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BlacKkKlansman and Apu

August 20, 2018

Yesterday my wife and I went to see the new Spike Lee movie BlacKkKlansman. Three of Lee’s previous movies (Do the Right ThingGet on the Bus, and Malcolm X) opened my eyes to the black experience in America, challenged my thinking, and gave me new perspectives. This movie did as well (though I found parts of it cartoonish, stereotypical, over the top, and too tidy). But I’m not interested in reviewing this movie; instead, I’m interested in a question raised near the end of the movie.

The main character, Ron Stallsworth, is the first black cop on the Colorado Springs Police Department. He is dating Patrice, the president of the local college’s Black Student Union. At the end of the movie, Patrice asks Ron if he is going to remain a cop. He says yes, to which she responds, “I can’t share a bed with the enemy.”

Ron and Patrice stand for two different stances toward the white American establishment: working within it to reform it, and rejecting it as hopelessly racist. For Patrice, it is naive and impossible to reform the police department: it is the local epitome of white power that oppresses and keeps in place black people. Only the application of some form of external force (black power) can possibly bring some justice and dignity to black people.

Not surprisingly, I as a white person tend to agree with Ron: the answer has to at least include blacks working within the white dominated system to change it. I support black power–the empowerment of black people–but I also want to see an integrated society of mutual enrichment, mutual power, mutual well-being.

What troubles me the most about Patrice’s position is that it seems to lead logically to the conclusion that the races should be kept separate, dependent on their own separate systems. And how is that going to work? Would we even want that to work? Isn’t that what today’s KKK wants?

A related question about race popped up in today’s editorial in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The editorial lamented the current controversy over Apu, the Indian-American manager of the Kwik-E-Mart in the animated series The Simpsons. The controversy seems to have two aspects to it: Is the character of Apu a racist depiction of persons from India? And is it appropriate for Apu to be voiced by a Caucasian? The editorial dismisses both concerns. The editorial also seems to dismiss the broader controversy over cultural appropriation. Let me offer a few thoughts which I think may connect with my concerns above.

Whether Apu is a racist depiction, I do not know. My impression is that the character is handled with more respect than most characters on The Simpsons. But I’m not Indian. However, I do agree that it is inappropriate for a white person to be voicing an Indian character. I remember watching old Charlie Chan movies in which the famous detective was played by a white man made to look (not convincingly) Chinese. I remember an old Hitchcock movie in which an entire band is made up of white men in blackface. Even the much-praised, and more recent, movie, A Passage to India, had a white actor portraying an Indian holy man. We simply would not do this today. It is offensive. Whites should not be in the position of controlling how other races/ethnicities are depicted. Characters of a particular ethnicity or race should, when possible, be played by persons of that ethnicity or race. It is more authentic and fair. It also provides movie and TV roles to minorities who struggle to find parts in Hollywood.

This issue also came up when Scarlett Johansson was going to play the role of a transgender person. Such a role should go to a person who actually is transgender. This does not mean actors may no longer depict something they are not–that’s what acting is all about. Rather, whites (or straights, or whoever has the most power in a society) should not be controlling the depictions of others, especially others who are often stereotyped and marginalized. For the powerful to be in charge of depicting the powerless (even innocently or sympathetically) is a way of keeping the powerful powerful.

So I agree that Apu should be voiced by an Indian actor.

However, I agree with the Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial when it concludes that we have taken rejection of cultural appropriation too far. I think we all should be free to make use of each other’s cultures. Music, language, clothing and customs flow automatically back and forth between cultural lines in the United States, enriching each other and constantly creating new syntheses and new cultures. There is no such thing as “black culture” or “white culture” or “Latino culture” or “Asian culture.” Each of these has many different cultures, and all of them have been influenced by each other and other cultures. Also, there is no intrinsic connection between a person’s race and his/her culture. Culture is an artifact constantly influenced by its environment; it’s not our biology. To say that whites should not be putting out hip-hop albums is, it seems to me, to try to keep cultures separate and to refuse integration in our society. I can understand resentment toward whites who are once more making money off of something that did not originate with them, but we are all making money and pleasure off of each other’s contributions. We are all making art off of each other’s influences. That’s how beauty and creativity and culture work. I think it’s also how we become a more integrated society of equal value.

The Book of Revelation looks forward to a new heaven and a new earth. Its vision of perfection includes people bringing “the glory and the honor” of the world’s various ethnicities and races into the New Jerusalem (21:26). This cultural mix is a necessary part of what makes us whole.

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