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Emmett Till

The scientific quest to document racial differences involved gathering precise measurements of every facial feature and body part. Photo courtesy of ITVS/American Museum of Natural History.

Reviews of 'Race: The Power
of An Illusion,' 'Confidence'
and 'Bulletproof Monk'

By Esther Iverem Editor and Film Critic

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Slowly, in movies and books, it has become the norm to talk about race without talking about racism. De-fanged of its institutional nature in works such as the 2001 New York Times "race series," race becomes a benign topic about individual prejudices and personal discomfort. Reactionary pundits have actually begun using the famous quote by the Rev. Martin Luther King—about people not being judged by the color of their skin—to justify attacks on affirmative action remedies.

It is in this atmosphere of race doublespeak that "Race: The Power of an Illusion" (premiering Thursday, April 24, 10 p.m. on PBS) is one of the most important, sweeping and groundbreaking documentaries in recent memory. Taking full advantage of scholarship documenting how the United States invented modern ideas of "race" and "whiteness," the producer—California Newsreel—illustrates how racism has been used institutionally, socially and politically to create an affirmative action for Whites.

This is not fancy movie-making—interviews with scholars are juxtaposed with historical footage and photos with narration by CCH Pounder—but it is powerful. Airing in three parts on consecutive Thursdays, the series will either build its reputation over three weeks or see its impact diluted by this questionable scheduling. Hopefully, it will experience the former scenario. The first episode, "The Difference Between Us," follows the progress of a DNA workshop for high school students and illustrates how scientists have proven the lack of genetic difference between human beings classified as being from different races.

But while the show proves that race isn't real on a biological level, it segues into how "race" is very real as a social construct. A history is given of how "scientific" research was used to justify enslavement and attacks on people of color in this country, as well as the violent takeover of Cuba, the Philippines and Hawaii during the era of colonial expansion. These same scientific theories from early in the last century were also used abroad, for example by Hitler in Germany, to build support for ideas of Aryan superiority and the extermination of other populations.

The series really kicks into high gear in the second episode, "The Story We Tell," airing May 1, with a history of the creation of race and whiteness in the United States. It was easy and convenient, for example, to create a system that equated Black people with slavery and inferiority, and that built a sense of cohesion and new national identity among Whites. Moving beyond Blacks and Whites, this show details the demarcation created between those from Europe and Native Americans, Chinese and Mexicans. This divide would define who would be considered really "American." White settlers would receive land forcibly taken from Native Americans and would be the only ones granted the full rights of citizenship. Even New Deal legislation of the 1930's, considered a step forward for all Americans, would discriminate against domestic workers and agricultural workers—who were almost all people of color—and against skilled people of color banned from all-White labor unions that could bargain collectively for better wages and work conditions.

The final show, "The House We Live In," airing May 8, goes a long way to illustrating why, in the United States, the worth of the average White family is ten times that of the average Black family. Moving beyond the violence of slavery and Jim Crow laws, it details how the federal government, particularly through the Federal Housing Administration, set in motion a series of laws that allowed for the creation of wealthy White suburbs and impoverished Black communities.

By initiating a system of appraisal whereby White communities were automatically given a higher value than Black or "mixed" communities, and by providing federal grants and tax incentives for the construction of White suburbs that excluded people of color, the federal government not only segregated much of the country's housing, it set in motion a process through which White families have become wealthier, because their homes are worth more. In addition, the equity in these more highly valued homes, and the wealth passed on from previous generations, snowballs into more opportunity, including money to pay for a college education, to start a business or to assist family members.

Race may not be "real" but, when it comes to opportunity and survival, cold, hard cash is no illusion.

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(Originally published April 24, 2003)


No "Confidence"

There are plenty of clever people saying clever things in "Confidence," the latest but not the greatest flick about the age-old art of the con game. As a matter of fact, even with Doug Jung's script taking some clever turns and James Foley's direction having some clever moments, it never adds up to much more than that—a sort of clever movie. Sadly, "Confidence" is not as clever, as slick or as believable as all the movies it tries to imitate.

The script could use some help but the main problem seems to be with the cast and acting. Maybe if you are a big Ed Burns fan (Life or Something Like It, Sidewalks of New York), you might believe him here as a con man. Maybe if Burns put on a banana skirt, you would accept him as Josephine Baker. But I just didn't buy him in the role of Jake Vig, head of a crew of grifters, which also includes the equally unconvincing Gordo (Paul Giamatti), Shills Miles (Brian Van Holt) and Big Al (Louis Lombardi). They walk the walk and seem to talk the talk but it just doesn't add up to real. Throughout the sometimes snail-like first half, they sound more like they are rehearsing to be criminals and tossing around dialogue to see how it fits. And just when you hope that Dustin Hoffman, who plays an unlikely crime boss, will liven things up a bit, he is unbelievable too. He isn't a real crime boss and this isn't a spiffy, slick con man movie. And without it being believable, it's kind of difficult to care.

The story goes something like this: Jake and his crew have just swindled tens of thousands of dollars from an unsuspecting nerd named Lionel. The only thing, though, is that Lionel was really an accountant for the unlikely crime boss Winston King, who is known to kill a man or two over much smaller amounts. So Jake and his crew wind up working for King in order to repay the money. And, of course, all hell breaks loose eventually when you have a bunch of con men, crooked cops, corrupt bankers and shady feds all eyeing each other and angling for their cut. To be sure, there are some entertaining moments here. And Tiny Lester looks as big and scary as ever. (I wonder what Lester looked like as a baby. Hmmm…) But rehearsal-quality scenes, little bursts of cleverness and a big Black scary man do not a movie make.

Speaking of the unbelievable, who told Morris Chestnut that he could play a thug? Okay, for a hot second here, I bought the mean stare and the gun pointed at Jake's head. Chestnut also sounded good as he cursed and made like he would pistol-whip Jake a little bit. But, you know, maybe Chestnut needs to change his appearance to play a tough man, just like Vin Diesel changes his look (and "race") in every movie he plays. I'm sure there must be some henchmen with the look of smooth skin and hands, who look buffed and massaged, but how many pretty hit men can there possible be? And why, without a little help, am I supposed to believe that Chestnut, who epitomizes the buppie/pretty boy aesthetic of Hollywood, is suddenly ready to bust a cap in somebody?


The Flying Monk

The only possible reason to see "Bulletproof Monk" is to, once again, gaze upon the beauty and ferocity of Chow Yun-Fat, who, despite this mediocre production, retains his screen presence and style. In this Hollywood-made flick, Chow's confidence and star quality still shine through, as they did in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and countless other Chinese movies with which Americans aren't as familiar.

This retention of presence and some dignity is not an easy feat here. At some point, it struck me that the filmmakers were sort of making Chow into a Zen version of "The Flying Nun," a 1960's television show starring Sally Field, who used the headpiece of her nun's habit to lift her body into the wind. The show was very hokey but somewhat entertaining, at least to a young child anyway. The nun had a special power and she had an impish defiance of authority that, every week, allowed her to right wrongs and forge a link between spirituality and heroism.

In "Bulletproof Monk," the monk is the guardian of a powerful ancient scroll and also has many special powers, including the ability to fight and sort of fly. He uses his powers to right wrongs as he protects the scroll from an old Nazi and searches in New York City for the scroll's next guardian. But, rather do these brave deeds within the simple confines of a television show, the filmmakers try to fill more than 100 minutes with a few entertaining fight scenes connected by long stretches of meaningless jabber, unintentional comedy, unconvincing characters and just plain nonsense.

Unlike the Catholic nun, the powerful Zen monk is not allowed to be the real star here. For American audiences, MGM has imposed on us Seann William Scott, perhaps best known for his roles in juvenile fare such as "American Pie." He plays Kar, a pickpocket and unlikely next guardian of the scroll who has learned fight moves from watching martial arts flicks at an old theater where he works as a projectionist. (And he fights as if he learned from watching movies too!) Kar's inclusion in the story leads us to a very fake-looking street gang where the leader has an English accent—as do too many here for a film supposedly based in New York. And Kar leads us, of course, to a love interest, a Russian Mafia princess who likes to masquerade as a hoodrat.

I know you never thought you'd read "Russian Mafia" and hoodrat in the same sentence. Well, you might get that same incongruent feeling watching this film, which does not know what it wants to be, or simply has the wrong ingredients to make what it wants. Chow is a tremendous actor and he actually does an amazing job here but the effect is like putting new 18-inch spinning rims on a Dodge Neon. Who are you fooling?

Chow deserves better. And he ain't no flying nun.

-- May 2, 2003

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