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
Reviews of 'Race: The Power
of An Illusion,' 'Confidence'
and 'Bulletproof Monk'
By Esther Iverem
SeeingBlack.com Editor and Film Critic
about these movies and other recent flicks! Click here.
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
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
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.
(Originally published April 24, 2003)
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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