My dad has always joked about having no culture. He moved around a lot as a kid, and was never forced to participate in religion – or household rules of any kind, really. Sometimes he lays on the Delaware pride, his irony-tinged way of honoring the state he was born in. “Go Delaware!” is a common phrase in our house.
Delaware may not be anyone’s ideal vacation destination, but it is culture. Culture is where we come from, and everyone comes from somewhere. The family we grow up in, the town we live in, and the society we live in all impact our beliefs, which dictate our actions and ultimately determine who we are. Therefore, all movies have culture. A movie without culture is a movie without characters! This is the end of my article. JUST KIDDING!
Often, conflict in movies is rooted in cultural differences. This is not always the case, there are plenty of movies where both characters are from the same cultural background. Here, the characters argue over their individual interpretations of that culture.
You can’t argue over culture without first establishing it. Moviemakers are responsible for crafting culture with intention – every detail matters, from the color of the walls to the friendliness of the neighbors. Napoleon Dynamite is a great example of a movie with an established culture. It takes place in a rural town with few distinct landmarks, the only consistency amidst a great variety of townsfolk. Even though Napoleon and his brother grew up in the same wood-paneled house, they both have very different agendas in life.
Talk about Yourself
Culture can be done right or wrong. Culture done wrong is cultural appropriation, what usually happens when somebody accidentally (or intentionally) depicts a culture other than their own in an offensive way. The goal is not to do this, especially not to minorities who have decades of underrepresentation and racism to deal with.
A great way to avoid cultural appropriation is to focus on one’s own experience. This is why we need so many more non-white filmmakers in America – they’re simply the best at talking about their lives. Let’s look at two highly-rated movies from the past decade: The Big Sick and Get Out.
Kumail Nanjiani of The Big Sick collaborated with his wife to write about their relationship, and how difficult it was for Nanjiani to go against his parent’s wishes and pursue a relationship with a non-Pakistani woman. They claim to have been very careful about picking people to collaborate with on the movie because they “didn’t want to have to appeal to anything but [their] own instincts.” That sounds pretty genuine!
Jordan Peele’s Get Out is also in some ways biographical, because it features a black man who is in a relationship with a white woman. Peele, a biracial man of African-American descent, is married to a Chelsea Peretti, a white woman. In an interview, he described Get Out as “simply his truest passion,” something that allowed him to “deal with [his] own fears.” The fear in this case would be dating outside of his race.
Consider the Audience
Even though Get Out and The Big Sick were made with honesty, they still face the issue of getting audiences to empathize with non-white actors.
On NPR, Peele addresses this by saying, “the fear I’m pulling from is very human, but it’s not necessarily a universal experience, so that’s why the first third of the movie is showing, and not in an over-the-top way, in a sort of real, grounded way, just getting everybody to be able to see the world through my protagonist’s eyes and his fears.” Viewers have got to care about the protagonist, even if they can’t relate. One way to do that is by taking us through the day-to-day activities of the protagonist, almost as if we were experiencing life with them.
Nanjiani speaks about a different approach, one with no bad guys. He told an interviewer, “we really, really did a lot of work in making sure there were no bad guys in the movie and that their perspective is just as valid and just as articulated as mine is.” When the actor who plays Nanjiani’s father tells him, “the American dream isn’t about doing whatever you want to do. You still have to care about your family,” we can better understand Nanjiani’s motivation to please his father. He’s not only honoring the tradition of arranged marriage, he’s showing loyalty to his family.
The Big Sick is generous to all of its characters, regardless of ethnicity or cultural background, so nobody in the movie theater feels left out. This is not a suitable approach for every movie, though.
Crossing the Line
Lost in Translation is a movie about feeling alone. There’s no better place to feel alone than in a bustling foreign city where you don’t speak the language, like Tokyo. Scenes that portray the Japanese people in an unflattering, garish light are useful in describing communication barriers, but also deeply hurtful to Japanese viewers. Because of these scenes, several columnists of Japanese descent have deemed Lost in Translation unwatchable.
Still, Japan is a metropolis. It’s bursting at the seams with tourist attractions, successful ad agencies and bumper-to-bumper traffic. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johanson are along for the ride, often barely keeping up. Lost in Translation respects Japan’s presence, and uses it as an example of humanity’s technological advancement. It’s a beautiful metaphor for how difficult it is to find meaning amidst consumption.
The question is, is it necessary for metaphor’s sake to shed an unflattering light on the citizens of Tokyo? Could director Sophia Coppola have conjured the feeling of amusement and confusion in audiences without relying on cultural stereotypes?
I think I’d have to watch about ten more movies before I could develop an answer of my own, so I look to my role models for advice. Comedian Marc Maron told IndieWire, “If I’m going to be wrong-minded, is it making a point? Is it ironic or satirical, is it meant to push the envelope in a direction that makes people see things differently? Or do you want to just be a mean motherfucker?” It’s not that we aren’t allowed to talk about people from cultures other than our own, it’s just that we have to understand why we’re doing it.