I was at a writing retreat once where a bunch of us gathered together to talk about how to write well about social justice issues in our world. A young singer-songwriter with a folksy vibe came and played a set for us. He introduced a song as inspired by how sad he was at the racial divide of the city, and how it seemed that white folks and blacks folks didn’t get along. He launched into a song, the chorus going something like this: we used to sing so beautifully together/perhaps one day we’ll sing together again.
Christians are guilty of rushing along discussions of race, hurrying towards the feel-good conclusions, the proclamations of unity in Christ. After he was done singing, one of my fellow writers—the only black man in our cohort, who also happened to live in North Carolina—asked the singer-songwriter to elaborate on the interactions that inspired the song. The singer stumbled over his words and told a few stories of interacting with African-American folks who to his perception seemed less-than-friendly to white folks. We all sat quietly as he shared his perspective, and later debriefed about that particular song. Why did it make us all feel so uncomfortable? Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, the leader of our group (a man who has been involved in racial reconciliation work for decades now) leaned forward and in his southern drawl poignantly identified the trouble. What I want to know is this: and just when, exactly, did we ever all sing together?
This one question exposed our troubled history in the church—how African-Americans were made to sing in the balconies of churches, or in separate buildings, or forced to start their own denominations in our very recent past—and how often we long to forget that these uncomfortable histories should have any bearing on our present. It showed the fundamental flaw in the perspective of that singer-songwriter, how he was unable to engage in the systems that have produced relational and economic divides in our country. It also proved how uncomfortable it can be to watch white folks struggle with race, especially if they are only committed to engaging on superficial, feel-good levels.
The recent release starring Kevin Costner, Black or White, is uncomfortable in the exact same way. Ostensibly this is a movie which dares to look at race issues: Costner is a white grandfather parenting his bi-racial granddaughter who becomes entangled in a custody battle by the black father and his extended family. By turns a tragedy, a comedy, a courtroom drama, with a dash of heart-warming family film. Costner plays Elliot Anderson, a wealthy alcoholic lawyer reeling from the sudden death of his wife. Octavia Spencer plays Rowena, the paternal grandmother of Eloise, the girl in Elliot’s sole care. Rowena (Grandma “Wee Wee”) and the extended family she takes care of live in Compton; Elliot lives somewhere else—a better part of LA, we shall say. Rowena and the family want to see more of Eloise but Elliot resists. In exasperation, they retain Rowena’s younger brother, a lawyer, to sue Elliot for full custody of the child. Reggie, the birth dad, shows up halfway through the movie, adding emotional intrigue. The audience is left wondering at the motivations of Reggie, who is introduced as a crack-addict and absentee father (“you’re a stereotype, Reggie—you ruin it for all of us”—his uncle tells him).
The themes explored are certainly worthy of a full-length movie. Eloise and her biracial identity, the way economics affects both parenting and legal procedures, the stereotypes we put onto one another, how certain addictions are more culturally acceptable—these are all fascinating and could prove to be invaluable insights into the pulse of a nation that is currently struggling with racial injustice and unrest. But Black or White addresses all of these issues in both a superficial and strangely maudlin way—so much emotion, but so little truth behind it.
Black or White is not just the work of a white man being uncomfortable with race—it is also a look at how badly we want things to be better, and how quickly we want results. That the movie is centered on the perspective of Elliot, focusing on his grief and his relationship with his granddaughter, his addictions and low-lying anger issues, is no accident. We prefer to view the “problem” of race relations through the frustrated gaze of older white men.
For example: in the penultimate courtroom scene, the prosecutor asks him if he suffers from racial prejudice. In the ensuing monologue, Elliot makes the case for why he is not racist—without ever using those terms. Indeed, the question itself seems to be the most offensive part, the idea of the mythical “race card” hovering under his every word. He admits that he can’t help but notice the color of someone’s skin (much like he can’t help but notice the breasts on a woman)—but that doesn’t make him a racist. What matters, he intones, is what he does with his second and third thought. And he prides himself on judging people on their character, by their actions. Reggie, the father of his granddaughter, just happens to be a moral degenerate—a crack-smoking absentee dad always looking for a payout, who also happens to be black.
The prosecutor brings up an incident that occurs earlier in the movie, when Elliot tells Reggie to “stop acting like a street nigger.” Elliot, somewhat ashamed, admits to using the term, and apologizes to the horrified courtroom. However, he says, that is how Reggie repeatedly refers to himself, which caused it to get stuck in his brain. After court, talking to his lawyer friend, Elliot bemoans how badly he did on the stand. “No man,” his friend says, “you were the most articulate Klan member they ever heard.”
Of course, the point is that Elliot isn’t a Klan member—he isn’t a white supremacist, he doesn’t struggle more than anyone else with racial prejudice—he’s just a white man trying to come to terms with how things got so out of hand. But by choosing to focus on the views and beliefs of Elliot, Black or White only portrays issues of race through the majority perspective. While I can only assume the director meant to be both cutting-edge and honest, the end result is a movie about a man trying to convince everyone that racism is not at play in his life—nor in anyone else’s. Humans are humans, seems to be the message of the movie (indeed, #Loveiscolorblind is one of the hashtags of the movie). We all have our problems, we all like to be with people who look and act just like us, we all have our addictions (indeed, Elliot’s alcohol abuse and Reggie’s crack-smoking are juxtaposed in a particularly heavy-handed scene). We are all the same.
Except, that is not quite the truth. The truth is that Elliot is the winner in the end—the one who walks away with full custody, overcoming his addiction by sheer force of will (and not experiencing any legal repercussions), being the one to extend forgiveness and relationship to his granddaughter’s paternal family. Reggie, in a fit of remorse, stands up in court and declares that everything Elliot said about him was true. He says that he is unfit to be a father, that he is planning on taking some time to get himself straightened out, and he withdraws his case. Finally, finally, everyone starts to get along.
In the film, Eloise draws of herself standing in-between her grandfather and her father, holding their hands. It is a picture of what we all truly, deep-down want in our hearts. We want to be connected. We want to overcome the barriers that have been erected between us. We want to hold hands across color and socio-economic lines. We want to say that there is not much difference between Compton and the wealthy suburbs of LA, we want to say Elliot was just the better choice for Eloise than the larger, extended family of Grandma Wee Wee.
But it is a lazy image, lazy storytelling, a lazy song that we have been singing for far too long. What are the conditions that have led to racially segregated neighborhoods? Why are some addictions so prevalent in certain communities (and prosecuted at a much higher rate)? Why does the legal system prefer the privileged and wealthy, when it is supposed to be both color and class blind? And why do we so often want to pretend that we all start off on the same footing, and some of us just make better choices?
Let’s move on from the race conversation. This is something I hear white people say, see them type it in the comments section. Christians especially are guilty of this, rushing along the discussions, hurrying towards the feel-good conclusions, the proclamations of unity in Christ. Isn’t it time to move forward?
Isn’t it time for us to all start singing together again?
But when, exactly, did we ever sing together in the first place?