If You Can’t Tell People of Color From Dogs and Martians, I Can’t Help You

I did a bit of spitting and stuttering about this interview of The Coen Brothers by Jen Yamato on social media, but the more I stewed, the more I had to rant about, so I thought I’d take it to the lengthier venue of the blog.

Ignore the title of over at The Daily Beast. This is only tangentially about The Oscars. It’s far more substantively about the Coens who, after saying diversity is important, spin on their heels and dig in when questions of diversity are leveled at them (specifically, their newest film). The most egregious response comes from Joel Coen, when asked about criticism of a lack of non-white characters in Hail, Caesar!:

You don’t sit down and write a story and say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog,’—right? That’s not how stories get written. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand anything about how stories get written and you don’t realize that the question you’re asking is idiotic.

I suppose I should at least be impressed by how very many ways Coen is fundamentally wrongheaded in such a short space. I mean, efficiency of language is something.

Still:

Let’s get some of the most hateful bits out of the way right here. A white, straight man is sitting around telling his Asian-American female interviewer that she’s an idiot for questioning his choices as a creator. This is such prototypical whitemansplaining that we might as well just stop using other examples. Joel Coen wins the crown.

I’ll give him some mild kudos for thinking to include “three Jews” in his hypothetical list that Writers Don’t Make. In the end, though, whether he’s throwing an ostensibly self-deprecating bone at himself or not, he still just implied that switching out white people for ethnic minorities if there isn’t A Big Reason for it is as asinine as replacing people with dogs. Aside from the fact that you’re only half a step removed from making “mongrel” comments, there, someone who claims to know “how stories get written” should probably know the difference between people and dogs. (special exceptions for writers of werewolf and anthropomorphic fiction notwithstanding). If you don’t, I’m pretty sure no one asking you questions is the one who’s an idiot.

More specific to the film in question, though, it sounds like Hail, Caesar! is exactly the kind of story which did start with a list of character concepts: The Marquee Actor, The Water Movie Starlet, The Hollywood Fixer. It’s a “day in the life” movie, after all, predicated on the notion that there are a lot of stories to tell about different Hollywood types. That kind of story by its very nature involves sitting down and thinking about which iconic character types you want to explore, what unique elements you want to bring to them (because if this is the same story we’ve already heard, why do we give a fuck?), then finding a way to weave them together.

Which is to say, if you’re already sitting down and saying we want a story with a big name star and someone from those Busby Berkely water musicals and a fresh-eyed kid and a grizzled veteran, you’re doing exactly the thing you’re pretending is idiotic: making a character list  with types of people in the real world.

Meaning that in the actual examining, it’s not idiotic at all. It’s how you craft characters. You sit down and think about who the people in your world are. Where they’re from. What they do. You give them lives and backgrounds. Different lives and backgrounds. If you didn’t, you’d have a story filled with a dozen of the same person. Which, short of that bit in Being John Malkovich, is a boring, horrible idea.

Pretending that taking a few moments in your character-building to consider the ethnic or sexual or gender or disability backgrounds of your characters as you strive for a vital, varied world that engages your audience is — at the insanely least — disingenuous.

And on the subject of four of one, three of another, etc., it’s long past time we stop pretending there’s a quota going on here. Seriously. There’s a request for storytellers to be more thoughtful about the world around them. That’s actually pretty much your job. It doesn’t help that this all comes with the infuriating implication that a movie full of white people is one where race happened naturally. Never considering if there was maybe too much White Default going on in the story is, actually, a choice.

If someone asks you “why is this movie so white?” and you have an answer which suggests it was for reasons other than being too lazy to conceive of any other configuration, fine. Whether or not it resonates, at least it means you thought about it. But when someone asks you “why is this movie so white?” and you just get dismissive and defensive, that tells me you never thought about it before.

In the end, I’m utterly exhausted by the authorial defense which insists that taking five minutes of story planning to consider that people other than the White (mostly male) Default exist in the world is some kind of egregious impediment to creativity or artistic integrity or storytelling or whatever-the-hell other stand in for The Muse happens to be word of the day.

People of all stripes exist in the real world. If you’re a storyteller, you’re building a world, too, and it is nothing short of lazy if you do not — in the course of that worldbuilding — consider the place of diverse individuals within it.

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