Notes from the Margins: White People Problems

Each week in Notes From the Margins, D.L. Mayfield writes about the kingdom of God, marginalized people groups, and popular culture.

Image Credit: WB

Several years ago, I watched the film The Last King of Scotland without really knowing what I was getting into. All I cared was that it had James McAvoy in it. So I was rather unprepared when it turned out to be a drama filled with the horror of Idi Amin’s reign of terror and death in Uganda. I was shocked by what I saw in the film—but not perhaps in the way the filmmakers intended.

Last King of Scotland. Image: zuguide.com

I was shocked that The Last King of Scotland revolved around the story of a spoiled white kid (James McAvoy) and his rise and fall in the Idi Amin’s court. Yes, he experienced suffering, but I was left wondering: what about the rest of the country? Show me more of what actually happened to the vast majority of the citizens! Less white-people-in-trouble business, more Hotel Rwanda, please. I was left with a grumpy feeling that as impactful as the movie was, it was a seriously reductionist vision, catering to an audience that perhaps needed to see a white male lead. On the other side, it was the first real movie about the Ugandan crisis that many people in the West saw—so did this make it right? I had no clear answers, just a sense that our storytelling priorities in Hollywood might be a bit skewed.

These same sorts of questions have currently been revived in my mind again. Naomi Watts is currently up for a Best Actress Oscar for her role in The Impossible, a story of survival in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. There have been numerous criticism levied against the film for focusing solely on one white family’s survival, when history shows over a quarter of a million lives were lost in the destruction, most of them Asian, and a third of them children.

Hollywood loves a good disaster movie, but only in certain particulars, it would seem. Only if they can cast certain stars, ones that look and act like the majority of the Western audience they are trying to reach. In short, it seems like we only like to watch real-life horror stories if there is someone who looks like us as the star. And as the New York Times puts it, this turns films like The Impossible into “less of an examination of mass destruction than the tale of a spoiled holiday”.

There are notable exceptions, of course, and many of them go on to win critical acclaim (while not always breaking down the box office). I would argue that first-person narratives focusing on the indigenous experience are still the minority in the West. This is a problem, both for the stories that are being underrepresented, and for us as an audience. As we continue to eat up stories that are devoid of critiques of social and class and economic divides, our entertainments have become a form of critique in of themselves. They show us as we really are: an audience with preferences for the stories of people we can identify with. And in doing so, we have ignored a great many important stories that are longing to be told.

Image credit: kdvr.com

When books like Half the Sky, an intense look at the atrocities women have experienced and triumphed over in our times, become bestsellers—found in many a suburban book club—I am encouraged. But when that same hard-hitting journalism gets turned into a documentary and stars 6 different famous Hollywood actresses—shot after shot of shocked faces, horrified by the conditions of the countries they are visiting—I quickly despair again. Do we really need to see a global crisis through the eyes of a celebrity? Is this really the only way Nicolas Kristoff was able to get his stories told on film?

Perhaps so, and that is a shame and a loss for all of us. But perhaps we can still think critically about these forms that use familiar names and faces to make stories more “appealing” to us. I would wager that we are closer to the celebrities starring in all our favorite films than we might realize. Maybe, like them, we don’t know how to process the horrors of our world—the famines, the tsunamis, the abuse of women, the growing economic disparities of the world—and we are the ones with shocked, frozen faces. Maybe, just like our favorite stars, we feel a bit out of touch with the rest of the world, and our entertainment choices are reflected accordingly.

But by recognizing how often we latch on to images and stories that feel safe, familiar, and look and act just like us, perhaps we can strive for something truer. And when we start to demand more indigenous narratives, better stories will be told.

About D.L. Mayfield

D.L. Mayfield's life is about 90% mundane and 10% cray-cray. She loves food and books and a good outsider perspective portrayed in pop culture. She gets very, very excitable when anyone mentions the phrases "kingdom of God". You can find her blog here and on twitter as @d_l_mayfield.

  • http://communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com Marilyn

    Yes. I couldn’t watch this for the reasons you have so well documented. I found this line to be particularly challenging “I would wager that we are closer to the celebrities starring in all our favorite films than we might realize.” It brings on the broader conversation of Hollywood’s version of life that permeates way too many of our living rooms. This is one of the reasons that I feel I can’t watch Zero Dark Thirty. Pakistan is so poorly represented already and to have Hollywood put its talons into the place I love is unbearable. Thank you for an excellent post.

  • Heather

    Also, you do know that the family the story is based on is Spanish? So how they became blonde-haired and blue eyed in the film (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, especially), I will never understand :/

  • http://www.amylepinepeterson.com Amy Lepine Peterson

    Heather, that makes me think of Argo, too. The hero in real life was Hispanic, but not in the movie.

  • Timothy

    Good perspective on the Hollywood portrayal of real-world events. My thought is that we demand some form of context for our understanding of the issues. For some, it is as shallow as not wanting to see another disaster without being entertained at the same time. I suspect that others are driven by the inability to relate with something so foreign without viewing it through the eyes of someone who is similar to themselves.

    That being said, after your synopsis, I would rather read the book :)

  • Tara Livesay

    loved this D.L. looking for better stories.

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  • Mynta

    Um… so, I agree with the points the author made regarding Hollywood and our seeming need to see disasters through the eyes of white people. But isn’t she exactly part of the problem?

    “All I cared was that it had James McAvoy in it.”

    She literally confesses at the beginning that the ONLY reason she watched this movie is because the cute white celebrity was in it. So… yes, I agree with all her points. But how does she talk about this while, apparently, completely unaware that she committed the exact same sin she wishes our culture would grow out of?

    “I was left with a grumpy feeling that as impactful as the movie was, it was a seriously reductionist vision, catering to an audience that perhaps needed to see a white male lead.”

    It’s all well and good that she recognizes some of the underlying problems – but the fact is she still paid for the movie ticket because it had James McAvoy, and it doesn’t matter to the producers if she was outraged later – she did her part to incentivize the trend.

    We’re always going to watch movies because there’s someone in them we like, so it’s not really that I want to condemn her for that. But I feel like the article could have been a lot more compelling if she had not just talked in generalities, but examined her own behaviour when discussing all these things which we need to change. After all, these people out there who need to change all have similar, personal reasons why THEY paid for the ticket. If anything is actually going to change, it’s those moments of self-examination, asking ourselves why WE do this, that will ultimately shift our culture.

  • Timothy

    Mynta, I don’t think you represented the author’s entire sentiment when you accuse her of being part of the problem. She stated that she “didnt know what she was getting into” by going to see the film. Perhaps she is critiquing her own action by writing this article or not, but what remains is that she is pointing out an issue that we must all grapple with. She states in her last paragraph that “that is a shame and a loss for all of us”. Is this not self-examining?

    I think we are more comfortable when an author points the finger only at him/herself instead of addressing our society as a whole, because in that address, we ourselves are indicted. I believe the author here is simply giving us grounds to examine our own behavior as individuals, and to question our societal tendencies. I am more than willing to wrestle with the issue regardless of whether an author applies their query to themselves or not.

    Finally, the author is claiming that we as a society pass over real issues by seeking entertainment instead of confronting hard issues. She actually seems to be making a joke on herself.

    Shalom