Saturday, July 6, 2013

Word Of The Year: Racism

I guess the word of the year is ''Racism''. It's spit out left and right by - probably - well-meaning folks, whose good intentions are only matched by their ability to get offended by the most minute details.

Today's scandal comes courtesy of Disney's blockbuster The Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp as Tonto, with Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger) almost looking like a sidekick in the previews. Seems people are mad about Depp's ''redface'', others about his Pirates Of The Caribbean over-acting schtick taking over his career, while some gather from looking at production stills that having his character be in tune with the mystical takes away any and all of the existing peoples' achievements. Although Comanche Chairman (an elected official) Wallace Coffey disagrees with the latter point:
“I think it was a very realistic portrayal of a Native American. It’s got drama and it’s got a lot of comedy; it fits right in with Comanche culture because we are well known as a humorous people,” he says. “In some instances [at screenings], it was only the Comanches that laughed, because we could relate to it.” Coffey adds that he was pleased by the spiritual elements of the Tonto character, as an accurate enough nod to the relationship between a Native American of that time period and the environment in which he lived.
But since when have White people considered Indians' opinions?

Where do I stand?

Absolutely nowhere on this side of the issue.

As a film graduate, I've admired Depp's 1990s output, preferred his dramatic roles (Blow, Public Enemies, Nick Of Time, Sleepy Hollow, From Hell, Ed Wood) to the comedic (the Pirates franchise, Edward Scissorhands), and feel he may have been at his best playing Hunter S. Thompson in Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas and The Rum Diaries. But this film looks like a complete piece of shit from start to finish, perhaps a tad higher on the quality scale than the 1999 Will Smith vehicle Wild Wild West, but probably not by much. I won't see it until I accidentally  stumble upon it, or if I'm dragged to it by someone whose company I enjoy enough to risk wasting 2 hours of my life smelling.

And I want to reserve judgement until I see it, because I'm not an idiot or an asshole.

I also want to give Depp - who claims to have ''Cherokee or Creek'' ancestry - the benefit of the doubt because he has, in the past - most notably in Dead Man - played in films in which the Aboriginals played important, smart roles.

I also want to point out that if they had used a Native American to play the part, Disney probably would never have funded it, Gore Verbinski wouldn't have directed it, and it just wouldn't be a blockbuster if it had been made at all. And it's a slippery slope. I get that ''blackface in America'' is a no-no for obvious reasons, and that similar situations will likely make many uncomfortable; Depp, in this case, never takes off the war paint he's sporting, probably because he doesn't want to have to be justifying anything else. But if we always have to pick people based on their nationality, then Americans shouldn't play Brits (as Madonna seemed to do for a decade even in her public life), Irish (see Brad Pitt in The Devil's Own), Rohms (Pitt in Snatch), Africans (Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamonds), and Canadians shouldn't play Americans (Jim Carrey, Michael J. Fox, John Candy, Rick Moranis, Jay Baruschel). And it could be high time Germans stop playing Russians (I'm looking at you, Jürgen Prochnow).

While we're at it, we should be writing better parts for Black actors (more Spike Lee/Hughes Brothers, less Tyler Perry/first-to-die-in-scary-film parts), Asians (less kung-fu or nerdy types, more regular people) and Arabic (they're not all terrorists or the twist at the end where they end up not being the terrorist - they can also play normal people). As a matter of  fact, so many Arabs are refusing to take on terrorist roles that Hollywood has resorted to using actors of Mexican heritage to play those parts... is that ''brownface''?

Saturday Night Live had two instances fairly recently... one was Fred Armisen playing Barrack Obama - he's already of an ambiguous tone that he can play any race and is also great at stereotyping accents, for better or worse - and could easily pass as mulatto, so I guess they just tanned his face with some make-up; then there was Bill Hader, playing Al Pacino playing Conrad Murray on trial, even going as far as asking the sitting judge if ''it's ok'' (he nods 'yes'). I never thought I'd see the day, but there it was. Twice.

And on the other hand, you have comedians whose whole fucking routine is playing the race card - I don't mean Chris Rock talking about the Black experience, but more the likes of Russell Peters and Sugar Sammy who, because they are of Indian (you know, from India) descent, they think they're allowed to bash/make fun of/poorly imitate every race on the planet, as long as they kind of make fun of themselves as well on the way. And Sugar Sammy adds the double-whammy of living in Québec, so he can call French-speaking Quebecers racists for trying to protect their culture, because as an Indian/English minority in a French province of 7 million people, he doesn't see the need to protect it from its immediate neighbours - the 30-million-strong English Canadians and 350-million-strong Americans - and overlords, the British.

But that's a whole other debate.

So... uh... Johnny Depp as Tonto. How a bad idea from the start can only get worse...

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