“She gave him sex and he gave her class.” – Katharine Hepburn
Ironically, many of my favorite movies were produced during the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s when moral restrictions were strongly regulated and enforced by the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (“Hays Code”). Its guidelines addressed violence, nudity, profanity and sex. By the late 1950s, the Hays Code’s influence on the film industry was greatly reduced due to anti-trust rulings and competition from television and foreign films. The Hays Code was eventually replaced by the current MPAA film rating system in 1968.
Sometimes I miss the Hays Code and the inventiveness it inspired. Top Hat exemplifies the creative and subtle qualities that are often lacking in today’s more explicit films. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers effectively convey romance and passion in “Cheek to Cheek” – the film’s classic centerpiece – without removing any clothes or sharing a kiss. Watch Fred and Ginger elegantly dance through the stages of seduction from courtship to afterglow. Cigarette, anyone?
“The nation [the founders] envisioned and created was a white supremacist nation. Meaning, it was founded on the notion that whites should rule, that whites had superior ability to rule, that the nation should be a white republic, and that people of color surely should not have equal rights with whites.” – Tim Wise
When The Birth of a Nation (“BOAN”) was released 97 years ago in 1915, it was heralded for its technical innovations and was the first film screened at the White House. However, many – including the NAACP – protested BOAN’s degrading black stereotypes, glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, and its racist propaganda dressed up as historical representation. Despite its controversies, BOAN is a valuable part of my film collection. It is a movie that I watch and refer to regularly. The hegemonic worldview expressed in BOAN is still very relevant, unfortunately, and offers great insights about the ongoing pervasiveness of American racism, even more so in the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy.
BOAN dramatizes the Civil War and its consequences from the perspectives of two families – the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South. Life in the South before the war was depicted as idyllic. Whites reigned supreme while blacks were carefree and content in their subservient roles. After the war, however, the defeated Southerners fell under the rule of “carpetbaggers.” They also found themselves vulnerable to the newly freed slaves who outnumbered them, had voting rights, violent tendencies and the audacity to pursue white women. The Southerners responded to this threat to their existence by forming an underground vigilante group to restore “order” to the South, and hence the Ku Klux Klan was born.
“Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state…? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained…will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” – Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
Jefferson’s quote reflects the inconsistencies on which this nation was founded – contradictions that have yet to be meaningfully recognized. On the one hand, this slave-owning author of the Declaration of Independence acknowledged the “injuries” inflicted on blacks due to racial discrimination. On the other hand, however, Jefferson rationalized that it was in America’s best interest to deny blacks equal rights and protections under the Constitution in order to avoid retaliation and anarchy.
“I felt a little bit threatened, if you will, in the attitude that [President Obama] had.” – Arizona Governor Jan Brewer
As if taking a cue from Jefferson, BOAN depicted the newly emancipated blacks as irresponsible, brutal and out of control. The abuse of their newly acquired political power left whites disenfranchised and helpless to do anything about it. Left to their own devices, blacks were well on their way to taking over the nation. That is until the Ku Klux Klan rode in and saved America. Using intimidation, coercion and violence to oppress blacks, the Klan’s methods were deemed necessary to preserve the nation. The end justified the means. Could this be why an unarmed man can be shot 41 times and his murderers set free? Perhaps this explains why a man who was outnumbered and beaten savagely on videotape was perceived as the aggressor. Is this why Trayvon Martin, armed only with a cell phone, Skittles and ice tea, was shot to death and his assailant, George Zimmerman, has so far avoided murder charges by claiming self-defense? Adding insult to injury, it has been reported Zimmerman “suffers” from PTSD – as if that’s any comparison to being DEAD.
“It’s time this generation learned the difference between a villain and a hero.” – J. Edgar Hoover
The irony of quoting Hoover on this topic aside, the concept of heroes and villains works well in fiction. In BOAN, the villainous blacks are returned to a submissive position by the heroic Ku Klux Klan. The Klan’s savior status is denoted by the superimposed images of Christ and a Klansman in the final minutes of the film. Therefore, it stands to reason, according to BOAN, that if the Klan is godly, then blacks are the direct opposite. However, in real life using the “good versus evil” rubric to assess others often leads to tragic consequences. Dehumanizing and demonizing one’s opponents and/or those with whom you are unfamiliar results in a delusional sense of self-righteousness and an unwillingness to consider different points of view. Peaceful resolutions are replaced by ongoing conflict and domination.
“If you’re black, you gotta look at America a little bit different. You gotta look at America like the uncle who paid for you to go to college but molested you.” – Chris Rock
America likes to see itself as the land of freedom, justice and opportunity – a harmonious, multi-cultural melting pot. That is not my reality though I yearn for that ideal. In my America, racial discrimination and stereotyping are constant companions. Racism does not always involve physical violence, although its emotional toll can be just as destructive over time. Its more subtle forms include low expectations, backhanded compliments and hasty assumptions.
History informs me that demanding Zimmerman’s arrest is not enough. Based on the way this case has been handled so far and the efforts to criminalize Martin, the state of Florida is incapable of conducting a fair trial. This case must be prosecuted on the federal level. There also needs to be a major shake-up in the Sanford Police Department. Resignations/terminations are not sufficient. The conduct of the police and state attorney’s office should be thoroughly investigated. Negligent law enforcement officers must be prosecuted and their pensions should be revoked. Maybe then they will value the rights of everyone they are supposed to “serve and protect.” Finally, looking to the future, now is the time to push for legislation about racial profiling with specific guidelines and consequences applicable to both law enforcement officials and civilians.
Frank Costello: “When I was growing up, they would say you could become cops or criminals. But what I’m saying is this. When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?” – The Departed
The Ku Klux Klan’s hoods versus Trayvon Martin’s hoodie – who’s the hero and who’s the villain? Whether it’s on the screen in BOAN or in real life, the designation of heroes and villains is not absolute. There are many shades of gray. The real dilemma is not in the “hero” and “villain” designations; it is in the desire to categorize them in the first place. After all, the concept of heroes and villains is relative. Much depends on which end of the proverbial loaded gun you find yourself on.
What will it take for this nation to be reborn?
TO BE CONCLUDED
“The Rebirth of a Nation – Part 2: Truth and Reconciliation”
More than 15 years ago, I enthusiastically endured the Friday night multitude in Times Square to experience Jerry Maguire. As a fan of Tom Cruise and writer/director Cameron Crowe, my high expectations were more than met. The film was well written, well-acted, and the laughs came early and often. I was particularly moved by the loving and supportive interplay between Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and his wife Marcee (Regina King). Fully realized, multidimensional black characters are so rare, unfortunately, that such portrayals continue to be a welcome surprise. I also enjoyed watching the friendship develop between Rod and Jerry (Tom Cruise). Theirs was a relationship devoid of clichés and stereotypes. Or was it?
The pivotal “Show me the money!” scene dramatizes the differences between Rod and Jerry. As the head of a close-knit family, Rod is shown in the kitchen with his wife, brother and son. He is physically present and emotionally available. Though on the phone discussing business, Rod supervises his son’s behavior and guides him to remove his plate from the table. His family’s needs and wishes are Rod’s top priorities. Jerry, on the other hand, is in his office isolated from others both physically and emotionally. Jerry is concerned only about himself as he desperately struggles to retain his clients after being fired.
On the surface, Rod and Jerry need each other to salvage their respective careers. As always, however, the subtext is way more interesting. As you view the scene, imagine that Rod is in the same room with Jerry and positioned directly behind him. Note Rod’s pelvic thrusts to the rap music and Jerry’s defeated posture. What do you see? Does the scene reflect any racially divisive fears, beliefs and/or stereotypes? How does this affect the scene’s dynamics?
As we head into the movie awards season, many critics have compiled their best and worst lists for 2011. Due to the subjective nature of the selections, one critic’s gem is sometimes another critic’s dud. Who is to say what is truly best and worst? It’s really all a matter of opinion. I prefer, however, to focus on what and why some films are unforgettable to me as opposed to ranking them. Here is my countdown of 2011’s most memorable movies – for reasons ranging from good to bad to notorious:
- The Tree of Life – Two hours of my life I’ll never get back; convoluted and overrated.
- Jumping the Broom – This should have been a movie on Lifetime – great looking cast, but shallow and predictable.
- The Help – Imitation of Life meets Steel Magnolias. That’s all.
- The Skin I Live In – Not my favorite Almodóvar film, but a thought-provoking examination of identity.
- J. Edgar – This eagerly anticipated Eastwood/DiCaprio collaboration proved to be a major disappointment. How? By favoring flashbacks over a linear narrative, safely skimming the surface in regards to the extent Hoover’s constitutional violations destroyed lives and movements, and therefore missing the opportunity to draw parallels to current domestic and foreign policies.
- Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol – Fifty is the new 35. Thanks to the physically fit Tom Cruise and his daring stunts, I now look forward to turning 50.
- Trust – Though much is borrowed from Ordinary People, this film about an online sexual predator is a must-see for all teenagers and parents.
- The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 – Taking in a Friday matinee with a theater full of truant teenagers was the most fun I’ve had at the movies in a very long time.
- Incendies – A wonderfully told, haunting story that stays with you long after the last frame.
- Kinyarwanda – Though specific to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, its themes regarding forgiveness and unity are universal and timeless.
- The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 – Ironically, my most memorable movie moment of 2011 was courtesy of an Angela Davis interview from the 1970s. Davis’s insightful response resonated deeply in my soul as she articulated what I am often too emotional and/or frustrated to clearly express. In doing so, Davis held up a mirror through which we can see ourselves as we truly are. For that I am grateful.
What are your most memorable movies of 2011 and why? Please share.
Happy New Year!
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“The black woman is the mule of the world.” — Zora Neale Hurston
Being a black woman in America is to be rendered irrelevant, irreverent and invisible on a daily basis. Nowhere is this reflected more than on television and in the movies. We are often shown denigrating each other, raising hell, trying to snare a man à la Flava Flav, or vexing over the identity of the baby daddy. Other depictions include the jump-off, Mother Earth, confidante, tormentor, victim, and objects of ridicule by men in drag. The lack of non-stereotypical, relatable images is why the release of such films as Waiting to Exhale, For Colored Girls and, currently, The Help become major events for many of us. In groups we attend screenings and gather for live and online discussions. Some are just happy to see themselves, while others yearn for realistic, multi-dimensional characterizations that, unfortunately, are few and very far between. Perhaps there is an unspoken wish for inspirational and empowering images – a shero – instead of the usual cautionary tales. As for me, my expectations were tempered long ago.
Seeing the staged production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf for the first time in the 1970s was an unforgettable experience. Blown away by the poetry, storytelling and the performances, I left the theatre feeling rejuvenated and ready to take on the world. I doubted the play with its non-linear narrative could be successfully adapted to film. My skepticism quickly changed to a strong sense of foreboding when I learned that Tyler Perry would be at the helm. From the business perspective, I understand why Perry was selected. His track record at the box office is impressive and he has cultivated a loyal audience. However, Perry was totally inappropriate for the material. His forte is comedy – exaggerated, over-the-top comedy with stereotypes and clichés. His few attempts at drama have been heavy-handed and well-intentioned at best.
Perry’s interpretation of For Colored Girls left me emotionally drained and in need of a nap. The plotlines were thin and the characters were not well developed. There were some great performances, including standouts Anika Noni Rose and Phylicia Rashad. There were, however, missed dramatic opportunities. Yasmine/Yellow (Rose) was denied the chance to confront her rapist. Instead her “redemption” was to slap his cold, lifeless face as he laid in the morgue. The story would have been greatly enriched and more depth added to Yasmine’s character if we had followed her efforts to put the rapist behind bars. Instead a clumsily, contrived situation was introduced to wrap up her storyline. What a copout! In frustration I could only imagine how much more directors like Gina Prince-Bythewood, Kasi Lemmons and Julie Dash would have brought to the production. I really appreciate August Wilson for insisting on director approval before his plays could be adapted to the big screen. Can you imagine Perry or one of the Wayans directing Fences?
In the 1934 version of Imitation of Life, Bea (Claudette Colbert) gets rich from her maid’s (Louise Beavers) pancake recipe. Delilah (Beavers) wants no share of the profits and is content to continue as Bea’s maid. There is a scene where the two women turn in for the night. Bea ascends the stairs as Delilah descends to her room downstairs. That scene summed up the movie: Black people are happy in their place – tending to the needs of whites. That same sense of “selflessness” is present nearly 80 years later in The Help, which begins and ends with Aibileen (Viola Davis) comforting and encouraging white females.
“You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” – Aibileen
Like Delilah, Aibileen is greatly responsible for Skeeter’s (Emma Stone) success. When Skeeter is offered a new job in New York, Aibileen and Minny (Octavia Spencer) assuage Skeeter’s so-called guilt and encourage her to go – as if there was ever a possibility Skeeter wasn’t taking off. Meanwhile Aibileen is unemployed with little to no prospects, and Minny appears destined for a life of servitude with no hope of upward mobility. In my reimagined scene, Skeeter informs Aibileen and Minny about her job offer. She justifies her departure while Aibileen and Minny smile politely and exchange knowing looks. As Aibileen and Minny reflect on the injustice of being used once again, their words wish her well but their eyes do not. That would have been more realistic.
“I found God in myself and I loved her. I loved her fiercely.” – Ntozake Shange
I discovered Nothing But a Man in college. It is now one of my favorite films and the best onscreen depiction of a relationship between a black man and black woman and how it is impacted by racism, loss of income and a child from a previous relationship. Initially, most of my attention was drawn to the commanding presence of Ivan Dixon as Duff. I thought his wife Josie (Abbey Lincoln) was too agreeable. However, with maturity I began to appreciate Josie’s quiet strength and admired how she continued loving Duff, even when he didn’t love himself. In the midst of hate, violence and patriarchy, Josie did not allow herself to be defined by others’ fears, insecurities and ignorance. She retained a kind, loving nature and strong sense of self. Now that’s a shero! It was then that I began to recognize those qualities in many of the women around me like my mother, grandmothers, aunts and friends. This is why I don’t get upset or put much stock into how we’re portrayed and perceived anymore. People who want to believe the worst are going to do so regardless. I don’t need television and movies to affirm me. There are sheros all around me, and every now and then I see my shero smiling back at me in the mirror.
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“You know who should have won. My friends can’t be straight with me! It was rigged. That’s like family. They can’t give it to… a stranger!”
Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever
During a pivotal scene in Saturday Night Fever, Tony Manero (John Travolta) realized that his dance contest victory was more about popularity than performance. Tony was a great dancer, but he knew he had been out danced on that particular night. His friends, however, were not that objective. They voted based on how they felt about Tony. His preferential treatment – though fictional – exemplifies how the Oscars sometimes determines its “best.” It is not always about the quality of the work. At times, in addition to popularity, the determining factors include sentiment and compensation.
As an avid observer of the Oscars for many years, I have experienced countless moments of disbelief. The first one occurred during the 1974 Best Actor contest when Art Carney won for his role in Harry and Tonto against a field that included Jack Nicholson (Chinatown) and Al Pacino (The Godfather Part II). No doubt Carney, a comedic actor and older than his fellow nominees, was the sentimental favorite. The unlikely win by Carney provided a more compelling narrative: “Honeymooners” star conquers drama with Best Actor win! I’m sure the voters also felt that Pacino and Nicholson, unlike Carney, would have more opportunities to be nominated and eventually win. Nicholson would go on to win the following year, and Pacino would finally win in the early 90’s (more on that later).
Another compelling narrative that has been irresistible to Academy voters is: Actor triumphs in directing debut! Such was the case with Robert Redford in 1981 and Kevin Costner in 1990. Ironically, both wins came at the expense of Martin Scorsese’s superior work in Raging Bull and Goodfellas, respectively. Even though Ordinary People is a fine movie that survives the test of time, there is no way it should have topped Martin Scorsese and Raging Bull in the Directing and Best Picture categories. The same is especially true for the woefully overrated Dances With Wolves in regards to Goodfellas.
Then there is what I like to call the “make-up” Oscar which is used to compensate an actor for his or her body of work. As much as I love Pacino, his 1992 Best Actor Oscar was more about recognizing the sum total of his remarkable career, which includes The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon, than his over-the-top performance in Scent of a Woman. Many – and I include myself in that number – felt that Pacino’s Oscar came at the expense of Denzel Washington’s extraordinary turn in Malcolm X. Perhaps Washington’s loss was meant as a slap to Spike Lee, an outspoken Hollywood outsider, or due to the controversial title character.
Nine years later, however, Washington won the Best Actor Oscar for his 2001 performance in Training Day. Yes, it was fun seeing Washington play the bad guy, but based on what I’ve seen of him during interviews and by his own admission, Washington’s performance, ad-libs and all, was not much of a departure from his actual personality. Nevertheless, the Academy did not miss the opportunity to compensate Washington for Malcolm X while at the same time punishing that year’s frontrunner, Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, for behaving “badly” at a movie awards show in Great Britain. Crowe’s Oscar snub was made even more obvious when the film he starred in took home the major awards.
TO BE CONCLUDED…
Part 3: The Illusion of Inclusion
The first time I saw a preview of Tropic Thunder featuring Robert Downey, Jr. in blackface, images of Al Jolson, dancing minstrels and C. Thomas Howell in Soul Man invaded my mind. I immediately filed the movie away into my “not wasting time and money on this” category. However, after favorable word-of-mouth from friends and my growing curiosity, I went to see Tropic Thunder and was pleasantly surprised. It was not the updated minstrel show that I feared. Instead it was a humorous and insightful portrayal of masculinity and the appropriation of race and power in American culture. In other words, who’s the man?
“Veni, vidi, vici.” (I came, I saw, I conquered.) – Julius Caesar, 47 BC
“I came. I saw. I hit him right dead in the jaw.” – Ludacris, 2004 AD
Though the contexts of their quotes differ – Julius Caesar boasted of a military victory while Ludacris battled in the men’s bathroom (as depicted in his music video for Get Back) – the underlying message is the same: The victorious warrior epitomizes the masculine ideal. It was this sense of triumph that Ludacris borrowed when he paraphrased Julius Caesar. Like Ludacris, three of the characters in Tropic Thunder – Alpa Chino, Kirk Lazarus and Les Grossman – appropriate aspects of race and power to enhance their respective ideas of manhood.
“I love the p***y. Hell yeah!” – Alpa Chino
Alpa Chino, the rapper, seems to care only about sex and self-promotion. Like his real life counterparts, Al Kapone, Irv Gotti, and the Academy Award-winning Three 6 Mafia of “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” fame, Alpa emulates gangsters. His name – an homage to Al Pacino – was no doubt selected to add a layer of toughness to his persona by evoking Scarface and The Godfather. I would be remiss if I did not pause here to note the difference between “gangster” and “gangsta.” A gangster is a member of a crime syndicate, while gangsta is more of an attitude. According to the urban dictionary, gangsta is “one who willfully promotes and participates in destructive and self-serving culture in an effort to project a particular image of toughness or to make oneself intimidating.” Alpa is not at all like the gangsta image he feels necessary to project in order to succeed as a rapper. He is neither self-serving, dangerous nor a misogynist. Proceeds from Alpa’s energy drink, “Booty Sweat,” benefit the community and he hides his homosexuality.
“I know who I am! I’m a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude!” – Kirk Lazarus
Kirk Lazarus, striving for greater recognition as an actor, puts on blackness for the novelty of it and to advance his career. He mistakenly assumes that darkening his skin and effecting what he believes to be black mannerisms complete the transformation. However, Kirk’s perception of black culture goes no deeper than the theme song from The Jeffersons. How long could Kirk endure what black men face on a daily basis – passing taxis, DWBs, the assumption of criminality, and having to tone down expressions of assertiveness so as not to seem threatening? Well, if Justin Timberlake is any indication, not long at all. Justin, who greatly benefits from appropriating black culture in his music and manner, was quick to disassociate himself after the wardrobe faux pas at the Super Bowl in 2004. He left Janet Jackson hanging, both literally and figuratively, while he scrambled to reclaim his privilege of whiteness in time to perform at the Grammy Awards. For Justin and Kirk, blackness is a role to slip in and out of based on convenience.
“We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” – Les Grossman
Hegemony meets gangsta in the character of Les Grossman who takes the braggadocio of hip hop and backs it up with power, money and white male privilege. One could easily imagine Les as someone who was bullied and teased once upon a time. Perhaps that is why, even with all his clout, Les mimics the intimidating posture of rappers to strengthen his sense of authority. He equates masculinity with physical toughness and is driven to do whatever it takes to avoid any and all appearances of vulnerability. Les has much in common with some heads of state and corporate leaders who disregard the lives and needs of others in their quest for dominance. While Les appears to be in control outwardly, deep down he is insecure. Unfortunately, Les’s bravado and sense of entitlement do not encourage introspection, so the charade continues.
Alpa and Kirk are challenged about their manufactured personas, while Les is not. Alpa knows very little about the man whose name and image he appropriates. When Alpa’s authenticity is tested by a man wearing a dress, ironically, he is unaware of Pacino’s other roles in Sea of Love and Devil’s Advocate. Alpa is all talk when it comes to being a tough guy and vehemently denies being gay. Meanwhile, Kirk is confronted about his lack of self awareness and accused of stereotyping. He is so immersed in the process of creating characters that he has lost himself. Or maybe Kirk loses himself in different identities because he is unsure of his own. On the other hand, Les is treated with reverence because of his status. Surely, there are those who feel Les is ridiculous and full of himself, but being mindful of retribution, they keep those thoughts to themselves. Disagreeing with Les could result in the loss of one’s livelihood which is why people around him behave obsequiously.
Alpa and Kirk benefit from their respective critiques by daring to be their true selves – Alpa comes out of the closet and Kirk returns to his Australian roots. Les not only remains unenlightened, he is celebrated. Les appeared at the MTV Movie Awards this year dancing with Jennifer Lopez, and talks are underway for a Tropic Thunder spin-off. His popularity reveals much about the “survival of the fittest” values embraced by many in this culture as illustrated by predatory lenders, home foreclosures and tax cuts for the wealthy. Les’s uncompromising, domineering demeanor also provides insight on how America is perceived by the rest of the world. After all, what is more gangsta than invading other countries, interfering with governance and taking over resources?
“Get back muhf***er! You don’t know me like that!” – Ludacris
From Julius Caesar to Ludacris to Les Grossman, the most enduring image of manhood is the victorious warrior – whether the battle occurs in war, the men’s room or the boardroom. By popular culture’s standards, the Les Grossman character is the man. However, Alpa and Kirk demonstrate more integrity by dropping their respective acts and accepting themselves. Fortunately, we are free to define the masculine ideal for ourselves. By my standards, “the man” respects the rights and points of view of others, offers and accepts constructive criticism, and is confident enough to show vulnerability and uncertainty. Most importantly, he is honest with others and himself whether it benefits him or not. Take a moment and consider what qualities epitomize manhood at its best. So again I ask, who’s the man?
“I believe in America. America has made my fortune…”
So begins one of the greatest films ever made, and my personal favorite, The Godfather. There are so many things to love about this movie. Puzo’s writing. Coppola’s interpretation. The sage counsel: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” I could go on and on. Nevertheless, if I had to choose the one thing that makes The Godfather a timeless classic, it would be how it dramatizes the double standards that exist within such cherished American institutions as the criminal justice system, politics, news and entertainment media, and organized religion.
American Ideal: The criminal justice system entitles all citizens to equal protection under the law regardless of race, creed or color.
“I went to the police, like a good American. These two boys were brought to trial. The judge sentenced them to three years in prison – suspended sentence. Suspended sentence! They went free that very day! I stood in the courtroom like a fool. And those two bastards, they smiled at me. Then I said to my wife, for justice, we must go to Don Corleone.” –Amerigo Bonasera
Protection under the law is neither equal nor color-blind. According to a recent report by the Bureau of Justice, the rate of imprisonment for black males is 6.5 times that of white males and 2.5 that of Hispanic males. Contributing factors include the ability to pay for high quality legal services and discrimination in prosecution, the rendering of verdicts and sentencing based on race and class. Unfortunately, the ironically named Amerigo Bonasera learned this lesson the hard way. Despite assimilating and defining himself as a “good American,” in the eyes of the court, Amerigo’s rights and personhood as an Italian immigrant and those of his daughter were deemed less valuable than those of the two white teens who brutalized her.
American Ideal: The police serve and protect law-abiding citizens and enforce the law.
“What’s the Turk paying you to set up my father, Captain?” – Michael Corleone
Indeed, there are corrupt police officers who abuse the law by participating in illegal activities for financial gain. There are also police officers who sometimes perceive criminality where there is none based on their limited perceptions and prejudices. As a result, law-abiding citizens have been assaulted and even killed. Unfortunately, there appears to be no end in sight to this injustice. Recently a Texas jury ruled in favor of a white police officer who shot an unarmed black man on New Year’s Eve, in front of his parents, after mistakenly assuming the man was driving a stolen car. Although Michael was a war hero and still a law-abiding citizen at this point in the story, the above inquiry was answered with a jaw-breaking punch and he was almost arrested. In this instance, “serve and protect” was reserved for mafia-connected drug dealers.
American Ideal: As elected representatives, politicians serve in the best interest of those they represent.
Michael: “My father’s no different than any other powerful man, any man who’s responsible for other people. Like a senator or a president.”
Kay: “You know how naive you sound?”
Kay: “Senators and presidents don’t have men killed.”
Michael: “Oh, who’s being naïve, Kay?”
Some politicians put the interests of sponsors, lobbyists and corporations ahead of the needs of their constituents. These politicians set their priorities based on the financial benefits, be it from industries, such as oil and health care, or deep-pocketed individuals. Vito had quite a few politicians and judges on his payroll, which was evident by the gifts sent to his daughter on her wedding day and his assignment for the “Jew congressman in another district.”
American Ideal: The news is presented truthfully and objectively.
“That’s a terrific story. And we have newspaper people on the payroll, don’t we, Tom? And they might like a story like that.” – Michael Corleone
The integrity of the news is often compromised by subjective reporting, propaganda and personal agendas. Public opinion is frequently manipulated by the suppression of information and contrasting viewpoints. The Corleone Family, through their contacts, reframed the news coverage of the police captain’s murder to shift the public’s attention from the policeman’s murder to police corruption.
American Ideal: Hollywood movies are harmless entertainment with fair and realistic portrayals of diverse characters.
Jack Woltz: “Johnny Fontane will never get that movie! I don’t care how many dago guinea wop greaseball goombahs come out of the woodwork!”
Tom Hagen: “I’m German-Irish.”
Jack Woltz: “Well, let me tell you something, my kraut-mick friend…”
Movies made within the Hollywood film industry sometimes reflect narrow worldviews. This often results in racial stereotypes and perpetuates a cycle of intolerance that is very harmful. The Jack Woltz character offers insights regarding this – from the racial slurs in his interaction with Tom to his life at home where his black servants are in the background, barely noticeable and insignificant. One could reasonably conclude that black characters and possibly other minorities in Woltz’s movies would be one-dimensional and insignificant to the plot. Ironically, Marlon Brando refused his Best Actor Academy Award for The Godfather to protest the treatment of Native Americans by the film industry. Brando stirred up more controversy in 1996 when he described Hollywood as being “run by Jews.” He went on to accuse those in charge of disparaging other racial groups. After much criticism and backlash, Brando apologized for his comments.
American Ideal: Those who observe and practice religious rituals lead godly lives.
“But I’m gonna wait – after the baptism. I’ve decided to be godfather to Connie’s baby. And then I’ll meet with Don Barzini and Tattaglia – all of the heads of the Five Families.” – Michael Corleone
Participating in religious rituals and attending church does not automatically indicate godliness and/or morality. Members of the clergy have been accused of stealing money, committing adultery, substance abuse, sexual molestation and domestic violence. For Michael, agreeing to be godfather for his nephew was not done out of love for his sister, it was a business transaction. Michael used his nephew’s baptism as a cover while the heads of the five families were murdered per his orders. This scene delivers one of the most effective montages in cinema history and establishes Michael’s cold-bloodedness, his point of no return. [A more in-depth analysis of Michael Corleone and his transformation from college-educated war hero to ruthless mafia don will follow at a later date.]
In spite of its imperfections, I still believe in America. I believe in the American ideals of freedom, truth and justice. While it’s true that The Godfather sheds light on some of America’s flaws and hypocrisies, accepting reality is a step in the right direction towards eventually achieving those ideals. Like Michael said to Vito, “We’ll get there…” One day and one person at a time, that is.