Backlot Bitch: Are White Authors the Only One Who Can Tell Stories?
To escape the ebb and flow of holiday crowds, I slipped into a familiar theater seat in a middle row to catch Life of Pi, the highly anticipated Ang Lee movie. It's a literary adaptation of Yann Martel's bestselling book, which follows the story of Pi and his recollection of surviving a shipwreck for when he was a teenager. The story is told in flashback: Pi remembers growing up in a zoo owned by his parents, learning about the brutality of the animal kingdom, studying various religions, falling in love. His parents decide to relocate to Canada for better future for their two sons and to sell off the animals in the zoo. But tragedy strikes in the form of a horrific storm that takes his family, leaving Pi alone with a very hungry comrade and fellow survivor.
The movie is visually gorgeous, and we spend most of it in a colorful, entrancing limbo between life and death with Pi (Suraj Sharma) and his carnivorous companion, a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. But the story only starts when a middle-aged Pi meets a French-Canadian writer for the first time. They have a mutual acquaintance who tells the author (a stand-in for Martel) that he should talk to Pi and hear a story that will make him believe in God. It's a haphazard frame that all the beautiful images in the movie can't make up for.
Call it the Forrest Gump technique: A storyteller shares his life story with a perfect stranger who serves as proxy for the audience. This surrogate gets to ask all the stupid questions and have everything explained in laborious detail. Not only does it kill the magic of dreamlike visuals like those in Life of Pi, it clogs the story and takes the viewer out of the moment in order to interject trivial detail. It's also problematic that, inevitably, the perfect outsider is a white writer.
I'll bring up the ghost of The Help, in case you've forgotten. Kathryn Stockett's book and subsequent movie stirred so much controversy that Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer responded to it head-on. Perhaps the most glaring issue pointed out in the critical op-eds was that Emma Stone's character, Skeeter, moves from being a witness to these events to the very reason shit gets real for the upper class. Her fictional book, also titled The Help, is an exposé that sends chills through the heart of genteel white society in 1960's Mississippi. She's not just telling the audience a story anymore, she becomes the story, especially as we follow her family drama and love life. After the death of Aibileen's son and Minny's mean husband is pushed to the background, Skeeter's story dominates, save for the scene-stealing shit pie moment. No half credits for having Aibileen narrate the intro and outro of the movie or to send her off to become a writer. Her story's just started, but the movie ends with Skeeter scoring a job in the big city and Aibileen walking off into the distance.
The IMDB synopsis reads as follows: "An aspiring author during the civil rights movement of the 1960s decides to write a book detailing the African-American maids' point of view on the white families for which they work, and the hardships they go through on a daily basis." Many people had serious grudges against or furious support for this movie. I doubt Life of Pi will rekindle any of these discussions, seeing as no rewriting of history took place.
At least Life of Pi is an improvement in that the stranger doesn't actually come in to rescue Pi or solve his problems. The Help inadvertently created an egregious whitewashing of the civil rights struggle by making Skeeter the catalyst of events. On the Life of Pi cast sheet, the writer is not even given a name, just "The Writer." And while it allows the narrator the chance to interject his thoughts on the events in the flashback, why couldn't they have left the story with the company men during their interview at the end or by having Pi tell the story to his children to pass on his legacy? Or hell, just drop the interjections altogether and let us get lost in an ocean of CGI effects. I know it's the source material, and I may be playing hard to please, but I don't think it's too much to ask for POC characters to tell their own stories. Making it more palatable or relatable for the imaginary white audience of middle America does no one any favors being that people of color make up 42 percent of all tickets sold in the United States and studios are focusing on international box office now more than ever before.
Did this come to your attention at all when you caught Life of Pi? What did you think?
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