Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Didn't Like 'After Earth'? You Must Be Caucasian

This is not a rant about racist reviews. This is a discussion of Identity and how it can (ahem!) colour our opinions, but it could still make the liberal among us uncomfortable.

My family had been looking forward to seeing 'After Earth' for a while, but when I finally went online to book the tickets, I could see that the film had received unusually poor reviews. I warned everyone to be prepared for disappointment, and we went bravely off to see it.

There was me, my son, my sister and her son. Between the four of us, we'd covered two generations and both genders. And as it turned out, all four of us liked the movie very much! We all agreed that while it wasn't as great as 'Star Trek - Into Darkness' (which we'd seen the previous week), it was a solidly good movie.

I was a bit puzzled about the bad reviews, and also quite annoyed that they had almost dissuaded me from seeing a movie that I ultimately enjoyed, so I went online again to post my own (positive) review and to explore further.

I found that the negative reviews were of two types (and this sounds almost trivial): they were by those who had seen the movie and by those who hadn't. It was interesting to see so many bad reviews from people who hadn't even seen the movie, but there was a significant thread that ran through all of them - these reviewers either didn't like the idea that Will Smith was using this movie as a vehicle to promote his son's acting career, or they didn't think much of director M Night Shyamalan's recent movies and had therefore decided that his latest work couldn't be any better. Other bad reviews also seemed to embolden these people into giving voice to their own prejudices. None of them was therefore making any kind of informed comment about the movie itself!

I guess the only thing I can say about these "sight unseen" reviews is "Haters gonna hate". There's nothing we can do about it.

But I was still puzzled about why someone who saw the movie would think it was so bad, when neither I nor anyone in my family formed that impression.

Then I saw a couple of positive reviews (like this one) and some cheerleading news and was struck by the fact that the reviewers were African-American. Was it blind race loyalty to Will Smith, I wondered. Then it clicked. All the four lead characters in this movie were ethnic. Will Smith and his son Jaden Smith are obviously African-American. But the two lead female roles were also played by ethnic actors. Both Zoe Kravitz and Sophie Okonedo have mixed African-Jewish heritage. By appearance, it's clear at first glance that none of them is Caucasian. And the director isn't a Peter Jackson or JJ Abrams, but M Night Whats-his-name, who's as ethnic as they come.

Will Smith 

Jaden Smith 

Sophie Okonedo 

Zoe Kravitz 

M Night Shyamalan

This then, is the secret of how a good movie can get bad reviews. It need not have anything to do with racism, at least not the conscious variety. It has everything to do with human psychology and our tribal instincts. (Others have a darker explanation. As do yet others.)

If you can't identify with any of the cast (or the director), you can't form an emotional connection with the characters. If you can't connect emotionally, the gravest of the characters' situations will leave you unmoved and the movie as a whole will fail to impress. And the primary way we seem to identify with other people is on the basis of appearance, i.e., race.

As a child in India, I avoided watching Indian movies and preferred English ones, for a rather strange reason. I would cry if I saw a sad scene, and I had discovered that Indian movies affected me much more than English ones. I realise now that I was able to identify with Indian actors to a far greater degree than with Western actors. [As I have grown and become more universalist, I now avoid sad movies from anywhere!]

By and large, Hollywood has trained the rest of the world to identify with Caucasian actors, but the reverse isn't true. That's why Bollywood movies, while being extremely popular in Asia and Africa, have made no impact on the West. Western (Caucasian) audiences have not learnt to identify with non-Caucasian actors or non-Caucasian cultures. These movies have therefore been "othered" into insignificance. The only way for an "other" movie to be treated gently is for it to be culturally non-threatening, e.g., by implicitly acknowledging the superiority of the viewer's native culture.

Some of the nominally positive reviews of 'After Earth' by professional reviewers on RottenTomatoes were actually very tepid. They seemed to be "damning with faint praise". It reminded me of the reviews of Bollywood movies in Western media. Bollywood movies receive some standard pat-on-the-head adjectives ("colourful"), but they are never let out of the singing-and-dancing box. No matter how good a movie Bollywood produces (and there have been some very good ones), the Western press will never take it seriously. [The ones that the West does take seriously (e.g., The Apu Trilogy, Slumdog Millionaire, Water) are the ones that portray India in a satisfyingly poor light.]

So I think it's all a simple matter of identification. If you can't identify with people or a culture, you can't accept their movies as being of equal value as movies produced by your own culture. At best, it'll get a "not bad for that kind of movie" verdict.

I believe this is exactly what has happened with 'After Earth'. For the predominantly Caucasian reviewer (and viewer) base, this is a movie by "someone else". It therefore falls into the Bollywood box, i.e., it's not a "real" movie. Its cultural self-confidence is the final nail in its coffin. A self-flagellating movie might still make its audience feel superior. This one just makes them feel...excluded.

It's all very sad, but the saddest part of it is that significant numbers of ethnic people might be influenced by the bad reviews and stay away from a movie that they are likely to enjoy very much.

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