Friday, June 12, 2015

Causing Trouble With Odienator: We Need To Talk About Earl

by Odienator

(Spoiler alert for a spoiled ass movie.)

Long ago, I gave up on any hope that Hollywood would see the error of its ways and try to craft non-White characters of substance. I am resigned to the fact that your average screenwriter, who is statistically a White male, falls into one of these three theoretical categories:

1. They've never come in contact with people of color. At all.

2. They learned about how to write Black characters from the Hollywood studio system or episodes of '70's cop shows like Baretta and Starsky And Hutch.

3. Everybody has the same token Black friend, whom they use as an inspiration. This guy fits so neatly into every single Black stereotype that staring at him would incur the risk of being blinded by the racist version of a solar eclipse.

As the token Black friend of a number of people (and you know who you are, and YES I KNOW I'm your token, so please stop acting like you're enlightened), I have at least tried to establish a baseline that would not embarass my mother in public. I have multiple degrees and speak several languages. And yet, I'm never seen onscreen, unless you count every time my doppelganger Cuba Gooding Jr. shows up. And all Cuba's been doing lately onscreen is running--he's playing O.J. Simpson on TV and a runaway slave in a Christian movie at theaters right now. You're killing me, Cuba.

"Are you gonna drive my Ford Bronco, Mister Whitaker?'

Readers of this blog know I'm an extremist. I now reside at the opposite side of the minority character equation; rather than drown in false hope, I backstroke in the pool of mocking Black stereotypes in film. It's a deep pool, folks, and you all know how much we love picking apart these travesties of justice here at Big Media Vandalism. With that said, some kind of award should be given to Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. I've always wanted to meet #3 in my list above, and thanks to screenwriter Jesse Andrews, I have been formally introduced.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was huge at Sundance, winning the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize. Until today, it held a 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating. After seeing the film at an advanced screening at the Museum of the Moving Image, I went to read those reviews. Every positive review I read said very little about Earl. One of them didn't even mention him at all! Plus, if you watch the trailer, you'll see how little Earl is referenced there as well. He's in the damn title, but his appearance in the trailer I saw is not much longer than the Fox Searchlight logo's appearance. I wonder why. Hmmm...

We need to talk about Earl. Yes, I stole that line from We Need To Talk About Kevin. Fuck Kevin. If Tilda Swinton had just called my mother, no discussion about Kevin would have been necessary. Mom would have shot a few arrows in Kevin's ass and told him to sit his ass down. Tilda and my Mom would then bond over Lipton tea and Shop-Rite brand Windmill cookies. We Need To Talk About Kevin would have been over in 5 minutes.

I'm almost tempted to send my mother to see Me and Earl and the Dying Girl if only to get her sure to be memorable take on the movie. Alas, I don't want my ass beaten, so I'm going to pass on recommending any movies to Miss Arlene.

Let's talk about Earl, and while we're at it, somebody call Guinness Book to see what the world record is on racial stereotypes in a movie.

Earl Lives In A Bad Neighborhood 

We're immediately told that Earl lives on the other side of town. The movie doesn't say "the wrong side of the tracks," but it damn sure doesn't look like any right side of the tracks I've visited. Earl's house is rundown in a way that screams "Ghetto Designs By Tim Burton." Considering how much gentrification is going on, I guarantee you there's some bearded White hipster with ugly feet crammed in some flip-flops living next to Earl. Yet we only see Black folks in Earl's area, including Earl's brother, who is even more of a stereotype than Earl. More on him later.

Earl is Greg's Token Black Frie--I mean, Greg's "Co-worker."

Greg is the "Me" in the title, and since he is telling the story, we'll be treated to his viewpoint, a viewpoint that solely exists to romanticize and justify how fucked up it is that people must suffer and/or be marginalized so a straight, White male can "grow as a person." Greg is supposedly so detached that Earl is his only friend. Greg can't even call him "a friend." He refers to Earl as "my co-worker" because they make parodies of classic movies like Peeping Tom and Midnight Cowboy. These parodies are a huge pander to the type of all-knowing, snooty cinephiles who feel they're above standard movie fare. Like those folks, these kids are too cool to enjoy current movies, even to mock them.

Me and Earl is so dishonest about this plot element it doesn't even mention Be Kind Rewind, whose plot featured a Black guy and a White guy making their own versions of classic movies. This isn't even an homage to Gondry's film, it's a damn ripoff of it. And Jack Black and Yasiin Bey's remade movies are far better. If we see more than 20 seconds of any of Greg and Earl's lazy film parodies, I'll eat my hat.

Being Greg's Black friend has numerous perks, all of which are stereotypes. 

Earl Knows About Drugs

When Greg and Earl eat the weird soup whose recipe their teacher got from Costa Rica or some other brown place ripe with "Other"-ness, it's Earl who points out that they're high on drugs. "The soup had drugs in it!" Earl tells Greg. Perhaps Earl learned about dope from his brother, whose vocation seems to be toking on the porch while holding a giant pit bull. Because all Black folks have vicious pit bulls and love sitting on the porch smoking their reefer, right? Confidentially, I have never smoked weed, but I did have a Maltese. She was no pit bull, but that bitch would have ripped your balls off nonetheless.

There's another character in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl who sells drugs on school grounds. He's White, but his only defining characteristic is the type of music he's constantly singing. Nope, not emo or heavy metal or even Toxic by Britney Spears. This fool is rapping. Fake-ass Eminem wannabe comes into play when we discover

Earl Knows How to Fight

Greg doesn't know how to fight, but Earl appears to be an expert on scrapping. Greg gets into a fight, but once he starts getting his ass kicked, Earl runs in like a superhero and takes over. Leave it to your tough token buddy to save your ass when you write a check it can't cash! It's a well-known, yet incorrect given that we all know how to fight, which is why we're presumed to be far more dangerous than we actually are by the cops.

Later, Earl whips Greg's ass in front of Pit Bull Porch Manor aka Earl's house, and Earl's brother screams out ignorant comments before threatening Greg with a new, improved ass-kicking-slash-pit bull chewing. Earl's bro also calls Greg a pussy, which leads me to

Earl Is Oversexed

He's a teenager, so of course he's oversexed. Greg is also a teenager, but we rarely hear Greg talking filth-flarn-filth about fucking. No, instead we get Earl's constant running commentary on "dem titties." The breasts in question belong to the Dying Girl. She's dying of leukemia, yet all Earl can ask about her is if Greg has played with, touched, looked at, lusted over or done any other number of activities one can do with "DEM TITTIES." Earl says "dem titties" so many times that you could make a damn good sample of him saying "dem titties" over a rap beat, and you wouldn't even have to loop it. Earl talks about titties so much I stopped liking them.

Every Black character in this film is preoccupied with sex and utters sex-related dialogue. The chauffeur who takes Greg to the prom has two modes of dialogue: One is him saying "HUHHHHH?" as if he were channeling Stepin Fetchitt. The other is him practically demanding Greg fuck his date in the back of the limo. Nobody else talks about sex. Greg makes allusions to making out with Rachel, the dying girl, but his dialogue is respectable and chaste by comparison to the brown and oversexed folks.

Earl Teaches Greg About Soul(TM)

It's Earl who chastises Greg for being cold and distant, even to a girl whose suffering is beneficial for Greg's character growth. Once again, the Black character helps his White friend pull the stick out of his White ass and FEEL or GROW or CHANGE or GET FUNKY or whatever else these Bagger Vances do in these movies. 

"See the way youse holdin' dat club, boss? That's how ya needs ta hold dem titties!"

 Speaking of Bagger Vance:

Earl Sounds Like a 1930's Movie Character--With Curses

"Why does Earl sound like Eddie Rochester Anderson?" I kept asking myself while watching this movie. Earl's dialogue is peppered with profanities and occasionally broken English I assume I'm supposed to take as "Ebonics." I suppose it's meant to be charming but again, only the Black folks in this movie talk like this. Fake ass Eminem Drug Dealer also talks like this, but this movie had already gifted him with a Ghetto Pass, so I'm taking a tip from the movie and including him as an honorary member of the tribe.

I could go on about Earl, but why bother? The far more egregious sin is in this film's treatment of Rachel. Since Love Story, pretty girls have died of cancer in order to teach White dudes lessons about life. The illness is treated callously--it becomes all about the dude and not the poor, suffering girl. Not only does the dying girl in this film's title suffer, the final joke in the film mocks her death. If that weren't offensive enough, she then assists him from "beyond the grave" as it were, taking time from her busy schedule of dying as slowly and as painfully as possible to pen a fucking letter of recommendation for Greg's college application. He gets it after she's gone to glory.

Sundance movies have a bad reputation that I sometimes think is unearned. But Me and Earl and the Dying Girl should have its poster in the dictionary next to the term "Sundance movie." It exemplifies every single worthy complaint about Sundance movies, and yet critics and audiences ate it up and will continue to shovel heaping spoonfuls of its poison into their gullets on opening weekend. To quote Bugs Bunny, "I hope ya choke!"

Every year, there's a movie that the critics love that I find dreadful. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is this year's version of that, but I at least am in good company amongst my circle of critic friends, all of whom hated it. Sheila O'Malley called it "a pandering, self-flattering mess, featuring unearned catharsis, lazy clich├ęs and characters presented in broad, sometimes-offensive stereotypes." Matt Prigge says "[i]f you need to know what hipster racism is, then here’s a great example: a film that trades on ignorant stereotypes but think it’s above it because it’s enlightened." And Sean Burns summed up my feelings better than anyone else in a tweet he wrote eons ago. 

He simply said "Fuck this movie."


Steven Boone said...

My favorite thing about this take down is being induced to imagine Rochester cussing his ass off. At Jack Benny.

This piece makes me remember a mandatory acting class I took as part of the film production curriculum at SVA. One day, the instructor, a smart and good-natured retired actor, announced he was going to do a quick exercise in assessing character types. He lined us all up, separated by sex. As he went down the men's line (all white except me), he would point to each individual and state his "type." Down the line he went: "Leading man, leading man, leading man"--one guy was kind of funny looking, so he went, "character actor," then back to "leading man, leading man..." Somehow he missed me as he went along, and I was grateful, being generally allergic to attention. But somebody said, "Hayyy, you forgot Boone!" after he was far down the line. He paused for a moment, turned painfully back toward me. He raised his anointing finger and quickly mumbled, "Best friend, good with computers."

Hey, I was slim and wore wire frame glasses. Why should I have been offended by this assessment? Maybe because there were several "leading men" in the room who were no brawnier and no less nerdily accessorized than I. Was it that an average looking young black dude wasn't fit for the foreground, whereas an average looking young white dude was...?

I didn't lose any sleep over it, cuz I can't act and don't wanna. But what if I did? It makes me realize how much self-understanding non-white actors must possess if they are to navigate white showbiz on their own terms.

Anyway, by the looks of the trailer, Me&Earl conquered festgoers and critics on the strength of its sleek storytelling/design. Looks like a lot of mise en fuss went into every scene. It might fit into my canon of Honorable Horseshit movies (alongside To Kill A Mockingbird, Stanley Kramer flicks, Forrest Gump, Monster's Ball). Such films mean well but have gaping holes in them where credible black characters should be. More later, when I've actually seen "dem titties."

odienator said...

Boone, you could have played the Black programmer criminal in DIE HARD! The casting of that actor had a PROFOUND effect on me--I'd been programming for a year in 1988 when DIE HARD came out. I think he sealed the deal for my professional career.

It makes me realize how much self-understanding non-white actors must possess if they are to navigate white showbiz on their own terms.

Those actors are going to have to bring it to the table, because as I said, most movies are written by White men and these dudes are fucking clueless about how to deal with any racial complexity whatsoever. It's always "oh foreign audiences won't understand anything but these tropes for people of color, or they won't care about people of color." China has billions of Chinese people, yet they only understand White folks in movies? It's a lazy excuse, and I'm sick of it.

Two things pissed me off so much they made me write this piece:

1. The critical acclaim for this garbage turned my stomach. In some ways, it proves the D.W. Griffith rule. You're right about the movie having that, as you call it, "mise en fuss." The director has some interesting shots and some clever touches. I don't think they're hypnotic enough to cover the vile story, but they apply enough concealer to make some people not notice the black eye underneath it.

The movie is such a huge pander to film critics and film snobs that they seemed willing to forgive that it's a hateful film that congratulates and preaches superiority. A visit from Shadow Henderson was definitely in order for this arts-major bullshit.

2. Earl was a BMV special, a pitch straight down the middle for this blog. This bullshit is what we live for, what we so enjoy pissing on here. In this film, Earl is the image of Blackness that's being fed to teenage audiences, kids who are supposed to have more diverse friends and bigger ideas than we or our parents had. It's such a pathetic throwback in terms of caricature that it could have been made in 1955.

People have written me saying "well, if Earl were White..." Stop it, muthafuckas! Earl's Black, and he's too dark to pass for White. If Earl were White, I GUARANTEE you his brother wouldn't have a pitbull, he'd speak proper English and he's have a daddy. (I neglected to mention in this piece that Earl's daddy does not exist.) Spare me, people.

Please go see it so we can gab about it as part of a future Black Man Talk!