Over here at Trash Talk! we’re going to take a look at pop-culture through an artistic lens, more specifically exploring the dichotomy between high-art and low-art in movies, TV, comics, and video games. What’s fine cinema, and what’s trash? Sometimes the line may be thinner than you think.
WARNING: Spoilers for Chronicle, X-men: First Class, End of Watch, and pretty much any movie with white leads, and ethnic supporting characters.
My Dad used to be a magician, a pretty damn good one too, from what I understand. He would perform table magic at places like restaurants, making coins disappear, cards appear, and generally breaking the laws of physics to entertain the dining guests. This is how he paid his way through college. Then I came along, and he got a day job, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The love of the craft didn’t leave him though. We’d often watch magic specials as a family when I was younger. You know, like that time David Copperfield made the space shuttle disappear (long before the government made the space program disappear). It became clear to me that the enjoyment I got out of watching these magic shows was significantly different than what my Dad got out of them. For me it was all about the spectacle; for my Dad it was mostly technical. “How did they do that?!” was always on the tip of my tongue, but my Dad already knew. He learned the principles, he knew the methods, his entertainment wasn’t derived from some reveal, but in the technique of the illusion. He could tell you where any given trick was going at any given moment, what mattered more to him was how it got there, and then, if it did end up surprising him, all the better.
If I learned nothing from Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, it’s that magic and movies are very similar. As I’ve slowly but surely needled my way into the film industry, I’m starting to watch movies the same way my Dad watched magic shows. That’s why when I was finally able to sit down and watch Chronicle, I could tell you where it was going from the first ten minutes, and I knew Michael B. Jordan’s character was going to die.
You probably did too. The formula’s pretty well worn. You have three characters, one’s kind of generic but a decent person (he’ll be our hero), one’s a damaged loner with a tragic home life (he’s either going to become a supervillain or shoot up the school), and the third is the future class president with a magnetic personality. We’ve already got our power duo, the third wheel is going to be the one to die. Oh, he’s black too? Let’s just give him a red shirt while we’re at it.
I desperately hoped I was wrong. As I watched the movie I hoped they’d take swerve and off the character that’s supposed to be our white knight (no pun intended). No such luck, two thirds of the way through Jordan eats a lightning bolt, literal dead meat.
And Chronicle is not the only recent offender. One of the buddy cop duo at the center of End of Watch has to die (cop movie rules dictate it), and it sure as hell isn’t going to be Jake Gyllenhaal (though it’s ludicrous that he survives the finale at all). How about that batch of new recruits in X-men: First Class? I wonder which one of them is going to die to raise the stakes, and why haven’t I seen that black kid on any of the trailers?
See where this is going?
Don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoyed all these movies, but it’s unsettling how this trend of ethnic cleansing repeats itself. I also don’t think anyone making these films would consider themselves, or are trying to be, blatantly racist. I believe what’s going on in these films is unintentional, though I’m not sure that’s any better, because it’s also kind of thoughtless.
Many writing instructors will tell you to write what you know. It’s Writing 101. Pull from your own history and experiences to create a world that feels real, because it is real to you. That’s all well and good, but it can also become the mantra for lazy writing as would be creators get stuck on the basics. If everyone wrote that way there would be no historical epics, sci-fi or fantasy films, and crime films would be left to whoever found their way off the street. Those types of films all require research (aka work). Sometimes as a writer, it’s your responsibility to expand what you know.
Most people working in Hollywood are upper class, white, men, and that’s why so many of the film industry’s leading men are upper class, and white. The people behind the films I’ve mentioned above are all white men. Which would explain why the leads to those films, whom we’re supposed to identify with (and one would imagine the writer identifies with the most) is white and male.
This actually touches on another bothersome element of Chronicle. It kills off its most interesting characters. By the end of the film we’re left with a protagonist that’s, well, boring. This happens all too often with lead characters, and I believe it is a symptom of creators injecting themselves into their creations. “Wouldn’t it be crazy if such and such happened to me?” and they build from there. The problem then is, no matter how interesting everything you build around proxy-you, you’re still left with a generic core. The reason The Most Interesting Man in the World ads are so funny is that (despite what anyone’s Facebook page would have you believe) most of us in the general population are rather mundane.
The main difference Dane DeHann’s awkward loner, and Michael B. Jordan’s popular kid with a heart of gold, when compared to Alex Russel’s soon-to-be hero is that they’re… actually characters. They have strongly defined personalities, along with desires and goals that are engaging. They pop in a way that only solid characters do. In comparison Alex’s character is bland. He’s that generally nice guy who melts into the crowd, which makes him not worth the time the movie invests in him. He’s just not interesting. The creators should have either killed the character off or had actually gone back to the core and spent more time generating their eventual lead beyond the fact that he reads poetry to sort of impress a girl.
America is becoming increasingly diverse, and Hollywood is playing catch-up in comparison. The obvious solution is more diversity when it comes to the people behind the camera, so that that can be reflected in what we see on the screen. Even when that happens, however, it will still be the responsibility of creators to push themselves out of the box of what they know now. With any of us really, it is important to stretch our boundaries. Talk to someone you wouldn’t normally talk to, hang out someplace you’ve never gone before, go on vacation to another country, and then be open to what those people and places have to offer. Personal growth isn’t always easy, but ignorance (willful or not) will always be damaging, sometimes in ways you can’t even anticipate.
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