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It was good news to hear last week that Deniz Gamze Erguven, the talented Turkish-French director of the Oscar-nominated Mustang, is making an English-language film. But it was less exciting to read that the film (called Kings), a project she wrote before Mustang, is slated to star Halle Berry and possibly Daniel Craig in a story about the L.A. riots of 1992. Really? A film by a non-American, non-black woman about a foundational moment of police brutality and black rage in America, specifically in California. Is this a good idea?
Now, if it’s a bad policy to judge a film by a trailer, it’s almost certainly a bad policy to judge a film by its description. But at the same time, the most frequent thing I find myself asking about terrible movies is: “How did that get made?” Too many yes-men? An out-of-touch industry?
I could be proven entirely wrong by my doubt here. I have been before. When I saw the trailer for Evan Goldberg’s and Seth Rogen’s This Is the End, about celebrities having a party at the apocalypse, my reaction was, “Are you kidding me?” It became one of my favorite films of the decade.
And outsiders can sometimes bring a unique perspective to films about critical cultural/political moments. Steve McQueen is a black British director who made one of the most acclaimed films about American slavery, Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave. Foreign-born directors from Lang and Wilder to Schlesinger and Antonioni made insightful films about America. Martin Scorsese made Kundun (and is now finishing up Silence, a film about Portuguese missionaries in Japan). Sofia Coppola made a personal film about the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette.
Of course, the elephant-in-the-room obvious exception with McQueen is that he’s black. 12 Years a Slave was material he felt deeply in his own life and family history. The African diaspora is wide, and black is black is black is black. Erguven, on the other hand, is not black. It’s true, Korean-Americans and Hispanic-Americans were affected by the L.A. riots’ five days of violence and burning that claimed 55 lives. And, with the media impression of their city severely altered, white Angelenos also were indelibly changed by this event. But what resonates most today is that these riots were a reaction to the acquittal of five police officers accused of assault after they were seen by all of America, in amateur camcorder footage, beating up black Rodney King.
Every time new camera-phone footage of police brutality is released, I think back to Rodney King. Indeed, the reaction to the Rodney King verdict was a defining moment for every black person I knew (and those I didn’t). It’s the day I learned that black is black is black is black. But what is it to Erguven? An interesting setting for a romance? A disaster film in which Craig is the white savior? (The synopsis making the rounds describes his character as one of the only white men in South Central who sets out to protect local children from the riots.)
It’s important to point out that unlike Erguven, many directors working today lived the riots. John Singleton, for instance, was protesting at the courthouse when the acquittals were announced. F. Gary Gray lived it, too, and the highlights of his Straight Outta Compton were about this subject.
Matt Damon famously told a black producer on Project Greenlight that diversity is important onscreen, not behind the camera. Of course, that’s utter bullshit and the opposite may even be true. And in the current push for diversity, even when those other than white men are hired as directors, there is often little evidence that these “other Others” are the right people for the job. Two non-black women, Erguven and Kathryn Bigelow, are currently directing films about race riots. Rick Famuyiwa, a black man, was hired to direct the recent HBO movie about Anita Hill, Confirmation, even though Hill’s story is as much about gender as race; the resulting film decentered the importance of gender, becoming, problematically, equally about Clarence Thomas.
All differences are not the same. There are degrees of difference, degrees of outsider. Men are not going to understand some of a woman’s experience. The same is true for non-black people of color understanding the black experience. So, while artists should certainly not be limited to making films about their own experience, they should be very careful in making something about a group that is more marginalized than themselves. (One solution: Black women, the most marginalized group, should direct everything.)
The casting of Kings carries its own set of red flags. Daniel Craig, a white man, is one of two announced stars attached. He wouldn’t be playing Stacey Koon, the acquitted cop, or Reginald Denny, the handlebar-mustachioed trucker who was beaten on live TV; he’d be playing a hero, a rare white resident of South Central, who rescues children and falls in love with Halle Berry. Why center whiteness in this story, and especially with a white savior?
And poor Halle Berry. As soon as I heard that she was involved, I knew there would be a romance. When is Berry in a film in which there is not a romance (and usually with a white man)? Berry is mixed-race, like I am, and her own half-white privilege is part of what has granted her entrance into white Hollywood as the first (and as of now only) black woman to win a best actress Oscar (for a role that found her romancing the white executioner of her death row inmate husband). Black is black is black, and Halle Berry is black. But when she is cast in romances with white men, continuously, it decenters her blackness. She’s the exception, a “safe” black face. Please let her be in more romances with black men or men of other races. Please let her act in a film that doesn’t put her sexuality up front.
I’ve heard that Hollywood is now afraid of the power of Black Twitter. Perhaps Black Twitter should be consulted early on, when certain projects are in development, so that red flags can be spotted before millions of dollars are spent on shooting and releasing a film to crushing backlash. In this case, I hope I’m proved wrong, and that what seems like a major misstep doesn’t hamper Deniz Gamze Erguven’s promising career.
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