Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Calm Down, "Boyhood" is Not Racist

Ellar Coltrane
It is likely that if you've been paying attention to the Oscar season, you'll know how much director Richard Linklater's Boyhood is expected to win at Sunday's awards ceremony. What you'll also probably be aware of is the controversy that has risen in the past week revolving around the film's alleged racism. If this comment makes you step back for a second, it's for a good reason. While the film doesn't feature a single act that is necessarily offensive, a writer over at Latino Rebels is taking offense to the depiction of Mexicans in the film. While her points are valid, it is really hard to back up her opinion with assurance.

This awards season has been plagued with ridiculous race issues since the nominations came out. Consider the Oscars So White that immediately launched claiming that because of a predominantly white year that the Oscars were in some ways regressive and undeserving of appreciation despite an impressive track record in the past few years. It's far from perfect, but it's far from regressive and the fact that people complain about the "white guilt" Best Picture winner Crash (which won 10 years ago this year) only adds insult to injury. Apparently race is harder to talk about in America than many would give credit, especially if one wants to attack Boyhood.

Grisel Y. Acosta claims in a piece called "Racism in Boyhood is the Worst Kind" that the film has a subliminal sort of racism. At one point in the film, the mother (Patricia Arquette) is seen talking to her gardener (Roland Ruiz) and suggesting that he go to take some night classes and improve his lot in life. In the film's third act, many years later, the gardener is shown to have a prominent role as manager of the restaurant that the mother and the two children are at. He thanks her for convincing him to make something of himself. Acosta's claim is that this is basically the white heroine trope that has been present before in films such as The Blind Side (a Best Picture nominee from 2009). She also points out that this is the only depiction of Mexicans within the film and that since this is Mason's (Ellar Coltrane) perspective that his lack of diversity suggests that he is in fact racist.

This is true. The gardener is the only Mexican of note in the film and the role could be perceived as white heroine despite not playing into any other racial stereotypes. However, there must be attention made to the film's structure in order to see it as something more complex. Boyhood is about the passage of time. It makes this abundantly clear, notably in the third act when it turns to reminiscing on Mason's childhood. He is seen holding conversations with his father (Ethan Hawke) detailing the complexities of growing up. There is even a scene where father takes Mason to watch a band perform and they make it abundantly clear that Mason has grown up so much. If the film has any faults, it is that it acknowledges its gimmick too much towards the end.

Which brings us to the gardener. Let's ignore the white heroine theory for a moment. In a film that suggests progress and growth, it only makes sense that they would want to show it in unexpected ways. We see mother's ex-husbands turn into drunken wrecks (another pejorative) and disappear from the narrative. The film suggests failure outside of the frame by seeing who is missing at the end. While there is limited emotional attachment to the gardener at any point in the film, it was important to see someone succeed in order to show the passage of time. Had the person been white, this would be such a non-issue. Because of the gardener's race, it suddenly becomes problematic. However, it was crucial to the film because it also helped to show the mother as being influential to someone. Throughout the film, mother is secondary to father in almost every moment. She has a thankless task, which makes it odd that one of her only moments of gratitude in front of her children is to a man who is likely long forgotten in Mason's memory. 

Then there's the hot button issue of general racism. Not much is done in the film otherwise to suggest this other than the lack of racial diversity. Yes, it is an issue that plagues contemporary cinema from its critics. However, the only reason that the gardener is brought into question is because he is the only person to have a significantly familiar progression. If one were to revisit the film, the reality would show that there's actually some diversity. It isn't enough to wipe away all race complaints, but it's enough to suggest that Mason and his family are in fact not racists. True, they are growing up in the conservative state of Texas and have a very cliche patriotism (Mason gets a gun for his 16th birthday). Still, if there's any racism, it isn't representative in the casting.

For starters, the mother was a teacher who confided in a woman named Professor Douglas (Angela Rawna). While her role may seem insignificant and unmemorable, she in no way suffers from the white heroine cliche. She gives the mother advice as she tries to navigate the waters of teaching. Likewise, there's another person closer to Mason that appears momentarily during his high school years, notably in the infamous scene where a group of friends are sitting around throwing saw blades at a board. Mason's friend (Jordan Howard) isn't white and takes the butt of as many jokes as his white counterparts. While he becomes inconsequential after this, he pops up randomly throughout the high school scenes, most notably at a football game.

The easiest interpretation of Boyhood is that it is a perspective of Mason from the ages of 6 to 18. The perspective shifts from how his parents influence his life to finding his own personality. It is about the people who convinced him to follow his dreams. To claim that Mason's one non-white friend gets short changed is to ignore that his other friends share almost as much screen time. People seem to come and go in Mason's life unceremoniously, much like the gardener. While there's criticism on the film's depiction of race, it lies outside of the frame entirely and ignores the director's initial vision. Yes, there could be more diversity, but to single out a Mexican and the white heroine cliche is a little much and finding trouble where there really isn't any. It is a broad overview that ignores intentions and the rest of the film, which encapsulates a study in time and how it changes us. There are several white figures who succumb to personal tragedies throughout the film, yet this isn't a cause for alarm. 

Is Boyhood racist? No. It is a vision of a child who doesn't think of such issues with a sense of maturity or clarity. In fact, a lot of the film's problems lie in only covering his outermost desires, barely convincing us why he loves photography. It has a lot of trigger moments that manage to click and inspire later moments within the film. However, there's nothing to suggest that Mason is in fact racist. He's just young and spouting the naive philosophical quotes that all teenagers speak. It is to help him find a voice that empowers himself. Sure, the white heroine moment is jarring, but it is meant to show both progress in unexpected ways while painting the mother as a hero, which she rarely is throughout majority of the running time. This is an example where race discussion feels tacked on to sabotage a film that had no intention to offend or challenge the subject at all.

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