SPOILER WARNING: No, screw it.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
And here, predictable as clockwork, is the balancing essay to my comments about “Focus” just a few days ago. No, my optimism is still high, for the movie, our country, and the human race. But it is important to speak about this because I’ve watched it for five years, had innumerable conversations about it, and while I often loved the show, at times it felt like watching a slow-motion train wreck.
I’m done with “Walking Dead.” And the Upton Sinclair quote needs to be modified to be understood in this context: it is difficult to get someone to understand something if understanding would cost them pleasure, or cause pain, or acknowledge their privilege. It isn’t quite “you can’t wake up someone who is pretending to be asleep” but if you combine the two, you’re pretty damned close.
Two years ago we shot the short film “Danger Word,” the story of a grandfather and granddaughter trying to survive after the Zombie apocalypse. (SPOILER) They were the only human beings in the movie–everyone else has already succumbed to the zombie plague. And trust me, white people on the production noticed. “There’s a tiny Confederate flag in the trading post. What are you trying to say?” “The mannequin they shoot at is white. What are you trying to say?”
Human sensitivity. We like seeing positive images of ourselves. We like to identify with character onscreen. When Hitchcock killed Janet Leigh (shockingly!) in “Psycho” after establishing her as the main character, that master director and his writer, Joseph Stephano (and perhaps the original author, Robert Bloch) knew that this would create emotional dissociation with the audience as they desperately searched for someone to empathize with. And the closest person we could find was…Norman Bates. Explaining part of the impact of this seminal horror film–they literally turned the audience inside out. They must have been shaking when they left the movie.
For fifty years, I’ve pointed out the disproportionate death and dehumanization of black characters in movies (I’ve only been able to quantify it for the last twenty-five or so, that “no non-white male lead actor has ever had sex in a film earning over 100 million domestic.” And there is always someone who challenges me on it. Good. Try. You will lose. And then begin to ask why implying it, or showing them in after-glow afterward, or making a verbal reference to lovemaking, or a hug, or whatever, isn’t the same thing. So predictable. It is to laugh.)
As I said in the earlier essay, when I was a kid, the other kids in the neighborhood wondered why I bothered to see genre films. They knew it would ultimately be a painful experience: “how’d they kill the brother this time?” Killed disproportionately (and tragically, sniff sniff) often saving white characters (there isn’t a dry eye in the house. By Grabthor’s Hammer! He will be avenged! And I’ll comfort his wife while I’m at it…), or desexualized (in my twenties I came up with what I called the “breeding circle” theory of racial imagery: in adventure and SF movies, the black characters would be either too young, too old, too fat, too gay, or too dead to be sexual competition).
The first time I ever, and I mean EVER saw anything about this said out loud was on an episode of “In Living Color” when they did a riff on the “Lethal Weapon” movies.
Image: A black man screaming like a little girl as his white partner pilots their car like Speed Racer. Announcer “He can’t drive!”
Image: The same black man held helplessly by one thug as his white partner (Jim Carrey) beats up two guys with karate moves. Announcer: “He can’t fight!”
Image: The white guy making out with a girl. The black man is watching, huge grin on his face, giving a “thumb’s-up.” Announcer: “He’s not interested in sex!”
Announcer (continued): “But when his partner is injured, it’s time for THE SIDEKICK to step in!”
Scene: A cheap dive. The black guy is bellied-up to the bar. A sexy white woman slides up next to him.
Guy: “Did you get the information?”
She slides his finger along his arm. “No. Not yet. But…I’ve got a room upstairs. We could go up and have a LOT of fun.”
He looks at her, owl-eyed, and says: “Baby, I’m a black man in a `crossover’ movie. You’re barking up the wrong tree.”
I died. I couldn’t believe they’d actually SAID it. Holy #$#%, were they INSANE?
Another piece you’ll need to understand my thinking: the “bottleneck” is not “racist Hollywood liberals.” And it is not “White America” if by that you mean that somehow white people are more racist, evil, or oblivious than anyone else. No, there’s nothing special about white people at all, positive or negative. They’re just people. But there are emergent qualities of human psychology and sociology that one can see again and again in our history, whenever one group has numerical, economic or other power over another, the broad version of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. Or the expression of Octavia Butler’s famous maxim that a core problem of human beings is:
The tendency to think hierarchically.
The tendency to place themselves higher on that hierarchy.
To consider themselves, in other words, more human.
Last piece you need: The theory that these tendencies can be seen less in what we say consciously or publicly than in the entertainments we choose. That we can measure it by the movies that earn money (what images are acceptable? Unacceptable?) and the television shows the public finds popular.
Is this plausible? Well, try looking at any heated political thread, and it is clear that liberals AND white Conservatives largely believe that their political opponents will lie, cheat, distort, defame and edit reality to warp each others’ positions. If they believe that about themselves politically, is it really a huge stretch to posit that this human behavior isn’t as bad across racial lines?
Remember: I’m not specifically talking about YOU. Unless, of course, you happen to be human. Ahem.
O.K. To Walking Dead. In the first season, they introduced a crew of survivors of the Zombie Apocalypse. All good. Sheriff named Rick (white, of course) is the hero. First couple of episodes, they had a black father and son. Intelligent, capable, bonded. Love’d ‘em. Rick went on. A few episodes later, they introduced another black character, “T-Dawg.” The only character on the show without a real name–just a cultural label. All right.
He wasn’t particularly smart, nor did he have “agency,” and soon after we meet him, he and another minority (and I believe some women and an old man) are held captive by a single redneck. Who is promptly slapped down by Uber-Rick. I had to shrug at that: typical wish fullfilment. “Well,” I remember commenting to Tananarive, “clearly all the writers on THIS show are white.”
Fine. But over the next seasons, T-Dawg went downhill. He had no interest in women, he never had a good idea, he virtually shuffled his feet, rolled his eyes and moaned “Dey’s zombies in dere!” Okay. Still enjoyed the show. Hell, I’d gotten used to that during all those childhood horror movies.
I remember lecturing at a university, and was asked why I loved genre so much, if I felt it was so problematic. I told the truth. I was raised without my father, by my mother and sister. No uncles, brothers, older male cousins to hang with. Nothing. I was small and slight and bookish and unathletic. And predictably, the girls wanted little to do with me. I wanted desperately to “be admired by the men I admired, and desired by the women I desired.” So I sought out images of Manhood, wherever I could find them. And adventure/SF had some great, simplistic ones. James Bond, Simon Templar, Conan, Tarzan, Mike Hammer…I ate ‘em up.
There was a problem, though. In EVERY case, and I mean 99% of the time, either black people were excluded or, if they WERE mentioned, it was in a servile, cowardly, evil, or sacrifical fashion. It hurt terribly–both that these authors felt that way, or that, rather obviously, their audiences lapped it up.
I read anyway. As I said to the audience, “I sacrificed my melanin on the altar of my testosterone.”
And kept my thoughts mostly to myself, at least partially because when I DID say something, my white friends simply denied it. I was imagining things. Gee Steve, you’re so smart to be so over-sensitive…
Right. And just maybe I’m smart enough to know what I’m talking about. Disturbing possibility, yes?
Back to “Walking Dead.” It got worse. I read the original comic book, and realized that the only black male character was named “Tyreese.” He was alpha, smart, competent, brave. Everything “T-Dawg” was not. And I noticed that they shared a first letter on their names, gender, and race. And asked myself how much of a coincidence that might be. Math isn’t my strong suit, but roughly I thought that you’ve have to multiply 2 (gender) X 26 (odds of the first letter) X about 8 (likelihood of race) to find the coincidence thingie. Let’s see–roughly 1 chance in 416 that this was a coincidence.
So what would I call T-Dawg? I’d call him “Tyreese 1.0”. Why would someone do this? Well…I looked at the show creator, Frank Darabont. Was there anything in his filmography that would hint at a psychological problem with darker folks?
He’d done “Shawshank” and cast Morgan Freeman race-neutral. Didn’t that say something positive? Well…maybe. I had to factor in that Freeman, for all his gravitas and talent, has made an entire career out of being a eunuch. He is the only actor in history to have eaten shit onscreen more often than he’s been passionately kissed (did you SEE “The Power of One”?) and has never had a love scene in his entire career. He is the sacrificial, magical Negro spiritual guide of all time. (Did you SEE “Bruce Almighty”?) So… I might have to look deeper.
Didn’t take long to find “The Green Mile.” Now, “Green Mile” was an experimental novel by Stephen King, published as a series of monthly chapters. It tells the story of a prison guard (played in the film by Tom Hanks) who comes to realize that a prisoner on Death Row is an extraordinary, magical being, probably innocent. And although John Coffey is smuggled out to heal a white woman, and becomes human Viagra for Hanks, he is ultimately executed anyway. Now, that sounds pretty bad, and Stephen King doesn’t have the best track record racially (he tends to exoticize and “spiritualize” his black characters to an irritating degree) but he is also deeply humane, and far too talented a writer to fail to give black people inwardness. His problem is lack of familiarity, not hostility or fear.
Note the difference between King and Kubrick’s Dick Hallorann in “The Shining”: A spiritual guide, yes. But what did Stanley Kubrick do to him, once they cast Scatman Crothers? He KNOWS there is danger at the Outlook. Leaves his sunny vacation after a psychic call. Snow-buggies across miles of countryside to get to it. Then walks in without paying the slightest attention and Jack Nicolson hits him in the chest with an axe. Spiritua guide, sacrifical negro and IDIOT all in the same package.
Well, I loved “The Green Mile.” The title is a reference to the terrible, finite quality of human life. Coffey dies, but so will we all. I cried at the end. King rocks.
But the movie…something went wrong. I watched that film, and when I walked out, realized something was off. For some reason, what I’d loved in the book I hated on the screen. And after a couple of days of thinking about it, I realized what Darabont had changed from the book.
In the book, the Hanks character believes Coffey to be innocent. And he calls the governor’s office and pleads with the warden to delay the execution. And fails. Painful.
But in the movie, he KNOWS that Coffey is innocent, due to a psychic vision (that shows Coffey was arrested for trying to HELP two little white girls) and…does nothing. Nothing. Doesn’t pick up the phone for thirty seconds to try to get Coffey freed.
Understand: there are about five minutes of stupid mouse tricks in this movie. And they couldn’t spare thirty seconds. Sure, Coffey says he’s tired and just wants life to be over. Of course he does: he has been ill-used by life. This is his down-point, his “dark night of the soul.” And it is the point where Tom Hanks should have given a stirring speech and gone off to save him…and then tragically failed.
Let’s put it this way: if “Lassie” had been accused of biting Timmy, and was scheduled to die, and at the last minute Timmy woke up from a coma and told them the collie was just trying to save him from wolves, the entire climax of the movie would have been a frantic cross-town car chase through red lights, with cops screaming after them, to save that dog. I’ve literally NEVER seen anything like Green Mile’s abandonment of an innocent character.
And if you cannot empathize with how it felt to be black in a white theater, watching a movie made by white people, with the only black actor on screen dying because he tried to help two white girls, and the white actor we’re supposed to empathize with didn’t see enough humanity in him to pick up the @#$$ phone…let’s say you probably won’t understand what I mean when I say I’m not surprised that Tom Hanks said “yes” to “Captain Phillips.”
So..Darabont lost my “benefit of the doubt” and I could feel that the little “racial identity monitor” in the back of my head was starting to pay attention to “Walking Dead” on a new level.
It got worse. I had a writer friend, white, with whom I shared my concerns about the show. He knew people on the staff, and get this: They told HIM that the reason that “T-Dawg” was written so shallowly was that the ACTOR Iron E. Singleton was a “bad actor.” Well, why not fire him and bring in someone else? Oh, he’s a good guy. Wouldn’t that be mean..?
@#$$ no. It would be business, IF THEY GAVE A DAMN. Remember “Jerry McGuire”: it ain’t “show friendship. It’s show BUSINESS.”
Every heard of blaming the victim? Give the actor nothing, and blame him. I actually BOUGHT that for a couple of weeks, so inclined am I to believe in better angels. And then it just fell apart. I couldn’t see a way it made sense.
If I was right they’d taken a terrific male character, emptied him, and then blamed the actor for what they’d done.
The internet started buzzing about T-Dawg, the complaints growing. “No,” they said. “T-Dawg isnt’ Tyreese. We’ll bring Tyreese in later.” Yeah, right. I kept my “1.0” theory: they’d “floated” the emasculated version, but gave themselves plausible deniability. When people complained too much, they would bring in the “REAL” Tyreese. Strong. Smart. Macho. And Michonne’s lover. Oh yeah, that’s right. When the introduced Michonne, she was so much stronger and smarter than T-Dawg he couldn’t have shined her shoes. But the REAL Tyreese is coming, right..?
(By the way, anyone notice how long it took Michonne to have the slightest inner world? She was an object, an archetype, not a human being until they finally flashed back to her relationship with her cousins.)
Ummm…no. When they finally brought in Chad Coleman from “The Wire” and announced him as Tyreese I was happy. No, he looked softer than the comic “Tyreese” but we can work with that. He would be dynamic, intelligent, sexual, have inwardness, right?
Well…not quite. He came with a black woman named “Sasha,” and I initially thought she was his girlfriend. But as time went on, I was disturbed by the fact that they didn’t clearly define their relationship. Then someone told me she was his sister. Had I missed that? There clearly hadn’t been any extended fraternal moments, no clarity, even if I’d missed a line somewhere. That was strange.
Uh-oh. That pesky “inwardness” thing that kept Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) a mere fantasy for Garcia for nine years on Criminal Minds.
Of course, they killed off T-Dawg. He died sacrificially, trying to help a white woman–the tried and true trope we know as The Sacrificial Negro. Sob sob. And afterward, the white characters spoke of all the wonderfulness of T-Dawg, all the terrific things he’d done and said, and how he graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard Medical School but gave up wealth and fame to help orphans in the Balkans…well, maybe not that last part. But he had more life after death than in life.
So noble, though. Well, maybe Tyreese 2.0 can finally shine…
Then…he was clearly made beta to the other males. EVERY other male on the show was smarter, more of a leader and tactical thinker. Even the kid. Even the women were more alpha and dynamic, including his own kid sister. Little girls were telling him what to do.
Uh-oh. Or “WTF”? Take your pick. He made tactical errors. He baby-sat the kids instead of taking point. They had feminized him, just chopped off his balls and distributed them to the other members of the cast.
Finally, they gave him a love interest (shooting their tender scenes as indirectly as possible) and I said: “oh oh. They’re gonna kill her.”) and they did, within an episode. Sob sob.
I kept hoping and hoping, but as they made it clear, all he had going for him was a deep conscience and sensitivity (he cried very well) and from time to time he’d go mindlessly berzerk and kill everything in sight. Wow. What a thinking human being. Let’s just say I would happily have bet dollars to doughnuts that there wasn’t a black person of any consequence anywhere near the writer’s room on THAT show.
They introduced another black male character, let him be Sasha’s boyfriend…and immediately killed him. Hey, a black preacher…who turned out to be a coward who betrayed his flock. And then a kid, the former “Everybody Hates Chris” star. Not bad, but…remember what I said about “too young to be sexual competition”? Ah, the breeding circle. Nice predictive capacity.
So they took a mid-season break, and the story was that when they came back, they had some big changes. Big, big changes.
We’ll see, I thought.
Watching last night, I IMMEDIATELY noticed changes. Wow. The black people were talking amongst themselves like real human beings! Tyreese was actually talking about his childhood with Sasha! What the heck? And the actor looked like he’d been to the gym–not as soft. His chest was suddenly larger than his gut. He moved with more authority. I sat up, focusing. SOMETHING was very different. He was philosophical, directed, seemed more aware and awake. Damn near had “swagger.”
Where had THIS guy been? And then…he got bit by a little zombie kid. Followed by an agonizingly prolonged dream/fantasy sequence in which they gave him more humanity than they’d given all the other black characters on the show combined IN FIVE YEARS. It was GRUELING. The black twitter-stream was pain-filled. People were crying and praying. He was all we had. Our only character to identify with.
And he died. They buried him without killing his brain, so who knows, maybe he’ll come back and booga-booga the other stars. Oh, run, here comes our tragic friend, transformed into one of the damned for our viewing pleasure…
This morning, T send me a link to writer Zig Zag Claybourne’s blog, speaking of a black actor. The following paragraph stood out: “Dying had become pretty old for Len Turman by the time he turned forty-six. He’d played the voice of a robot, and the robot had died. He’d been the young black dude in a platoon of brave men, and he’d died. He’d played a sword-wielding immortal and felt good that in the film he was supposed to have lived over four thousand years…until an older, evil immortal deceived and decapitated him. He’d had things rammed into him, poured over him, sliced diagonally across him, shot through him, horribly-gone-wrong spliced into him, lemming-ed off a cliff, absorbed, bitten in half, exploded, knifed, poisoned, burned, and even—as the only black man in a film about the French revolution—guillotined. He’d performed every stunt imaginable and acted against a rainbow assortment of special effects screens. He had yet to have onscreen sex, which is why he got into acting in the first damn place, and today was his birthday. Birthdays were tailor-made for deciding when certain shit was about to stop.”
That was great. But what caught my attention most was the following:
“No more will we die while lesser actors go on to numerous sequels. No more will we turn our backs on wounded villains or provide chewable ethnic flavor.”
“Well,” somebody said.
“We are not your surprise twist endings, your tragi-comic sidekicks, or your security officers. We are actors, dammit—”
Well damn. He said it. I got into this field partially because I love writing, and partially because I love genre. But partially because I saw a great, bleeding hole in the mythic image systems. And believe there is a feedback-loop between the art and the culture. In other words, the attitudes of the culture can be seen in the art it embraces. That there is a relationship between these images and employment and incarceration rates, and the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
But it works the other way as well: art, properly created, can communicate and awaken. It both leads and follows.
I will never, ever stop fighting that fight. But I don’t have to watch a show that has proven, to me, that its creators and creative staff do not consider black folks to be of equal humanity and value. Yeah, I said it.
Those of you who still enjoy it…good. I wish them and you, no ill, and hope you have fun. But I’m tired of dying in the shower, and refuse to identify with Norman Bates. Is that too harsh?
Try living it from my side.