Monday, October 26, 2015

Yes, Black People Can Be Racist. Here's Why.

Definitions are important. Words mean something for a reason, and when they are misused, the result is confusion. When you attempt to rectify the confusion by changing the definition of the word instead of choosing a different word, things just go from bad to worse.

First, let's start with the definition of the word Racism. I'm going with Oxford on this one, just because. First, we have:

Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior:

The second definition is:

The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

This is pretty straightforward. Racism is when someone (or a group, organization, government, etc.) sees or treats someone as inferior or superior based solely on their race. The first definition covers being treated differently based on this belief, the second definition is the belief in itself.

Let's also get the definition of Prejudice so we're all on the same page:

Preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.


Dislike, hostility, or unjust behavior deriving from unfounded opinions.

In this case, if you are prejudiced, you believe something that is technically illogical, or treat someone negatively because of this illogical belief. Personally, I am not comfortable with this definition, as having a preconceived opinion not based on reason or experience could be easily applied to religious belief, which is a faith beyond reason or experience. But, this is what we've been given, so let's deal with it.

Before we go any further, let us dispense with the term Reverse Racism. This is not a real thing. Not for the same reasons that some people are claiming that black people can't be racist, but for the fact that it does not adhere to the definition of racism. Reverse Racism implies the opposite of racism. Going by the definition of racism as quoted above, that would mean NOT seeing or treating someone differently based solely on their race. Claiming that a black person being prejudice against a white person is the opposite of racism implies that racism is only when a white person is prejudiced against a black person. Reverse Racism is a racist term in itself that further confuses the issue, and is not based in any kind of logic or reason. Now that we've got that out of the way...

My first point may seem a bit inflammatory, but if you're patient you'll see that I'm not just trying to piss people off. The argument that black people cannot be racist is not new, but it has been gaining a strong foothold lately with Black Lives Matter, a necessary and mostly reasonable civil rights movement created in the wake of a rash of (sadly not uncommon) unjustified killings of unarmed black children by police officers, as well as injuries and fatalities resulting from overly excessive force used by police when dealing with black people. There are literally way too many to list, just do a Google search and be prepared for some very depressing results. So, let's start this by pointing out the major flaw of the Black Lives Matter movement that is compounding all of this confusion:

Black Lives Matter is not trying to stop Racism.

If you think my opinion in this case doesn't matter because I am white, just stop reading and save us both the hassle. What I'm saying is that racism is a personal belief or opinion OR actions applied based on that belief. If we're being totally logical here, we have to admit that we cannot prevent people from being racist. Racism and prejudice are both a belief or opinion. Behavior based on those opinions is covered by their definition, but it is still behavior based on a belief, and the belief is not dependent on the behavior. You don't have to act out on a racist belief in order for it to be racism; all you need to do is believe it. To think that we can actively alter what people believe is foolhardy to say the least. Governments in the past that have attempted to outlaw religious faiths or political movements have proven this firsthand. People cling to opinions and beliefs and defend them passionately, often times in the face of reason. Sure, you can slowly, gradually, with time and patience, change someone's mind. But just demanding that a specific opinion be abandoned based solely on your opinion? Good luck with that.

So, when I say that Black Lives Matter isn't trying to stop racism, I'm not selling some bizarre Sean Hannity conspiracy theory that it's a Muslim hate group comparable to the KKK. What I mean is that the Black Lives Matter movement is really trying to stop institutionalized racism on a judicial and political level. It doesn't fit well into a hashtag, but it's the reality of the situation. The movement was born out of the fatal shootings of unarmed black children by police, shootings that were covered up by police, governments officials, and in some cases, even the media. These acts have pointed to a still-present racism inherent in a system that treats black people as lesser individuals, ignores basic human rights, and then systematically tries to hide this bias when it results in inexcusable injuries and/or fatalities.

Obviously, the injustices don't stop there. From disproportionate criminal punishments and prison populations to shady laws - such as Stop & Frisk - designed to bypass civil rights, the racist undertones in many judicial and legislative actions can be easily demonstrated. This needs to change, and Black Lives Matter is the latest movement dedicating itself to doing so. They are trying to address the issue that black people are being treated unfairly, negatively, and often oppressively, by our government and law enforcement.

What they aren't trying to do is make you like them. They aren't trying to say "You can't hate me just because I'm black." What they are saying is "You can't treat me as an inferior just because I am black." And this is where the confusion sets in. Because even though what they are fighting against is institutionalized racist policies and behaviors, they've decide to cover it all under the umbrella of the word Racism. And the fun begins.

So Black Lives Matters comes out against institutionalized racist policies and behaviors, but says it is fighting Racism. Within their arguments are a lot of references to white people, some of them not so nice, but possibly deserved if you consider the actions of the past being perpetrated by the white race as a whole. The response by some, and logically so, is that if you are speaking out against judging people based solely on their race - the definition of racism - and in doing so judge me based solely on me being white, then you are being racist as well.

I will argue, for the record, that this is a logical argument. This is not to say that many who use it are not doing so just to avoid the real topic at hand, institutionalized racist policies and behaviors, but despite the motivations of the person making this argument, the logic is sound. So, in choosing a simple word with a broad definition to combat a much more complex situation, the Black Lives Matter movement has stumbled into muddy waters. They've given their detractors a way to claim hypocrisy on their part and avoid the issue at hand. The correct way to solve this confusion would have been to say "You're talking about racist beliefs. We are talking about institutionalized racist policies and behaviors that effect our entire community on a social, economic, and politic level." Instead, what they did is change the definition of the word Racism and declare that white people can't be racist because they aren't being systematically oppressed by the law and government by the black population.

Now, Black Lives Matter is technically correct in using the word racism for stopping institutionalized racism on a judicial and political level, as that is covered by the definition. However, they are technically incorrect in claiming that black people are not capable of racism against white people based solely on the specific aspect of the definition that they are using. Yes, definitions can gradually change over time, but this is usually a gradual and unanimous within a culture as a whole, not an on-the-spot change made by a specific group to make their arguments easier to make in twitter posts. And beyond that, this is a change in definition only being applied to one specific situation. Under this new warped definition of the word Racism, a white person could say to a black person, "I hate you because of the color of your skin, and what that color represents on a genetic and historical level," and that person would be (rightfully) declared a racist. Now reverse the people in this same situation, and the argument is now that the black person saying this to the white person can't be racist, despite the exact same wording and intention, because of white privilege and slavery and anything else that black people have had to endure in this county's sordid history.

Now, I understand the desire to make allowances in these cases. It can be safely assumed that the white person in this example is basing their racist comment on antiquated prejudices, and the black person on personal experience under white racist authority. However, if we are willing to make this argument, then we are weakening the definition of the word even further. If we are going to give my hypothetical black person a pass on being called racist because he has past experience to inform this opinion, then what if I give my hypothetical white person a past history in which fate conspired to only bring him into contact with black people who treated him or acted around him in such a way to support, or even create, his prejudice. Do we give the white person a pass as well on being racist because he has historical evidence for his belief? Common sense usually dictates that the answer is no, that you still shouldn't treat someone poorly just because other people belonging to the same group have treated you poorly in the past.

I hope the distinctions I am making here are apparent, because they are what is keeping this racial discord at the forefront of the movement, and obscuring the true fight that needs to be fought. Let me clarify some points that I am in agreement on with the Black Lives Matter movement. This much is true: White people are not having their children systematically killed by law enforcement officials who then cover up their unjust murders with the help of government officials. White people are not being disproportionately arrested or imprisoned (or sentenced to death), are not receiving disproportionate sentences for possession of drugs found (disproportionately) in poor black communities than rich white communities, or find themselves being detained, harassed, or questioned by police on a daily basis due to the color of their skin. White people don't have to live in a country in which people are still living that remember when it was illegal for black people to use water fountains or date white people, and was technically legal to lynch the black person for doing so. White people have not had to struggle with their self-identity after centuries of being forcibly removed from their homeland and attempting to reclaim their own cultural identities after existing for so long in a country that barely considered them human, let alone equals.

The above is what should be taken into account, and what needs to be addressed and understood. Here's what we also need to admit and come to terms with in order to avoid further conflict and confusion where it only distracts: We are all human beings, and all human beings are capable of both rational and irrational behavior, both in group mentality and on an individual level. We are all capable of love and hate, of compassion and prejudice, of doing the wrong thing for the right reason, and saying one thing when we really mean something else.

This is where the Black Lives Matter movement is losing white people that support them, and where their dependence on their own definition of a word is causing them more harm than good. You can tell somebody that their group is not dealing with the same economic/social/political situation that yours is, and they will most likely be able to be convinced of this when the reasoning is explained to them in detail. But tell that person that they are inherently wrong as an individual based on the color of their skin, and in the same breath tell them that saying the same thing about them is impossible, and you are not only insulting logic, you are insulting the individual.

No doubt I'll be seeing some backlash to this opinion. These days opinions are like Gods; heaven help you if you question the validity of someone's deity. So let me clarify, for the record, that while I might not agree with some of the tactics used by the Black Lives Matter movement, I am in support of their overall message about erasing institutionalized racism on a judicial and political level, and I agree that black people are still treated unfairly by certain components of our culture and society, and that bringing these to light is the only way to address the problem. All I'm saying is that attacking people for their race alone, and then arguing that they are speaking from an inferior position based solely on their race, is detrimental to the cause. Agree or disagree with my logic, but just don't dismiss it because I'm white.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Film Review: The Visit (2015)

Image result for the visit 2015I find myself defending M. Night Shyamalan more than I'd like to. I make no excuses for Lady in the Water, The Happening still gives me migraines, and even though he wasn't as in control of studio films like The Last Air Bender or After Earth, he still has to answer for his involvement as a filmmaker. Those are the rules. But his twist endings (show me a film that doesn't have a third act revelation) and distinctive directing style have become more of an excuse to bash him and his body of work, and it has reached the point where you can predict the complaints about his films ("I guessed the twist right away," blah blah blah) before they're posted in the IMDB message boards. M. Night has had the unfortunate task of having to live up to the hype created by the overwhelming success and acclaim of The Sixth Sense, and the decreasing quality of his work after The Village (some would argue sooner; I disagree) has done nothing but fueled the ire of his detractors.

Which is why I am so glad that The Visit has proven to be a sort of redemption for M. Night. Don't get your hopes up too high - this low-budget found footage thriller isn't out to break new ground or redefine the horror genre. Instead, it's doing what it set out to do, which is make an entertaining low-budget found footage horror film. Of course, you're going to have to deal with M. Night's trademark emotional soul-searching in between jump-scares, but that just comes with the territory. Beyond that, there is little here to hate (rationally, at least). The premise is plausible enough for a horror film, the characters and dialogue are as realistic as you are willing to allow (more on that in a moment), and M. Night drops hints and shuffles scenes of tension and levity back and forth enough to be textbook examples of storytelling.

Image result for the visit 2015The setup is straightforward and to the point: A single mother hasn't spoken to her parents since she fought with them about marrying the father of her two children, and who eventually left them. The grandparents contact her online asking to see their grandchildren, the kids agree, and so she reluctantly ships them off to a week with mom-mom and pop-pop at her childhood home while she goes on a Royal Caribbean Cruise (insert blatant product placement here) with her new boyfriend. Becca, the older daughter and film enthusiast, decides to make a documentary of the visit, giving us our excuse for the found-footage nature of the film. The situation is simple and setup early on, giving us plenty of time for slow tension-building and character development as Becca's cameras record far more than she had ever intended.

Yes, regardless of the setup, a found-footage horror films is already far from original. But that doesn't mean it is bad from the start, and compared to some of the dismal recent entries into this genre - such as The Gallows, or whichever Paranormal Activity film we were subjected to last - The Visit works at the top of the form. Less gimmicky than most, the POV nature of this film is actually used to develop the story and immerse the viewer in the main characters' perception, something a lot of the more recent found footage films have abandoned for slight-of-hand optical tricks and repeated jump scares. In short: it was fun, and I enjoyed it.

Not that I didn't have issues with the film. The Title, for starters. M. Night has never excelled at naming his films, seemingly opting for the plainly descriptive titles that actively describe the main plot or location - the worst of these being The Happening, which might as well have been called Vague Plot Description, and the best of these being Signs, which actually manages enough of a double meaning within the film to pass as clever. The Visit has that same problem, and at one point during the film I found myself wondering he didn't call the film Sundown, which for reasons evident upon viewing would have made a much better title. To his credit (and mine), I discovered later that the working title of the film was originally Sundowning, so it's probably safe to assume that the title change was a corporate marketing decision, so I'm ultimately neutral on that point.

Image result for the visit 2015Then there's the location. Yeah, I get it. You really like Pennsylvania. Enough already. The specific location itself doesn't actually have any bearing on the story, but just being actively aware that I'm being subjected to something for no other reason than the filmmaker's personal obsession makes this irritating to me. It's like watching a Tarantino film. Okay Quentin, you have a severe foot fetish. Very Nice. Back to the film now, please.

And on a personal level, I always hate it when a filmmaker introduces a filmmaker as a main character. There's something a bit myopic and narcissistic about this setup, as it always feels like the filmmaker is begging for understand. M. Night was guilty of this to such a major degree with Lady in the Water - introducing an evil critic character who admits to giving negative reviews out of spite and then killing him, an obvious reference to his own negative reviews - that I still feel he needs to stay as far away from this type of setup as possible. It didn't have a negative impact on the film itself, but it still left a bad taste.

So altogether, most of my issues with The Visit were minor and cosmetic. Much of the other negative criticism I've seen that isn't Shyamalan-centric is mostly nitpicking about stuff that shouldn't need a back story explanation ("Where did they get the tripods?" I'm guessing they packed them with the cameras...), and much of them aren't worth discussing. The one I feel needs some attention is one that I had issues with initially while watching the film, the dialogue spoken by the main characters, Becca and Tyler. Throughout the film, the older sister Becca is overly erudite in her speech patterns, while younger brother Tyler is incessantly uses slang ("Swerve.") and gives impromptu rap numbers more often than anybody is probably comfortable with. And yes, after an hour of this even I'm thinking that the girl is using way too many fifty-cent words and hip-hop lad needs to tone it down a bit. Most people complaining about this are resorting to the overall argument that the dialogue for the kids is "not real" or sounds "phony and unnatural." And at first I was probably in agreement.

But M. Night doesn't make normal films, and in the case of this story, these are NOT normal kids. It is explained very early in the film that the father literally picked up and left one day, severing all contact with his wife and children, and that at least two of them (the mother and Tyler) sought out therapy to cope with severe abandonment issues. In a film that involves a subtext of people playing parts - hinted to by a couple of random characters in the first act who begin reciting Shakespeare as soon as the camera is pointed in their direction - we are dealing with two children who are coping with abandonment issues by constructing personalities around their true selves, something that most children do at one point or another without a severe psychological trauma to trigger feelings of inadequacy. So in this situation, yes, we are watching two children who are not necessarily acting "naturally," whatever that is. Becca purposely attempts to act and sound important and intelligent, and Tyler seeks out attention through popular cultural signals and actions. So, in my opinion, this is more a creative decision than it is the poor screenwriting that many have labeled it as, like it or not.
Image result for the visit 2015

As someone who recommended I see the film said to me, if you aren't expecting something completely original and groundbreaking, you're going to enjoy yourself. I wasn't, and I did, much more so than many of this year's horror film offerings.