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.

Freedom Writers (2007): Some of my students actually attended the Long Beach high school where this is set, albeit in a very different era of the school's history. I actually thought, as a film, this was decently executed though thematically, it follows pretty much every convention ever introduced by "special (White) teachers saving students (of color)." Bulman writes a very good essay on the difference between films set in suburban high schools vs. urban ones and Freedom Writers, alas, conforms to all the standard tropes: lone savior amidst a community of disbelievers, total self-sacrificer, unruly/uncontrollable students taught discipline, etc.

Fight Club (1999): I always think the same thing when watching this: "if this film was set to come out in 2001 instead of 1999, would they have even let it?" It's eerie watching the ending for obvious reasons yet, at the same time, the film also seems rather prescient for the American desire to reclaim its manhood via conflict. There's always been a big debate over whether the film ultimately celebrates violent masculinity or repudiates it and no disrespect to Susan Faludi but I think it definitely celebrates it. Project Mayhem seems so much cooler than the alternative, i.e. the status quo. Just because Ed Norton's character ultimately rejects Tyler Durden doesn't mean the film does. Regardless, it's a pretty great film to use to talk about the construction of masculinity. And who doesn't like seeing Jared Leto taking a beatdown?

Girlfight (2000): The film that introduced Michelle Rodriguez to the world (and arguably her best work, though that may not be saying much) and was a great "female boxing" movie a few years before anyone had heard of Million Dollar Baby. This hadn't quite aged as well as it had in my memory, which is to say I think it's still a really great film, especially its nuanced approached to gender relations (probably one of the better working class romances I've seen depicted), and Jaime Tirelli puts in a great performance as the boxing coach. Alas, for director Karyn Kusama, a protege of John Sayles, her subsequent work really suffered, including a terrible adaptation of Aeon Flux and last year's Megan Fox bomb Jennifer's Body.

Lone Star (1996): Hands-down, one of the best American movies of the last 20 years and one that absolutely holds up to how many viewings you can bear. This film really was a capstone on Sayles' attempt to juggle multi-character arcs and narratives at once. In that respect, as I alluded to earlier, you can certainly see traces of some of Altman in his work but Sayles wasn't aiming to craft as grand (or quirky) a gesture as Nashville nor as intricately interwoven as Short Cuts (or as pretentious as Anderson's Magnolia.

Instead, what you have here is a basic murder-mystery plot serving as an entry point into some great character acting (especially by Chris Cooper, Joe Morton, and Kris Kristofferson), some great ruminations on race, politics and nationality, and a role by Matthew McConaughey that's bearably ok (unlike in, say, Contact which I made the mistake of rewatching the other night).


[1] I should note that while all these reflect my individual opinion, I don't actually walk into class and ever say, "we're going to watch Crash today but I think it's a terrible film." Don't confuse my blogging with my pedagogy: not the same beast.