Posts Tagged ‘M. Night Shyamalan’

Ever since Worldcon, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to questions of race, not just in general terms, but with regard to the SF/F community and my place within it, as both a fan and a writer. I am white: depending on how expansive a mood I’m in and the context of the conversation, I have also been known to describe myself, cheerfully and with humorous intent, as a mongrel, being as how my immediate ancestry (parents, grandparents and great-grandparents) contains a mix of British, Scottish, Irish, German, Nordic and Mediterranean heritage. By birth, I am Australian, but I’d never consider that to be a race, because – well, it’s not, and I detest those movements which seek to define Australian nationalism and identity on the basis of a “shared” anglocentric background.

I grew up reading tales of history, myths and magic from around the world, which in turn fuelled my passion for fantasy – but though the mythology I read came from Asia, the Pacific, the Middle East, South America and Africa as frequently as from Europe, the Mediterranean, Britain or the Nordic countries, that difference in culture never quite translated to a difference in the range of fantasy on offer. Or at least, in nowhere near the same quantities. For every epic fantasy featuring POC characters and a non-medieval setting, there were twenty that didn’t. But because I was white; because we are all, more or less, egocentric creatures, and especially so when we’re young; because it never occurred to me that this was, in fact, a problem, I didn’t notice. I had blonde hair, pale skin and green eyes – why was it weird that the main characters in the books I read all shared a similar colouring? I won’t try and plead ignorance on the grounds that I lived in an entirely white neighbourhood or went to an entirely white school, because neither of those things are even remotely true. That’s not to say that I lived in a vibrant cacophony of cultural diversity, either. It just means that most of the people I knew were white, my family and their extended circle of friends were white, and I didn’t make any attempt to view these facts in the context of a wider culture, or literature, or anything.

I still had thoughts about race, of course. I was – am – opposed to racism, and whenever any sort of racial/cultural argument broke out among my friends, family or classmates, I was firmly situated on the side of diversity. But that’s as far as it went. Beyond asserting that racism was bad, acknowledging that a terrible history of white domination had caused this to be so and arguing that further instances of same should not be allowed to happen, I did nothing, because nothing in my daily life suggested it was necessary. I had never personally seen anyone being discriminated against on the basis of race or ethnicity, and unless you count the offhand tactlessness of teenagers mimicking the views of talkback radio or apeing¬†Family Guy jokes for comic effect, I had never been exposed to actual racist views in my social circle. What was there left for me to do? Everyone knew racism was a Bad Thing; the idea that it might still be going on was therefore incompatible with reality. ¬†Sexism, though – that, I could get really mad about, because despite the advent of feminism, I still knew what it felt like to be picked on by boys who didn’t like that I could beat them at cricket. Comparing these two views and noting the discrepancies therein didn’t even register as a concept.

Here is a truth of human existence: we do not see the bias in our favour unless we look for it, and we certainly don’t question our own privilege unless told to do so, because most of the time, we don’t even notice it’s there. The danger of being white and brought up to disdain racism is that you start to believe that not being a racist is simply achieved by asserting your lack of racism. You do not inquire further into the matter: why would you, when the bulk of that narrative makes you the historical villain simply by virtue of your skin colour? Isn’t that what racism is meant to avoid? Shouldn’t racial equality apply equally to you, too?¬†Isn’t it enough that you can walk down the street, being white and not feeling superior about it?

No.

No.

No.

I am not a perfect human being. I can acknowledge now – as I used not to be able to – that I sometimes have racist thoughts. They are lightning flashes, there and gone: the fear-whispers of the radio man, stored in memory like song lyrics and brought forth by triggers in the surrounding world. They are subconscious assumptions that I have to force myself to notice. They are subtle, and varied, and every time I catch myself in the act, I wince and think, Where did that come from? Why is it there, and how can I stamp it out? It makes me feel like a terrible person, but by acknowledging them, I force myself to realise that not being racist is more than just thinking, I am not racist, therefore I cannot possibly have racist thoughts, which is the most dangerous default of all.

A personal tipping point was ¬†M. Night Shyamalan’s¬†Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the racefail controversy which surrounded it. Not having seen the animated series, and being one of the minority who tends to like Shyamalan’s work, I reviewed the film in a fashion which was, overall, positive. But in doing so, I had to think about race more closely than I ever had before. What it boiled down to was this: I enjoyed watching the film, and did not like the idea that the reason I’d done so was an innate lack of racial sensitivity. Undeniably, the racefail issue was there, and a fascinating one to discuss – I’d known about it long before heading into the cinema. So what did it say about me, that I could still like something I knew was an act of whitewashing? I wrestled with that question for months after I wrote my review. I tried to find a way to reconcile my enjoyment with the film’s failings in a way that didn’t make me feel like a despicable person, and couldn’t. At the same time, I started watching the animated series, which – apart from being a million times better – showed me how the characters were meant to look. And that’s when it hit me: the real reason I hadn’t been outraged by the film was the expectation – the assumption – that characters in stories would¬†look like me. Without having seen the series, I had no expectations for the actors, and was therefore content to fall back on a default social setting. But ever since I finished watching the series, I look at stills from the film and think, wrong.

Since then, I’ve come to realise – or to remember, rather – that it’s perfectly possible to like some aspects of a story, but not all, and to argue vehemently against what distresses us for the sake of making the good things¬†even better by the future absence of suck. Just yesterday, I finished reading The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, and though I love his easy writing style and the imaginative storytelling, every piece of era-centric sexist, racist commentary made me want to hurl the book at the wall. Tonight, by contrast, I’ve been reading the blog of the wonderful N. K. Jemisin, whose brilliant novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I devoured late last week. Specifically, I’ve been reading this post on racism, and this post on comforting dystopias, and they are, in tandem, the reason I sat down to blog my own piece tonight. Because what I’m coming to realise is that being white and well-off ¬†is like living in a bubble, and that racism – and sexism, and homophobia, and all those other terrible creeds and isms – are like a raging river on which you float, unaffected. And if none of the river’s attendant perils threaten you personally – if you are not really interested in what goes on beneath your feet – then you will never notice the un-bubbled masses dashed against the rocks; or see the snares which threaten so many others; or worry about a shifting sandbank changing the course of the river; or spare a thought for those who drown, unable to fight the current. And even if you inflate your bubble with a spirit of kinship, love and charity, without that further awareness, you will be a lesser person than might otherwise be the case.

I had so much more I wanted to say, but it’s late now, and doing all those extra thoughts justice would take more energy than I currently possess. Instead, I’ll say this: think about the stories you encounter. Think about the things you don’t question. Ask if believing a thing is the same as embracing it actively. It’s hard to change yourself, true – but less difficult than admitting that you need to change at all.

This last weekend, I went to see Airbender in 3D.

I enjoyed it.

This puts me in a minority.

As a fan of M. Night Shyamalan films, I’m used to being a minority defender of his work. And before you ask, no, I haven’t yet seen the cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender on which this latest film is based, although I am deeply interested in doing so.

Whether or not you like the way Shyamalan constructs his scripts and tells his stories is, right now, a secondary question. Having blogged about his style before, I’ll just add this: he’s not a twist/thriller storyteller, and never has been. No matter how his films are marketed, Shyamalan writes speculative fiction – has always written speculative fiction – and not assessing or even identifying his films as such does them a great disservice. Yes, he sometimes ends up with stilted dialogue, but that’s a small price to pay for characterisation that isn’t conveyed exclusively through the usual methods of American schmaltz, and while his films aren’t traditional three-act narratives, that’s not because they’ve tried to be and failed. Shyamalan is doing something different with Hollywood cinema, and for all people seem to keep missing the point, it’s something I enjoy.

But when it comes to Airbender, there’s another, more important issue to be considered: race.

Let me be clear from the outset: I don’t think turning black characters white is a good idea. Undeniably, racism is part of the Hollywood machine, and it’s something I’d rather change than encourage. For instance: 300 annoyed the everloving shit out of me, because it was basically a film about evil, decadent, heathen Persians being taken down by a bunch of proto-Westerners. Possibly I was occupying the wrong corner of the internets back in 2006, but I don’t remember there being a hell of a lot of controvery over that fact. Instead, everyone was cheering about how faithful an interpretation of the graphic novel it was, and how cool the slow-mo blood looked. Sorry? A racist adaptation of a racist story is still racist. Being faithfully racist is not a state of moral or narrative superiority. And when I say racist, I don’t mean at the very simplistic level of Good White Guys Fighting Bad Brown Guys, which – while relevant to casting, equal opportunities and latent perceptions of race – pays no attention to actual character development, morality and behaviour. No: I mean Xerxes was dripping with gold, acting like God and sitting in a tent with burned, mutilated women who writhed about him like demon succubi, his wars fought by hoardes of unnamed, frequently burned men and his ambush laid with the help of a hunchback whose physical imperfection was stated to be the sole reason for his traitorousness.

Or, another example: the Southron hordes allied with Sauron in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, all of whom are both evil and black. Tolkien might’ve written it that way, and we might be willing to take his own society and upbringing into account when criticising his reasons for doing so, but as with Zac Snyder’s 300, Peter Jackson escaped major criticism – why? Because it was a faithful adaptation. Never mind that the Southron are such minor characters that he could easily have cast them as white or a mix of races without drawing ire from the even the hardcore, everything-must-be-perfect crowd, especially as doing so would be in service to addressing a racist narrative function. Was anyone furious at the number of Uruk-Hai being played by people of colour, either? Evidently not.

And then, of course, we have Avatar. Now: I won’t claim to be the world’s most observant person, especially not when my higher brain functions are being distracted by pretty 3D vistas with dragons in them. It took my husband’s comments outside the cinema for me to realise that yes, all the Na’vi had been played by people of colour, a decision that doesn’t seem unrelated to James Cameron’s desire that their whole race look “exotic“. In terms of narrative, Avatar is basically Disney’s Pocahontas in space – there was some nifty worldbuilding and gorgeous scenery, but the script and characterisation were nothing special. When it comes to the racefail issues of Na’vi casting, however, I don’t recall that anyone was calling for a boycott of the film the way some people are doing with Airbender – possibly because, given Avatar’s massive popularity, it would have been a futile gesture, but also, I suspect, because even while people were offended by the recreation of Noble Savages on a different planet, the insult was seen to be softened by the fact that Privileged White People were still the villains.

A slight segue: does anyone remember the episode of South Park where everyone gets up in arms over whether or not their town flag is racist? The moral of which, to quote neatly from the Wikipedia summary, is that sometimes “perceiving things according to race leads only to further racism“?

Yeah. About that.

Cinema is a visual medium. I want to see actors of all nationalities in my films, and I don’t just want to see them typecast because of their nationalities, either. A surprising recent example of such diversity is, arguably, the first Twilight film, wherein various characters whose race was never mentioned in the series were played by non-white actors. That is a positive trend, and one I want to encourage. But in a recent interview, Airbender star Dev Patel lamented the lack of meaty roles for Asian actors, saying he was “likely to be offered the roles of a terrorist, cab driver and smart geek.” Looked at from this perspective, it is notable that his character in Airbender constitutes the most interesting and well-developed role in the film, driven by the most compelling narrative arc – far more so than the supposed protagonist, Aang, and his offsiders. Shyamalan has said as much in defending the film, and while that defence has been roundly mocked as glib in some quarters, having actually seen the film, it certainly holds up.

Which brings me back to the racefail debates surrounding Avatar and Airbender, and the weird double-standard that seems to have crept into their respective criticisms. James Cameron, who is white, has written, directed and produced a fantasy film where the majority of the villains are played by white actors, except for one who switches sides and fights with the overwhelmingly POC heroes. M. Night Shyamalan, who is Asian, has written, directed and produced a fantasy film where the majority of the villains are played by Asian actors, except for two who switch sides and fight with the mainly white heroes. Nobody has ever suggested that Cameron might be a self-hating white man, and yet that seems to be the implication when criticising Shyamalan. Neither does anyone appear to be interested in the fact that, by reducing both films to the level of Coloured People Versus White People (note the helpful capitalisation, blogsphere!), actors of colour ended up damned regardless of whether they’re playing heroes or villains. The Na’vi are Noble Savage Heroes, which is denigrating to people of colour. The Fire Nation are Devious Warlike Villains, which is denigrating to people of colour.

I’m not saying it’s impossible or irrational to take offence in either instance. Looked at from that perspective, both films are suggestive of Noble Savages and Warlike Villains still being the dominant dichotomy of race in Hollywood cinema. We need to get past those options, and fast.

But! Remember Dev Patel and his request that Asian actors be given meatier roles? Can we all agree that sometimes, meaty roles are straight-up villainous roles, a la Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men? Writing strong parts for people of colour is not the same as always making them the good guys. Neytiri is a thinner character by far than Prince Zuko: for actors looking to expand their skills, being on the side of righteousness doesn’t matter. Compared to the uniformly despicable Persians of 300 or the evil, barbaric Southron of The Return of the King, the Fire Nation of Shyamalan’s Airbender is awash with diversity – not in terms of casting, but in terms of range; much more so, in fact, than are the Na’vi of Cameron’s Avatar, all of whom are somewhat idealised, empty and two-dimensional.

But then, of course, we have the additional charge of whitewashing to lay at Shyamalan’s feet. Why? Because Katara and Sokka, whose characters in the Airbender cartoon are depicted as having blue eyes, brown hair and brown skin, are played by Caucasian actors with blue eyes, brown hair and white skin. Not having seen the original cartoon, I’m not in a position to gauge how representative these characteristics are of the Water Nation as a fictional race; neither am I going to try and pass judgement about which of these features – eyes, hair or skin tone – is most important when casting a real, live actor in place of their animated equivalents. Understandably, it remains the most contentious aspect of Airbender. But in a debate which has ostensibly been about the failure of Hollywood to treat race with respect, I find it ironic that it’s M. Night Shyamalan – and not James Cameron – who’s ended up copping the most abuse.

Bottom line: I don’t appreciate detailed narratives being reduced to simple forms purely so their detractors can pretend they lacked complexity in the first place. Whatever its failings, Airbender deserves a better critical reception than trial by media.

There are two types of people in the cinema-going world: those who like M. Night Shyamalan films, and those who don’t. It’s not an issue on which there’s much, if any, middle ground. With the possible exception of The¬†Sixth Sense, his films, while mainstream releases, have a tendency to polarise in the manner of arthouse flicks: either they’re revelations, or rot.

I used to be one of the unenlightened. Watching Signs on the big screen, I snorted with laughter. The Village left me irritable – what the hell kind of ending was that, anyway? I’d¬†been frightened out of my young life¬†when Haley Joel Osment¬†confessed to seeing dead people, but at that point, I didn’t even realise the films were by the same guy.¬†Had friends not taken me in hand, my opinion might never have changed, but after The Village, they sat me down and asked, in exacting tones, exactly why I was disappointed.

After twenty-odd minutes of flustered debating, we hit upon the crux of my frustrations, viz: the film had been marketed as horror. Although the first half of the narrative fit this pattern, the character relations, plot twist and conclusion took an entirely different turn, which lead me to believe that the whole was a botched attempt. So, my friends asked. Was the problem with the film, or just with what you thought it was meant to be?

I opened my mouth, closed it again, and thought back. I’d gone in expecting to see a horror film, and so had watched for narrative markers appropriate to the genre. They’d been there early on, but then vanished entirely, which left the possibility that I’d been actively misinterpreting the film, imposing my own assumptions on how it should work, and judging it wanting. It was a strange realisation, but the more I¬†considered it, the more¬†it made sense. Hadn’t I thought the same thing about Signs? It was as if I – and, for that matter, Hollywood – had been looking for The Sixth Sense in every subsequent Shyamalan film,¬†when they weren’t really horror at all.

With Lady in the Water, I made a conscious effort to¬†ignore the marketing and test my hypothesis: to watch with no expectations and an open mind.¬†Might I¬†see something I’d missed before?

I¬†could, and did. Near the end, I realised what should’ve been obvious all along: Shyamalan’s films are always about people. The pseudo-horror setting is simply his preferred vehicle for storytelling, a background mechanism designed to threaten, not the audience, but his characters. Thus menaced, the point of their reaction isn’t fright, but inter-development: how they draw together, and how they mend. Because healing, faith and self-acceptance are big themes in Shyamalan’s work. In both The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable,¬†supernaturally gifted¬†protagonists come to terms with their powers, not in order to save the world, but to help the people in it. Quietly and with inner strength, the heroes of Signs and Lady in the Water regain¬†their faith, two broken widowers made whole. And in The Village,¬†a community of emotionally¬†scarred people are forced to confront their injuries by the actions of three who are physically wounded: a dying man, a blind girl and her mad brother.

The subtlety of Shyamalan films simultaneously acts as their blessing and curse. Early scenes deliberately set up the false horror that, inevitably, constitutes their sales pitch, but the plots become introverted. It is as if the film is a train travelling towards a junction: the audience expects to travel one way, and instead is taken another. What we protest is a percieved error Рturn back, turn back! Рwhen, in fact, our course was planned from the outset.

Except for The Sixth Sense, which he didn’t produce,¬†and Wide Awake, which he neither produced nor appeared in, Shyamalan has, at 37, written, produced, directed and appeared in all his films. Given the excellent characterisation,¬†scripting, cinematography and production values, it’s hard not to be impressed. But more impressive still are the moments of beauty and revelation which¬†characterise his work: the idea that even though we are all flawed, we can¬†fix ourselves.