movies matter | criticism by maryann johanson
Sat Aug 08 2015, 12:55pm | 17 comments
Great link and articles, very timely, thank you for the good read(s).
It’s heartening to see such thoughtful, straight-talking pieces such as “Dear Straight White Men” and “The ‘Feminized Society’ Myth”, and note how intersectional the issues are. Hopefully pieces such as these can help raise awareness and consciousness re: how deeply engrained, powerful and askew the [straight] white-male-normative narrative is in the culture (and how invisible it is to those who benefit from it in various ways); generally awareness and acknowledgement must come before paradigms can truly shift. I think that’s what we’re seeing now, hegemony dies hard.
I kind of want to kill the word “pander.” The article describes it as “distastefully indulging,” but I define it as attempting to appeal to people in a dishonest way. For instance, casting Will Smith as the lead in Wild Wild West was pandering not because the original Jim West was white, but because Smith acted exactly like 90’s urban Will Smith, rather than a recently freed slave. People go to a Will Smith movie to see Will Smith, and so they had him act just like he always does. The problem isn’t adding diversity, the problem is they did it in a way that doesn’t ring true. Having a black Kingpin in the Daredevil movie was not pandering, because the Kingpin’s common portrayal is a kid who grew up in a poor environment and fought his way to the top. If anything, that works better with him being black (not that he has to be- Vincent D’Onofrio gave a stellar performance). Unless you were doing some sort of experiment, you wouldn’t cast Morgan Freeman as Abraham Lincoln, even if he does have the commanding voice you’d want for the character. The question is always “does the casting fit the character and story?” If it does, then there’s no reason to be limited.
Re your Will Smith example: Wild Wild West is science fiction. If you can accept the outrageous and impossible SF of the film, why not Will Smith as Will Smith? It’s not meant to be a realistic film in *any* way, so why is one ridiculous thing objectionable but not the other?
I’ve never been fully convinced by the “it’s not realistic, so we can ignore the rules argument,” but it makes sense in something like Game of Thrones. As far as I know, GoT is set in a fantasy world that only superficially resembles medieval Europe, so it can’t be held to historical standards (although, to me, a better argument is that medieval Europe wasn’t as lily white as people think). But that’s not what they were going for in WWW.
If they wanted to set the movie in a parallel world that mirrored Western movies rather than the historical Old West, they could have done that and I would have been more accepting of color-blind casting. Instead, they chose to ground it in the aftermath of the Civil War. Loveless is a bitter ex-Confederate whose whole nonsensical plan is revenge for losing the Civil War, and he makes numerous racial slurs against Jim West. West is explicitly stated to have been an ex-slave living in a colony of freed or escaped slaves, and his motivation involves Loveless slaughtering that colony in a Fort Pillow style massacre. There’s also a “comical” scene where West is nearly lynched for groping a white woman he thought was Kevin Kline’s Gordon in disguise.
With all that history as a backdrop, the argument that “it’s not supposed to be realistic” falls flat. They chose to write historical fiction with some sci-fi elements, but a giant mechanical spider doesn’t hide the fact that the history makes no sense. Jim West should have been a scarred, angry man, but that’s not what you hire Will Smith for, at least not in the nineties. They hired him because his cool, sarcastic persona got butts in theater seats. They cast an actor who would make money but who didn’t ring true in the story they were trying to tell. That, to me, is the definition of pandering.
I think Wild Wild West is an example of lazy acting by Will Smith and lazy directing by Barry Sonnenfeld. It was an arrangement that had already worked for them both in Men In Black, but both are demonstrably capable of better. Never attribute to mailice that which can be easily explained by incompetence.
But a scarred, angry man is not the stuff of Hollywood action comedies in the 90s.
I guess this is the wrong week to point out that actor Samuel L. Jackson had become famous for playing a scarred, angry man in Jungle Fever earlier in that same decade and that he became a star despite his having a movie persona that was nowhere near as mild-mannered as Will Smith’s.
Don’t forget lazy screenwriting by whoever penned the alleged script…
Which is why they should have not even mentioned racial issues in the movie. They tried to have it both ways, acknowledging the racial history of the U.S. while having the lead be a black man who showed none of the fearful respect black men in those days needed to survive. They chose, when they cast Will Smith, to write in a backstory about slavery, but they didn’t do the work to justify it. And I have to think a big reason for that is because if they had, Will Smith would no longer be the cool Will Smith persona. They chose to roll with cool 90’s Will Smith to make money, regardless of whether it made sense in context.
I never said it was malice. But WWW went through a long development hell- at one point, Mel Gibson was supposed to be the lead. It’s clear that a lot of rewriting happened after Smith was cast, and it was a mistake to add in racial motivations without putting in the work to justify it.
I’ve never seen Jungle Fever, but Samuel L Jackson is the kind of actor who can pull that off (or they could have cast Denzel Washington and made it a spiritual sequel to Glory). But Jackson hasn’t been immune to that sort of mindless casting. Harry Plinkett at Red Letter Media made an argument that Jackson was cast in the Star Wars prequels because he was a huge star who’d get black people (sorry, “the urban market”) to turn out. Jackson’s not really known for playing wise and understated characters. If they’d wanted diversity in the Council, they could have cast someone like Morgan Freeman, but they went with the biggest black star they could find, regardless of whether he fit the part.
Well, dishonesty strongly implies malice. Also, in Hanlon’s Law it’s usually rendered as “malice”. (But then, it’s also usually rendered as “stupidity”, but “incompetence” sounds more poetic to me.)
I’m just not really comfortable saying that Smith’s performance was a deliberate attempt to mislead anyone. It still seems to me the more likely reason was laziness. I’m also not entirely comfortable suggesting that a decision to cast Will Smith in an sci-fi action comedy in 1999 could reasonably be called pandering to an audience. More like, “casting one of the hottest actors in the business”. If that’s pandering, half the casting in Hollywood is pandering to someone. (To say nothing of the question of exactly what audience you think Warner Bros. was pandering to, the answer to which could get hairy.)
Also too, you opened this conversation with your stated desire to remove the word “pander” from the lexicon, because you don’t think it’s well defined. Seems like you have a full working definition for it – not one I agree with, but still. So I’m kinda confused on what your point is.
A couple fun things I learned on Wiki about Wild Wild West: Mel Gibson’s involvement dates way back to 1992, when he and Richard Donner were looking for an old TV western to revive. I don’t know that they left so much as settled on “Maverick” instead. I can think of a number of reasons he might have gone this way that have nothing to do with the script. For example, Wild Wild West is a buddy story, and in ’92 Gibson and Donner had just finished up Leathal Weapon 3, so were probably looking for more of a solo vehicle. Also, Shane Black wrote the script for Gibson’s WWW. I think that script was completely buried, as Black isn’t among the 6 writers (including 2 “Story by” credits) in the ’99 version.
In ’94, Tom Cruise was evidently approached, but he chose to do “Mission: Impossible” instead.
Will Smith was the first lead cast, in 1997. George Clooney was attached for a while, but apparently left because Sonnenfeld didn’t want to rewrite the script (Clooney agreed with the decision).
Eh, you may be right. When I said I wanted people to stop saying “pandering,” it’s mainly because the word has been overused to the point of meaninglessness. To many people, the word seems to get applied anytime an artist tries to appeal to an underrepresented population, which leads one to suspect they don’t really have any clear meaning in mind.
As for “dishonesty,” that also depends on the situation. In real life, like a politician claiming he’s always been in favor of some principle that he’s only just now supporting, that’s a malicious lie. In a work of fiction, though, it’s not so clear-cut. You’ve surely heard the phrase “rings false.” That’s what I’m talking about. An author has every right to create whatever story they want, but if part of it doesn’t work for an audience, you can say it doesn’t feel honest in the context of the story. It doesn’t mean that the author was trying to lie, just that they didn’t manage to balance all the elements of the story. And if one of those elements that doesn’t fit was done only for commercial reasons, then that would be pandering. Of course, that gets into authorial intent, and that’s hard to prove and not necessarily relevant, which is why I’d rather just say “it doesn’t work” than accuse the authors of “pandering.” Now, you’re probably going to say “then why did you bring up WWW in the first place?” The answer was that I was trying to think of an obvious example of casting a minority actor in a way that doesn’t make sense because I needed some example to illustrate my point. Obviously, not everyone thinks it’s as clear-cut as I do, and that’s fine. Really, this is probably the most anyone’s talked about Wild Wild West in years.
“More like, “casting one of the hottest actors in the business”. If that’s pandering, half the casting in Hollywood is pandering to someone.”
Exactly. There are tons of actors who are cast not because they are the best for the part, but because they are popular. Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Mr. Freeze is a mind-bogglingly bad decision, but he was popular at the time. That, after all, was the point of the article Maryann linked- if casting a black man to appeal to black men is pandering, so is casting white men to appeal to white men. I just wanted to think of an example of how casting a minority actor in a historically white role could be considered “pandering,” to make the point that “but most cases of race-switching aren’t like that.” As for “to whom are they pandering?” Mostly young people, I imagine. Remaking a fairly obscure show from thirty years ago is going to make it harder to connect with a young audience.
While I’ve got your attention, I want to commend the community you’ve created here. On this page, a handful of people have an in-depth discussion about racism in Hollywood and everyone remained civil and intelligent. Not many sites can claim that, especially entertainment sites which tend to attract fairly shallow comments.
samuel jackson was also a huge Star Wars fan, and as far as i knew, actually lobbied to be involved in the film in some way. he deserved better than the movies he was in; but i was glad he was in there.
I’m happy with him being in there, but they should have found a better role for him. He would have been perfect to play Jhango Fett- the ultimate badass bounty hunter is right up Jackson’s alley.
*Jungle Fever* and *Wild Wild West* are in no way similar.
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