The prologue of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is never far from my mind, especially when I find myself faced with a film with black characters or that profess to address issues of race in America.
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.
I am home now, a few days away from the experience of another week-long pilgrimage to the Toronto International Film Festival, complete with hours of standing in snaking lines and unrealistic expectations about the films tentatively typed into the schedule – will this one play in our market, during the awards season or possibly later, maybe even much later next year (on the eve of my return to TIFF in 2015, say) – and removed from the buzz and the crowds, I am free to explore my own thoughts and perceptions about my 27-film slate and the themes that I can’t quite shake.
Which brings me back to Ellison and again, that intro to Invisible Man. We, and by “we” I mean African Americans, would like to believe that the notion Ellison puts forth, no longer applies. That is not to say that we believe racism is dead and gone and society has moved forward into a post-racial age. No, no. Heavens, no. But “invisibility,” haven’t we traveled down the dusty road just a little bit? Certain cultural elements borne from our unique experience (R&B, hip-hop) have been co-opted by the mainstream. We have “Real Housewives” from the ATL that share the reality scene with those in the main coastal hubs. We have been nominated, and won, a greater share of Academy Awards in recent years. We have been celebrated for our contributions and amassed wealth and earning potential unimaginable by those who came before us.
So why is it still so difficult to see us on the big screen?
I ask, as a result of two TIFF screenings that seemed intent on either confronting the issue of race directly or, at the very least, offering a glimpse of race within the context of a correlated social factor – homelessness. And so, I start with actor-turned writer-director Paul Bettany’s feature debut Shelter, which introduces audiences to Hannah (Academy Award-winner Jennifer Connelly, who happens to be the wife of Bettany) and Tahir (Anthony Mackie), a pair of homeless city dwellers who fall in love and open up themselves and their stories to each other and viewers. From the beginning, the narrative teases us with the seemingly significant time spent observing Tahir, an Islamic African refugee seeking, through his righteous sense of dignity, to maintain some control over his untenable situation. He diligently prays, consults with Islamic brothers who run a shelter that sometimes serves as a haven, carries his plastic crates around the city so that he can set up for impromptu drum sessions that earn money to live on, and attempts to hold onto some small measure of security and belongings that he can call his own.
After an unfortunate incident keeps him from his base for a night, he returns to find his precious few personal items scavenged by others on the street. He follows Hannah, we soon learn, because she has his jacket. She wanders the streets with less focus and sense of purpose than Tahir. Hannah is a heroin addict, constantly looking to score for her next high. There is a feral edge to her, even in brief moments of surrender to life and music, beyond the drugs, Hannah has the shaggy appearance of a wounded hungry animal.
Bettany wants us to see them, first as they are, and then offer us an idea of who they once were, before the necessary layers of humanity were peeled away from them. The problem with that is he reverts back to the standard, and largely stereotypical fallback of providing greater dramatic context for Hannah. She gets to turn the tables on our expectations, in ways never afforded to Tahir.
During a scene that captures the turning point in the early stages of the relationship between Hannah and Tahir, she grabs his tip cup and begins hustling through the crowd. Tahir is playing his heart out and there’s an energy charging through those who have gathered around the performance. People reach into their pockets freely, dropping coins and bills without much consideration for the amount. In the midst of the frenzy, a couple of men refuse to pay, pushing back against Hannah’s urgings. They see this unwashed woman, draw conclusions about her, and then retreat behind the veil of language – their native tongue is French – to maintain their elite distance from her. But Hannah immediately replies, in French, upsetting their expectations, shaming them into offering a few dollars to cover for their mistaken notions about her.
They, and by extension we, get to see Hannah, for the first time as something other than a homeless woman. We learn more, and see even more of the tragic circumstances that led her to this place.
In contrast, Tahir never earns the same distinction. He is just another African refugee – with a truly tragic story, certainly – but there is no revelatory moment where he gets to even address his place and character within the context of the narrative. There is nothing about him, beyond his accent and the story he relays to Hannah that truly defines him as African in the eyes of other characters in the film. I was confounded by this because without some such instance, I had a hard time differentiating between what separated him from any other black face, black man struggling to survive on the streets. Why could he not have had some situation to highlight his African identity in opposition to how he might have been perceived in America? His blackness serves as shorthand, without an understanding of the diversity that exists within the hues and cries of our experiences.
On the other end of the spectrum, writer-director Mike Bender (The Upside of Anger) reteams with Kevin Costner for Black and White, to examine the collision of worlds – black and white – as Costner’s character, a grieving hard-drinking lawyer, finds himself in a battle to maintain custody of his biracial granddaughter (Jillian Estell), when the girl’s paternal grandmother (Octavia Spencer) seeks to argue that the girl needs the connection to her cultural heritage. The narrative has social complexity to spare – the girl’s father (André Holland) has little to no presence in his daughter’s life due to his constant drug abuse, Costner’s character, for all his resources, spends most of the film with a drink in hand, and attempts are made to highlight the divide between wealth and opportunity in the grandfather’s world versus the far more urban working-class milieu of the black family (although it is well-noted that the girl’s paternal grandmother and the family is hardworking and responsible – the father is decidedly the outlier in this case).
The curious aspect of invisibility here is the focus on grandfather, who we get to see, in a warts and all approach. He certainly loves the girl and longs to do what is best for her, going so far as to hire a tutor (Mpho Koaho), an embarrassingly overdrawn caricature of the hardscrabble immigrant who becomes the grandfather’s glorified man-servant, driving him around when he’s too drunk to drive himself and offering “magical” advice to assist the growth and development of the grandfather.
Every black male character (Mackie appears here as well, as the race-baiting lawyer and brother of the girl’s paternal grandmother) though exists only in relation to the grandfather, and the inevitable contrast between the grandfather and the father brings it all home. Both men suffer from addictions. The father is given little opportunity to overcome his demons; he surrenders to the drugs and the dark urges they inspire every chance he gets, while the grandfather is shown to be a more functional, present figure, despite his issues with alcohol.
The conflict comes to a head, in the court room, when the grandfather is forced to explain how he perceives the father and whether or not his take makes him racist. He casually and cruelly uses the “n” word, and gets the opportunity to rationalize it away. That he “sees” the father in this way is a simplistic trap set up by the narrative. It allows the father to remain invisible and easy to demean, whereas we are allowed to “see” the grandfather’s inherent complexity as a character and a person.
I wonder what this story would have looked like if the father – a black man working his way towards being more stable and responsible – had attempted to appeal for custody of his child from white grandparents of similar circumstances to Costner’s grandfather here (with the accompanying failings). What would his story have looked like? Would we have “seen” it or him in a different light?
It is not my intention to knock the obviously good intentions of either Bettany or Binder (especially Binder, since his film is inspired by a real life situation), but it must be noted that their stories follow a well-trod path and perspective. Their black men remain invisible because they refuse to see them. Shelter and Black and White put the white characters in sharp relief, as if this is the first time we’ve seen these character, completely missing the opportunity to show us something truly new and meaningful. (tt stern-enzi)