The phenomenal success of black writers like Shonda Rhimes and Tyler Perry and the black-centric Black Panther has brought a whole new conversation about race and opportunity to the forefront of American pop culture. As tiresome as it might feel to non-black Americans, it is never wrong to at least be in discussion about these subjects. Our nation’s history is complicated and, equal parts shameful and victorious. It isn’t realistic to expect those subject will just disappear with enough time.
That being said, there is a balance to be struck in these types of conversations. As a black parent raising black children, I enjoy the sense of cultural pride a movie like Black Panther brings to our family, just as I enjoyed the sense of “girl power” my daughter discovered when watching Wonder Woman. Those things have their place. Where the logic and benefit breaks down is when we are expected to forego our pleasure in the name of “justice”.
Thus seems to be the case when it comes to the new Disney mega-film A Wrinkle in Time, adapted from the classic book by Madeleine L’Engle.
On Wednesday, The Hollywood Reporter posted an op-ed by Inkoo Kang titled “A Wrinkle in Time Isn’t a Great Film, But Why Does it Have to Be?”. The gist of the column is pretty much as you’d expect from the title: this is a film directed by a black woman who recasts some of the starring roles to reflect more diversity. This is the first film of this magnitude and expense (a rumored $100 million budget) entrusted to a woman of color. Critics and fans have proved apathetic about the end result, but we shouldn’t care if it’s good or not. We should only care that it’s “diverse”.
But first, it’s important to note the ludicrously unfair burden that Wrinkle was saddled with as soon as DuVernay signed on and turned protagonist Meg into a biracial girl: It had to be both artistically dazzling and a commercial hit in order for it to be considered any kind of success. Grossly put, the “system” was rigged against it….
Kang goes on to say that director Ava DuVernay didn’t necessarily make a good movie, but that is no reason to not love it. The social messages are more important.
So DuVernay didn’t make a “good” movie. What she has made is an endlessly watchable one, and I hope critics, at least, will soon embrace those other elements in addition to the film’s social milestones — just like they’d do with any other notable movie.
This type of thinking is more detrimental to the success of black filmmakers than any “white privilege” they might encounter. In fact, one might say this attitude is indicative of a privileged mindset. It is the same idea that led to Florida adopting race-based standards for academics in 2012. It is the tragically arrogant idea that black and brown people should be held to a lower standard than their white peers because they just aren’t smart enough or tough enough or rich enough to meet the high bar.
I have no idea what Kang’s ethnicity is, but this is a mentality that is sadly prevalent among modern white liberals and it is grossly condescending. We are not expected to be the best unless we have the help and deference of white people. It is the soft bigotry of low expectations and it is killing black American culture.
Ava DuVernay was given $100 million, a cast of some of the biggest celebrities in the world – including OPRAH – and one of America’s most beloved tales to work with. This was an opportunity that 99.999999999999% of filmmakers, regardless of race will never, ever see. And there is no doubt the opportunity was earned, but that’s the point. When you seize an opportunity, you seize the outcome as well. You are responsible for the work you churn out. If DuVernay had put out a product that surpassed (or even simply equalled) the entertainment quality of a Black Panther then critics like Kang would be more than happy to give her all of the credit. Why shouldn’t she bear credit for the disappointing aspects of her work?
The soft bigotry of low expectations.
Kang and other DuVernay apologists ignore the fact that the ground-breaking director took a well-known and treasured book, stripped it’s fundamental themes and reworked key plot elements. That is always a huge risk to take when dealing with well-known source material. DuVernay took the risk, but it didn’t pan out. She simply made the wrong choice – the choice to elevate social posturing over storytelling. For that, her film is paying the price.
She doesn’t get a pass on the consequences of her creative decisions just because she is black. Audiences pay to be entertained. Most of us don’t make “DuVernay money”. A night at the movies with the whole family can be costly for an average American, so we want it to be worth our while. It is unfair to burden the consumer with the responsibility of centuries of racial issues on a Saturday trip to the theater.
Black people continue to be infantilized by the well-meaning but ultimately ignorant white progressive notion of “equality”.
Black people don’t need our hands held in order to be successful. For crying out loud, we’re talking about a race of people who rose out of slavery, fought an extended and bloody battle against oppression and won. Black people have created some of the biggest hallmarks of American culture. We’ve done it through the worst of times, and now continue to do it in the comfort of a time our enslaved ancestors couldn’t have even dreamed of. It is grossly offensive to be told that we will never find prosperity unless white people lower the bar for us.
DuVernay is in the big leagues now. Her work stands on it’s own and while it may very well be aesthetically pleasing to watch, at the end of the day audiences and critics just aren’t enjoying it all that much. No one else is obligated to make sure her work is entertaining.
The day black people will know they are truly equal in Hollywood is the day a black woman can make a blockbuster (good or bad) movie without her race being mentioned at all.
That would truly be living the dream.