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Monday, July 2, 2018

BAMcinématek and The Racial Imaginary Institute: On Whiteness

Steve Martin and Richard Ward in The Jerk (1979), courtesy of Universal Pictures/Photofest
by Ashley Clark

“If whiteness gains currency by being unnoticed,” writes academic Sara Ahmed, “then what does it mean to notice whiteness?” The series On Whiteness (July 11—19)—a collaboration between BAMcinématek and Claudia Rankine’s The Racial Imaginary Institute—attempts to wrestle with this knotty question. Comprising works that address issues of ethnic identity, assimilation, racial grievance, passing, and privilege, this collection of films—augmented by talks and guest introductions—invites audiences to consider how whiteness has been deliberately and subconsciously constructed, ignored, and challenged in the history of American film.

The series begins in the heart of Hollywood’s dream factory with Julie Dash’s beguiling, World War II-era Illusions (1982), about an African-American movie studio executive passing as white, and the black singer she hires to dub the voice of a white actress. A profound deconstruction of Hollywood’s power to shape racial mythologies, Illusions screens with the acerbically funny short Free, White and 21 (1980), in which artist Howardena Pindell assumes the identity of a blonde white woman to discuss the racism she experiences as a black woman. Elia Kazan’s Pinky (1949), meanwhile, is one of Hollywood’s earliest attempts to grapple openly with racism. It’s a fascinating melodrama in which a light-skinned black woman (Jeanne Crain, complicatedly, a white actress) passing as white tempts crisis by falling in love with a white doctor.

The Virgin Suicides (1999), courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Whiteness is centered and challenged in Gran Torino (2008), Clint Eastwood’s exploration of his own legacy as an emblem of rugged, white American masculinity. He casts himself as a Korean War vet whose racist worldview is challenged by his evolving relationship with a Hmong family. Another hyper-masculine American screen legend, Burt Lancaster, stars as Ned, paddling home through the pools dotting his affluent Connecticut town in cult favorite The Swimmer (1968), a classic of middle-age, middle-class, white suburban ennui. “When you talk about The Swimmer will you talk about yourself?” asked the film’s tagline, daring white audiences to see themselves in its vision of existential rot.
Speaking of existential rot, Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro)—the unhinged cabbie on a crusade to “wash all the scum off the streets” of 1970s NYC—is a chilling, disturbingly relevant embodiment of white rage and right-wing backlash in the post-Nixon-era. Another popular 1976 film, John G. Avildsen’s Rocky, offers a more upbeat but similarly fraught portrait of ethnic unease. White America hadn’t had a boxing champion in two decades… so, courtesy of Sylvester Stallone, it invented one, and sparked a powerfully enduring mythology.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), the iconic comedy that gave a generation of suburban teens a role model for upper middle-class “cool,” is also a foundational text of Reagan-era (and beyond) white male privilege. It’s simply impossible to imagine the film with a non-white protagonist. Bueller is a jerk, but Steve Martin is The Jerk (1979) in Carl Reiner’s classic race-bending comedy which begins with an oblivious Martin earnestly declaring “I was born a poor black child…”. Preceding The Jerk is its natural Hollywood inheritor White Chicks (2004), a critically maligned yet intriguingly subversive whiteface farce in which two black FBI agents go undercover as blonde white women.

Summer of Sam (1999), courtesy of Photofest
Other films in the series address whiteness as it pertains to questions of authenticity in representation and authorship. John Cassavetes’ bracing debut Shadows (1959) focuses on three black siblings, one of whom is portrayed by a white actress, an oft-overlooked fact that complicates the film’s legacy as a jolt of raw realism. Perhaps no filmmaker has gained more traction appropriating blackness than Quentin Tarantino, who, in his entertaining, endlessly quotable Palme d’Or-winner Pulp Fiction (1994), casts himself as the n-word spouting husband of a black woman. In 70s-set true crime drama Summer of Sam (1999), Tarantino’s sometime nemesis Spike Lee became one of the few major black directors to make a film about white ethnic milieus, which makes it all the more fascinating.

Two Coppola family films explore whiteness from fascinatingly different angles. Francis Ford’s epic The Godfather Part II (1974) asks what it means to become white in America across multiple generations, while Sofia’s novel adaptation The Virgin Suicides (1999) evokes the bottomless melancholy of white suburban adolescent alienation. Catastrophic culpability is central in the series’ sole non-US title, Claire Denis’ White Material (2009), starring Isabelle Huppert as a stubbornly deluded woman living in Africa who clings to her coffee plantation as civil war encroaches.

Last but not least, no film series about whiteness could be complete without a plunge into the “sunken place,” the chilling, cavernous heart of Get Out (2017), Jordan Peele’s viciously funny satire which uncovers the horrors of white liberal hypocrisy and the persistent myth of virtuous white womanhood.
Ashley Clark is senior programmer, BAMcinématek. 

This film program is presented in conjunction with The Racial Imaginary Institute: On Whiteness, an exhibition taking place at The Kitchen, Jun 27—Aug 3.

© 2018 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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