The 2016 Academy Awards were memorable for all the attention paid to the exclusion of minorities from movies, and it seems like Hollywood was listening. Even better, white Americans are not turning away from non-white stars and stories. The #1 movie in the US for several weeks this summer was “Crazy Rich Asians”, directed by Jon M. Chu, and the book it’s based on is #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. Simultaneously, “BlacKkKlansman”, the new movie directed by Spike Lee, is attracting big audiences, and the book it’s based on is the #1 bestseller on the New York Times non-fiction list.
But are these the kinds of movies we need more of? Yes to the latter movie, and I’m not so sure about the first.
I first became acquainted with Crazy Rich Asians, the book, in Sydney, Australia last year. The author, Kevin Kwan, was signing books at Kinokuniya (which struck me as one of the best bookstores on earth) and there was a huge crowd of mostly Asian readers waiting to see him. That makes me think my perspective as a white non-Asian might be the problem — but not in the way you might think.
“Crazy Rich Asians” is about a Chinese-American Economics professor who goes to Singapore with her Chinese-British boyfriend, and discovers that his family and friends are insanely rich, insanely materialistic, and not very nice. Most are stylish, gorgeous, hyper-competitive and mean, but there are all sorts of other zany, frenzied characters who provide comic relief and a bit of niceness. The boyfriend’s family tries to drive her away so he’ll return to Singapore permanently and take over the family business, but … [spoilers avoided].
The whole thing should have been deliciously nasty, in the manner of the HBO series “Succession”, which features a bunch of horrible rich people in New York City and their shocking, cruel doings (it’s really good!). The problem is that it seems unfortunate that the rare movie with an almost-all-Asian cast should make Asian people look this bad. “Succession”, with its all white cast, doesn’t have the same problem. After all, we are constantly bombarded with the full panorama of white American life. Succession isn’t going to make anyone think differently about white people.
I’m reminded of “The Problem of Apu”, the 2017 documentary about the only Indian character on the Simpsons. There’s nothing really wrong with the depiction of Apu except that he became the image of the Indian immigrant, for a generation of Americans. Or so I realised, thanks to director Hari Kondabolu, after 20 years of enjoying Apu.
I watched the Ang Lee hit “Eat Drink Man Woman” (1993) the day after seeing ”Crazy Rich Asians” and that’s when I realized there’s actually another problem with the movie, besides the way it may encourage non-Asians to think about Asians in a harmful way. Lee’s movie, which is set in Taiwan, is also a movie about Chinese families and their struggles with marriage and family, the individual pursuit of happiness and the demands of the group. It’s funny, complex, beautifully acted, and perfectly paced. In comparison, “Crazy Rich Asians” just, isn’t, that, good. The acting isn’t great, the plot isn’t great, the characters have no depth, and the Western accents are intrusive.
As for “BlacKkKlansman”, this is a fascinating movie about Ron Stallworth, a black Colorado cop who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. Stallworth gathered information by phone, pretending to be a white racist, while a white co-worker went to KKK meetings under the same guise. Historical footage and dramatisation educate the viewer about the history of racism in America, the influence of the movie “Birth of A Nation”, the black power movement of the 70s, and racism in policing. The barrage of revolting racism and antisemitism spewed by the KKK members makes sitting through this painful — for almost anyone, but perhaps especially for black and Jewish viewers. That being said, Spike Lee avoided making a movie that feels like a PBS documentary.
He added to the facts so that the story includes a romance, lots of beautiful women with huge afros, dramatic dilemmas and juxtapositions, a car chase, and some tropes from 70s blaxploitation movies. Unlike in real life, things work out satisfyingly, bad people get their comeuppance, and the only people who get hurt deserve it. Lee goes even further in the direction of fantasy, letting us believe that a 70s police department included only one bad apple. Everyone else is fully supportive of Ron’s mission and ready to laugh with him about his ability to fool the Klansmen. Maybe a watchable movie about visceral, deadly prejudice has to be leavened this way to be watchable.
All is forgiven when we get to the end of the movie, where the fictionalised, semi-entertaining exploits of Ron Stallworth blend seamlessly into present day America and we see footage of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville in 2016, chanting racist and antisemitic slogans. The movie stops trying to entertain and instead tries to warn and inspire. The president of the United States praises the “good people on both sides” and then the movie ends with the horror of a driver plowing into a crowd protesting racism, killing a 32-year-old white woman, Heather Heyer. The problem of racism in America clearly isn’t over. But take heart, Lee seems to say to viewers: the fight against racism transcends racial barriers.