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