How Roger Ebert is Wrong in that Sundance Clip
The clip below has been making the rounds in the wake of Roger Ebert's death last week.
At Sundance in 2003, during the Q&A after a screening of Justin Lin's “Better Luck Tomorrow,” an audience member stands up, talks about the talent on screen and on the stage, then asks, or demands, “But why, with the talent up there, and yourself, make a movie that's so empty and amoral for Asian-Americans and for Americans?”
That's when Roger Ebert stands up. Among other things, he says, “What I find very offensive and condescending about your statement is that nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, ‘How could you do this to your people?’ ... Asian-American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be!”
Everybody loves this clip. The presumption of the one guy, the lusty defense by the other. It's a Hollywood movie in microcosm. We have our villain (the presumptuous bastard), our hero (Roger Ebert, RIP), our stance (moral).
Question: In what way is the villain right? And in what way is the hero wrong?
Roger asks why white filmmakers don't have to justify their choices. They do, of course, but not as white filmmakers. Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese had to defend their choices as Italian-American filmmakers. Philip Roth spent a career defending his choices as a Jewish writer. Of course Coppola and Scorsese had to defend themselves from other Italian-Americans, or at least Italian-American groups, while Roth had to defend himself from Jewish groups. That's the presumption in the above clip. The questioner steps outside the racial lines we‘ve all drawn. He’s a chastising outsider in what is, at best, an internecine affair.
In a perfect world, yes, no artist, no person, is asked to embody their race, even though, in other contexts, such as the big screen on Friday (Jackie Robinson in “42”), and in the book I'm currently reading (“Hank Greenberg: Hero of Heroes”), we celebrate this. But we don't live in a perfect world.
I grew up in Minneapolis, Minn., Scandinavian descent. After college I lived for two years in Taipei, Taiwan, where I quickly realized that if I acted in such a way it wouldn't just be me acting this way. I wouldn't just be an asshole, in other words, I would be an American asshole.
Or would I? I suppose the greater question is this: Do majorities suffer from this type of myopia (seeing the one as representative of the whole) or do minorities only fear that they do? And is this fear its own form of myopia (seeing the majority as one entity) or merely common sense (people are the way they are)? This conversation isn't limited to racial matters, by the way. See: Cars/bicyclists, for example. See anything.
In the above, Roger is mostly correct. Asian-American characters do have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be. But the other dude is right, too. Justin Lin made his characters shallow and empty in a world that's already full of the shallow and empty. For that, Lin has been rewarded mightily by Hollywood. His new movie, “Fast & Furious 6,” opens in May.