• Zach Youngs

Cinematic Empathy

Film can inspire great empathy. It gives the watcher a point of view and a way to look at the world that might not be their own. You just have to let it do the work. You have to be open to those new ways of thinking You have to be receptive that this experience is based in reality even if it's not the reality present in your own life.


I used to be unreceptive to anything that wasn't a part of the canon. I revered this fabled and vaulted list, this list of white, straight, cisgendered men was the end all be all of film for me. I avoided filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Singleton who popped up occasionally on that list because they made "black" films. I thought of it as being respectful, "They have their movies for their audience," but I was ignorant. I assumed the majority of these films had no merit because they weren't talked about, but really it's that they weren't talked about because they weren't respected by the white arbiters of taste. The majority of these films weren't and aren't seen as equal to that of the contributions made by white men. It's staggering the volume of work that goes ignored because it features few, if any, white faces. For as long as there has been film, there have been black filmmakers.


It comes down to exposure. The first time I heard anything quoted from Friday (1995) or House Party (1990), was by another white kid. I only ever heard white kids talking about it. In the '90s and early 2000s there was a boom in cinema created by black filmmakers. It was a popular with many people, but the only films that got real press were the hood films. Hood films have a message about the violence and the crime in inner city black communities and a lot of them starred popular rappers and musicians. My only exposure to these films, other than their place on the wall at Blockbuster, were the white people in my life that glorified them. It made me dismiss them as not "real" works or not "actual" film, just a distraction for middle class white kids who want to be edgy.


When I finally ran out of the classics I pretended to love, I finally sat down to watch Do the Right Thing (1989), which I'd skipped every time it came up on a list. After watching it, claimed I liked it so that no one would be mad at me for my actual conflicted feelings. I reacted to it with a closed mind. "Is this how black people see America? Why didn't Radio Raheem just turn down his music? Why are all the white people racists? Why would they destroy their own neighborhood? Why can't Mookie just let things go?" The barriers I had were my own racial bias coming through, my own privilege. I tried watching it again several years after and I liked it better. At that point I had seen more of Spike Lee's films (The ones that were more mainstream like The 25th Hour and Inside Man), but those barriers were still there. I was still mad at the ending, but not at all mad in the way I was supposed to be. It took the movie Southside with You (2016), several years later, for me to really get it.


Southside with You is a fictional account of the first date between Michelle and Barack Obama. Though, some of the facts of the date remain true, including the two of them going to a showing of Do the Right Thing. After the film Michelle and Barack run into a white couple that they know and the man describes how he didn't like the film and expounds about why with some of the same language I used to justify my dislike of the film. While both Michelle and Barack are seething with anger at this sentiment, Barack diffuses the situation and the couples part. The discussion afterward is eye opening. I had been working hard on expanding my ideas about film and voice for a couple of years, but I still hadn't revisited Do the Right Thing. I watched it as soon as I could and I suddenly saw what I never saw. I watched the scene where Radio Raheem is killed by a police officer and suddenly he was Michael Brown, he was Philando Castile, he was Tamir Rice, he was countless other black men and women killed senselessly in the name of law and order. Radio Raheem begged us for help three years before the beating of Rodney King was caught on tape and he spoke to me years later, telling me its nothing new, that this has been a cancer in society from the beginning.


It's easy to ignore the systemic problems when your view is skewed. In the many films that deal with race that are produced, directed, written and starring white people, the real issue, the real crux and emotion behind the problem, is skipped in order for something neat and tidy. These types of film ignore the historical depth of the era in which they take place in order to make a a feel good movie for white people. People like me were brought up on these films. We were spoon fed them and we felt better knowing that people changed, that the world was better. We got to take a breath, lean back and say, "See, there were good people back then, not everyone was a racist. I'm glad we don't live in a world like that anymore." These were the films that studios were willing to produce and these are the films I consumed and the world I accepted.


Getting into the retail workforce I was suddenly in the midst of a diverse group of people, much different than the bubble I grew up in. I learned a great deal by listening and talking to people I would have never interacted with and found kinship with them on a level I hadn't before. I wasn't suddenly cured, as happens in those white savior films. I didn't suddenly lose all semblance of racial bias, I just finally had people to call me on my bullshit. There were people around to let me know that my words and actions have power greater than I knew. I delved deeper into culture, into different points of view. I made a habit out of getting out of my comfort zone. I expanded my new perspective into my private life of film. What I found among the different voices was a deeper meaning to an experience I will never have.


With Selma (2014) I got to see civil rights struggle moments in a level of detail and impact I've never seen before. In Dear White People (2014) I learned of the diversity within the black community. In Fruitvale Station (2013) I saw a life lived before tragedy. Moonlight (2016) taught me of black masculinity. I saw a passionate, flawed, and powerful voice I wish I'd learned more about alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in Malcolm X (1992). I watched the most beautiful and heart-breaking loves stories with Love & Basketball (2000), Beyond the Lights (2014), Waiting to Exhale (1995), and The Photograph (2020). I saw the most fantastic of heist films with Set it Off (1996) and Widows (2018). I learned of micro-aggressions from Get Out (2017). I have seen the pain, struggle and ghastly horrors of slavery from the slave's perspective in 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Harriet (2019). I have seen the pain, struggle, and ghastly horrors of the lives of modern black people in Boyz n the Hood (1991), Juice (1992), Dope (2015), All Day and a Night (2020), and dozens of others. I watched as one of those inner city youths spoke truth to the power of a king in Black Panther (2018). There's a wonderful creative renaissance happening in film that gives more power to marginalized voices.


Despite the new emergence of black creative voices there's still a great deal of work to be done for our society. We need to educate and empathize. Cinema is a great and powerful tool to build empathy. Filmmaker D.W. Griffith found that out first hand after he released his epic love letter to the Ku Klux Klan, The Birth of a Nation (1915). After the film's premiere the Klan saw a spike in membership. Their ideas and their influence were given credence again. Statues and tributes to "The Lost Cause" popped up all over the southern United States. The battle flag of the Confederacy was revived and reused as a symbol of white supremacy. It's no wonder that in his film BlackKklansman (2018), Spike Lee juxtaposed the induction ceremony and subsequent viewing of Nation by members of the Klan with a story of a lynching that took place in Waco, TX, the year after Nation was released. The two events, the film and the lynching, aren't necessarily connected, but it's hard not to see that a mainstream film, an epic, big budget, blockbuster film has deep effects on the psyche of a populace. As much work as I've done to overwrite this psyche in myself, my first thoughts still come from a place of privilege.


I will never truly know what a black person in America goes through. I've done a lot to battle my implicit biases, but there's still a great deal of work to be done on myself. I'm a movie lover and a devourer of film. It helps me to understand the world and the more I see, I hope, the deeper my empathy becomes. Yet, that means nothing if I can't put it into practice in my real life. My best intentions are nothing if I can't act when it matters most and if I can't be the voice of dissent among people who feel safe around me to express their privilege.


*In case you want to expand your cinematic knowledge to the superior films made by black filmmakers over the decades, here's a link to Slate's article about the Black Film Canon, which includes their collaborative list of the 50 best films made by black directors.

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