Summer (School) at the Movies

by Oliver Wang


Oliver Wang

Just finished teaching summer school last week: it was a six-week course on race, class and gender, and I decided to look at these social identities through the lens of cinema. This gave me an excuse to re-watch, and in some cases, for the first time, watch a group of films that (ideally) would help illuminate some key themes related to race, class and gender. Some highlights (and low lights too):

Crash (2004): I don't mean to use this film as a punching bag but seriously, how the hell it ever won Best Picture and not a Razzie is beyond me. Apart from the fact that Robert Altman, John Sayles and P.T. Anderson have all done far superior films using the same narrative approach (Anderson, in particular, should be pissed. Boogie Nights was a gazillion times smarter and less sanctimonious), the film's "message" about race and racism is cloyingly liberal humanist in the worst ways: we're all racists! Therefore, we're all the same. Therefore, apparently the only thing you need to defeat racism is a better attitude. And hand-of-God accidents/interventions.

What surprises me is how students talk about the film as if it's a documentary, e.g. "It made me realize how everyone is racist" (this comment always makes me want to tear what's left of my hair out), but then I ask: "so, in the times you've gotten into a car accident, you immediately start screaming racial epithets at one another?" and no one says this has been their experience. The exaggeration of how instantly racist people are in the film is just one small cog to its overall badness but it's unintentionally humorous to watch how fender benders quickly turn into a Dr. Laura call-in show.

Maid In Manhattan (2002): On the one hand, I'm glad one of my favorite directors—Wayne Wang—probably got a nice check for this. On the other hand, it's a a rather flat update on the Cinderella myth of female social mobility: work hard, but more importantly, get noticed by someone rich and powerful. Preferably while wearing Dolce Gabanna.

Mostly, it reminded me of Pretty Woman, even down to the avuncular hotel manager/butler figure and slimy partner/political strategist. In all seriousness, in the future, it might be more interesting to screen both films back-to-back and then discuss whether being a prostitute is that much more disempowering a job for working class women compared to being a hotel maid.

The Milagro Beanfield War (1988): Not sure what took me 22 years to finally watch this but I'm glad I finally did. A really smartly nuanced film in many ways, especially in how it looks at conflicts within the same community over the conflict between economic self-sustenance vs. capitalist opportunity. The white fat cat developers were rather stock, though whoever's idea it was to cast Christopher Walken was kind of genius, especially when his opposite is the unflappably chill Ruben Blades. And Sonia Braga was pretty awesome (and swoon-worthy).

I thought the film could have left out the posse-hunt - seemed very incongruous to the rest of the film—but overall, I found the film to be quite useful in talking about race, class and gender. It was also the only film students actually clapped for once the credits hit.

Bamboozled (2000): A potentially brilliant Spike Lee film ruined by the fact that Spike Lee directed it. He's a master at great premises gone awry in the execution (which is why Inside Job was such a refreshing exception) and while I think Bamboozled has some great points to make, it loses much of it by the time you hit the 2/3rds mark and then it all descends from there. I was hoping that it'd help illuminate the history/legacy of minstrelsy—which it certainly tries to—but it gets so convoluted along the way.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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