Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ethnicity and 'The Fighter'

So right after 'The Fighter' ended last night, my wife and my brother-in-law were saying how some of the spoken Khmer language in the movie sounded inauthentic. This all went right past me, of course, because I don't know enough Khmer to appreciate how "Don't try to rip us off like that" and "Do you think we're all stupid or something?" should actually be said to someone promoting a pyramid scheme.

I didn't really *get* it because I assumed most of the Khmer speakers in the movie were found right here in Lowell, so I couldn't figure out why their way of expressing those things didn't sound right to a native Khmer speaker born in the States in 1985 or to another born in Cambodia in the mid-1970s.

Either way, I give some credit to the filmmakers for not whitewashing the city in the early 1990s. I didn't live here then, but I'm well aware there were already tens of thousands of Cambodian-Americans living in Lowell at the time. Even by just including the scenes where Dicky (or is it Dickie? I see a 50/50 split in the print media) walks by a friendly group of Cambodian-Americans, this film avoids the revisionism of productions like the blockbuster "Pearl Harbor" which rewrote Hawaii's ethnic makeup in order to make the Japanese seem more like *them* and the Hawaiians more like *us.*

Regardless, movie stereotypes cut many ways. For instance, how many people in Lexington were represented by the guy with the sweater thrown over his shoulder who butts into Micky and Charlene's conversation outside the art house cinema? Not many.

I'm always reminded of this when I think about how a friend of mine and his then-girlfriend reacted to the forgettable and formulaic 1990s film Maid in Manhattan. After the film ended, she started off right away about the tiresome way that Hollywood paints Latinas as "sultry" and "fiery," and how the storyline relied on a wealthy white man who saves the day.

Rather than become defensive or apologetic, he just said, "Well, I get tired of the way movies like that caricature white people as a bunch of soulless bumblers who are emotionally tone-deaf and uncaring towards others."

Fair enough. I remember a college class in which a student complained (in the same 90-minute period, mind you!) about the way African-Americans are negatively portrayed in popular media and culture, and then went on to say how she hated The Cosby Show because it showed a stable, wealthy, two-parent black household with a doctor/lawyer couple and well-adjusted kids. "We're not all like that! I don't want white people to see that and then draw a conclusion that all is just perfect in our community these days!"

I can empathize with both of her points, which are not necessarily self-contradictory. But I think everyone who enjoys TV and movies needs to first acknowledge that visual art forms with highly restrictive time constraints are never going to depict all the subleties of life, or of people, in an accurate way.

Let's agree on that first, but also be unafraid to call out offensive or tiresome stereotypes in movies, or the offensive way in which certain ethnicities can be multi-dimensional but others introduced for tokenism or just to teach the other, *real* characters important life lessons that will then make them more whole.

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