Saturday, January 3, 2015

A Wild Scene -- To Say The Very Least -- In "Wild"

Reese Witherspoon, back turned, in "Wild", directed by Jean-Marc Vallee.  The man driving the car is at issue.
  Fox Searchlight

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, January 3, 2015

When I first saw "Wild" in October 2014 before its December U.S. theatrical release I wasn't fond of it.  Cheryl Strayed's story -- compelling, empowering and beautiful -- is told, but on numerous occasions in Jean-Marc Vallee's film, told problematically.  One of its deeply troubling and problematic scenes is presented in the most innocuous way -- which amplifies and reinforces why the scene is so dangerous, pernicious and blatant.

A preface: Rape is abominable.  It goes across color and gender lines.  That is clear.  And there's no controversy about the following either: rape must end.  I don't think this can be said nearly enough.  Education of men must be facilitated, from day one as boys, so that they must unlearn -- and understand that appropriate male behaviors must involve respecting girls and women and dealing with their male impulses better -- impulses that a male-dominated, misogynist society encourages them to flourish and remain unchecked.

My specific aim here is to elucidate a serious issue about the casual placement of racist stereotypical scenes in film, specifically, in this case, in "Wild".  These placements also happen across gender, sexuality, trans, and other lines in Hollywood film all the time.  There's also a tendency of groups historically oppressed being pitted against each other in films by the dominant classes, and I think that has also happened in the scene I am about to describe in "Wild".

Fifty-two minutes into "Wild," the scene in question, subtitled "Day 25", shows Cheryl Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon, alone, as she is for large stretches of "Wild."  Cheryl is hitchhiking on the Pacific Crest Trail.  In one of the film's whispered voiceovers she says in a droll, sarcastic tone, "Hi.  I'm Cheryl.  I'm an unaccompanied female hitchhiker.  Would it be okay if I got into your car so you that you can rape and dismember me?"

In this same moment there's an expectant look in Cheryl's eyes as she looks past the frame.  A car is heard.  It enters the frame.  A Black man is driving it.

This subliminal, or not-so subliminal association of rape or potential rape with a Black man -- furthered with a white woman present -- is a blatant reinforcement of a racist stereotype of Black men as rapists.  It's a racist stereotype that Hollywood films have trafficked in for more than 100 years, dating back to "Birth Of A Nation" and beyond.

For those unaware, in "Birth Of A Nation", white actors wore blackface to depict Blacks, who in D.W. Griffith's epic film would maraud and chase terrified white women and try to rape and sexually molest them.  "Birth Of A Nation" was hailed a classic by many film critics.  But for more than a few Blacks in America it was a classic nightmare.  One that resulted in Black deaths, used as recruiting tool by the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana and elsewhere in the early 1900s. 

One hundred years on, the "Wild" scene was unmistakable to me.  A remembrance.  A resonance.  A kick in the stomach.

When I first saw this specific "Jimmy Carter" scene in "Wild", nestled as it was almost halfway through the one hour, 56-minute drama, I reacted with the shock of someone shot out of a cannon.  The implicit message the scene sent rocked me to the core.  As a Black man, the scene and its implications -- the history of negative and racist media imagery of Blacks, and of Black men in this particular instance -- was so brutally, painfully and heartbreakingly clear.

The association made in the scene was so stunningly blatant.  The scene reverberated with and through me for at least ten minutes after it played.  It took that long for me to mentally proceed with the rest of "Wild".  Even as I made mental notes as a film critic of what had transpired in the intervening scenes that immediately followed, I knew, in that moment, that I as a Black man had suffered a trauma right there in that tiny screening room in the dark, unbeknownst obviously, to my film critic colleagues. 

I wondered: had any of the film critics -- 98% of the film critics I normally see films with in San Francisco are white -- who watched "Wild" that day noted the scene?  Did it register with those critics in any way as an oddity?  An anomaly?  One reaction to my deep personal issue with this scene suggested not.  It was about how they enjoyed "Wild" and thought it was very good, without any response to the specific concern about the scene I raised.

Beyond that "Wild" scene's initial "blink" message moment, as Malcolm Gladwell would put it, was a second layering in the scene.  The Black male character introduces himself to Cheryl Strayed as "Jimmy Carter" and says he's "no relation."  He smiles.  So now, via Nick Hornby's adapted screenplay the Black character is playing race for cheap, lazy laughs for some audience members.  The idea: there's no way he could be related to the former U.S. president because this Jimmy Carter is Black.  This reminds me of the joke a white male bartender makes to Eddie Murphy in "48HRS."  ("Black Russian.  Oh, I get it.  I'm Black," Mr. Murphy's character says in response.)

So far, two strikes in "Wild": racist stereotype and hokey-jokey buffoonery, self-idiocy about race from a Black character.

Then comes the next layering of the same scene: Jimmy Carter is from The Hobo Times.  He has a story he wants to do about hobos.  He presumes Cheryl Strayed is one.  The scene is played for laughs, perhaps as a way to cover or alleviate the subliminal or blatant racist stereotype association that has immediately preceded it.  I hadn't laughed at all.  Jimmy Carter's parting gift, other than his foolishness, is to give Cheryl Strayed a care package.  He then drives off.   He has just prejudged Cheryl and made himself look more foolish in the process.  The net effect of this scene is now complete.  Three strikes: racist stereotype, mocking self-idiocy on race and just plain stupidity.

Three strikes, you're out.

I wondered, what was "Jimmy Carter's" purpose in the "Wild" narrative?  It smacked of a cameo edition of "Bagger Vance" or "Green Mile" weirdly "super Negro" moment.  Another variation on the theme of nonsensical, one-dimensional Black characters, some of whom get rewarded with Oscars.  Except this "Jimmy Carter" character had already been stereotyped in a racist way even before he had a chance to flaunt his stupidity and ignorance. 

In Cheryl Strayed's memoir it is clear that the "Jimmy Carter" she met in real life was white.  First, Ms. Strayed, who is white, doesn't reference his race or explicitly say he is white -- usually a key factor the person is white.  Second, on page 178 Ms. Strayed describes the real Jimmy Carter from The Hobo Times this way: "His hair was shaggy and unwashed.  His bangs concealed then revealed his dark eyes, depending on how the wind blew."  On page 180 Ms. Strayed writes: "He glanced up at me from his notebook, his hair blowing extravagantly across his pale face.  He seemed like so many people I knew."

So why was the decision made to make the character Black?  And the lone Black character at that?

Nick Hornby, in a 2013 pink draft of his adapted screenplay, writes Jimmy Carter as "a pleasant-looking guy".  He further writes that "Cheryl looks at him suspiciously."  This characterization could be ambiguous or a signal to point to race -- specifically Black.  Especially since Black men are collectively viewed by society as inherently suspicious. 

On executing the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir Mr. Hornby has written that "[i]t wasn't as if I immediately grasped how to do the job."  Later, he writes, "...there was so much that I wanted to dramatize.  Cheryl's relationship with her mother . . . the loneliness of the hike and the rich randomness of her encounters on the trail all struck me as compelling, unusual -- and unusually complicated -- source material.

Couldn't a woman have adapted the screenplay, I ask?  Wouldn't it perhaps then become less "unusually complicated"?

Clearly in film criticism questions about construction, context, social and cultural impact, messaging, art, story, performance, direction and writing are to be addressed.  The information delivered about Ms. Strayed's background during the scene I've discussed could literally be delivered anywhere in "Wild".  Yet this was the place it was put.  And with a throwaway character.  The scene itself doesn't advance the story in any appreciable way.  "Wild" as a film would certainly have survived without it. 

So why was it there?  What was the point being made?

The "Jimmy Carter" scene was problematic for three other reasons.  One is that he's the only Black character in the entire film.  Why have the character in "Wild" at all beyond the poison of "tokenism"?  Why not have a woman in the car instead?  There are very few women in "Wild".  Why not make women a greater presence in "Wild" instead of filling space with a racist stereotype?  And a foolish character at that?

The second additional problem is that of all of the other men in "Wild" -- all of whom are white -- are not referenced so associatively with rape.  These other men are all ambiguously (with one notable exception) presented as possible rapists.  But none of the white men in "Wild" is prefaced with Cheryl Strayed's whispered voiceover comment about rape and dismemberment.  The audience doesn't get that innate, subliminal connection for any of those white male characters. 

Third, in contrast to the film's lone Black character, there are a diverse group of white men in "Wild".  Some are abusers.  Some are kind and charitable.  Some are sexist.  Some are random sex partners.  This full array of white men depicted in the film is even more diverse than the kind of women seen in "Wild".  Their humanity is on display.  The Black character's is not.  He is a comic relief caricature.  And an assassinated one, thanks to the voiceover preface, before he himself even speaks.

If the Black male character was supplemented by a similar array of Black men in "Wild", I may have had much less to write about here.  If our society wasn't as it is and has historically been, I'd have less to write about regarding this very "Wild" scene.  And if there was no legacy of racist stereotypes of Black men and women in film and the media I might have less to write about.

But we are not there yet.  Not even close.  And that's truly wild.

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