The Politics of Skin
It has the veneer of significance, and that’s really all a Hollywood movie needs these days to be considered “serious,” right? Everyone involved is pedigreed — director Sydney Pollack and stars Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn have all won Oscars — and they’re dishing out a high-toned film set in the hushed and somber world of international diplomacy, one that raises the spectre of Middle Eastern-style suicide bombings on streets of New York, though not in any gratuitous or Die Hard-y way, oh no, more in the way of a smothered nightmare that hovers on the edge of your awareness that all New Yorkers post-9/11 will recognize. But that one of the many screenwriters is Charles Randolph should set us on alert, for he gave us The Life of David Gale, that shell game of a movie that pretended to be about something Important — the politics and morality of the death penalty — but turned out to be about nothing at all.
And in very much the same way, The Interpreter simply isn’t about anything in the end, though it wants to be and desperately shuffles around its signifiers hoping that the act of doing so will make it happen. It doesn’t, and by the time we come to the breathless climax — which practically shouts out its own self-congratulatory admiration of how Dignified and Serious it is — the feeling that you’ve been rooked overwhelms any appreciation that had been building for the truly fine performances by Kidman and Penn.
Kidman (Birth, The Stepford Wives), sporting a fabulous Afrikaans accent, is Silvia Broome, one of the very few translators at the UN who speaks a very obscure tribal African dialect. And so of course she just happens to overhear, in that obscure dialect, whispered plans to assassinate a visiting African tribal warlord turned head of state and mass murderer, the leader of the very war-torn country in which she grew up and to which she remains tied in spirit. A series of tortured coincidences must be arranged to put her in the right place at the right time to overhear this, and of course it is all coincidence, for it would take a far more daring movie than this one to assure that this was more than a bit of mere preposterousness engineered to jump start a prosaic police-procedural plot. But the film continues in the absurdity: Broome turns out to have intimate connections to the conspirators, connections that give her an actual stake in how the plot she stumbles upon plays out.
It spoils nothing to reveal this, though the film does treat it as a matter of suspense, treading water till its inevitability is revealed. Director Pollack (Random Hearts, Out of Africa) speaks Hollywood, after all, and if he had wanted us to believe that Broome was a completely disinterested and apolitical bystander, Kidman would be mousy and bland instead of the suspiciously lefty funky artistic Boho she is here, riding her Vespa around Greenwich Village and taking African flute lessons. This is not, in the language of Hollywood, a woman without an agenda, and her agenda must, in the language of Hollywood, be anti the tribal warlord/mass murderer. Because the film spends so much pointless time getting to the point at which Broome can finally admit that what’s going on has to do with “the politics of my skin,” all opportunity to explore what that phrase means is lost. A wiser film, one actually concerned with exploring the personal impact politics has on us and how nationalism can lead some astray while it strengthen others, wouldn’t have fretted so much about lie detectors and background checks and phone taps and stakeouts.
Because that’s all The Interpreter is about. The best Penn (The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Mystic River), as the Secret Service agent investigating Kidman’s story, can do is lend a Lenny Briscoe weariness to what is ultimately nothing more than a big, self-important episode of Law & Order, one that invokes nightmares of global geopolitics — genocide, terrorism, ethnic cleansing — only to use them simply as exotic background. The Interpreter wants to be about confronting the problems of the world, but in the end, it’s just a distraction from them.
The emptyness of The Interpreter stood out in harsh relief to me because I had recently seen a far superior exploration of all those things that The Interpreter wants to be about. It’s in John Boorman’s exhaustingly heartbreaking new film, In My Country, a fictionalized story of the real Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in South Africa after the end of apartheid. An unforgettable film about justice — what constitutes it, what horrible deeds nevertheless deserve forgiveness, and how removed a bystander has to have been from a horrible act before he is excused from guilt — it strikes right to the heart of these issues instead of dancing around them, trying to appropriate their power by using them as window dressing.
The TRC operated under the African principal of Ubuntu, and the government perpetrators of apartheid, from local policemen on up the ladder of authority, were encouraged to come forward, publicly confess their crimes, and face the victims and the consequences of what they’d done, in return for which they’d receive amnesty, under certain conditions. Real tales of government-sanctioned oppression, torture, and murder are related in the dramatizations of the hearings, but our path to understanding how difficult — and how cathartic and cleansing — the process was comes through the two thoroughly fictional journalists covering the hearings. Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche: Jet Lag, Chocolat) is a white African, a poet and a writer who loves her country and has a deep and genuine affinity for the land and its people, black and white; she’s reporting for South African state radio and NPR in the United States and is very enthusiastic about this opportunity for a fresh start for her nation. Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson: Coach Carter, The Incredibles) is a black American who is as agressively political and outspoken as you might expect a black American journalist to be; he’s covering the hearings for the Washington Post and has nothing but disdain for the process, seeing it as merely another example of how “white people have a special capacity for getting away with murder.”
Those attitudes come before the hearings actually begin. Once they’re underway, they both begin to come to all new and unexpected appreciations of their power and possibility, in ways they — and we — could not possibly have imagined. Questions that are far too big to be answered in a single film but that don’t often enough get any kind of substantive exploration are injected with a fresh urgency through Anna and Langston’s unnerving: they thrust onto an unsteady ground where together they are discovering that they are strangers in their own lands that they are neverthelss also unable (and unwilling) to escape, that race and place are not, well, black-and-white matters. How complicit are the citizens of a nation in what their government does? Is following orders ever a defense? How do we break the cycle of violence? There are no answers here, but how could there be? Compared to the millennia we’ve been living in our own violent skins, we’ve only just now realized these are questions that we can and should ask. Finding the answers will take a little time.
No one here has to come out and state that this is all about the politics of anyone’s skin, because that concept is so embodied in the film that it would be silly, like if someone in The Interpreter said, “We’re dealing with a crime at the UN here.” If there’s a money line in that film, it’s “Vengeance is a lazy form of grief,” which is certainly clever and wise, but just stating such a thing is a lazy form of storytelling. In My County demonstrates how hard the not-lazy alternative is, even for those thoroughly dedicated to it. The Interpreter, slick and shiny as it is, has no power to linger in your memory, but good luck being able to rid your head of In My Country.
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG-13 for violence, some sexual content and brief strong language
official site | IMDB
In My Country
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for language, including descriptions of atrocities, and for a scene of violence
official site | IMDB