Denzel Washington is......Sidney Poitier

Has anyone yet made a serious film that accurately depicts the average black South African? It occurred to me recently that the reason local films fail to captivate is that they are not consistent with reality. Apart from the fact that they fail to hold my interest, much more importantly, these films cannot shed any light on the South African predicament.

SA films all to some extent convey a picture of very similar peoples who happen to have different colours of skin. All the strife between them are made out to be a legacy of Apartheid or the result of age-old distrust, lack of knowledge or indiscriminate racism in general. Blacks in SA films are white people with black skin. How insulting this must be to them.

The films portray a race with similar morals, humour, fears and ambitions. It’s a nice thought, but it’s also utter bullshit. These films are mostly aimed at SA whites, because they constitute 99% of the film going public. It makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside if we hear it’s all just one big misunderstanding. Meanwhile back at the ranch my gardiner is collecting frog's eyes and harvesting the genitals of a young child to give to his witchdoctor, who will then proceed to cure his impotence.

The reality is that when I walk past a black man in the street, I recognize nothing in the windows to his soul. To white people, this man’s eyes are impenetrable and devoid of empathy. That is not to say he is devoid of empathy, only that the divide in culture is so great, his body language is illegible to the white man. But how can you have genuine empathy for someone you don’t understand? I cannot speak for blacks, but I imagine the white man is just as enigmatic to them.

As soon I realize a local film or film about SA tries to say that beneath the skin we are all essentially the same, I'm almost relieved: sitting through another trite mediocre film on racism is narrowly averted. Trying to fool everyone including ourselves that we are all made of the same stuff is ironically only deepening the chasm. If however, we could really appreciate our differences in culture, politics, communication and just about everything, the conflict could either quickly be resolved or the minority can be swiftly eliminated. Either way, let’s get this over with.


arcadia said...

firstly: what do you consider to be the 'south african predicament'?

i think what south african films are trying to do is not shy away from the reality of the history of this country and the effect it's had on all involved, but to acknowledge that it is going to take time for things to change. is there still a lack of knowledge and some indiscriminate racism? of course. do you expect artists to just skim over the most obvious culprits in our collective history and just make up some new reason why we experience the problems (race related, crime related, or otherwise) that we do?

and do you seriously believe that the fears, humours and ambitions of the black race in this country is so different from that of the whites? you are mistaking culture with human nature - our perspective on things and the way we go about living our lives may differ (although i doubt that it even differs that much) but inherently, when it comes down to human nature, there's much more similarity than there is difference.

you're also not taking into account the big class differences that are there in this country - you compare yourself to a (probably) illiterate gardener with little or no education, or exposure to different strains of thought (which, by virtue of having attended a normal model-c school, which you probably did, you probably were exposed to). i doubt that if you met a white gardener with the same background as the black gardener that you would actually get along with him better, or feel more of a kindredness. i can assure you that your ideas on things or aspirations for life are not that different from your black counterparts, which in this case (not knowing you) i guess would be young upcoming professionals of some industry.

i think something very important that you seem to be missing is the fact that people often respond to us according to the way we look at them or treat them. are you seriously surprised that you would see no empathy in a black man's eyes if the way you feel towards him is so clearly devoid of any true effort at bridging the chasms between you?

lastly - have you at all seen films such as yesterday, tsotsi, u-carmen-e-khayelitsha or even documentaries such as sophiatown of amandla?

i cannot understand your critique of south african films if some of the above are what you are referring to.

b said...

Thanks a lot for you comment. Harsh words, but I guess I had it coming.

I’m sure you know the South African predicament is very complex. I’m not even going to try describe it, but because I am part of it, I think I understand it to an extent.

I definitely don’t expect filmmakers to skim anything. That’s my whole point: I want unadulterated reality. I don’t want average blacks and average whites laughing at the same jokes and communicating comfortably because this is not reality. I want them to tell the story of the black man who simply has nothing in common with me. I don’t think he is getting the exposure he deserves. I’m not exactly sure what you mean by this question (in your second paragraph), I think we actually agree on this. I apologize if I didn’t express myself very well. [Off the topic, butwhat do you think are the most obvious culprits?]

Yes, I do believe they are very different. Whether you want to call it culture or human nature, my point is that the divide is different and bigger than films would have you believe. That’s MY experience of it. Yes, we all get hungry or thirsty or need money, of course, but these are these commonalities that are going to draw us together? Can we drink a beer together and reminisce about that time we both ate? There’s a huge difference in the mindset of a guy that blows one of those horns for the duration of a soccer game, as well as 20 minutes before and after. He’s making a statement that I can never understand. Similarly, I’m sure that 99% of black people find cricket ridiculous (who can blame them?).

What exactly do you mean I’m not taking the class difference into account? I’m taking EVERYTHING into account. I’m looking at the end products: the average white man and the average black man, who are the sum of everything that ever happened anywhere in the universe. I never said that blacks are genetically materially different from whites. The gardener example I was specifically referring to witchdoctors! Do you know many white witchdoctors? I can’t provide an example, but I’m convinced there are many well off blacks that visit sangomas., so it’s most definitely not JUST a class issue. Yes, there is a massive class difference, but knowing this does not make it easier to relate to the average black man. I don’t quite get how it changes my views if the difference is due to class. Substitute “low income working class” for “average black man” if you wish. My main point is that this group of people is not being truthfully represented.

You doubt I’ll EVER meet a white gardener with the same background as a black gardener. But if you mean a white gardener that comes from a very poor white family and who grew up in a poor white neighbourhood, you are wrong. There will instantly be more of a connection. We share a language, a body language, traditional music, television shows, books, religion (and consequently value system), rugby, cricket etc. Each of those little things add up and the sum is greater than the parts. I might end up liking the black dude a lot more, but it will take time a lot of time to cross that bridge. And that’s my point: in movies they make it seem very easy. Just get over your racism and you’ll be best buds for life. In my opinion the problem is more about different wavelengths and cultures than racism. The different wave lengths LEAD to racism. Your statement about my professional counterparts strikes me as irrelevant. My point is that the story of the average black man in relation to his surroundings is not being told. I may very well think exactly like a lot of young, professional black guys. But they're hardly average (in the most general sense)blacks.

How do you know I don’t try to bridge the chasm? How can you possibly deduct that I miss the point that people respond to the way I look at them? Especially since I am making a big deal about the way I feel when confronted with a stranger with whom I can’t relate? I wish you would take the things I say at face value, and not assume racism behind it. I’m criticising films, not blacks. I wish I could demonstrate to you I am not racist, but when anyone tries to prove that he/she is not racist, he/she ends up looking even more racist (“Many of my best friends are black”).

As far as the films you mention are concerned – you’ve got me there. But those are all relatively recent films (I think). I suppose I’m actually talking about just about any drama on TV, but I have seen this phenomenon in movies as well. Perhaps films are getting better at it. I will try and keep an eye out for examples. And some of the films you mention are on my shortlist. I think the reason I have not watched them is exactly this uncomfortable feeling I tend to get when I watch movies with this sort of theme.

I’m sick of westernisation. I hate it when black women try to make their skin whiter, or force their hair into this straight Darth Vader cut. Or when Afrikaans singers sing in an American accent. Films do black people a HUGE injustice if they are not portraying them truthfully. You clearly have a larger knowledge of local films than I do, so if you tell me this has changed recently, I accept that. But can we agree that a filmmaker should portray the average black EXACTLY like the average black person is, and that doing so is in everybody’s best interest? I often get the feeling that the director is trying to win sympathy from his (white) audience by making the black guy too white.

I think I've already protested to much, so I'll stop now.

Adriaan said...

Ek stem heeltemal saam met arcadia
jy baseer jou veralgemening op verskillende informasie wat rond en bond aangehaal word van verskillende bronne en buite konteks gebruik word in n argument van culturele identiteit en en let wel kommunikasie van kleur soos jy so rats geilustreer het, soos n dab agterblad cartoon wat eensinnig verstaan word saam met karringmelk beskuit jou botter gat.

Kom ons los average vir die straat braai
en die komplexities of being black or white rather two those who care and can.

ps assumtion is a powerfull tool in film or rather in any type of communication
mr indifference

en op n ander trant biekie lavender vir memory en n raaisel vir die educated witchdoctor kidz daar buite

raai raai riepa geel is my piepa
groen is my doedel sak
waar aan my piepa hang
raai raai
wat is dat?

Adriaan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
arcadia said...

take this from an artist - there is no such thing as unadulterated reality - if you create you create from a certain perspective, and that perspective will automatically include certain things while others will be left out. and while blacks and whites laughing about the same jokes (which in my experience is not such a far fetched idea at all) is not the only reality, i think other scenarios are also depicted in the current media (referring then to television since you've excluded the films i've mentioned). recent series' such as hard copy, hillside, zero tolerance and others go a long way in trying to portray a balanced take on reality. especially a show such as hard copy, which i consider one of the crowning achievements of our post-94 local content, has never opted for the easy way out by resorting to cliched depictions of life in democratic south africa, but has always tackled the real thorns in the flesh and examined all the many facets of the troubling situations we face living int his country.

again, you are confusing the carnal necessities of human nature with the elements that we all, regardless of race or culture, are in need of. hope, security, love. that stuff stays pretty much the same, and my guess is that if you are willing to put aside your preconceived ideas you might just discover that in a black person. unfortunately people are often too scared to do this because it would immediately nullify their whole tired argument of how the culture is too different for us to ever really see eye to eye, which i think is bullshit. if we are not willing to at least make an effort to try and understand why someone else lives or reasons the way he does we will never see any true progress in this country.

i do actually know white witch doctors. i also know well-off, educated white people who believe (what i perceive to be quite ludacrous) things such as that the earth is flat. seriously. does this mean that i will automatically not get on with these uppercrust intellectual afrikaners just because they believe something i find to be strange? i seriously doubt it. same goes for the middle class black man who visits a sangoma - i might find his beliefs weird but that should not override every other aspect of his personality and hence my interaction with him.

if, like you say, the different wavelengths lead to racism, i believe it is because we are not willing to try and understand how someone from another culture lives and reasons. ignorance breeds contempt.

to end, looking at the issue of representation in film again - i think you are oversimplifying the matter - in a country with so many different tribes and tongues who all happen to have black skins, can we really try and reduce all that into one condensed 'average black person'? for that matter, what would an 'average white person' look like? and i think there ARE shows that are not, as you say, whitewashed copies of seeming black reality, such as muvhango or mponeng, or even isidingo.

b said...

Take it from a scientist that there is an objective reality to the extent that science works. If I take a handicam and record my family's daily life (home video is also art I'm sure you'll agree), then that is surely closer to reality than creating a film that depicts them as serial necrophiliac rapists who are into classical music and enjoy skydiving? But even if there isn't an objective reality, then I am conveying MY reality.

Tell me this: Is an Afrikaans man who does ballet, hates rugby, and plays with barbies the average? If you can answer no to this, it implies that there is an average.

Why don't you want to concede we're all different, some more than others? Yes, there's huge overlap, but there are also crucial differences. My point is simply that in my opinion (ok some) films and dramas are not depicting the difference accurately. Of course there are all types in just about any group one can define, but would you be satisfied if every black person on TV was a judge or a doctor? I'm not saying they can't be, just that at the moment, to a large extent due to Apartheid, it is not the norm. The fact that you know white witchdoctors is irrelevant, it doesn't mean it's the norm.

I never said we are too different to ever see eye to eye, only that in my opinion the depiction of blacks is inaccurate.

Any description of any group of people or even person will always be a gross simplification. For the sake of argument one has no choice but to generalize.

But your view does come as a relief, and I will most definitely give SA dramas another chance (esp. since your knowledge of local drama is obviously far superior to mine). So thanks for that.

[you know people who believe that the earth is flat???]

dcm said...

This is very informative. I assume hardcore right-winged opinions are still afloat in South African society. At the same time, real effort by some artists and scientists are definitely bridging the above mentioned chasm. An SA racism indicator will be quite interesting (preferably race delineated).

A lot of reference is made to the average film, the average black man and the average white man. b, I do not agree with your choice of using “elimination”. Change is taking place.

If you are an average person with an average IQ your average TV programme will be average. Why reinvent the wheel? South Africa was TV backward, while it developed into one of the most prosperous industries abroad. It makes economic sense to duplicate their success strategies.

I do not like watching TV, but have been told I’m missing out on some good stuff. I’m just not prepared to wade through the pain of average TV to get to the good stuff.

South Africans are in a position to express, with sheer brilliance, in theatre. Attend SA theatre.

arcadia said...

i never said we're not different. but i maintain that it's not only on account of culture or skin colour, i feel just as alien to many people whose language, colour and culture i share.

and i encourage you to watch some of the local content, you might be pleasantly surprised. in my experience, like your title suggests, it is the americans or the british who tend to get not only black identity, but south africa as a whole, very wrong in their depictions of us in their films.

yes, i know very educated Afrikaner people who belong to the Flat Earth Society.

Adriaan said...

As jy die helmut het dan het ek het die camera

Sien julle by die volgende kaskar race

en ondersteun julle local bioscope tapesets
meskien sien ons nog static van ons hunourabe working sportsmembers

En stop herassing the makeup lady for fuck sakes :-)

b said...

Kyk wat se bruin mense ironies genoeg oor 7de Laan karakters:


GN said...

I like this one. So tru. But no white person in SA (well I can only speak for SA) is willing to openly admit that they really don't have a cooking clue what the black/indian/etc man is about. If they just openly admitted it, then we wouldn't have to interact with each other on this superficial level. Everyone has to act white in order to interact in a civilised manner, otherwise it's not deemed as acceptable behaviour.

Anonymous said...

I think what b says is exactly right. He is a brilliant and brave boy. Film and literature give us a unique opportunity to 'get into' the mind and world of another, increasing our capacity to empathise. (Like, I used to think all rap is shit. Then I watched 8 Mile and realised that not all rap is shit.) And like b, I would very much like to improve my understanding of other people, such as men, black people, Asians, christians, prostitutes, serial killers, saints. There is little opportunity for me to do this in everyday life (I don't meet many prostitutes, saints or serial killers; men typically don't talk; as to black people and Asians, I struggle to understand them because we don't share the same language or culture.) I don't think all blacks or all Asians are the same, so I realise that one good movie is not going to allow me insight into all blacks or all Asians.

It is true that films typically depict black people as whites with black skin, which is insulting to them. (Even in Tsotsi, which is a remarkably good film, some of this goes on. But also the other way round: Ian Roberts is shown to be fluent in Tsotsitaal, please explain). That does not help me to understand or appreciate our differences. Sure, I suspect that in many ways we are the same, but I won't know how until I have a better understanding of these people.

b said...

Thanks gn and anon, whoever you are. Good to know i'm not alone in this view.

Anonymous said...

More on cultural differences:

I teach at an English university which has become popular with Asian students. So I get messages like the following:

Hi Liezl

I am really to tell you that my home had been stolened, so I am not sure if I can join the test tomorrow.
Really sorry about that.


Such messages don't cause too much of a problem, apart from making me worry whether the student is capable of passing the course. We share a common human vulnerability to being the vicitms of crime, so in this sense we are very much the same. I too, have been touced by crime.

But then I get messages like this:


Last night I had loose bowels, average less than one hour i should go to toilet.... oh, my god! So i can not attendance today's lecture...Thx!


What am I to make of this? Is she an idiot, or just delirious? Is she That Kind of Person (social misfit), or is it a cultural thing?

As you can imagine there is plenty of opportunity for misunderstanding in our communications with each other. When in class I refer to say, a horror movie to illustrate a point, it appears that the horror genre functions in an entirely different way in (some?) Asian cultures, so my point is lost. When I talk about the Mona Lisa I can't assume that everyone knows what it is.

Hell yes, of course we are very different, and it has a lot to do with culture. I have more in common with the Christian girl down the road who doesn't drink wine and still speaks with a Pretoria accent and drops fokken traktaaktjies in my mailbox and wishes we could have a lekker sokkiejol in New Zealand. At least if she talks about her loose bowels I will know that it is entirely inappropriate, and that it is not a cultural thing.

(Profile: not so young, quite white, and quite South African).

b said...

Thanks for your comment Liezl.

Hoe was die sokkie toe?

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