Thursday, 1 December 2011

A Shameful Situation


While watching Roland Emmerich's latest film Anonymous, the first thing that hits you is just how atypical it is. Emmerich may not be known for helming revisionist prestige pictures but his handling of this particular Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare's authorship is a world away from the movies he's best known for.

You see, Emmerich makes overblown spectacles costing hundreds of millions of dollars to produce. He makes movies in which stuff gets blown up and things are thrown at the screen. It's the kind of cinema the entire world flocks to, especially boisterous young men.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Roland Emmerich's output has less to do with his films and more to do with who he is. Emmerich is an openly gay filmmaker, yet his movies appeal to the most homophobic heartlands of America. The guy knows what fanboys respond best to and he creates movies catering to their tastes. If anything, Emmerich is a filmmaker who comes from a minority community but makes films for the masses. His sexuality is overlooked because he creates entertainment that generates serious revenue. Working in an industry where profit is everything, Emmerich is a bonafide money-maker.

Emmerich's sexuality could be an issue to some patrons but as long as he doesn't imbue his material with detectable homoerotic undertones, both audiences and financiers are cool with such an arrangement. I suppose the same principal applies to all jobbing filmmakers, but it's questionable whether race plays a more detrimental role in such a situation.

British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen is a hulking big black guy from London. Unlike the usual effete privately educated toffs that work as directors in the British film industry, McQueen is a different thing. He went to an ordinary comprehensive school and was raised in an average Afro-Carrabin family. His main passion in life was football but his creative talents set him on a different path altogether. After graduating from art school, McQueen got into experimental filmmaking which has led him to make two award-winning movies.

McQueen's latest film Shame has sparked equal amount of praise and controversy on account of its exploration of sexual addiction. Much like his previous film Hunger, a dramatisation of the 1981 Irish hunger strike, Shame also stars Michael Fassbender and deals with the existential plight of Caucasian people dealing with psychologically extreme predicaments.

McQueen is a proud British black man but his art is not limited to that. He wants to tell stories that transcend race, culture and geography. But one can argue that someone like McQueen has a moral responsibility to champion the position of minority groups in Britain when it comes to opportunities for making films.

The video below is taken from an interview McQueen gave to the Hollywood Reporter where he, along with some other leading directors tipped for awards' recognition in 2011, talks about the nature of filmmaking in today's industry. McQueen addresses the lamentable lack of recognition and opportunities black people encounter in a largely unrepresentative American film industry. The inevitable question about race puts his peers on edge, but McQueen admirably admonishes a deeply unfair system that fails to include the wide range diverse social experiences that constitute modern America.



Shame may be a film that is set in New York, but it was made by a British team and stars British actors playing American characters. Whether it's a British or American film is up for question, but McQueen really should look closer to home before he rebukes the discriminate nature of current US cinema.

Britain is a real mixture of people. It's a rampantly multicultural country, yet if you watch most British cinema or television then you'll find that the lack of opportunities McQueen is berating America for is even worse here in Britain.

British cinema has been steeped in an obsession with its history and antiquated ideals. The most exportable properties coming from the UK tend to be period pictures set in the world of Austen, Brontë, royalty and pre-war history. Everything from Downton Abbey to The King's Speech is a product of this formula of filmmaking and Britain has done extremely well out of it. The international market responds favourably to such material and it makes enough money to justify its existence. These films and programmes sell around the world and, in turn, enable Britain to have a successful home industry.

The big question for me is if this tradition of geriatric coffee-table filmmaking actually providing an authentic picture of modern Britain? It is understandable why in period pictures they don't hire ethnic actors, principally on grounds of verisimilitude, but that risks actors of colour facing limited opportunities. In that sense, Britain's preoccupation with period cinema is actually suppressing opportunity, not enhancing it.

It's very important to have a UK film director like Steve McQueen. If anything, McQueen's presence in the British film industry is symbolic of its potential plurality. One has to celebrate the actuality that a black filmmaker like McQueen is afforded the opportunity to make films about non-black people, yet still project his unique style and sensibilities through the art he creates. This is the reverse of say Spike Lee who took 15-years before he was given the chance to make a film that wasn't exclusively about African-American characters (Summer of Sam). Perhaps in that sense Britain is ahead of America as it hires the best artists to tell a story regardless of ethnicity.

But if that's the case then why are there not more black directors like McQueen working in the British film industry? Why haven't more ethnically diverse writers and artists gone to the top of producers' wishlists?

You can argue that it has everything to do with opportunities and as long as Britain remains locked its creatively myopic mindset then black people will not get the necessary chances to make their mark on British cinema.


Going back to the Hollywood Reporter video, it's noticeable how sheepish American filmmakers are when it comes to answering why their movies never tell stories other than the experiences of white middle-class America. That's a shame because a capable filmmaker should always want to be challenged and take on material that is not necessarily in their comfort zone. For example, although Alexander Payne's The Descendants is a film adaptation of a book, surely there are equally good novels dealing with similar themes in contemporary African-American literature. If not, then the impetus should be on the filmmaker to perhaps think outside of the box and try something different with the source material. (For example, in 1936 Orson Wells directed a stage version of Hamlet with an entirely African-American cast. It was rapturously well-received and rethought Shakespeare in totally groundbreaking ways.) A similar argument can be applied to original story ideas like Jason Reitman's Young Adult, a comedy about a 30-something woman struggling to get to grips with adulthood, which could have easily been reworked with an African-American protagonist in the lead role.

Likewise, McQueen's Shame deals with a white man's nymphomania, but there are novels like Zane's Addicted that have told the experience of sexual addiction from the point of view of an African-American character. If McQueen was seriously committed to furthering back representations then couldn't he have adapted that story into a film? Then again, film distributors are more focused on content that speaks the largest audience base, thus movies with a multiethnic perspective are less likely to secure widespread distribution.

This is a seriously complex area of debate and I may have bitten off more than I can chew. True filmmakers are visionaries, not conformists. McQueen, Payne, Reitman et al will never make a story just to please a specific demographic if the narrative doesn't require it.

There are many different voices coming out of Britain and America. All filmmakers, regardless of their backgrounds, have a responsibility to push boundaries and create work that depicts the gauntlet of experiences occurring in a multicultural society.

If that's the case then one can argue that you can't get more radical than an average black guy from London directing a film about a privileged white American man's addiction to shagging.

15 comments:

  1. I;'ve never noticed homoerotic tones in Emmerich's films, I must check that one out :)

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  2. You've made me think now and I was a little confused but I want to see Shame now which is a good thing...right?

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  3. Sooo intriguing. It's really neat to read more about the people behind this as well ;)

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  4. Emmerich's films aren't always the greatest, but lots I never knew, insightful indeed.

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  5. I completely agree about Emmerich. He really surprised me with Anonymous.

    I continue to be surprised with McQueen. First Hunger, now Shame. What a brilliant, gutsy, director. I can't wait to see it.

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  7. Very provocative and I find myself agreeing with you. I did love Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur, it was radical to have an African American director tackling a huge white character as well as the Hughes brothers doing Jack the Ripper in From Hell. America had a good thing going in the early 90's with films like Menace II Society and Boys In The Hood, bursting onto the scene and bringing in a different perspective other than white middle class teens that were so popular in the 80's.

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  8. This was an interesting post about these filmmakers. I've seen Emmerich's films, but haven't had a chance to watch McQueen's. Now I'd like to see his movies. The points you make are food for thought.

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  9. Yes, I agree. But in the film Michael Fassbender has a "affair" with a black girl. They go to dinner etc... Honestly I glad Michael Fassbender took the role,... was right for both. and is not about just leading roles, but also put some black,asian and latino people. Like Steve Mcqueen said, sometimes they dont even cast a minority... this is shameful more than leading roles I guess...

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  10. Also I think was the perfect role for Charlize Theron in Young Adult. I dont think would work with some black,latino or asian actress. I think only worked so well because Charlize was a kind of beautiful blonde bitchy when she was young in the film.

    sorry my english..

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  11. When are you going to do us all a favor and write a book? Seriously. I'm always amazed at how much you know about the film industry. And you have the writing chops, sir. :)

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  12. You make me read. And I am now sure of two things: I have no desire to see anything by Steve McQueen (the name gives me bad vibes), and...no nymphomania for me. And, I'm from CA - you can't be homohobic and survive here!

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