White Filmmakers Addressing (or Avoiding) Whiteness Onscreen

A few years ago, on their wildly popular podcast “Bodega Boys,” the comedians Desus Nice and Kid Mero coined the term “caucacity,” which was essentially a portmanteau of Caucasian and audacity. They employed it to marvel at the baffling behaviors of white folks, like a predilection for pumpkin spice anything. Over time, it became widely used internet shorthand for the ways in which white entitlement, flagrant displays of privilege and exceptions that eluded other groups weave their way through our society.

The thing about caucacity is that there are levels to it, and it is safe to say we are at an all-time high. Take, for example, everything about Elizabeth Holmes. The college admissions scandal. The desire to blame anything other than racism for the terror of the El Paso shooting.

Caucacity isn’t just something for Desus, Mero and their fans to process alone anymore. Lately, I’ve been noticing a steady stream of cultural properties addressing whiteness — either head on, as in the case of the period drama “The Nightingale,” or sideways, with a surrealist, abstract bent, as in the horror tale “Midsommar,” both made by white filmmakers.

And what a relief. As a friend put it to me recently, “This is white people’s job now,” meaning that it’s time for white people to start helping one another see themselves in terms of their race and all the undeserved, inherited privilege that comes with it. It’s a self-examination that knows the difference between “woke” and self-awareness, and leans toward the latter. It’s not easy work. “White progressives can be the most difficult for people,” Robin DiAngelo writes in her groundbreaking book, “White Fragility,” because she and others “do indeed uphold and perpetuate racism, but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so.”

In many ways, Claire’s fury is her privilege. She can move through the country relatively easily, whereas the man she paid to help her navigate the unfamiliar terrain vanishes each time white men appear, fearing for his life. He knows what she may never grasp: that despite the cruelty that she and her family endure, he and his people suffer more. When an indigenous woman experiences the same brutality that sets the film in motion, it happens offscreen, demoting its importance. (For all of the outrage this movie has sparked, only the attacks on Clare seem to be mentioned.)

Colonizers, of course, experienced their own cultural conditioning that few popular historical narratives have tried to explore. The film doesn’t so much try to understand their pathology as it does silently and methodically tally the damage, allowing the horrors to haunt and metastasize within the characters — and presumably, the generations to come after them.

Nonetheless, “The Nightingale” is still effective: It unearths the root of settler mentality and violence that so much of history has effectively wallpapered over. The film points a finger directly at the greed of empire, and at the deliberate and elaborate social construction of whiteness to oppress, to ravage, to raze, to devastate, to occupy and to conquer. Kent doesn’t try to rationalize — she simply shows all this in a horrid light, allowing viewers to understand the high cost of their modern-day lives.

In a way, the descendants of those characters take up metaphorical residence in the eerie utopia of Ari Aster’s “Midsommar,” the colorful fun house of a film about a group of friends who travel to a remote area in Sweden for a festival that turns out to be more Marilyn Manson than Joanna Newsom.

As the group arrives in the village of Harga for the midsummer celebrations, they’re ushered into a sun-dappled paradise by a swarm of pink-cheeked, smiling blond people. The scene is supposed to read as idyllic, a reprieve from the gross American capitalism and modernized world. But the homogeneity of the people seethes with a dormant violence. That area of the world had an indigenous population, too, now known as the Sami, whose story echoes all of the stories of peoples who lived on land usurped by colonizers.

As it turns out, paradise is expensive, and the cost in “Midsommar” includes incest, torture, ritual sex and senicide. Although audiences are supposed to recoil as each fresh hell is revealed, no one in the village ever seems perturbed. After all, this is how things have always been done — and nothing is too expensive if it means the preservation of their village’s purity, their rituals and their way of life: a perfect metaphor for the historical violence and legacy of whiteness.

Both of those films contain graphic violence that I don’t entirely recommend to anyone. But I preferred their bloodiness to the Krispy Kreme soft-focus glaze that coated the indie darling “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” a film by Joe Talbot (also white), about the economic tides eroding communities of color in the Bay Area, and the efforts of a character named Jimmie to reclaim his childhood Victorian home (reminiscent of the one the lead actor, Jimmie Fails, lived in until he was 6).

The movie has been heralded as a searing portrait of gentrification, of the brutal ways that black people have been disenfranchised to make way for white progress. But the film suffers from the same unexamined beliefs informing our racial realities that DiAngelo writes about in “White Fragility.”

One of the film’s most triumphant scenes revolves around an interaction between the lead character, Jimmie, and a group of tourists floating by on Segways past his childhood home. The scene reads as grotesquely comic. They can’t even be bothered to walk, you guys! Jimmie watches calmly as the tour guide says the “before the black thing,” this area was largely inhabited by Japanese-Americans until the 1940s, when they were forced into internment camps during World War II. Jimmie interrupts this history lesson to inform them that the house was in fact built by his grandfather.

The exchange is meant to paint Jimmie as our unlikely hero and establish his rightful place in the landscape, no matter how many Google busloads of tech bros arrive. But it also has the unfortunate effect of limiting the ownership struggles in the Bay Area to a black-white binary, continuing the grotesque erasure of the stories of the Japanese, Chinese, Latinx and Native communities that have suffered, and still do.

To make a film about gentrification without acknowledging these waves of migration is as sinister and violent as the fiery, closing scenes of “Midsommar.”

The investment in aesthetics over ethics in “Last Black Man” is perfectly captured when Jimmie and his friend Montgomery make a cake in the Victorian’s kitchen. The scene itself looks as delicious as a pastry — warm lighting and the decadent backdrop of a Pinterest-worthy space. The two share a heartwarming moment as they stir the batter. But they never bake the cake. These are men who need actual nourishment, who need actual meals, and warmth and love. Not just the performance of it. The film has a noble cause — but after a while, the loving gaze of the camera starts to feel perverse.

The film is way more invested in empty caloric scenes like these than in diving deeper into the complicated entanglement of ownership, inheritance and entitlement for displaced folks like Jimmie and Montgomery. The final scenes include a startling revelation about the house that undermines Jimmie’s entire motivation, leaving the story arc as unfinished as that cake.

Aesthetics as activism can be dangerous. And it’s wholly unsatisfying, too. In an interview with Deadline.com, the director said that he was a fifth-generation San Franciscan. “On my dad’s side, he came with that great wave in the ’60s. People that just wanted something to believe in.”

Talbot found Fails’s story worthier than his own. That was a miscalculation. And as grateful as I was to see Danny Glover (as Montgomery’s father) and Tichina Arnold (as Jimmie’s aunt) in, well, anything, I wonder if Talbot would have been better served trying to parse his own family’s role in the gentrification of San Francisco, which accelerated during the wave that Talbot’s father participated in and contributed to the technological boomtown that now consumes the region.

What was Talbot’s father looking for? Did he find it? Who were his neighbors? What were their lives like? Where are they all now? Those questions and pursuits are as fascinating as anyone else’s, and the antidote to this moment that we’re in is not continuing to ignore that.

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