Topics

Alan Charlton

The big screen tackles racism, with varying success

Voices Aug. 23, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians may please fans of escapist rom-coms, but it ignores the experiences of ordinary minorities by focussing on wealthy Asians, writes Alan Charlton. (CNS photo/Warner Bros.)

Anyone who is connected to any media today must be aware of the fact racism has become a major issue in many countries, including Canada. It is not surprising therefore that the movie industry has got on board with films which in one way or another address this issue.

Crazy Rich Asians, based on the best-selling novel by Kevin Kwan, is clearly an attempt to redress the balance between Caucasian and Asian actors, since almost all first-world country films feature only the former, despite the racial realities of those countries. So, the cast of the film is entirely Asian, even though, despite the story involving Chinese, the cast is not entirely Chinese. For example, Henry Golding, who plays the lead, is British Malaysian. However, the important thing is that the film, which has enjoyed huge success, still recognizes that an Asian cast can feature in a box-office success.

The reasons for that success are obvious. The story is an almost formulaic romantic comedy about a couple in London; he has been reticent to discuss his family, but decides to take his partner (Constance Wu) – their non-marital sexual relationship is accepted as normal – to meet his family at his brother’s wedding. Thus she discovers both that his family is wealthy, but also that his mother (Michelle Yeoh) refuses to accept her as a worthy match for her son and heir.

What follows is predictable as the film explores a number of sub-plots, all revolving around marriage. However, what makes the film decidedly beguiling are the ultra-exotic settings. Against the impressive background of Singapore, a series of parties take place, all of which would evoke jealous from Jay Gatsby. The film offers a glimpse as to how the 1 per cent can afford to live.

In this regard, perhaps, the attempt to respond to racism may fail. Accepting an Asian cast is one thing; watching billionaires spend millions on entertainment is another and may well cause the less wealthy to feel jealousy and even racist feelings born of resentment.

Crazy Rich Asians may please fans of escapist rom-coms, but until a film about ordinary Asians can achieve the same success, the movies may continue to ignore people of racial minorities.

Very different is Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

Here Lee is actually responding to implied and overt racism as evidenced by movies such as Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation. In doing so, he is taking a rather original approach. We are all familiar with movies that deal with racism, ranging from as far back as Pinky, through such features as The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and To Kill a Mockingbird. However, such films tend to portray the issue from the point of view of white people. Spike Lee’s film, not surprisingly in the light of his previous films, shows what the Afro-American experiences as a result of racist whites.

Based on the book by Ron Stalworth, the film shows what happens when a police officer (portrayed in the film by John David Washington) manages to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan, by phone. When invited to join the Klan, he turns to a surrogate, Clay Mulaney (Brian Tarantino), a fellow officer who happens to be a Jew. What follows is suspenseful, engaging, and surprisingly humourous. In fact, the film is considerably less angry than other films from the same director.  Perhaps the most horrifying moment is a calm account (rendered by Harry Belafonte) of a lynching. More importantly, it may well make the viewer feel uncomfortable as he is placed in the position of Stalworth and experiences the humiliation of being subjected to white supremacist hatred.

Prospective viewers need to be ward that, if they are fans of President Trump, they may well find the film distasteful. In a deliberate attempt to connect the racism of the past with that of the present, Lee concludes his film with horrifying footage of the racial clash that took place in Charlottesville a year ago.

BlacKkKlansman is a strong and effective anti-racist statement, while still proving to be a fascinating and entertaining account of one Afro-American man’s experience. What is most encouraging is that in current release there are two films that attempt to confront the evil of racism.