Monthly Archives: July 2014

Lucy: Why I’m Tired of Seeing White People on the Big Screen

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I’m tired of seeing white people on the silver screen.

First, let me note that I am white. I am a white woman who goes to the theater to see probably a dozen films (if not more) in a given year, a white woman who readily consumes TV shows and series and often blogs/tweets about them. I love film. I love what Hollywood could be, but I must say that I don’t love what it is, and that is a machine generating story after story in which the audience is asked to root for a white (usually male) hero over and over and over (and over) again. I’m tired. I’m tired of directors pretending that white actors are the default and that people of color are a distraction when it comes to filmmaking. I’m tired of black women in Hollywood being relegated to roles of slaves and “the help” over and over again. I’m tired of films convincing themselves that they are taking on something fresh and new, the likes of which the world has never seen, but in actuality adhering to tired tropes and stereotypes.

One example that comes to mind is Avatar, a “groundbreaking” film about aliens and humanity, which, underneath it all, is the same old White Savior story. But more recently is Lucy, the film starring Scarlett Johansson in which a woman named Lucy evolves and is able to use 100% of her brain’s capacity after she unwittingly ingests a massive amount of drugs.

Lucy is about what humankind could be: it’s about possibilities. As Lucy’s brainpower grows stronger and the volume of knowledge she is able to access increases, she delivers monologues about how little humans understand about death, existence, and the universe, mediating on time and history. The film likes to think of itself as reimagining everything that we think we know about humanity, and presents to us their vision of what the most evolved woman on earth looks like:

A blonde white woman.

See, I just can’t get right with that.

You see, I was an anthropology major in high school and by the time I was 16 I’d learned all about Lucy (Australopithecus), the collection of bones found in Hadar and thought to have lived 3.2 million years ago, one of the oldest hominids we know of. Lucy the film doesn’t try to hide how cute they thought they were being by naming the supreme evolved being in their film “Lucy:” they show an ape-like creature crouched by a stream to illustrate just how far human beings have come, and say as much in the opening lines, depicting vast cities built up to show our progress. The original Lucy was not really an ape, though: she had small skull capacity like apes, but her skeleton shows she was bipedal and walked upright like humans. Hadar, by the way, is in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia.

So I guess what’s sticking in my craw is the assertion that while human life originated in Africa—a detail the film neatly skims over, placing the ape-like Lucy that Johansson sees in North America—somehow the way we imagine the most evolved human being is blonde and white. Even more, when Lucy gets surges of knowledge in the film, her eyes flash brightly blue. Because blue eyes, we all know, are the universal symbol of superiority, right?

How is it that in a film whose premise rests on the idea of reimagining the past, present, and future, we still end up with a blonde white woman with flashing blue eyes as the stand-in for what personifies evolution and supremely fulfilled human potential? At one point the Ape-like Lucy and Evolved Lucy meet face-to-face as Evolved Lucy does a bit of time-traveling. Their fingers touch, and we see them deliberately posed to mimic the famous Creation of Adam painting, and in that moment I saw what I suppose we were supposed to see: humanity at its beginning, and then humanity at its end, at its most perfect. Blonde, white, and blue-eyed.

I can’t accept that. I can’t accept that there was only one black woman in the entire film, who delivered one line and who we never saw again. I can’t accept that the bad guys were Asian and that although in China, Lucy’s roommate says, “I mean, who speaks Chinese? I don’t speak Chinese!” I can’t accept that in Hercules, which I also saw this weekend, there were no people of color except for Dwayne Johnson himself and his mixed-race wife, whose skin was almost alabaster. I can’t accept that she got maybe two lines and was then murdered. I can’t accept that the “primitive tribe” in Hercules consisted of dark-haired men painted heavily, blackish green, to give their skin (head-to-toe) a darker appearance, so the audience could easily differentiate between good and bad guys by the white vs. dark skin. I can’t accept that during the previews, Exodus: Gods and Kings, a story about Moses leading the Israelite slaves out of Egypt, where not a single person of color is represented, casts Sigourney Weaver and Joel Edgerton to play Egyptians. I can’t accept that in the preview for Kingsman: The Secret Service, which takes place in London, features a cast of white boys and not a single person of Indian descent, which make up the largest non-white ethnic group in London. I can’t accept that in stories about the end of the world and the apocalypse, that somehow only white people survive. I can’t accept that while my daily life is filled with black and brown women, they are completely absent, erased, when I look at a TV or movie screen.

I can’t accept that. And I can’t accept that when we think about the potential of humankind and what our brains are capable of doing and thinking and feeling, that people of color would be absent from that imagining. I can’t accept that. And I won’t. I’m tired of seeing people that look like me crowding screens both big and small: I am not what the world looks like. Hollywood, stop whitewashing characters. Give us more films like this year’s Annie. I’m no Lucy: like everyone else I’m only using a tiny amount of my brain’s capacity. But you don’t need to be a superhuman logic-machine to see that Hollywood has a major problem with depicting people of color, and it’s time to actually reimagine what the world can and should be. 

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Ranting, Process, and White Girls in Dystopia: 4 Questions with Olivia A. Cole

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The amazing and talented Jenn Jackson (who recently interviewed Janet Mock) passed a blog tour baton to me, an exercise that is linking writers and bloggers together and provides their readers with a way to learn more about the people whose work they enjoy. This is timely, as I field a lot of emails from readers who want to know more about what I’m working on and why I write what I write. So here you have it: four questions, and four answers. Enjoy.

1) What are you working on?

The thing that takes up most of my writing time these days is the sequel to my novel, Panther in the Hive, which is currently untitled. I’ve had a lot of people ask when it will be finished, but that’s not a question that I can easily answer at this time. But I can say this: Panther took three years, and the sequel will take nowhere near that long. The storyline is mapped out through to the end and I’m about halfway finished writing the book itself. It’s coming!

Besides that, I do continue to write poems when inspiration strikes. In fact, a poem of mine is currently a semifinalist in the 21st Annual Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Awards. (If you’re in Chicago and want to attend the reading, it’s on July 23rd at the Chopin Theatre. Click the link for more information. I’d love to see you there.) Then, of course, there are my blogs. I try to do a blog a week but that’s not always possible. However, I love blogging and try to give it time and energy whenever I can.

Finally, I am working on a young adult series starring a female protagonist as well. That book has barely been born, but it stays at the front of my mind because I think it’s an important one to write. More on that soon.

2) How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

Well, for starters, my characters are people of color, and generally that is hard to come by in the science-fiction/post-apocalyptic genre. There are, of course, geniuses working in that genre such as Nnedi Okorafor. But overall, non-white characters in apocalyptic settings are annoyingly rare.

I’d also venture to say that my writing takes itself far less seriously than a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction. While I explore themes of humanity, racism, and violence, at the heart of my work is a thread of fun and excitement. Writing is fun. The worlds I create are exciting. I think the sense of humor that works its way into Panther in the Hive, for example, is somewhat rare in its genre.

3) Why do you write what you do?

Oh, this question always makes me a little crazy because I never know how to answer it. I don’t set out to write the things I do, I just…do. It’s always been this way. That question needs to be more specific anyhow. Why do I write books that feature characters of color? Because almost all of my friends, heroes, and influencers are people of color. Besides, does the dystopian genre really need one more love-crazed white girl running around in it? Nah. Why do I write fiction that takes place in the future? Because the present depresses the hell out of me. Why do I write fiction that is strangely funny and references a lot of pop culture? Because I love comedy and pop culture.

Or, if we’re talking about the ranty blogs that I write, well, that’s even easier to answer. I write ranty blogs about movies, people, etc. because when something infuriates me—and so many things do—I have to write about it. It’s a compulsion, one I’ve had since a child. I’ve stopped trying to tell it no.

4) How does your writing process work?

If we’re talking about fiction, then usually ideas strike me like lightning. One minute they don’t exist, and the next minute they do. From there, I just….begin. I just have to begin. By the time the idea strikes me, it already has something of a body, so I write in its legs and arms and eyes and so on until it can walk a little on its own and then I see where it leads me. Then I keep writing. I force myself to write every day, otherwise it may not get done and then the thing sits on my back and guilts me until I return to it.

Once an entire draft is finished, editing begins. That takes a long time. Usually there is a lot of cutting because I’ve written a bunch of things that suck and need to be removed. Panther in the Hive went through about 100 different drafts. If not more. I’m sure its sequel will be close, although I’m a better writer now then I was then (I hope) so maybe it will be less.

As for blogs, they’re a lot easier. After I see a film like Transformers or Single Moms Club, the problems are very apparent and hang in my head like light bulbs until I switch them off one by one. This “switching off” can only be accomplished by writing the blog, addressing the issues point by point. I usually don’t have to edit much for blogs. Rants tend to enter my mind in a very complete form. That makes it a lot easier.

There you have it. Stay tuned later this week or next for another rant from yours truly. Until then, if you have questions about my process or work, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll answer as many as I can.

Finally, I will now pass the baton to two other writers who I respect. Danielle Koon is the first, a writer based out of DC who is working on her first novel, The Docks. The second, Maggie Gray, blogs over at Colorful Adventures of a Gray Girl, exploring themes of womanhood, sexism, and life. Looking forward to reading their responses to these questions.

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5 Reasons People With Brains Shouldn’t See Transformers: Age of Extinction

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If you’re one of the people I refer to in the title of this blog—that is, people with brains—then you are probably already aware of the things that make Michael Bay one of the most vile and overrated directors in Hollywood. Explosions substituting for character development. General cinematic bloatedness. You know these things. But in case your instincts need a little sharpening, I will save you your money—and a precious three hours of your precious life—by providing five handy reasons you shouldn’t go see the new Transformers movie. You’re welcome.

#1 Michael Bay Once Again Proves That His Understanding of Women is Mere Millimeters Deep

With every movie that Michael Bay makes, he further proves that he not only hates women, but possesses the qualities of a panting 14-year old boy with acne and a public erection. His understanding of women is disjointed and stumbles between the two sexist binaries of Madonna and whore: the female lead in Transformers 4—I won’t say heroine because then I’d be a liar—reels between half-naked party girl whose skin provides 25% of the film’s panning shots and nagging wife-figure who is pure and cares only for the welfare of her helpless daddy. As the film goes on and real action starts to take place, the girl gets fewer and fewer lines. In fact, I believe an entire hour passed in which she didn’t say a word: just screamed, gasped, and moaned in fear. The last half of the movie was full of close-ups on her sweating, crying face. When she finally did get a moment of action in the last ten minutes of the film, it was 30 seconds long and completely underwhelming, seeming to exist grudgingly, added in as an afterthought so that her character does something other than hide and weep.

But creepier still is the fact that Bay chooses to make her young age a focus point of the film. He smugly references Romeo and Juliet clauses, as if to cover his pedophilic tracks. “See guys, the fact that I’m forcing you as an audience to spend almost 3 hours ogling a 17-year old girl is legal. Romeo and Juliet clause, baby!” Michael Bay is rich enough for therapy. I wish he’d go.

#2 Michael Bay Once Again Proves That He Believes Explosions Are the Key to Good Filmmaking

Guys, I’m not kidding. Explosions. This movie is almost 3 hours long and I’d wager that 50% of it is just shit blowing up. It’s an action movie…I get it. Explosions and chases and crashes are part of the game and ordinarily I love it. But a five-minute shot of a car overturning and smashing other cars is overkill. Ask yourself, is it possible that explosions can be boring? Michael Bay makes it possible. Trust me. In the lifetime I spent in that movie theater watching Transformers 4, I looked at my phone four different times to check the clock. Is it over yet? The explosions washed over me in waves of monotony. Never have I felt so apathetic about things catching on fire and being launched into the air. I literally yawned as a car flipped through the sky during a ten-minute motorcycle chase in which no real stunts were performed. I yawned. This is a problem.

#3 Michael Bay Once Again Proves That He Has No Problem With Racist Stereotypes

Remember the Transformer twins in Revenge of the Fallen? You remember…the jive-talking, illiterate, violent autobots that were criticized widely? Well, Bay didn’t learn his lesson. Age of Extinction features a samurai Transformer with a heavy Japanese accent who calls Optimus Prime “sensei.” Oh, and his face is made of yellow metal. Need I say more? Also, another fun racist fact, my fiancé, who has done karate for over twenty years, pointed out that samurais are Japanese but when the samurai autobot bowed, it was the traditional clasped-fist bow, which is Chinese. Bay doesn’t even do his research, apparently. An Asian autobot is an Asian autobot, right? (And made to have a yellow face? I mean, come on.)

#4 Michael Bay Once Again Proves That He’s Got Issues With Masculinity

Casting Mark Wahlberg to play a nerdy inventor is kind of a funny choice. Wahlberg’s character is supposed to be a tinkerer, a guy who builds little robots and hopes to invent the”next big thing.” But in the mind of someone like Michael Bay, that kind of guy isn’t masculine enough on his own: he needs to be someone muscular who can also punch people in the face and shoot guns and ride spaceships. At one point, Wahlberg crashes a spaceship in downtown Chicago, wrecking a car. A nerdy man with glasses and average biceps gets out and delivers a “funny” line about hoping Wahlberg has insurance. What does Wahlberg do? He makes a big macho declaration, cracks open a beer, and threatens to shoot the guy. No, not kidding. That’s what he does. Because BIG TOUGH GUY IS COOLER THAN SMALLER NERDY GUY WHO CARES ABOUT WIMPY THINGS LIKE INSURANCE. Guns! Beer! <scratches armpit>

#5 The Writing is So, So Bad. So Bad.

I actually stayed in the theater even longer than necessary so that I could glimpse who was responsible for writing this script. His name is Ehren Kruger. Ehren, wherever you are…stop. Please. For the good of mankind. The Transformers call people “bitch” (because aliens are familiar with misogynist epithets) and deliver the most pathetically limp one-liners I’ve ever heard. Optimus Prime, known for his speeches, delivers monologues more likely found in a badly-translated anime film than in a Hollywood feature. The plot holes…well, the entire film is a plot hole. The narrative coherence…well, there is no narrative coherence. Ehren, give me a call if you need a consultant for next time. (God forbid there is a next time.) I’d be happy to brush you up on creating female characters who exist outside of a misogynist binary, and we can discuss these one-liners too, because right now they’ve got about as much zing as a can of SPAM.

There you have it, folks. I hope I saved you some time and money. But hey, if you’re a masochist, knock yourself out. If you can stay awake.

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