Is Racism Subjective?

Posted on May 9, 2009 at 7:23 pm

I was the only white person in the elevator after the screening of Next Day Air, and as we went down to the parking lot, I asked the assembled group, none of whom I knew, whether they thought the movie was racist. None of them did. The closest I got was one guy who said not enough to interfere with his finding it funny.
When I got off the elevator there were only three of us left, all women. I asked them whether they thought the film was sexist. They were noncommittal.
I was very polite about this, I promise. I asked in a tentative and understated way, because I know what a loaded question it is and I was still making up my own mind about how I felt about it. Still, I recognize that I put them on the spot and they may have been willing to be more critical about the film to each other than they were to me.
I concluded, as you can see in my review, that it was racist and sexist. I can understand how people might differ in their reactions. Some people think that because it was made by African-Americans, the humor is self-deprecatory and comes from a position of strength. But the stereotyping and contempt for both the characters and the audience — and my sense that the exact same movie could have been made by the KKK — led to my conclusion that it promoted bigotry, no matter who was behind it. If the best we can do in Hollywood is provide funding for these kinds of films — and if they keep finding an audience and making money — then it cannot be said to come from a position of strength. If there is not one redeeming character of any race or gender, it cannot be said to be self-deprecatory. This movie was laughing at these characters, not with them. It perpetuates stereotypes so over-the-top and demeaning they make Step’n’Fetchit look like Denzel Washington.
I do not think you have to be a person of color to recognize racism or a woman to recognize sexism. The other members of the audience are entitled to their own reaction to the film; any response they had is perfectly legitimate. But so is mine. I think it is a shame that these kinds of movies are released and that talented performers like Mos Def, Debbie Allen, and Mike Epps can’t do better.

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7 Replies to “Is Racism Subjective?”

  1. All -isms are subjective. There are no abstract, dispassionate -isms, only those -isms that drive people apart. Because isms require people to respond to people, it is subjective. Race, gender, orientation, handedness, color sensitivity are all objective qualities that may require people to deal with each othr. But our -isms shape that response. I am guessing that some of the folks you talked to in the elevator are quietly, privately thinking you are smart, sensitive, and aware. They may not have wanted to say anything with friends around. But I expect you gave voice to some itch that was burrowing just below their skin and out of sight.

  2. I will confess that if someone asked me about a movie in that way I would look very strangely at her and say, “You ask that as if I would have a reason to care.”

  3. Thanks, jestrfyl, for a thoughtful response. I recognize that it is still difficult to have an open conversation on these issues.
    And thanks, Mr. Cosimano for a good reminder of why it is still important to ask this question. The key word in your comment is “strangely.” Your use of that term to describe your own expression and absence of any thoughts on the substance or the views of anyone else demonstrate that your primary focus is your success at unsettling others.

  4. I’d like to point out that Mos Def has done better with his performance in Be Kind Rewind, which was, in my opinion, the single most underrated film released last year.

  5. Vince, I agree with you! I watched it again yesterday, perhaps the fifth time I have seen it, and it was on my top 10 list for the year. Mos Def is a brilliant actor and one of my favorite performers, whether in comedy/action (“The Italian Job”) or in drama (“Something the Lord Made”). He was even good in “Next Day Air,” as awful a movie as it was.

  6. Nell, I think you asked this question to the wrong audience, i.e. people who would actually go see “next day air.” Who was this movie made for? It was made for an audience that considers “pot-smoking”, casual drug use and sexist based humor something to laugh about. The movie is based off of a drug-induced materialistic fiction that also persists in what modernly serves as rap music and increasingly the hip hop culture.
    I’m part of a generation of African Americans that helped create and nurture what we knew as rap music because of its relevance to our social condition and way of bringing to life stories and issues relevant to us in the inner-city. But now rap has degraded itself into something completely different and its now a degrading influence on our culture and young black men in general. As a result, most major rap artists now articulate sexist, misongynistic lyrics, violence and drug inferences into their music. And too many impressionable youth follow their lead and fail to strive, respect women, use drugs, and wear their pants so low that they are unemployable.
    But to answer your original question, racism is not subjective. Racism is racism. One might be so pervasively inundated with racism and sexism as to be desensitized to it, but that does not mean its not there. Moreover, if you were to ask an objective outsider, an objective African American, or African American woman they would have told you that yes, the movie is subjectively racist, stereotypical, sexist and a modern day drug laced blaxploitation movie designed to cater to a population that considers drug laced misogynistic rap lyrics as the norm. But I reckon, that you would also be hard pressed to find an objective African American or African American woman, that actually understand what misogyny and racism truly are, who actually would have gone to see this movie. In other words, African Americans who would and should consider this movie as racist, misogynistic and degrading due to its stereotypes are also the population least likely to go see this movie, or other movies such as Soul Plane, which are modern day stereotypical blaxploitation films.
    The above is also why, despite the large purchasing power of the African American population, movies with black actors that do not exploit us continue to do well at the box office while movies such as “Next Day Air” and “Soul Plane” continue to be box-office failures. African Americans support artists like Will Smith and Denzel Washington and even Tyler Perry because of this. Their movies do not gratuitously degrade us, even when they occasionally point out our flaws.

  7. Thank you, Ray — this is a wonderful comment, very insightful. These movies make me think of the song “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” by Public Enemy — because that “nation of millions” includes those in the community itself who pander to these degrading stereotypes out of some superficial notion of “authenticity.” It is interesting that you used the term “blaxploitation” which once referred to low-budget films that portrayed African-American characters who might have acted outside the rules and the law but who were strong and fearless and proud. This generation of films is cynical and cowardly.
    Your thoughts really illuminated my concerns about the film and I am deeply grateful.

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