Boyhood, Selma and American Sniper: race meets masculinity on film – part oneIn the first part of analysis of the role of race in three of this year’s most celebrated films, Steven W Thrasher focuses on Richard Linklater’s tale of a certain type of American boyhoodSteven W ThrasherThursday 19 February 2015 07.00 EST…. Here’s the thing about Boyhood: I absolutely loved it, and consider it one the “the great films of the decade”. But it also drove me crazy.… And yet, it annoyed the hell out of me on two fronts: its racism of omission, and the precious way it placed white American boyhood on a pedestal to be worshipped, both of which bolster the idea that all lives do not matter equally.It felt absurd to watch a movie filmed in Texas, over the past dozen years, almost exclusively about white people. Texas is, after all, about 40% Hispanic, but you’d never know it from Mason’s friends or family. Particularly when viewing Boyhood overseas, making sense of Linklater’s choice to set his magnum opus in an all-white Lone Star State (on the Mexican border) was hard to understand. It felt all the more ridiculous when Mason’s dad (Ethan Hawke) campaigns for Barack Obama, a scene in which the topic of prejudice is briefly broached but without any actual people of color.That was the funniest scene in the movie: the two junior high school siblings knock on a door to ask if they can put an “Obama” sign on the lawn and the nice liberal white lady says how wonderful it is that young people are helping elect Obama and then tells the children at uncomfortable length about her erotic dreams involving the black candidate.
Perhaps this could be read as a comment upon the very segregated nature of our lives in the Obama era, which never became as post-racial as many predicted. Linklater’s Obama campaign scene hardly needed to look diverse to be honest, given that Obama’s own campaign staff looked as white as “a young Republican rally” in real life. But it hardly make sense in Boyhood – with Mason’s divorced father and mother (Patricia Arquette) both struggling with employment and housing, with Mason going to public schools, and with Mason working in restaurants – that the whole cast would interact as infrequently with people of color as George, Jerry, Elaine and Kramer did on Seinfeld.The one moment I was most consciously yanked out of Boyhood’s charms filled me with rage, as we finally got to hear a Hispanic character speak. As Imran Siddiquee wrote in the Atlantic:My wife asked why the clever Mexican construction worker wanted a crummy job managing a chain restaurant when he could be making a killing as a contractor?
There is only one truly significant interaction with a person of color in the entire plot. In the second half of the film, a Spanish-speaking worker – who is fixing a pipe outside the family’s house – is given words of encouragement by Mason’s mom (the teenage Mason, who is waiting for her in the van, doesn’t observe this).We learn a few years later, as Mason is having breakfast with his mother and sister, that her words inspired that man (played by Roland Ruiz) to pursue a college education and that he is now a restaurant manager.
When Ruiz thanks the generous Arquette, it rang to me as being beyond a level of racism by omission, but one of actively reinforcing a kind of white supremacy via a familiar film trope. Arquette joined the ranks of Deborah Kerr as Anna in The King and I, and of Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, as the benevolent white woman who saves an uneducated, ditchdigger from his own filth by dint of an offhand comment, thereby inspiring the native to better himself. Arquette’s character is complicated, but her crude dynamic with Ruiz, which Latino Rebels accurately summed up as “save me, white person”, is not.It is in this world that Mason becomes a man: a world where people of color largely do not exist, and when they most significantly (if briefly) do, they appear mostly just as foils for a white savior. This brings me to my second problem with Boyhood, which took me some time to clarify in my mind: how precious it treated Mason’s journey, and how late into life white males are allowed to hold on to their innocent boyhood compared to men of color.Mason makes a lot of mistakes. Some he pays for, but most he does not. And yet, we see him as an angel in ways we are unlikely to ever see a black or Hispanic boy. When he is unfairly persecuted by the violence of his stepfathers, your heart as a viewer is rooting for him. Being a queer person myself, when Mason wears nail polish to openly challenge the concepts of masculinity around him, I was totally cheering for him. But I was annoyed, in retrospect, to find myself so emotionally invested in the success of an average white boy as he headed off towards his manhood by the end of the film.The gay critic is peeved that the movie got his hopes up about the dreamy adolescent boy, only to bring them down with a crash when the kid gets a girlfriend.
Being so hard on a movie I actually liked creates a weird tension. It’s the same guilt I feel when I find myself cheering for Lord Grantham despite Downton Abbey’s colonialism, or when I sympathize for Don Draper notwithstanding Mad Men’s sexism. As for Boyhood – if I “really want to understand what’s happening to me,” as bell hooks said when explaining her phrase “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” – it’s a real trip to make sense of what’s going on when my heart is digging a movie but my mind is telling me something’s up.When I root for Mason, I can’t help thinking of how often a white man’s boyhood is treated as “boys will be boys” – regardless of how far into adulthood the man is. Near the end of the movie, Mason heads drunk to his graduation party, while his friend is drinking and driving. Emotionally, Linklater wants us to brush off their activity as the mere folly of youth, while also asking us to still coddle the boyhood of these young men. Meanwhile, drunk driving is the kind of folly which is considered a justifiable, legal death sentence for a black man like Sean Bell, while drunk driving is considered so benign for, say, a 30-year-old white man that – although he wouldn’t stop drinking for another decade – that man can be elected the 43rd president of the United States.When Mason and his friend aren’t punished for drinking and driving – indeed, when we are left longing so clearly for Mason’s success despite his being a rather mediocre shit – it reinforces a supremacist mindset about the value of darling white boyhood, while black and Hispanic boyhood, not to mention girlhood of any race, is not considered even worthy of mention. Linklater’s film is somewhat awkwardly titled, when you consider he cast his own daughter Lorelei as one of the leads, then directed her for 12 years only to title the film Boyhood. A film called Girlhood, about young women of color, wouldn’t come from the United States at all, but from France.There is a killjoy quality, admittedly, in reading a movie one really likes in such a way and not just accepting it as mere entertainment. As I’ve written before, I wish this weren’t so; but, I’d wish even more strongly to not live in a world where patriarchy and white supremacy weren’t so rampant that their subtle reinforcement in films wasn’t so insidious.Shortly after I first saw Boyhood, I flew to Missouri and spent time where Michael Brown had been killed. It is inconceivable, based on my years of reporting, that a white boy acting similarly would have been mowed down in his boyhood by Darren Wilson as brown Brown was in his. I also talked to five brothers (ages three to 16) about their fears of the police, and I couldn’t help question why their brown boyhood is considered expendable while a character like Mason’s is so beloved. As artist Oasa DuVerney said of Renisha McBride (a young black woman who was shot dead after crashing her car and knocking on a house for help), “Our kids are not allowed to make mistakes. We can’t do it, because they will show us no mercy.”Indeed. Should we consider, then, the repeatedly constructed innocence we cheer for of the semi-fictional Mason’s boyhood in comparison to the presumed guilt (with mortal consequences) of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, or Trayvon Martin’s boyhood? Or Renisha McBride’s girlhood? Or young John Crawford’s manhood? Can one accept Boyhood’s message unquestioningly and still believe black lives matter? To quote hooks again: “I don’t think we will get much further in terms of decolonizing our minds” unless people like me who liked Boyhood can also critically examine that accepting Mason’s white privilege is indissoluble from his transition from boyhood to manhood.Boyhood seamlessly makes viewers internally reinforce both the centrality of white male superiority in America, as well as the importance of a white savior in the one significant scene with a person of color.It’s just unforgivable that white guys like Linklater keep accomplishing stuff. White men should stop so that everybody else won’t have to feel so resentful.