley was the ranking officer on board and it was her call, but the android defies her for ostensibly humane reasons and opens the door.  The android in this case could be a stand-in for the Woke of today.  Ripley would be the more pragmatic left of center common person who was willing to make the hard choice and be viewed or judged as cold and insensitive.

In Do the Right Thing, the worst outcome is that (spoiler alert) Radio Raheem is choked while resisting arrest by police.  Before and after this movie, obviously police violence has claimed many lives. Arguably, the message alone is not the reason to respect the film. From the color scheme suggesting a single hot summer day to the performances to Earnest Dickerson’s achievement of images conceived by director Spike Lee.  The movie is seen as a soap box, but the filmmaking is the reason to celebrate it.  We still have the evils it depicts.  The inciting incident is that longtime patrol “Buggin’ Out” one day does a double-take to the wall of the Pizzeria (Sal’s) he has come to all his life and he is suddenly offended that there are only photos of Italian American celebrities framed up there despite the restaurant being located in Harlem.  He protests that there should be representation of black celebrities on the wall.

He stirs the pot to the point of initiating a boycott of Sal’s.  Most people don’t take him seriously. When Sal closes for the night, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem show up and implore him to let them in for a slice.  He is kind enough to do so, but Raheem has been radicalized by Buggin’ Out and he blasts the volume of his radio on the counter.  Sal asks him to turn it down but he turns it up more.  Sal sees that he is being tested and brings up his baseball bat again demanding the radio be turned off.  As a last resort, Sal bashed the radio and Raheem is devastated by this.  He leaps at Sal and tries to strangle him.  The fight makes its way into the street and police turn up and pull Raheem off of Sal and try to put him into their cruiser. Raheem resists and is choked out and collapses dead.  Spike Lee himself as Mookie the pizza delivery guy reacts by throwing a trash can through the pizzeria window. The film’s mumbling pyromaniac sneaks off and starts a fire.  Some discussion of the film, according to one of the commentary tracks may be divided between those who talk about the destruction of property and those who focus on the loss of life.  But the more interesting question is who should be held responsible.

Mookie’s actions were part of being eventually radicalized.  But by the time he is fifty, according to Spike’s movie Red Hook Summer, he will sill be delivering pizza for Sal.  Sal himself might be blamed by the Woke because of his refusal to change the photos of his Italian-owned Pizzeria and only including Itallians on the wall of fame.  It is my interpretation, regardless of Spike’s intentions, that Buggin’ Out is 100% responsible for the death of Radio Raheem.  Buggin’ Out has a loser complex and a chip on his shoulder which he believes he can fix by imposing his will on Sal and the loyal customers of the pizzeria. He has a sense of entitlement.  He is the self-righteous permanent victim who frankly would not be “represented” even if there were black celebrities on the wall because those celebrities would be winners quite unlike Buggin’ Out.  He would then have to vent his frustration elsewhere and torment or bully someone else.  When John Savage accidentally rolls a bike wheel over one of his sneakers, Buggin’ Out shows him the foot farthest away that could not have had the when roll over it.  He just wants to express outrage. That makes him the perfect representation of the self-styled Woke.