• On The Limits of Cinematic Alchemy

    Forrest Gump Bollywood remake in the works!” The reboot was just announced in The Hollywood Reporter. While it’s certain that this project was planned long before Green Book won an Academy Award for Best Picture, the timing is notable. Forrest Gump, like Green Book, and films like The Green Mile and The Legend of Bagger Vance, features what’s become known as a “magical negro character.” In Gump, Forrest’s only friend in the Army is Buford “Bubba” Blue, a similarly dim-witted Southerner, except that Bubba is black. Bubba does not enjoy the same improbably glorious fate as Forrest, alas, he’s killed in Vietnam, but Forrest gets to live out Bubba’s dream of starting his own shrimp company. Forrest becomes a millionaire, proving that, as noted in an AV CLUB roundup, “even the stupidest white guy knows how to steal ideas from black people.” With Indian-born superstar Aamir Khan in the leading role of Lal Singh Chaddha, the Gump reboot, it’s possible that setting the film in India, as is presumed, might in fact prove a convenient remedy for that cringe-worthy stereotype in an otherwise uplifting movie.

    Full disclosure, I’ve seen clips, but have never watched the entirety of Forrest Gump, The Green Mile, or The Legend of Bagger Vance. I’d been avoiding Green Book, too, even though I’m a fangirl for the two stars. I enjoy listening to the swimming scene in Moonlight and imagining that Mahershala Ali is cradling my head, whispering, “I got you,” to me, instead of the talented young actor Alex Hibbert. When Viggo Mortensen adopted barefootism in the early 2000s? I considered forgoing shoes as a way to meet and bond with him. Alas, I’m flatfooted, and we weren’t meant to be. Still, when Green Book won Best Picture, beating out BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk, I sighed, wondering if that meant I would need to see it, because as a Southerner who was raised on a steady diet of stories about my family’s intimate contact with African Americans, none of which resulted in lessening their otherization, I don’t have the stomach for the white savior stories.

    Fleeing anti-Semitism and economic hardship in the shtetls of Russia, our family immigrated to Alabama in the early part of the 20th century. My immediate family left Mobile, where I was born, when I was very young, but my father, known in the family as Big Daddy, never tired of regaling anyone who’d listen with stories of his childhood in the Deep South. Central to his yarns were his exploits in the company of Slim, his grandpa’s driver.  Slim and his wife lived in an apartment above the garage in his grandfather’s home in Pritchard, Alabama. During the depression, my father’s family shared the home as well. He and Slim hunted possum and squirrel! Slim rescued him from the clutches of a rattler! Slim could chop down a tree with a switchblade! Slim practiced “voodoo” he learned from the Muscogee, the Creek Nation people. Even more importantly, he and Slim made bank together. My father, maybe all of 12 years old, could shoot pool. Slim drove my dad to a joint called The Wide Awake Café where Slim would scope out the action. Standing on an apple cart to “break,” my dad and Slim fleeced unsuspecting marks. Lest it sound like Slim was a bad influence, our family’s money was made in bootlegging and gambling, so card counting and shooting craps were already long established in my dad’s repertoire of grift, even as adolescent.

    It reflects poorly on me, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to question these stories. “What was Slim’s actual name?” I’d ask my father.  What you have to know is that everyone in the South gets nicknames. We had a cousin called Bubba, a cousin called Brother, and another known as Cousin Brother, but everyone knew given names, and not only that, who “your people” were. My father, an inveterate hustler on the make, kept track of everyone’s family history, if for no other reason than to hit them up to invest in one of his many schemes. Everyone except for Slim, given name lost to time, despite the many years he lived under the same roof as the family.

    To rebuff my suggestion that his family had treated Slim as a second-class citizen, my father recounted his own white savior tale. At that time, areas in Mobile County were well known to be Sundown Towns, municipalities where people of color would be subjected to harassment or lynching if discovered on the streets after sunset. By all appalling historical accounts, the enforcement of Jim Crow laws had none of the tepid quality of the scene in Green Book when Dr. Shirley and Tony Lip are briefly arrested.

    One night, Slim committed some perceived infraction and Klan members showed up at the house, intending to kill him.  Armed family members assembled outside the home. My father recalls his grandfather wielding his pearl handled pistol. They stood their ground and refused to give Slim up. I believe Slim was expected to show up for work the next day, on time. Jews, it should be noted, were intermittently subjected to Sundown Laws. In my childhood, in the early 1960s, we knew not to go out on nights when the Klan was meeting. So did this outrageous act inspire them to take to the streets with Martin Luther King? Not his superior strength, nor Native American sorcery, proved enough for Slim to summon what Spike Lee characterized as the  “super duper magical negro powers” endowed to cinematic fictions like Michael Clarke Duncan’s character in The Green Mile. No, from all accounts, my family continued to see black people, invariably referred to using the demeaning slang term “schvarters,” only as people who worked for them. Or people who might work for them.

    Upon moving north, all the way to Atlanta, my grandmother was known to approach random black women and inquire if they could, “Put in a day.” Once, a particularly nattily dressed lady replied, “Madam, I’m a Superintendent in the Atlanta school system.” “Do you have a sister?” was my grandmother’s retort. Could I both hold my grandmother in esteem, and revile her immutable racism? There was never a, “Hoke, you’re my best friend,” moment for Slim, nor for any of the women who toiled for decades in her home and whose children played alongside my dad, which is why I neglected to see Driving Miss Daisy, though I read the play. I saw The Help, and as winning the performances of Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis, the resolve was so foreign from my family’s experience, I thought I was watching one of those alternate universe sci-fi movies.

    I doubt that my ancestors would recognize our family today. Like most of America, we are many-hued, gender nonconforming, a gumbo of religious affiliations or secular people, like myself. But when films gloss over history it not only minimalizes past actions that continue to reverberate in our present, an important opportunity to contextualize the danger of the current administration’s embrace of white nationalism is missed. In particular, I found the ending of Green Book ludicrous. Oh, only it were so simple that every member of Tony’s family happily welcomed Dr. Shirley at their table, thus erasing deeply engrained racist beliefs. If only every racist person could have spent time with Dr. Shirley; racism solved! I longed for the scene depicting the family gathering where the two workmen we met earlier in the film, ordinary folk, were invited to break bread with the Vallelonga family. The kind of tidy depiction of redemption presented in Green Book reminds me of the reimagining of World War II in the 2006 film, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Although based on a novel, that film has the patina of historical accuracy and explores an unlikely friendship between a Jewish boy in a concentration camp and the son of the camp’s commandant. Unlikely to the point of preposterous. Both the wife and the son of the commandant are unaware of what’s happening around them, thus relieving them of culpability, and advancing the contemptible fiction that ordinary citizens, not to mention the family of a high ranking Nazi official, were blissfully unaware of Nazi propaganda. Also, the boy in the camp is unaware of what’s happening, as well, although people keep mysteriously disappearing. Stomach turning.

    As a professional in the entertainment community, I appreciate the monumental effort and skill it takes to get any and every project made, but also, I anxiously wait another iteration of Green Book. A film that unsparingly depicts the despicable Jim Crowe era that Dr. Shirley dared to brave in his Southern tour. I’m looking forward to Lal Singh Chaddha, too.