Hollywood: The Power of the White Gaze
All [stories] are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority. The universal in the [story] is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance.
Ralph Ellison, The Paris Review 1955
Boyhood the beloved front-runner in Sunday’s Best Film category, written and directed by Richard Linklater, which has an uncanny similar premise to our 2013 documentary American Promise — a chronicle of a boy’s life from childhood to adulthood shot over 12 years in real time — provides for critics and audiences a safe, white middle class suburban slice of a passage of time in America. In some circles, Boyhood is hailed as universal in its feel, a story “we all can relate to.” Interestingly, too rarely is the position of whiteness and middle-classness questioned as a position or point of view with a specificity that pertains to the lived experience of a particular racial group. As the gazers, critics and creators, many of us unassumingly internalize dominant white culture as the “norm.” Whiteness unconsciously becomes the standard for cinematic excellence, achievement and creativity. Whereas, examining a longitudinal film such as American Promise, the exercise becomes a bit more complicated on so many levels – often fraught with tension and racial schisms and points of view determined by the racial gaze of the audience and critics. Racialized lenses are accepted as a must with American Promise. That is to say, there is no luxury of escaping ones racialized position when watching, critiquing or responding to it. And that’s fine with us, in fact, we embrace and lean into those uncomfortable moments both on and off the screen with audiences and friends. In some ways, it fuels our creativity and provides potential for personal transformation to those who engage in the conversation head on.
Interestingly, the type of black and brown stories that appear to be easier to digest, are more often historical in nature, like Selma, 12 Years a Slave, or documentaries like Four Little Girls. All masterful pieces of work, but no doubt a little easier for our dominant culture to accept than more immediate contemporary black films likeFruitvale Station, Beyond the Lights, and perhaps American Promise. We all at some point talk from that internalized white middle class gaze, because using another lens to interpret reality and film is painful and uncomfortable. Many of our white liberal gazers fall into the trap of using certain “norms” to judge the quality of a film — being completely unaware of their own prejudices s when they pass judgment. None of us is immune. Most importantly, we sit in pain as our white colleagues critique and define black culture from a space of authority, without the conscious knowledge of their micro-aggression, or our own hurt. Why do we allow this to continue? Because we long for acceptance? And yet that search for approval from whites in our field comes at a price — a price of submission to the humiliating forces of the matrix, false reality, or fantasy of our own exceptionalism.
In a world where many are now aware of implicit bias, it’s time to deal with those inherent preconceptions at home. We’ve dedicated our lives and art to looking at ourselves and our extended community, but for us, the most difficult thing to do is point the finger at our fellow filmmakers, our colleagues, and our white friends who create a large percentage of black-themed films coming out today. Often, their unconscious perspectives precariously reinforce a point-of-view that perpetuate stereotypes of black and brown people that in turn encourage a national and international pattern of perception. We have to work on changing that gaze with a conversation that begins locally, with our white friends about our complicated black and brown lives.
As contemporary culture creators and critics, how can we maintain a self-awareness of our own racialized realities and position in society and understand how it informs our every action, viewing experience, creative idea and interpretation of art and life, rather than assume the dominant culture’s universality in our work? While academically we may think we are beyond this debate, we are not, because our fellow filmmakers, critics, writers, and other gatekeepers in the film industry continue to rely and fall back on these same old unconscious assumptions.
It’s time to make it our duty to lean into the discomfort of unmasking those presumptions and challenging those points of view on a daily basis so that culture creators can come to the table with a more sensitive, more willing, and more realistic outlook when it comes to the experiences and realities of those different from their own. Only then can dramatic shifts happen where all our voices are heard and our creativity is appreciated and given validating platforms. We believe real change and equity will come when we are able to look into the eyes of our colleagues, critics, and filmmakers, and challenge the white gaze that strips our visibility and voice. We should not only debate the solution for injustice in Missouri and Staten Island, but also those injustices at Sony and in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.