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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

October 15, 2013: John Sayles’ America: Brother and Race

[I’ve already blogged quite a lot about John Sayles. A whole lot, in fact. But when it comes to the filmmaker who to my mind has most consistently engaged with AmericanStudies questions, there’s plenty more to say. So this week, I’ll AmericanStudy five more Sayles films. I’d love to hear your thoughts, on these films and others that say AmericanStudies to you!]
On a quote we would do well to collectively think about, and a film that would help us do so.
As I’ve written about elsewhere, one of the difficulties of teaching courses in Ethnic American Literature is the tendency to reduce authors to representatives of overly broad ethnic categories: African American, Native American, Asian American, and so on. That tendency is of course in no way specific to classrooms or academia—most of our collective conversations about race and ethnicity depend quite precisely on our use of such categories, on the idea that everyone within them shares certain fundamental similarities. But even leaving aside the many distinct nations/heritages included in those categories, such use ignores the fact that, as scholars David Goldstein and Aubrey Thacker note in the introduction to their wonderful edited collection Complicating Constructions: Race, Ethnicity, and Hybridity in American Texts (2007), sociologists have long argued that “diversity within categories far exceeds diversity between categories.”
Unfortunately, I can think of few works of mainstream popular culture that work to present such intra-category diversity—if anything, those works that are centrally interested in complicating our narratives of race and ethnicity tend to do so by challenging our sense of the relationships between, not those within, the different categories (I’m thinking of films like Crash and Do the Right Thing, for example). Ironically, it seems to me that Tyler Perry’s films, made by an African American filmmaker and featuring largely African American casts, are more interested in presenting the diversity of identities and experiences within that one community—but the irony is that Perry’s films attract a predominantly African American audience, which means that such messages might not get to other audiences that could benefit from them as well. All of which is to say that I believe there’s a significant opening for broadly accessible films, or other pop culture texts, that focus on diversity and identity within different American communities—and I’d like to nominate one here: John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet (1984).
In Sayles’ film, an alien (Joe Morton) who happens to look African American crashes his spaceship in New York City; as he wanders through Harlem trying to get his bearings and survive (all while chased by a couple of special agents out to capture and investigate him), he interacts with many different members of the African American community (as well as other ethnicities and communities). Because the alien cannot speak, those encounters are largely driven by the assumptions and attitudes of the other people, which certainly allows the film to depict the role that such attitudes (and the stereotypes and definitions that come with them) play in society. But Sayles’ cross-section of Harlem and African American life is just as noteworthy for its complex and multi-faceted humanity; it shouldn’t be worth pointing out when a non-African American filmmaker or artist creates such a representation of the diversity within that community, but, well, I believe it is. There would be lots of ways to think more collectively and successfully about all the diversity within each American category, but Sayles’ film is certainly one unique, funny, and effective means through which to start doing so.
Next film tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other films you’d especially AmericanStudy?

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