We’re back to this. Or, more accurately, we never left it. Who is “allowed” to tell what story? Back in 2016, when the novelist Lionel Shriver delivered an address at the Brisbane Writers Festival wearing a sombrero, a heated debate ensued about cultural appropriation. Shriver is white and wore the sombrero as a dig at students of color at Bowdoin who’d taken issue with a tequila-themed party where students donned miniature sombreros. Shriver said: “The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats.”
Both “supposed to” and “allowed” miss the point rather spectacularly (not to mention Shriver’s omission that the miniature sombreros in question were vaunted on Instagram). Many have written/spoken about this in the years since Brisbane, myself included. Shriver’s and others’ fear-mongering pivot to the so-called tyranny of political correctness diverts attention from poorly executed portrayals of a culture or character of color, pointing instead to oversensitivity and intellectual inferiority when anyone questions the moral and/or aesthetic quality of these portrayals. In the end, I’ve found that the debate comes down to something rather ugly: a battle over who’s really being oversensitive and intellectually simple-minded.
With the controversy over Green Book’s Best Picture Oscar win, it’s tempting to say, Here we go again. The director, Peter Farrelly, is white, as is screenwriter Nick Vallelonga, son of Tony Vallelonga, on whom the main white character is based. The film has had a polarizing effect, with fans lauding its feel-good interracial friendship as the message of hope we need, and detractors criticizing its reduction of racism to a matter of moderately wonky individual attitudes requiring a few key adjustments—nothing a little quality time with an exceptional black man like the composer and pianist Don Shirley can’t fix. Further fueling the controversy is the fact that Shirley’s family spoke out strongly against inaccuracies in Shirley’s portrayal.
But are we back to Brisbane? I think yes and no. Green Book evidences for me a different problem that’s emerged in recent years—both before and after Shriver-gate: white storytellers, recognizing that white-centricism is under scrutiny, rarely now write stories featuring all-white characters. In other words, the market for stories about white people who have no intersections or collisions with people of color has narrowed. While this may be a positive evolution generally speaking, a result is that the instinct to “just add color,” a thinly layered splash here or there, has pervaded many books and films.
Case in point: I recently served on a literary awards committee and was required to read some 60 to 70 debut novels. A significant number of books by white authors either took place in non-white countries and/or featured non-white primary or secondary characters. Most of these novels did not impress me: I found it was not difficult to distinguish between a story about significant relationships between people of different races and a story to which an author had “added color.” In some cases one could almost feel the anxiety motivating the story’s setup—I’ve got to have nonwhite characters—along with the inadequate if well-intentioned response—and here they are!
A crucial question is, why have you “got to?” I’ll defer (as I’ve done previously in interviews and conversations) to Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie, who points us to the fundamental element of motive: whatever is driving your inclination to write or investigate outside of your own culture or experience—anxiety or curiosity, commercial or moral interests, guilt or authentic engagement with power dynamics, savior complex or humility—it will show. The other thing that shows is the creator’s actual lived human relationships to/with the culture and/or character being depicted. To paraphrase the writer Danielle Evans, who tweeted eloquently on this subject in the aftermath of Brisbane, if you are white, who are the people of color in your life, and what is the quality/nature of those relationships? Start there, before imagining you can write well in this vein.
No one but Tony Vallelonga and Don Shirley will ever know the true nature of their relationship. Which is why, in my opinion, Green Book is not the story of “a true friendship,” as advertised. Rather it’s the story of a white working-class family man’s exposure to a new (new to him) sort of black person—erudite, fastidious, a genius musical talent. Don Shirley is so unlike the black people that Tony knows that he is both surprised and miffed when whites in the South physically and verbally harass Shirley and enforce racial segregation. Tony’s oddball role as Shirley’s driver and de facto bodyguard during his concert tour through the deep south becomes a personal journey of reorienting his passive racism—the racism of Italian-American cultural provincialism—toward a more noble awareness of the indignities black Americans face and his obligation to act in the face of such indignities.
A film about “a true friendship” would have co-protagonists. Green Book has a lead and a supporting role. Here I disagree with Octavia Spencer’s assessment of the Don Shirley that Green Book presents—not a “person of color with agency” (per her statement as to why she executive produced the film) but rather a differently objectified figure. A non-stereotype, yet still an underdeveloped, alt-version of the “magical negro,” and mainly a vehicle for loveable, plain-spoken Tony to confront blind spots and work out, in attitude and action, his individual moral development.
The specifics of Don Shirley’s family’s objections to the depiction—as estranged from his family, a lone and pathologized figure—are thus utterly relevant: Why is Shirley embarking on this tour of the deep south if, as one of his trio’s musicians says, he doesn’t have to? What does he really want from his driver, and why does he pursue Tony of all people? The complexities of Shirley’s context, background, and motivations are unexplored and distractingly thin. All we know—all that matters in the film—is that Shirley becomes dependent on Tony to save him, repeatedly, in brutal and humiliating situations. The “friendship,” from Shirley’s side, thus becomes based on gratitude (granted, Tony is also grateful, for Shirley’s assistance in writing love letters to his wife; but the exchange is hardly one of equal stakes). At the very end of the film, Shirley’s gratitude reaches its climax when Tony and his loving Italian-American family “save” Shirley from his loneliness on Christmas eve: They welcome him to the family dinner, doing the heroic work of refraining from racial slurs and everything.
In short: Green Book is a white-framed story, by and about white people, that gives white people an opportunity to feel good about themselves in relation to white-on-black racism, and to which some interesting color has been added. The fact that Mahershela Ali brings his virtuosic talent to playing the colorful character adds gravitas and an illusion of depth and complexity.
In my initial considerations of the film, I intended to interrogate in a broader sense the “feel-good” value of art and entertainment—to propose that it’s natural to want to feel good, but that we need to weigh that desire against the consequences of comfy passivity. Now, I’m actually hoping anyone who felt good at the end of Green Book (I’m looking at you, Academy, along with millions of moviegoers who “liked” Green Book, in their hearts and on social media) will interrogate that they felt good—about a film that calls itself a “true” friendship story when, in fact, it “protagonizes” the white character and makes a prop of the black character, thus shrinking systemic racism into a tiny individualized package. What’s more, Green Book manages to both propose an over-simplified solution to racism, i.e., adjustments to personal prejudice, and distance the majority of white people from even that bit of work by virtue of its 1962 deep south setting: oh those bigots, weren’t they awful?.
But enough about Green Book.
For comparison, let’s look at the winning film for Best Documentary Short, Period. End of Sentence, through a similar lens. Who made the film, what is the frame, who are the protagonists, what is supposed to “feel good” and why?
Frankly, when Melissa Berton, a white woman who co-produced Period—a 26-minute documentary about the taboo and health risks around menstruation in rural India—stepped up to the mic on stage at the Oscars and exclaimed,
This film began because high school students here, and our great partners at Action India, wanted to make a difference, a human rights difference—
my skepticism antenna went up. Behind Berton stood four of those high school students (now college students)—white women who graduated from the Oakwood School, a private school in North Hollywood with a $40,000 annual price tag. Who will be portrayed as leading actors here, and who the supporting roles, I wondered.
In 2013, girls from Oakwood involved with Girls Learn International, with Berton as their faculty advisor, attended the United Nations’ annual Commission on the Status of Women and became aware that the majority of females in rural India had no access to sanitary napkins and thus suffered embarrassment, ostracization, and health risks while managing blood flow. Also, many girls dropped out of school shortly after they began menstruating. The Oakwood girls were appalled and wanted to “do something.” At the same time, they’d learned about a social entrepreneur in India named Arunachalam Muruganantham, who’d invented a sanitary-napkin making machine that could be operated by village women themselves. Berton and the Oakwood students raised money for the machine, materials, and—because they wanted their project to reach beyond the village itself—a documentary film. Working with the grassroots feminist organization Action India, they identified a village—Kathikhera, in northern India—where the machine could be put to use.
The optics at the Oscars and in relation to Berton and Oakwood concerned me, in large part due to memories of the 2005 Oscars, when British photographer and filmmaker Zana Briski’s Born Into Brothels—about Briski’s project of teaching photography to daughters of sex workers in Calcutta’s red-light district and trying to place the girls in European boarding schools—won for Best Documentary. The controversy around that film—its making, its aftermath, and its success—are best summed up by feminist/queer theorist and English professor Frann Michel, who wrote in 2005:
“Born Into Brothels” might seem to suggest that the residents of Sonagachi are without resources or collective organization, and that escape from the neighborhood is the only possibility for saving the children. In the film, Briski even describes the children as “doomed” in their home environment.
Michel goes on to detail the longstanding local activist efforts—establishing significant social, education, and health services—of the sex workers themselves, notable Indian artists, academics, and government officials, and local NGOs. And she concludes:
[T]o the extent that the film implies that Briski worked alone, without the assistance of local activists, it overestimates the powers of the crusading individual.
Moreover, the film’s emphasis on “good”—that is, boarding school—education exacerbates its focus on individual rather than communal solutions. Even if all eight of the children profiled in the film had been “rescued” by such education, the lives of other Sonagachi residents would not be improved… “Born Into Brothels” is a powerful film in its ability to tug at the heartstrings of westerners. But to the extent it suggests that the only solutions lie in individual outsiders rescuing individual children, it presents a misleading story and indeed an unnecessarily despairing picture of possibilities for change.
It would seem that the next generation of documentary filmmakers (and socially engaged white American girls) learned something from the conversation generated by Brothels’ success—a conversation that existed long before Brothels but came to the fore in 2005. The Oakwood girls partnered with a 40-year-old local organization—the aforementioned Action India—and recognized that lasting change would only happen if the women of Kathikhera took ownership of the project and its development—making, packaging, and selling the sanitary napkins, and braving difficult conversations about what they are doing and why.
They don’t just want to donate money and buy the girls a pad machine. They want to go there. They want to speak with the women… They want to install this machine and make sure that we’re giving the power entirely to them to create these pads and to become empowered and independent.
Enter Rayka Zehtabchi (her words above), an Iranian American and recent USC film school graduate, who directed Period. When it came time to bring on a filmmaker, a film industry veteran and Oakwood parent named Garrett Schiff contacted cinematographer/editor Sam Davis, who in turn recommended Zehtabchi, his close friend and USC classmate. It would seem then a fortuitous accident that not only is Zehtabchi female (Schiff was explicit in expressing this requirement) but also a person of color. In a short video for the 2015 Kickstarter campaign for her narrative short Mataran—about an Iranian mother deciding whether to pardon, or approve capital punishment for, her son’s murderer—Zehtabchi said this:
I’m an Iranian American, and I’m very much aware of the Western viewpoint on Iran. A lot of the negativity that is associated with that comes as a result of the political situation in Iran [which] has the second highest rate of executions in the world, behind China. And their method of execution is hanging.
While, by her own admission, Zehtabchi knew nothing about menstrual hygiene or cultural taboos around menstruation in India, she did know that acute awareness of “the Western viewpoint” (from a non-Western viewpoint) was crucial to any project made by Westerners about a non-Western culture. Specifically, Zehtabchi understood that certain non-Western cultural practices (in this case, the taboo around menstruation and managing periods with unsanitary cloths) would incite in Westerners a negative response—repulsion, condemnation, pity; and it was crucial that the film depict these realities and their contexts through the subjects’ points-of-view, not the Western gaze.
Period is also executive produced by Indian film industry veteran Guneet Monga, with interviews assistance from one of her company’s junior producers, Mandakini Kakar, and Action India. Whoever initiated these recruitment efforts, which would crucially determine who was “in the room” as key aspects of the project developed, should be commended.
And here in an interview from MoveableFeast, Zehtabshi, explains precisely why:
Before going to India, there was this idea of making a totally different film about the group of high school girls in Los Angeles who are starting this whole movement and working with a group of women in India [to] help start this sanitary pad business. Melissa Berton…got all the high school girls involved in this whole mission and got us communicating with…the inventor of the pad machine…when I went to India…to start shooting, the machine [had been] installed and it became very clear that the focus and the center of the story was specifically the women in this one village because it was so powerful to see how much this one machine was affecting all the people…
And once again we are back to white framing as default; primary and supporting roles; and the power and privilege to “protagonize.” Whose idea was it to make the girls the main characters? To whom did it become “very clear” that the village women should instead be the focus? Were there some who needed convincing or enlightening? Who was in the room when that conversation occurred, and would this shift have been possible without Zehtabchi, Monga, Action India, etc. as prominent voices? We may never know the answers to these questions, but I dare say I have a reasonable idea; even as I hope I’m more wrong than right.
Maybe in the end I am indeed interrogating the vital implications of “feel-good” when it comes to films engaging with social issues. As Americans, what we have historically and continually failed to recognize is the feel-good power of humility. There is an important distinction, for would-be liberal do-gooders, between self-congratulation—Look what we did! Isn’t it inspiring?—and self-evolution—Look at what the rest of the world has to teach us. The hard pill for many to swallow is that, in 2019, white Westerners with the best of progressive politics and intentions are as susceptible to the pitfall of privileged protagonizing as are 1960s bigots of yore, or even MAGA Trumpians. [Side note: while a comprehensive analysis of another 2019 Oscar contender for best short documentary, Lifeboat, is not the focus here, I encourage you to watch it for yourself and examine the ways in which the esteemed, experienced director hews uncomfortably close to white-savior/huddled masses tropes and images in this film about the global refugee crisis.]
I appreciate Zehtabchi’s artistic talents, but without her evident essential humility, her talents and good intentions could easily, unwittingly effect more harm than good. When asked in an interview with Ms. Magazine, “What was the most shocking or surprising thing that you learned throughout the filmmaking process?” Zehtabchi said:
I think it really taught me a lot about myself. I grew up sort of thinking I was always mature and worldly in a lot of ways. And I think I realized when I went to India—when I was exposed to this whole issue—that I really don’t know anything about the world…
A foregrounded humility is especially crucial as Period’s influence on mainstream conversations about global issues for women and girls increases. “The Pad Project”—the nonprofit that grew out of the Oakwood student’s efforts—promotes their mission with the tagline, A period should end a sentence—not a girl’s education. It’s a catchy, motivating slogan that elicits applause and makes us all feel good; but in fact the relationship between lack of menstrual hygiene and dropping out of school is more associative and anecdotal than rigorously evidenced. And this distinction matters. In an interview with NPR, researcher Marni Sommer said that hard research has yet to be funded or conducted on menstrual hygiene’s impact on education; in small focus groups, girls around the world identified menstruation as “‘one of many issues that makes engaging in and participating regularly in school problematic.” This, surmises the NPR reporter, is “a far cry from proving that the barriers to menstrual hygiene are causing educational harm.” Likely, multiple converging factors end a girl’s education and make managing periods difficult—including, for example, lack of running water to wash your hands and toilets with privacy locks on the doors. Says Sommer, “The studies out there are not looking at toilets…no one finds toilets sexy,” and the suggestion that a pad-making project will solve the problem worries her.
A final frustration with the tagline is the implication that addressing menstrual hygiene is urgent only insofar as it impacts education. Sommer feels strongly that being able to hygienically and unashamedly manage your period is a human right: “We shouldn’t have to justify that girls are deserving of an environment where they can just meet their basic bodily needs.”
No one is suggesting the film shouldn’t have been made or that it hasn’t had a net positive influence. “The benefit of this movie,” says Sommer, “is that it opens the conversation.” And again, here, I appreciate Zehtabchi’s humility: the filmmaker herself, as far as I’ve seen, has not touted the tagline, and instead said of the film’s value:
it’s always been a wonderful conversation starter and we have a lot of interest from schools and universities and organizations that would love to eventually screen the film. That was the goal of the whole project in the first place—let’s start conversations about periods.
In this vein, I am happy to protagonize the girls, The Pad Project, the faculty advisor, the filmmaker, the producers, the parents who contributed money, everyone involved: Look at what they did: they started a conversation about a complex, ongoing issue. And yet, first and foremost, look at the women and girls of Kathikhera—Sneha, Rekha, Preeti, Shushma, Roksana, Preeti, Gouri, Shabana, Sulekha, Ajeya, Suman, Shashi, Usha, Sushila, Anita—protagonists in their own stories, their families, their communities, their economies, their complex and evolving lives—from whom the rest of us have much to learn.