Open wounds 

'Misery Chic' and other ways race informed the arts in 2006

Editor's note: This year, more than others it seems, race and prejudice permeated our national dialogue from politics all the way down to a night at the movies. CL critics Felicia Feaster and Curt Holman provided their own dialogue on the subject.

Felicia Feaster: Race, specifically blackness, has never been more of an obsession of Western entertainment and life. Every white kid in America is enthralled with hip-hop and all its bling accoutrements. AIDS in Africa has become a huge cause for people from Bono to Iman, and George Clooney has used his celebrity to make dealing with the nightmare of Darfur a priority. Madonna and Angelina Jolie are having varying success adopting African babies. The New York Times Magazine even coined a term for this Afro-trendiness: "Misery Chic." Africa seems to have become the Selma of 2006, the place where people make their stand and speak out about injustice and racism. What's your take on how race emerged as a theme of popular culture this year?

Curt Holman: If we can equate racial themes with ones involving anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, I think it's one of the defining subjects I've seen in 2006, across artistic disciplines. Clearly racism remains, in effect, an open wound in this country, and I think that the mini-scandals involving Michael Richards, Mel Gibson and Virginia U.S. Sen. George "Macaca" Allen reinforce this. Race and prejudice can be extremely difficult to talk about in everyday life, and I think the arts have done extremely well at airing matters that otherwise go unspoken.

My strongest examples probably come from Atlanta theater, and nearly every major playhouse staged at least one provocative play about race -- some of them more.

One play I saw this year, Permanent Collection at Horizon Theatre, involved a controversy that erupted over whether a collection of impressionist art should be changed to include African artworks, which creates an impossible conflict over themes of racial inclusion. There's a scene in which the African-American main character says to his white antagonist something to the effect of, "I promised myself I wouldn't have this conversation again with a white person." Then he proceeds to lay out some of the things that black people find offensive, which white people usually don't bother to even consider.

It's like a serious treatment of the awkwardness that NBC's "The Office" uses for humor. To me, art provides a kind of "safe zone" for those kinds of issues, which can be so explosive elsewhere.

Feaster: Permanent Collection was such a smart treatment of the undercurrent of racial tension that black people are attuned to and white people seem oblivious to. It was a great example of art as a way to deal with race in an enlightening, progressive, nuanced way. There were certainly plenty of visual-art exhibitions this year, including one at the Atlanta Photography Group gallery about the horrifying conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Forgotten War, and several dealing with the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, which showed the ability of art to speak about race in an immediate and focused way.

Newspaper articles and TV shows about race seem so often to enrage and horrify, and art or the theater provide an opportunity to sit silently and imagine another point of view, which is really the crux of art.

Holman: Something that also struck me, though, was that two excellent plays -- Jelly's Last Jam at the Alliance Theatre and Yellowman at Theatre in the Square's Alley Stage -- focused primarily on issues of black-on-black racism. They're both extraordinary works, but they also made me wonder if it's "safer" to focus on black-on-black hostility, even though white racism indirectly feeds it.

Feaster: I wish some of the more critically acclaimed films of the year had had the sophistication to tackle a topic as subtle as black-on-black racism. I felt like I kept seeing films -- made by white directors trying desperately to be politically aware and topical -- that just used race as a gloss of "importance" on questionable material. I felt like the visual arts in Atlanta this year were better at dealing with race than the films I saw, except for certain documentaries such as Darwin's Nightmare and Black Gold about poverty in Africa.

For me, many movies that dealt with race and politics ended up just reinforcing old stereotypes. There was The Last King of Scotland, which suggested audiences would only be interested in the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin if we had a white character to identify with. The Last King of Scotland felt like a horror film set in Africa, and Blood Diamond essentially is an action film with a self-serving political consciousness.

Is race really a concern of these filmmakers, or just an exciting background that gives their films an instant credibility as "important"?

Holman: I agree with you about the way Blood Diamond uses a big-name star (Leonardo DiCaprio) as an audience-friendly "entry point" to the story about Africa, and builds to heavy-handed images of racial cooperation, along the lines of The Defiant Ones. In The Last King of Scotland, however, I thought that the Scottish doctor provided an effective "outsider" point of view of both the charismatic character of Idi Amin and then the horrors of Uganda under his government. Plus, the doctor character's complicity with the Amin regime becomes a metaphor (albeit an awkward one) for white/Western indifference to black/African problems. Still, I got a much richer perspective on African problems from -- not surprisingly -- the documentaries I saw at the Pan African Film Festival.

I wouldn't necessarily question the sincerity of some white filmmakers regarding race. Freedomland had serious intentions but a spotty execution. Dreamgirls obviously is foremost a musical, but it includes some intriguing subtext about African-American assimilation into mainstream culture. Even good mainstream films seem reluctant to address racial problems as directly as other arts, from the indie mockumentary CSA: The Confederate States of America to 7 Stages' play Come On In My Kitchen to the fourth season of HBO's "The Wire," which featured a devastating indictment of the inner-city educational system.

Feaster: I wish I could be that optimistic about The Last King of Scotland. To me it suggested the filmmaker's response to Africa was "Flee, while you still can!" I thought Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke -- another documentary -- did a remarkable job of showing the layers of injustice and cruelty, resentment, fear and rage that underpin race relations in America and how an incident such as Hurricane Katrina brings those issues to the fore.

I actually thought one of the most interesting statements about race in America was a film that didn't even really discuss it. The Pursuit of Happyness shows an ambitious but financially and educationally limited black man played by Will Smith who through sheer will and determination rises through the ranks of an apparently color-blind white corporate America. The film is a consummately American success story, made (oddly enough) by an Italian director, Gabriele Muccino. Maybe, though, that is the most visible sign of progress for Hollywood: When we don't always have to make race an issue and just make films with strong, interesting central characters who are black or Asian or Jewish or Arabic. We don't have to fetishize their race and acknowledge that black people are fathers and mothers and working class and yuppie and hard workers and as anxious for the American dream as any Tom Hanks or Jimmy Stewart character.

In Inside Man, I thought Spike Lee did a great job of forging another variation on this Everyman black hero. Spike Lee remains to me, on the evidence this year of both Inside Man and When the Levees Broke, probably the best American director at showing how race remains one of the definitive themes of American life.

Holman: I'd also like to point out two works involving anti-Semitism that might represent the differences between film and more substantive arts. Jewish Theatre of the South's production of Donald Margulies' Brooklyn Boy involves a Jewish novelist responding to charges of being a "self-hating Jew." It's a genuinely introspective and challenging work about issues of cultural authenticity. A more exaggerated portrait of anti-Semitism -- a mallet compared with Brooklyn Boy's scalpel -- came from another Jewish artist, Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat, which offers cartoonish, hilarious portraits of bigotry in the name of ridiculing its ignorance.

Feaster: I think one of the funniest things I have seen recently were the video pieces by a New York-based black artist, Kalup Linzy, at Romo Gallery in which Linzy performs in drag, adopting a variety of personas, gay and straight, male and female. Work like that, with so much outlandish humor, reminded me that we have put what black "means" into such a small box. I thought Stan Woodard's installation at Spruill Gallery, in which he projected a variety of famous African-Americans' photos onto the gallery wall to talk about American history from a black point of view, was also important to reflect that diversity. I liked that Atlanta artist Cinque Hicks launched an online zine, Code Z, and a show at Eyedrum, The Carbonist School -- both devoted to smart, diverse contemporary art and culture. Visual-arts exhibitions in Atlanta this year made it clear that race could be treated in terms far more mysterious, smart, provocative and hip than in other realms. I have a lot of faith that the next generation of artists -- and young people in general -- is going to handle race better.


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