Thursday, April 23, 2020

More Than Movie Night

A bowl of popcorn with a lot spilled on the tabletop sits next to a tv remote.
We watch a lot of movies. Our evenings are typically spent binging a tv series or taking in as much of a film as possible before bedtime. So it was an ordinary undertaking to sit down one coldish spring evening to watch ‘Selah and the Spades.’

We searched for Selah on Amazon Prime that night after reading an interview on the Root about the filmmaker’s decision to have a group of black kids call themselves “the spades” and to go ahead and use a “disparaging code word for black people” as the film’s title. The filmmaker, Tayarisha Poe, is quoted in that article as finding it unacceptable that she’d have to “change the name of what I was going to call somebody because of white people’s racism.”

And that was the first time Selah made me uncomfortable. 

“I don’t know if I’d have done that,” I said after reading the Root. I drew out the first part of the sentence in a way that my husband is convinced sounds a lot like Jerry Seinfeld. And it was my idea to watch the movie, but here I was already on guard about it. Ready to pick it apart as though I’m the judge of what adequately promotes social justice in the world. Ready to accept the part of me that just knows I am an expert on these things. Me, a white woman that only acknowledges the Italian part of her heritage and was once offended when a coworker called someone else a wop. 

I’ll give you a moment to be impressed by my credentials. 

We watched ‘Selah and the Spades’ that night and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like Selah. I thought maybe I was supposed to like Paloma, but I didn’t. And I really didn’t like that they were selling and using drugs. 

Nope. Didn’t like it one bit. 

But then I wondered. Did I dislike this movie because racism? 

And like any woke white person would do in 2020, I had the Chrome browser open while the credits rolled. I needed to read something to prove to myself that I was still a good white person. I needed to read a bad review of the movie or someone else’s hot take that went a little like, “hey, let’s not make any more of these movies that glorify drug culture, m’kay?”

Instead, I found another interview with Tayarisha Poe. This one was on Slate. Poe was asked specifically about that aspect of the story. Why did she make a movie about black kids using and dealing drugs and getting away with it?

This was her answer: 
As an audience member, I really love these gangster movies and shows. I love ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Breaking Bad,’ these stories about older white men doing really bad things and like reasoning it away as though it's for the greater good when they are just doing it for their ego. I love those stories and I really relate to them because I'm interested in what we are willing to tell ourselves to excuse our own behavior. 
It's not fair that people who look like me don't get to get away with things. It's not fair that we get caught and wound up shot by the cops, I'm sick of it. I think it's damaging because it's such a limited perspective of black people. I really wanted to make a story that was not told through the white gaze, or for the white gaze. I'm trying to make films for myself at the age of 15, and I'm just trying to think about what would have been the ball for me because being a teenager is hard.
First, being completely honest as I aim to be in these posts, my brain found the phrase “not for the white gaze” and was immediately satisfied. Oh, I thought, this wasn’t for me. This is like in the 90s when Lauren Hill said her music wasn’t for white people.*

But I really, really liked “The Miseducation of Lauren Hill” (still do) and back then, my feelings were pretty hurt for her to say it wasn’t for me. 

So maybe it’s not like the Lauren Hill thing at all. 

I couldn’t stop thinking about Selah for a couple of days. I too love “The Godfather.” I loved “The Sopranos” right up to that unfortunate series finale. I’ve watched every “Breaking Bad” episode, spin-off, and weird prequel. I don’t mind white men doing terrible things. That’s entertainment!

But Selah didn’t strike me as entertaining. Why can’t I give her the same pass I’ll obviously bestow on Walter White and Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano? Why is a white boy just having a bad day but a black boy is a bad person when they’re doing the same thing?

It actually is because racism.**

There is no difference morally between a young black girl selling party drugs at a prep school and a high school chemistry teacher cooking meth in the New Mexico desert. Actually, while typing that, the meth production seemed a lot worse than the small-time drug trade. The difference is in how society has trained me to view these people. It's trained me to see the old white guy as an authority figure. A guy that's selling meth but is also somehow still an upstanding citizen. I've been conditioned to hold a girl like Selah to a different standard. A standard that gives me the authority to question all of her choices and judge her harshly for them.

‘Selah and the Spades’ was my reminder that I am not a good white person. At least there is no final pronouncement of racially aware goodness I can earn for myself. I was raised in this broken system with all the skewed perceptions that have led white people to believe they deserve more than any other group of people. 

I will always have to think about what motivates my opinions. And sometimes the only plausible answer will be something I’d rather not think about. There is no good/bad binary. Not even for me.

*Lauren Hill actually never said this. If only we’d had Snopes in the 90s!

** In our home, we’ve simplified the answers to all of the ‘why’ questions in life to just two responses: because money and because racism. Not grammatically correct, but surprisingly accurate when you drill any issue down to its root cause.