I've decided to explore in writing my thinking in response to having read Whose Fantasy? Whose Fantasy? by Wendell Bernard Britt Jr. I picked it up from this morning's digest from Medium.com.
My Summary of Whose Fantasy? Whose Fantasy?
- In Hollywood films of the fantasy genre, black people have been relegated to subservient supporting roles in fantasy when they are portrayed at all.
- The outrage by some whites over the casting of Rue from the Hunger Games as a black character (which is exactly how she is described in the book) indicates a larger cultural bias that sympathetic characters are expected to be white.
- Fantasy is the timeless mythology of our age. It is a space that allows us to contemplate a concretization of the nature of good, evil, heroism, and what it means to be a person in society.
- The fantasy genres, however, suffer a lack of imagination in the portrayal of black people. They are never the central heroes, only subservient side characters, and these portrayals only serve to impoverish black imaginations of what is possible for themselves.
- In casting John Boyega as protagonist for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, JJ. Abrams and the casting team are portraying a black hero. This is a turning point to be celebrated.
Act 1: Art to Overcome A Stifling Reality
This is a brilliant piece of writing by the author, Britt. I find that I agree with the author on many points, especially on the important of mythology as food for contemplation and inspiration of what is possible.
Britt presents that what needs to be added to the culture of our age is black protagonists in speculative fiction. The totality of his ideas resonate for me strongly as true with some parts as questionable, and I intend to explore both.
Act 2: On Chickens and Eggs
Britt finds this to be true: Art has great power. So do I. And so does Ayn Rand. She shares this about the nature of art:
Man's profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e. that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man's fundamental view of himself and of existence.
That’s a big mouthful to say that art lets us get “hands-on” with our values: What's important and what's not? What's good? What's evil? What’s the nature of existence?
What I want to explore is the claim that black people need to see black people in the role of the hero. On balance, this seems to hold true in a more universal sense: We relate best to characters that are similar to us.
But do the heroes need to be black to be relatable to blacks? I’m not sure.
Britt asserts that portrayals of black heroes in fantasy would help a great deal and the persistent portrayals of blacks in subservient roles does harm and lacks imagination. He states that fantasy writers and film makers are guilty of a lack of imagination in their portrayals of black people.
In a literal sense, he is right. However, it’s worth observing that a failure of imagination occurs on the part of the black person who is defined or constrained by portrayals of black people as subservient. Even if the portrayals are persistent, eventually one hopes that a bold outlier emerges from the trend and shatters it.
Britt claims that by changing the art, black people can imagine better. But he also holds that art imitates life. So what truly has to budge first? Life or art?
Seems like a chicken and egg scenario. And really it could be either.
Which means we have a stalemate and an opportunity. I can think of no better proof that race doesn't get to “have the final say” on our lives than to hear stories of successful black people overcoming the circumstances even with the stories and films as they are. These are the sorts of struggles that forge true heroes. In the bitter reality of life, the obstacle-laden path may be the only way.
Act 3: Awesome Asians
A question that has come up for me is, “to what extent do I rely on artistic portrayals of people who look as I do?”
I'm not sure that I am exempt from its importance. To examine this, I ask myself whether I can think of heroic characters who look as I do.
My parents are from Vietnam. I was born in the USA and because of this I am an American citizen with a very American perspective. Now, let's assume that my asian identification is a bit stronger than I believe it is. If I were to try to think up examples of vietnamese heroism the only person I can think of is the Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. One could do a lot worse than that.
But why stop there? Let's expand that to people from the many East Asian countries touched by China's influence. Now we're cooking with fire! Bruce Lee: Wisdom and Power. Martial artists and ninjas! The trusted and softspoken elder. Teenage boys piloting robots in anime!
My quick mental survey shows that I am not starved of artistic portrayals to which I can relate.
But what if I consider the question of whether I relate strongly to characters that do not look as I do. If I include Western art, I find that maybe the asian-ness of the heroes doesn’t much matter. I am able to relate to James Bond, and Harry Potter, and Austin Powers, even though I am not white and definitely not English.
This is what it means to me to be a man of the world. Though, perhaps I benefit from knowing where I come from even if I never go visit.
Act 4: Stolen From Africa… Brought to America
When the history of your people includes being packed into a boat and shipped to a different continent, as my family was, you can almost predict that it be difficult for that people to connect with the their own history in a meaningful and emotional way.
For black Americans, though, there are additional considerations. Slavery means a totalitarian obliteration of culture and disconnection with the past. It means the most outspoken and intelligent of your people being murdered. It entails a long term stifling of the spirit.
No matter how hard I try to empathize, there is no way for me to fully appreciate the experience of such a profound disconnection with the past. Britt's article reinforces for me that everyone needs art in a profound way, and I believe that black Americans especially need it because of this history. So when Britt suggests that people who make art, and especially film because of it's visual nature, have a unique opportunity to do good by creating heroic depictions where the protagonist is black, I can understand why it makes sense to call for it.
Britt observes that The Force Awakens does have a black protagonist and he applauds JJ Abrams and his staff. I applaud them as well. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to pick some nits about Britt’s ideas on neutral characterization.
Act 5: … and The Importance of Race In Characterization
For speculative genres, race is a wholly unimportant aspect to characterization. This is to say that for characters like Frodo Baggins or Luke Skywalker, there is nothing that would prohibit them from being black.
I agree with Britt that the film makers (or authors) could just as easily choose to cast a black protagonist instead of a white one. (And between you and me, a black Luke Skywalker might be more believable as the son of James Earl Jones. Just sayin’)
But if race is "wholly unimportant" in the case of speculative fiction, if it is utterly neutral, it also means that film makers may lack a driving reason to cast black people rather than the whites they already know and with whom they have a long history of work. While it’s true that many artists are moved by reasons beyond profit, the film making industry is all about profit and is not fundamentally about "the imagination and production of a fair and equitable society". This is a challenge.
Moreover, some may not wish to risk audience backlash. For instance: I, myself, get annoyed when I think that a film maker has cast a black person in a role for the purposes of beating me over the head with “what a wonderful thing diversity is”. This is a gut reaction, I’m aware, to paternalistic political correctness, which I find stifling and oppressive. But I can cut myself some slack because someone else decided to make race an issue where it is not material to the story and, as such, violated my sense of aesthetics in a very distracting way.
I concede that white supremacy is really sneaky and it's hard to see it, especially in yourself. But I also don't care to have my art polluted with distracting cultural messages. Art should aim to be profoundly true first and foremost, cutting away anything that distracts or detracts from the story.
Act 6: Facts Should Inform Characterization
Along these lines, the best stories have deeply integrated characterization. By this I mean that all of the facts of a character contribute to who that person is and how he/she acts in the world. When we talk about race, it would be deeply flawed to expect that everything is the same except for skin color.
Race and culture are intertwined. And culture entails a certain way of doing things. This means that the story of a protagonist should be influenced by how he/she was raised and what his/her elders believed and what kinds of hurts they experienced along their journey. So long as there are cultural differences, white characterization and black characterization ought to be different in rich and interesting ways. This can lend the characters authentic voices.
Would I like to see more black heroes? Yes, if the stories are good. But I also don’t want to feel like I’m being spoon fed multiculturalism as an end in itself. I’d like to see some new stories which feature deeply integrated black characterization. That would be so much better than an accidental, last-minute substitution of a dark-skinned person into a culturally neutered role. I would hope that the cultural backdrop of the protagonist shines through to the his/her actions and decisions.
This is a sort of work that would have artistic integrity. Maybe it’s too soon for that, but that is what I would want to see.
I believe Britt has done an outstanding job with his writing. He has clearly identified a cycle of limited imagination and, in so doing, has made it much easier for people to avoid it completely. I truly deeply appreciate what I have thought about in the course of writing and editing this.
I still think it's important to get to a point where race doesn't matter. But I can also understand how much better life can be when you're inspired by art that feels personal.