USA Today found itself the subject of the news this weekend thanks to an unfortunate headline on a story about the weekend movie box office. “’Holiday’ Nearly Beat ‘Thor’ as Race-Themed Films Soar,” read the tagline on a story about The Best Man Holiday, the follow-up to the 1999 movie The Best Man. In a marketplace where African-American audiences are dramatically underserved, it’s amazing that analysts are still surprised when romantic comedies and family dramas with African-American casts perform well.
But even more telling was the idea, implicit in the headline if not in the piece itself, that a movie with a non-white cast must necessarily have race as its primary subject. By extension, the suggestion is that the lives of people of color are inflected first, and perhaps only, by race, rather than by gender, sexual orientation, class, love, ambition, jealousy, rage, or even pure, manic-pixie spontaneity. And the idea that culture about characters of color is necessarily about race also creates the assumption that stories about white characters are inherently deracinated. Some white people, like Jews, are exempt from this, and the recent spike in Boston movies has put more Irish-American characters and Irish-American humor to the fore. But for the most part, the experiences of white characters are treated like they’re neutral, rather than representative of their whole race, or revealing in some ways of the pathologies and problems of various subsets of white America.
In other words, I’m not against seeing movies as “race-themed.” But if we’re going to talk about movies that are about race, we ought to be much more willing to recognize the racial texts and subtexts of movies about white characters. And we need to be better able to distinguish the ways in which The Best Man Holiday, a snap-shot of the lives of contemporary, affluent African-American professionals, has race and class as its subtext, and the ways in which historical pictures like 12 Years A Slave and The Butler have race relations in America as their primary subject. So with all of that in mind, if The Best Man Holiday is a “race-themed” movie, so are these ten other movies released in 2013:
1. Blue Jasmine: Woody Allen’s latest, which follows Cate Blanchett as the widow of a man she believed was a wealthy financier, but who actually turned out to be a Ponzi schemer, is a study in the ways in which the performance of whiteness are inflicted by class. Jasmine (Blanchett) left college to marry her late husband (Alec Baldwin), and never developed her professional or practical skills during her years married to him. After his death in prison, and the seizure of their assets by the government, Jasmine’s forced to go live with the adopted sister (Sally Hawkins), who she’s always looked down on as poor and tacky, and to reckon with her sister’s boyfriend (Bobby Canavale), who works blue-collar jobs and likes boxing. The movie’s wickedly sharp about the ways in which the things Jasmine thought rendered her purer and more sophisticated than her sister have rendered her humiliatingly unable to care for herself. And Blue Jasmine is scathing about the grotesquerie of the idea that having to work is somehow demeaning.
2. The Heat: Paul Feig’s buddy-cop comedy is set in Boston, and in Boston Police Department Detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) and her extended family, Feig has endless opportunities to riff on the very particular culture of Boston Irish-American families. It’s a milieu, in Feig’s reading, that demands a strong code of loyalty, even in the face of minor criminality, a very particular sense of who qualifies as family, and a reverential attitude towards paintings on velvet of Jesus helping various Boston sports teams to victory. A great deal of the comedy of the movie comes from how confused and overwhelmed Agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) is not just by the vicious drug gang she’s trying to infiltrate, but by her new partner’s family.
3. The Bling Ring: Based on the real-life story of a group of California teenagers who began stealing clothes, handbags, and jewelry from celebrities’ often less-than-closely-guarded homes, Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring is substantially about the ways that white (and Asian) people view black culture as a symbol of affluence. As her characters dance to hip-hop in the clubs where they parade their illicitly-acquired finery, and blast rap in their cars on the way to and from their heists, Coppola lets their posing speak volumes about the intersections they perceive between race and class, and their attempts to appropriate cultural cachet that isn’t available to them as the children of middle-class and affluent Hollywood operators.
4. Don Jon: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s debut as a screenwriter and director follows the misadventures of Jon (Gordon-Levitt), who is simultaneously an Italian-American bartender, a regular Catholic church-goer, and a porn addict. As Don Jon follows him through his highly-regimented routine, which includes negotiating with his priest over his penance for porn consumption and extra-marital sex, and raucous dinners with his family where his mother badgers him to get married, one of the movie’s virtues is the way it demonstrates how Italian-American traditions persist and interact with the conventions of modern life. Like everything else in Don Jon, the glimpses of ethnic life are turned up to eleven, but that doesn’t mean the movie isn’t perceptive about the compromises young white people who want to honor their roots but enjoy the pleasures, sinful and otherwise, of contemporary life make all the time.
5. Pacific Rim: One of the most powerful tropes of apocalypse and alien-invasion movies is the idea that, when presented with a totally unfamiliar other as an option, humanity will band together across racial lines–even in places with historical divides as deep as South Africa, which was the conceit behind Neill Blomkamp’s District Nine. This year, we got a couple of movies based on the same concept, among them Guillermo del Toro’s kaiju movie Pacific Rim and Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game. In both cases, multi-racial groups of human team up to fight invading alien species, putting aside historical differences on the grounds that humans of different origins have more in common than humans and kaiju or Formics. And in both cases, these diverse groups of characters show no real compunction about absolutely wiping out the invading forms of life, nuking the kaiju homeworld and convincing a group of small children to commit xenocide against the Formics.
6. Star Trek: Into Darkness: Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan may look delectably human, but he’s a genetically-engineered superbeing who believes that his intelligence and strength, not to mention the persecution he’s suffered at human hands, entitles him to dominance. If Pacific Rim and Ender’s Game are about how quickly humans will put aside their animosities to destroy a species that doesn’t look like them, Star Trek: Into Darkness asks how far we’re willing to trust people just because they look like us, particularly when they look like privileged, physically perfected versions of us. The movie isn’t nearly as perceptive as the alternate-universe Star Trek story on which it’s based, The Wrath of Khan, but it’s about otherness and who we give our trust to as much as it is about drones and extrajudicial killings.
7. Pain and Gain: Much smarter than it got credit for, Michael Bay’s hilarious, savage actioner about Miami bodybuilders who decide to rob a local businessman who turns out to be corrupt, has all sorts of insights into what constitutes the American dream. Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg), the main character, believes that because he’s worked hard, particularly at fitness, the laws of American economics should have rewarded him with fabulous wealth. Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) has no such expectations of automatic largesse, but he does see the windfall of the robbery as a chance to undo the damage steroids have wrought to his body, an an opportunity to woo a working-class white woman with an enormous sexual appetite, played by Rebel Wilson. And Dwayne Johnson plays an ex-con whose prospects for employment have been diminished by his time in jail. Pain and Gain is bright, loud, and profoundly unsubtle, but it has more to say about how race, class, and prison inflect our faith in the promise of America than almost any other movie this year.
8. Admission: This partnership of Tina Fey and Paul Rudd should have been much funnier and more sharply satirical than it actually was, given that Fey’s character, Portia Nathan, is a Princeton admissions officer. But as Portia struggles with the possibility that she might have reconnected with the son she put up for adoption, and wrestles with the question of whether she ought to pull strings to get the boy, Jeremiah, who is bright but scattered, into Princeton, Admission does some very funny things with the way race is both minimized and played up in the college admissions process.
9. The Great Gatsby: In its juxtaposition of old money to new money, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s linking of new money to Jewish criminality, The Great Gatsby is all about whiteness and status, and what kind of privilege and acceptance money can or can’t buy. Baz Luhrmann’s decision to cast Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan as Jewish criminal Meyer Wolfsheim plays up the extent to which Gatsby’s ambitions and his means are in tension. Gatsby’s trying to build the fortune that will let him be accepted as part of white, East Coast society, and that lets him throw parties where people of color are the exotic entertainment, through his affiliation with a man who, in the time the film and book are set, is considered even less white and assimilated than Jews are today.
10. The East: The white guilt movie of the year. Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling’s second collaboration, The East follows members of a radical underground cell, all of whom have been or perceive themselves to be, the victims of corporate power as they carry out operations they refer to as “jams.” The movie is smart enough to recognize that some of the characters’ political stances are really cover for deep emotional wounds they can’t bring themselves to address directly, and that one of the leaders of the cell is something of a sociopath. That honesty makes The East a fascinating if imperfect exploration of what it means to have privilege and to abandon it, and the ways that whiteness can serve as cover for radicals.