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March 7, 2005


Update: Diary of a Mad Black Woman and cultural bias +

The other day, Amy wrote about the dust-up over various professional critics' reviews of the film Diary of a Mad Black Woman. I added a comment to her post, and someone claiming to be Roger Ebert replied to that comment. Whether it was really him or not [Update: It was really him], it seems the issue is complex enough to explore a little further. So, here's the context, followed by my response to Ebert's comment.

My original comment:

it seems to me that there is definitely an element of racism in evaluating a work that aims to be representative of another race against ONLY the standards of the culturally 'dominant' race or whatever. it's like saying brer rabbit sucks because it's hard to understand. i don't know but i'm guessing that's what pissed all those people off...the idea that ebert et al. didn't even bother trying to evaluate it against their standards, something he's actually usually pretty good about.

n.b. i haven't seen the movie or even read the reviews discussed. i'm just reacting to what you [Amy] wrote. sorry if i'm way off base. -ADM

The Ebert reply:

"it seems to me that there is definitely an element of racism in evaluating a work that aims to be representative of another race against ONLY the standards of the culturally 'dominant' race or whatever."

Are you suggesting that African-American films and filmmakers do not have the same standards as those of the dominant culture? That will come as a surprise to Spike Lee, John Singleton, Ernest Dickerson, Carl Franklin and the Hughes Brothers. The standards I applied in that review I would also apply to films from any other culture on earth. -Roger Ebert

Me again:

"Are you suggesting that African-American films and filmmakers do not have the same standards as those of the dominant culture?"

Yes, that's what I'm suggesting, although I might say, "...need not have all the same standards." (By "standard," I mean a measure by which something is determined to be good or right.) I am also suggesting that many female directors do not have all the same standards as male directors and that American directors do not have the same standards as Japanese or French ones. Is this a radical position? Regardless, there are many ways to make this argument:

  • If standards for what constitutes "good" art are not in part culturally specific, then there is only one standard, and everyone should meet that standard, regardless of their culture. And this standard, of course, is created by the "dominant"* culture. Isn't this idea -- that something is bad because it is different -- at the heart of racism?
  • Relatedly, if a race/culture operating within another "dominant" culture did not have different standards, then such things as protest art based on racial/cultural/sexual inequalities would either not exist or be considered worthless, since those within the dominant (i.e., more pervasive) culture reviewing the work would be offended, rather than inspired, and would-be artists would be so content in the dominant culture that they would feel no need to make the art in the first place. This is one of the reasons that we have the "rediscovery" of artists like Zora Neale Hurston and others...at the time these artists were working, the dominant culture was not open to the notion that such stuff was "good." Now, with our different cultural backgrounds, we see that it is.
  • Being part of a different culture affects both the art you produce and your perception of and response to other art. Seinfeld is funny because we (Americans) are familiar with what comes after "Did you ever notice..." If Seinfeld were black and talked all about things that were similarly familiar only to black people, would white people think he was funny? If not, would that make him a bad comedian? Of course not. His jokes aren't funny because they are universally appealing; they are funny because they appeal to a subset of people who share a culture. I believe the same can be true of movies.
  • If you argue that many African-American filmmakers do not have have different standards for their work -- standards derived in part from their racial identity -- it seems to me you're also arguing that their cultural backgrounds do not inform their ideas about what makes a good movie. I think you can surmise from Spike Lee's work that one standard he had when making some of his films is that they should impart a political message (or at least communicate some aspects of an African-American experience). If he didn't believe these things contributed to making a good movie, why would he include them? If that belief didn't come from his experience as an African-American, then where did it come from and why aren't white directors who grew up in the suburbs making movies like Lee's? I don't think you can reasonably suggest that Spike Lee's experience as an African-American has not shaped his standards for what makes a good movie. Can you look at the more political Spike Lee films and say, "A white person from wealthy suburb would have made the same movie"?**

The arguments above mainly deal with the political content of art, but I think you can extend the principles to suggest that "standards" influenced by cultural background involve not just the content of a film, but also its form. (People loved radio shows before there was TV.) I don't know for sure whether cultural differences make certain audiences more receptive to things like dramatic shifts in tone than others, but I do think that the possibility exists, and I certainly think that this receptiveness can be encouraged by favorable responses to the content of the film -- responses I have already said are likely to be influenced by one's background. In the case of Diary, I think Amy's orginal implication is probably correct: the audiences didn't evaluate the movie based on how closely it hewed to genre and narrative conventions; they just thought it was funny and, I guess, emotionally resonant.

Before writing this, I finally read Roger Ebert's review and his follow-up piece. They focus on inconsistencies in tone and the lack of a single character's believability within the context of the other characters. I think Ebert could make a reasonable case that the standard of having consistency among characters is something that is (and should be) almost universally considered a 'standard' for good story-telling. But: plenty of people seemed to enjoy the film (i.e., thought it was "good") despite its violation of this standard. Now, I don't know if the people who feel this way about this particular film are largely black or white or male or female, but -- assuming that they do have something in common culturally/racially (as anecdotal evidence suggests) -- I think the reaction of these audience members, as contrasted with the critics' responses, is evidence that audiences can have different standards based on their cultural backgrounds.

The comment above suggests Ebert would apply the same standards*** he mentioned in his pieces to any movie on Earth. I think that's fair, but I also think it's important to acknowledge that those standards are based in part on cultural background. In his follow-up, Ebert offers consistency of tone as a "standard," and seems to suggest that this is a universal standard of measure, not one based on his cultural background. But, that's what culture is. Your cultural background is made up of things that you often take for granted and assume to be universal, even when they really only apply to you and people like you.**** As such, these "standards" need not necessarily be shared by either filmmakers or audiences.

It's not reasonable to assume that Ebert or any other critic should be able to review films from the perspective of all audiences, but I think the view that one standard should apply to the art of all cultures is not a valid one.

*This word makes me a little uncomfortable. By "dominant," I just mean that the culture is the most pervasive, most supported by economic resources, and garners more attention (academic/critical/msm) than others.

**Let's not forget that the year Do the Right Thing was eligible, Driving Miss Daisy won the Oscar for Best Picture. Was this decision universally acclaimed by African-Americans who must share the same standards as the Academy voters?

***e.g., "a movie should discover the correct tone for its material, and stick to it" [source]

****When I was growing up, I thought everybody had an air conditioner.

ps. Apologies to any CompLit grad students who may be reading this. I only made it through Cultural Relativism 101.

categories: Culture, Movies, Race
posted by adm at 8:23 PM | #

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Tracked on December 30, 2005 5:52 AM


I'm been a Fine Art critic and radlo personality for twenty years.I agreed with Roger Ebert and the other good critics linked to his review a hundred percent. Most Black Fine Arts critics like myself ignore these touring Gospel musicals and Ghetto melodramas.because the producters are won't hire union actors,rob their cast,and
their scripts promote sterotypes. About Mr.Perry's operation I have no knowledge.I am surprized he hired real actors. However in most cases these "productions" are simply methods for laundering drug profits.Also they distract and confused a naive public hungry to see it's own image, from the works of serious Black artist.The real question is why so many of the good actors he hired so desperate for work? Perhaps if Mr.Perry removed his role and let the real actors do their jobs he may have produced a decent film.

Posted by: Nathaniel McLin at March 20, 2005 9:01 AM

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