Monday, May 11, 2009

Racial background vs. foreground: Seven Pounds

This weekend I saw the film Seven Pounds. It came out this past December starring Will Smith and with the same production company that produced Smith's Pursuit of Happyness.

And I was struck by the way that the film featured, in the background and the foreground, so many people of color.

[SPOILER ALERT: Although I will try NOT to give away too much of the film's plot/ending, there may be inadvertent spoilers that come up, so if you want to see the film without knowing any specific details, STOP READING NOW]

The star of the film, Smith, is African American. As is his past love interest (which we see in flashbacks). His current love interest in the film is played by Rosario Dawson (which means that her character can be interpreted as either Latino or mixed-race African American or just simply African American). Woody Harrelson (white American) plays the role of a blind man, Barry Pepper (white American) is Smith's best friend in the film--and his partner/wife is African American. And other characters whom Smith encounters in this film (which I should note here takes place in Los Angeles) include Spanish speaking/Latino (probably Chicano) characters, African Americans, and white Americans.

[Aside: Curiously enough, not a whole lot of Asians featured in this film--which always puzzles me, like in two other LA setting films, Hancock and Crash--this is a city chock full o'Asian Americans so how come they don't feature as prominently or when they do, they almost always appear as stock caricatures--and here I'm thinking of the Vietnmaese accented criminals who open Hancock and the Chinese immigrant couple (speaking Chinese and Chinese accented English) in Crash.]

In one scene in particular, Smith's character speaks in Spanish to a Latino woman, not because the woman can't speak English but seemingly to demonstrate that she can trust him -- that he quite literally speaks her language. And Smith, who it turns out speaks a smattering of Spanish, has a very good accent.

Unlike Crash, race, or perhaps its corollary, racism, isn't central to the film in the sense that this is a film ABOUT race. What I mean is, the characters don't talk about their racial identities. They don't talk about discrimination--and, in fact, quite pointedly I think, the one stark inter-racial couple, the white best friend of Smith's character and his black wife, are introduced to the audience while playing golf. I mean lets face it, if you were going to find a scene where you'd have a racial clash or comment, doing it on a golf course where you have an inter-racial black-white couple with a black man showing up in the middle of the fairway seems as good a place as any.

[Aside: I should also add that it struck me as odd--the golf scene. Not from a racial pov, but because when you play golf, you usually don't have random people in suits walking up to you on the fairway to have a conversation--and they were standing on the middle of the fairway, and I must admit that the golfer in me wondered what the other players were thinking about Pepper and Smith's character just chatting away on the course, and why the marshall didn't come out and tell them to keep play moving or ask Smith to leave, but then again there are A LOT of things about this film that causes you to pause and question the logic, which is another thing I suppose I should mention for anyone wanting to see it.]

One of the interesting things that I realized, as I saw these various characters unfold and get introduced and fleshed out through the course of the film is the use of race as a tonal element. Similar to Hancock, there are various characters of various races introduced. But what seems distinct from Hancock is the prominence of minor characters who are major to the film being people of color. In other words, the people of color in Seven Pounds are in some ways peripheral but also very important to the film to show that Smith's character lives in a world populated with people of different ethnic backgrounds who are part of his intimate inner circle as well as random strangers and acquaintances he encounters in his day to day life. Race, as a tonal element in this film, suggests what a mixed-race American looks like where people are just people and are defined by their function within the film (doctor, lawyer, best friend, golfer, aeronautic engineer, printer) but not by their racial or ethnic attributes/identity.

As I noted above, there are some logistical anomalies or problems at the heart of this film, so to speak. But it's also an incredibly philosophical film about the nature of life and death. And perhaps, given my recent melancholy mood, it was what I needed or wanted. The unexpectedly interesting introduction of so many different characters of color just living their lives in this film made it a bonus for me -- and made me realize that Hollywood really IS capable of doing this--of incorporating more characters of color in both the background and foreground--not to introduce the issue of race but to more accurately reflect the fact that for many of us, we live in mixed race worlds where people of different races just are.


Genepool said...

I saw the movie several weeks ago with my wife and while we enjoyed Smith's performance, the overall premise of the story didn't agree with my wife and made me roll my eyes on a couple of occasions.

As for any race aspect, it was very transparent to me. Meaning I never really noticed race in any way throughout the movie. It was never made an issue of and so I never paid attention.

I did recognize some of the elements you mentioned, such as Smith speaking in Spanish to ease that battered woman's perception of him. Only obvious to me because we used to do the same thing with Spanish speaking inmates when they were having a "bad day". They simply responded better to people who spoke their first language.

The black/white interracial couple may have caught my attention at the time, but again, it wasn't made the central theme of the movie and so I was able to focus more on the dialogue and plot.

I admit Jen, I don't think I would enjoy watching a movie with you where quiet was not expected. Between the two of us I think we'd pick it to pieces so badly (for different reasons) that we'd have to re-watch it.

I didn't notice the lack of Asian characters either, but I don't really look for race when I watch a movie. Except in the new Star Trek. But that's another movie...

Having given it some thought, there really isn't much in the way of Asian representation in ANY aspect of the entertainment industry. Odd, that.

I was checking my YouTube subscriptions on Mothers Day and was watching a video by Jennifer Chung that she did for her mother. I have been watching her videos for some time now along with many other talented folks who choose Youtube to showcase their talents (or lack of). And since you are annoyed by the lack of Asian representation in our media, I thought I'd link her here. I first saw her do a cover of "New Soul" and thought she was rough, but pretty good! She has since done a more professional video and that's what I am linking below.

uglyblackjohn said...

What IS up with the Asian thing?
"Baby" was on the same level as American History X, Menace to Society and American Me - But the film got no love from anybody.

But what I noticed about both movies was that both heroes had their weaknesses.
Hancock had Charlese Theron,
and in Seven Pounds it was a Christ-like feeling of having felt virtue leaving him (as when the women touched the hem of Christ's robe) whenever he aided someone.

But both films were (mostly) beyond race and dealt with more universal issues.
Kinda' how I'd like things to be.

Jennifer said...

I did like the film, but there IS a logical flaw at the heart of it, which Southern Man tells me to just ignore and suspend belief and enjoy what is in front of me. But I often find it hard to do--and oddly enough it's science fiction where I find it hard to do this especially--or fantasy. If I figure out a flaw/fallacy EVEN THOUGH I KNOW THE WHOLE THING IS A FANTASY I can't enjoy it. I can't quite remember which movie this happened in recently...anyway, since my race radar is tuned to all things racial, that's why SEVEN POUNDS caught my eye, so to speak, even though by the end I turned to Southern Man and said, "That would NEVER happen because of _________"

I think we'd be like the two old guys in the balcony of the Muppet show if we watched a movie together. Not so much fun for anyone else, but vastly entertaining to the two of us (although you are right, we wouldn't really "see" much of the film).

And thanks for the Jennifer Chung clip--I liked it and think she has some talent, although at 20, I also think there's a maturity lacking in her voice (and demeanor) but then again, I'm an old fogey at nearly twice her age.

Yeah, Asian under-representation in Hollywood is just par for the course at this point, although it's a good question as to WHY it persists. There's some fantastic Asian American smaller, independent films or ones that didn't get the release they should have (like BABY). SAVING FACE is another one I thought was great that didn't get a lot of play.

Interesting analysis of the "Christ-like" role of Smith's character. Much more to say but don't want to give away too many spoilers. I do think that when we cast people as people and don't just look for an "Asian" woman in her 20s who plays violin in casting calls or when someone like Smith plays a lead role but it's not necessarily a "black" role or a "black" film, that's when we can start making strides in terms of thinking about a real mixed-race America.