Racebending Toward Justice

I’m writing a new column for The Loop21*, and the first piece is about remakes that switch characters’ races from white to black, among them Chris Rock’s foreign-film remakes, Will Smith’s adaptations of classic children’s movies as vehicles for his kids, and Clint Eastwood’s A Star is Born. Of these, I tend of find Rock’s remakes the most interesting. It’s not so much that they’re good movies, as the specific way they work on race:

“I Think I Love My Wife” is careful to demonstrate that cheating isn’t the only kind of behavior that transcends race: In one scene, a white teenager shows up in the elevator rapping the same song that a black teenager disrupted the morning quiet with earlier. And a bourgie black dinner foursome and a Japanese executive repeat the same concern about Michael Jackson: “I don’t care about “Thriller”. What kind of grown men has kids sleeping in his bed?”

White elevator passengers and Japanese corporate titans may not have to worry that an overenthusiastic music fan or a troubled pop star reflect badly on them, but we can all shake our heads at the same foolishness.

And while the sibling rivalries in “Death at a Funeral” are as old as Cain and Abel — and as persistent — there’s an additional layer of processing when Rock and Martin’s characters find out that not only is their father gay, but that he was having an affair with a man with dwarfism. They have to reconcile those challenges, and the fact that their father’s gay-dwarf lover was white.

The thing that I think is really interesting about racebending is less that it happens than the casualness with which characters are switched from people of color to white, and the general deliberateness that accompanies a switch in the opposite direction. Hollywood, it seems, never needs a justification as to why a character should be white.


*If anyone out there’s interested in race, politics, and culture, and is looking to break in to writing about things, The Loop21’s hiring writing fellows right now. It’s a great new set of editors over there, so definitely worth checking out.