Talking Cultural Diversity

a discussion board for cultural and diversity issues by Thomas Kochman and Jean Mavrelis

Cultural Reality and Stereotypes

By Thomas Kochman - 11.21.2009

The mixed African American reaction to the film “Precious” is a reminder again of what happens when a portrayal of black life draws attention to prevailing social stereotypes of African Americans as a group. One reviewer saw the film as full of “brazenly racist clichés”. Another reviewer talked about what happens when you flatten the black experience by showing only the positive side which “denies our humanity.”

I think the Jewish reaction to the latest Coen brother’s film “A Serious Man,” will be similar. Some Jews will see it as reinforcing stereotypes. My own initial gut reaction was to see it as providing a rationale for anti-Semitism, even and including genocide.  Other Jews will see it, as I also later did, as a defiant film, confronting the public with Jewish stereotypes head on, mocking the mockers, so to speak, and more importantly, a very good film.

Ultimately, the question becomes for groups that have been stereotyped: can the whole truth of an ethnic group be told, one that would show “warts and all.”

The short and quick answer is “yes”, but if the whole truth is to be told then the question is how. Ideally, the public should see any portrait of an individual or family as a slice of life — as one segment of a larger cultural mosaic — and not standing for the collective and varied social and cultural experience of an entire group.

This is easier said than done, however, when individuals are not seen simply as individuals but as members of a group, where the actions of one implicate others of their group and often indict the group as a whole — all of which means that ethnic artists have to be more careful when representing members of their group than white artists for example.

As one reviewer put it, “A white artist can make a film about a family of 10 drug addicts, and the public sees it as a film about a family of 10 drug addicts, not 10 white drug addicts.”

Yet, maybe the appearance of films like \”Precious\” and \”A Serious Man\” by ethnic film-makers is a good thing: a sign of growth and maturity — telling a story that is real for those that live it regardless of the group image it may convey.  Maybe the rest of us are still too squeamish and overly concerned about how our ethnic group is or should be portrayed. Maybe the only criterion that any writer or film-maker should be bound to is the artistic one. If you’re going to tell a story –any story– tell it. Just tell it well.

4 Responses so far

Your commentary reminded me of the controversy surrounding the movie “The Color Purple”. Although the movie was nominated for 11 Academy awards, it did not win a single one (a record). I recall some discussion suggesting if the racial, and gender topics in the movie were the distraction from the fine acting, music, screenplay, and cinematography.

I saw Precious the other day and its intensity nearly split me in half. It was one of the hardest movies that I watched in a long time and I almost got out of my seat at the end due to the intensity of the last scene.

While I do not believe that the life portrayed in the movie is a life that every African-American woman lives, it is the life of a character whether real, imagined or even a combination of both that will resonate with someone in the audience. Could the same story be told through the life of an Anglo-American or Asian-American as well? Perhaps. To be successful, there would be ethno-specificalities that would have to go with the character to add realism and validity to the story and character. Its that realism in those ethno-specificalities that make us uncomfortable.

As an ethnic minority myself, I didn’t look at Precious as a representation of all African-American women. I saw her as an individual given the short end of the stick when it came to life. It was the life of one person being portrayed on the big screen.

Why is it that some people in the majority and minority communities are quick to throw the “stereotype” card on the table when it comes to uncomfortable subjects around poverty, race and sexual abuse as portrayed in Precious? We might as well not talk about religion and politics either because that might make someone uncomfortable and perhaps put Rachel Maddow or Rush Limbaugh out of work as well.

What I want to know is why didn’t people call Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha stereotypical Anglo-American women? And what about our friends living on Wisteria Lane? Where is the truth in that piece of fiction?

I saw the movie “Precious” it was plenty to take in, on one sitting. It is sad that some children have to live life under those circumstances. Life will throw us loops sometimes because of our parents. This type of lifestyle happens in any ethnic background. People are so quick to stereo-type people.
I thank God she was able to overcome her life circumstances. Some people will suck the life out of you, and you are stuck in the cold. Now, how do you come out the cold? The way she would run away with positive thoughts in her mind. That is what kept her going. She was able to move pass the mess in her life and make a new future! She let go of the pass and pushed toward her future! The whole point to the movie, was to let go of the pass! That’s in anybody situation in life.

Linda, I’m appalled that it took no awards – what won that year?
Michael, I agree that cultural nuance makes the personal trauma believable – I do wonder if boys generally, and minorities in particular, get parenting that is rationalized as “toughening them up”. Have you read, “raining cain, saving the emotional life of boys?
Tamika, do you think there is a difference between between accepting the past and moving on, and burying the past and moving on?

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