Can cultural appropriation ever be appropriate?
A generation ago, Spike Lee took the veteran director Norman Jewison to task for directing “Malcolm X,” insisting that the nuances of the civil rights activist’s story would be better served by a black filmmaker. After a letter-writing campaign to Warner Bros., Jewison dropped out of the project, and Lee went on to direct the film himself. Just a few years ago, the director John Singleton wrote an essay in the Hollywood Reporter bemoaning the number of films about black people made by white directors. Citing such dramas as “42” and “The Help,” he wrote, “It’s as if the studios are saying, ‘We want it black, just not that black.’ ”
Something seems to have shifted, at least this year. By the time 2016 comes to a close, a number of white filmmakers will have tackled nominally “black” stories, and will have been greeted with far less controversy: This past summer, “Southside With You,” by Richard Tanne, and “The Fits,” by Anna Rose Holmer, earned plaudits for being thoughtfully conceived and well executed stories about a young Barack Obama and an African American girl coming of age, respectively. Next month, “Hidden Figures,” a drama about female NASA mathematicians and researchers by Theodore Melfi, will arrive in theaters. And this weekend “Loving,” the dramatization of the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, the Virginia couple whose Supreme Court case legalized interracial marriage, kicked off what promises to be a fruitful awards run.
At a time when arguments about race, gender and authorial power have roiled the literary and art worlds, cinema has inched toward establishing what might be a set of best practices for white artists representing realities outside their immediate purview. Over the past several months, while the novelists Lionel Shriver and Jonathan Franzen clumsily explained their feelings of entitlement and disqualification when it comes to imagining stories outside their own silos, filmmakers have quietly demonstrated how the fraught territory of “writing across difference” might be navigated with self-awareness and sensitivity, rather than unexamined privilege, solipsism and general un-woke-ness.
For the writer-director of “Loving,” Jeff Nichols, the key had to do with identification: He had no qualms about bringing the story to the screen, he told me, and not just because Richard Loving was a white man, too.
“I saw my grandfather in him, almost to a tee,” Nichols explained after “Loving” made its North American premiere in Toronto in September. Recalling his grandfather, a propane delivery truck driver from Altheimer, Ark., as a man “incapable of enunciating his emotions and frustrations,” Nichols, a Little Rock native, said, “I saw right into the heart of that character.” Like Mildred, he added, he has an abiding love of home and place when it comes to the American South. “I felt like I understood [her] point of view. And as long as I attached to that, I felt like I’d be okay.”
It turns out that Nichols was better than okay: “Loving” is a graceful, intimately modulated portrait that not only captures the unprepossessing temperaments of its main characters, but also the singular atmosphere of Caroline County at its most tribally complex and reassuringly serene. Unlike a more conventional dramatization focusing on courtroom battles and stirring speeches, Nichols’s film gets the weather right, literally and emotionally.
The confidence, tempered with respect, with which Nichols approached “Loving” stands in stark contrast with the pained ambivalence many white artists have experienced as they’ve considered whether to bring black stories to the screen. In 2007, Jonathan Demme — no doubt still stung after the lukewarm reception of his adaptation of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” — told me that he pulled out of adapting Taylor Branch’s civil rights history “Parting the Waters” as a feature film because he “didn’t have the stomach” to direct black actors and extras to endure abuse at the hands of their white colleagues. Eventually, he said, he turned to Branch and executive producer Harry Belafonte and said: “Guys, we’ve got to find a young African American to direct this. That’s who should be directing this.”
The adaptation of “Parting the Waters” eventually ended up at HBO, where David Simon is scheduled to produce it as a miniseries, with Branch, Ta-Nehisi Coates and James McBride co-writing. Tellingly, in the intervening years, Ava DuVernay directed “Selma,” about the 1965 civil rights march, and Lee Daniels depicted the movement in his movie “The Butler.” DuVernay and Daniels are part of a growing community of highly regarded filmmakers of color that includes Gina Prince-Bythewood, Dee Rees, Justin Simien, Amma Asante, Ryan Coogler and Terence Nance, to name just a few.
And that community is crucial. In the 1980s, when Jewison planned to make “Malcolm X,” Spike Lee was the most visible of a handful of well-known African American filmmakers. This year, along with “Southside With You,” “The Fits,” “Loving” and “Hidden Figures,” audiences will have seen such varied films as “The Birth of a Nation,” “Queen of Katwe,” “Moonlight,” “Almost Christmas” and “Fences” — all by and about people of color. The satisfaction of white filmmakers getting black stories “right” is only gratifying to the extent that they exist alongside films authored by an inclusive population of artists free to make movies of every genre, style and point of view.
As part of the current vanguard of African American filmmakers, “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins, who adapted the film from a play by Tarell McCraney, about a young man coming to terms with his sexual identity, noted that he’s not immune to questions of appropriation. “I’m a straight guy who’s made a film about a gay protagonist, and I had the same question,” he reflected during a recent visit to Washington. “I was like, ‘Am I the right the person to tell this story? Because there’s an aspect of this person’s identity that I don’t have a first-person perspective on.’ ”
Jenkins said he realized he could take authorship of “Moonlight” because he grew up poor in the very same Miami neighborhood where the story is set, and he decided at the outset to preserve as much of McCraney’s voice as he could, the better to avoid being “an interloper or an empathy crusader.” Staying true to the playwright’s voice, he said, “gave me agency. It made me feel like I could get to that point. So if I can do it, I can’t say that another filmmaker shouldn’t or cannot do it.”
In many ways, the cinematic medium itself might hold the key to the difference between cultural appropriation — whether in the form of cynical co-opting or earnest condescension — and meaningful, intimately observed storytelling. Noting that “empathy is the gift of cinema,” Nichols echoed sentiments expressed by Tanne and Jenkins when he added, “I empathized with the situation of these people.”
But empathy, as anyone who has suffered through a painfully well-intentioned parable about racial understanding will tell you, is rarely enough. Holmer, who directed “The Fits” from a script she co-wrote with two women — all of them claiming different ethnic and geographic backgrounds — said that once they realized the story would be set in an African American community in the Midwest, they workshopped it extensively with their actors, encouraging them to rewrite their lines until they felt authentic and true to life.
“I’m barely an authority on my own perspective,” she noted. “So to assume that you understand any other singular point of view, I think, is a danger in the creative process. What it boils down to is opening up, adding voices and listening.”
For Holmer, the fact that “The Fits” dodged so many of the pitfalls of cultural appropriation can be credited to film’s inherently collaborative structure. “What’s so beautiful about cinema as an art form is it requires so many voices to work,” she concluded. “It’s a collective art form. And even as a collective art form, from the creators and the audiences it’s serving, to criticism, to every strata of the business, it’s excluding voices. So we have a great debt to make up to those voices. But [getting to] a place where we can have synthesis and exchange and collaboration, regardless of what type of story we’re telling — that’s the horizon we’re heading towards.”