Thursday, November 6, 2008
An American election and a French movie
Now that Barack Obama has become the president elect, it’s safe to assume that a large number of white Americans have found a measure of psychological relief in being able to vote for a black candidate. “See,” they’ll finally be able to say, “We really mean it when we assert that anyone can grow up to be president.” Aside from the obvious hollowness of this Horatio Alger bromide, the question remains: If an African American is elected to the nation’s highest office can the death of racism be far behind?
The answer, as you might expect, isn’t clear. Racism didn’t disappear from South African when Nelson Mandela became the country’s president. And racism won’t disappear from the U.S. when Obama is inaugurated as the 44th president of our battered and financially stressed republic.
But maybe Obama’s election will provide us with an on-going opportunity to deal more honestly with race and multiethnic challenges – even at the movies. It’s possible that some filmmaker will be inspired enough by Obama’s victory to begin the racial conversation that has yet to take place and perhaps to recognize that before we can start that conversation, we need to acknowledge the realities of race in the U.S., the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of racism that still pervade daily life. (And, no, I don't count 2004's overheated "Crash" as part of what I would deem the most productive form of artistic discussion.)
Obama ran a non-racial campaign in a society that’s still marred by racism. Now, it’s time for the country – and its film artists -- to catch up with the dreams and fantasies fostered by the campaign.
On the night of the election, Harvard professor Orlando Paterson was among the guests on the Charlie Rose Show. Paterson spoke of the glorious integration of the public sphere of American life. He seemed to view Obama’s election as a kind of culminating event in that area. But he also noted that there’s a private sphere in America, and in that sphere, we’re far from having changed the face of the nation. This is the sphere in which disproportionate numbers of young black men are in jail. This is the sphere where impoverishment and inadequate education rule. This is the sphere in which a black man with money still can raise suspicious eyebrows among clerks in upscale stores? It’s also the sphere in which black men may have difficulty hailing taxis in major American cities.
This list of woes brings me back to the movies, in particular, “The Class,” the French film that won the Palm d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The movie, directed by Laurent Cantet, followed its Cannes’ premiere by opening the New York Film Festival, and it’s about to be shown in at the Starz Denver Film Festival, which kicks off on Nov. 14th. It will open in New York and Los Angeles in December, and probably will work its way around the country after that.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more realistic movie about teaching and classroom tensions. Cantet based his movie on a book by Francois Begaudeau, a teacher who wrote a book about his classroom experiences. Begaudeau also stars in the movie, which records a year in the life of a Parisian school.
Real students, who participated in workshops prior to filming, created these roles, and the result is an astonishing encapsulation of the friction between student and teacher in a the multiracial hothouse environment of a school. Perhaps it goes without saying, but these tensions are also the tension of a society in transition: The students – blacks, Muslims and disaffected whites -- speak French, but don’t necessarily want to identify themselves as French. The whole notion of fixed identities seems to be foundering.
In this atmosphere, Begaudeau’s Mr. Marin represents all the contradictions of the larger society. He wants to teach the kids; he sometimes empathizes with them; he sometimes blinds himself to their laments; he can be helpful, and he also can step out of bounds when he feels that he has been too directly challenged. And, in one of the movie’s key incidents, he’s challenged by a student in a way that he finds galling.
As for the students, they’re a handful. At one point, a kid named Souleymane asks Marin if he’s gay. He’s not. Khoumba, an alert and engaging young woman, can’t always disguise her contempt for Marin, which – in reality – may be contempt for something much larger than this embattled teacher possibly can embody. She’s beginning to understand the society that surrounds her, to feel more responsible to her peers than to any authority figure.
Cantet shows us interactions between students and teacher and among the teachers, and at times, the movie justly can be accused of droning. There are no triumphs. No one wins any contests. The students can be recalcitrant, and the teacher isn’t always lovable. At times, the classroom seems like the setting for one long argument, more a place of contention than of learning.
What has any of this to do with where I began? In these post-election days, I wish someone would starting thinking about an American version of “The Class,” a movie that honestly showed the rewards and tensions of a multiethnic living, a movie in which things do not go smoothly but don’t always end catastrophically either, a movie in which some characters make honest efforts and others don’t, a movie that actually contributes to the discussion on race by showing us how people really feel and behave – not in the public sphere, but in what professor Patterson aptly termed the private sphere. The classroom of a public high school might not be a bad place to start. An office setting might prove fertile.
Of course, there’s a huge difference between Cantet’s movie and most American films. Cantet evidently didn’t feel compelled to provide uplift. He was willing to have a student tell the teacher at the end of the year that she had learned nothing. She means it. She’s not angry, but flustered and disappointed, unsure whether to blame herself or the school system. She’s at a loss, and her awareness of her educational deprivation makes for a heartbreaking moment.
So maybe in our so-called post-racial moment, we’ll have the courage to deal with a little reality of our own. Imagine if an American filmmaker were more inspired by the works of Jonathan Kozol (“Savage Inequalities”) than by the work of Dan Brown (“The Da Vinci Code”). I’m not a knee-jerk Francophile, but “The Class” could provide a much-needed lesson for American filmmakers, an encouragement to tackle grass-roots filmmaking.
Cantet had money and three cameras at his disposal. But that’s not what made his movie work; what made it work was the filmmaker’s desire to reveal the truth, sometimes even at the expense of drama. Cantet also did that in “Human Resources,’’ a 1999 movie about labor and management. He has done it again.
To make “The Class,” he associated himself with someone who knows the subject, Begaudeau, and allowed the subject to come to him, to let the characters find their way onto the screen rather than forcing them into straitjackets created by commercial expectation, editorial anxiety and fear of rejection.
I want to see that movie. I long to see that movie, and I want it to be American made. And if someone were to ask me whether we really could have such a film, I’d try to overcome my natural skepticism, risk embarrassment and embrace the optimism of this post-election moment.
"Yes we can," I'd say. "Why the hell not?"