YOU CAN’T DO THAT. YOU CAN’T TELL A NUANCED, COMPLEX, INTERESTING STORY ABOUT BIGOTRY AND USE BIGOTRY TO DO IT. YOU WILL SHOOT YOUR OWN MESSAGE IN THE FOOT AND RUIN AN OTHERWISE EXCELLENT MOVIE. DOES THIS NOT OCCUR TO YOU? ARE YOU INCAPABLE OF THINKING FOR TWO MINUTES DURING THE SCRIPTWRITING? DO YOU JUST NOT SEE THAT SAYING “RACISM IS BAD” DOESN’T WORK IF YOU’RE PERPETUATING IT YOURSELF?! WHAT THE EVERLIVING HELL — ?!
::Stops. Takes deep, calming breath. Goes for bike ride, reads something, seeks the peace within herself, etc.::
Okay. Let’s try that again.
I went to see X-Men: First Class last night. I actually really, really liked the film — much better than the last two with their increasingly obsessive focus on Wolverine (probably my least favorite X-Man), and their increasingly muddled attempts to tell a good story vs just blowing shit up. I can blow shit up at home on my XBox; when I pay $13 to see a movie in the theater, I want something that engages more than just my adrenal glands. This film did that, with excellent acting on the part of its three male leads (including Kevin Bacon here), good dialogue, good pacing, all that. It was a genuinely good film. (I have some issues with the female leads’ acting, but that’s a rant for a different day.)
But. (Spoilers, and more profanity, from here forth.)
The black guy died first. All the people of color (including those mutants who can’t pass for human, like Azazel and Raven) and less-acceptable ethnicities (counting Erik’s Jewishness here) ended up “going bad”. The lone brown woman in the story, Angel, was intensely sexualized. One of the PoC on the side of the “bad guys” — and in this case I’m referring to the Spanish actor Álex González, who’s likely to read as Latino to American eyes even though he’s European — never speaks a line; he’s just a (mutant-powered) thug in the background. There’s plenty of evidence of institutional sexism — e.g. the CIA director’s blatantly sexist comments to Moira — but none of institutional racism, since I kinda don’t think Darwin would’ve been treated like the other mutants in 1962. The CIA was pro-Apartheid (and pro-Jim Crow, the local flavor of the same thing) back then; I imagine they would’ve kept him and Angel in a separate room from the other mutants at the very least. And as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, the Cuban missile crisis wasn’t the only thing going on in America in 1962 — but there’s no sign in the film that the story takes place in an America gripped by racial unrest. As he puts it, “the most powerful adversaries of spectacular apartheid are a team of enlightened white dudes.”
Yeah, never seen that before.
What gets me is, this was an otherwise thoughtful film. The X-Men franchise has always been stupid about race. I’ve seen multiple interviews in which director Bryan Singer has framed Professor Xavier as Martin Luther King and Magneto as Malcolm X in some kind of cartoonish epic struggle of good vs evil — but this is how people think when their knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement goes no deeper than the three-day unit spent on it in high school US history. (In reality, MLK and Malcolm X were not adversaries, neither was “good” nor “evil” no matter how the white media framed them at the time, and both of them changed drastically over the courses of their lives.) This film was smarter. For the first time I saw a hint that Singer has dropped that “MLK vs X” dumbassery in favor of a more complex characterization. I especially loved how Erik’s open amorality was contrasted against Charles’ unexamined amorality-in-denial (the dude mind-wiped a woman without her consent; I would really like to know whether he thought twice about doing it, though I suspect he didn’t). Also, Charles’ privileged background and its impact on his pie-in-the-sky thinking, versus Erik’s traumatized realism. I especially loved how Raven/Mystique went through the full cycle of racial identity development over the course of the film, and how much of that struggle was framed in terms of her determination to be accepted and considered beautiful in her “natural” state — something I can very much empathize with.
So this movie was close to being perfect for me, and that sooo close feeling is intensely frustrating. All the producers had to do was put just a little of the thought spent on the film’s allegorical treatment of race/ethnicity into its actual treatment of race/ethnicity. I know that not every character can get the depth of exploration that the leads did. I know we’re dealing with Hollywood here, and Hollywood’s all about the white guys. But how motherfucking hard is it to not kill the black guy first? To let the brown guy speak a couple of lines? To let the brown chick put some damn clothes on for a minute?
The answer is, it’s not that hard. If you don’t have blinders on about your own racism, while telling a story about race.