Saturday, May 07, 2005

No Comment

No, I don't want to talk about it.

OK, how about some movie reviews? I haven't done those in a while.

The Interpreter

If I have to hear one more white character lecture me about Africa in a movie, I'm gonna scream.

Let me backtrack. The conventional wisdom is, that if you tell a story about Africa from a black African perspective, and you cut down your box office to just African-Americans and perhaps the arthouse crowd--this is pretty much what happened to the excellent Hotel Rwanda this past winter.

So Hollywood's natural inclination is to introduce sympathetic white Europeans or Americans as leads, who will be the characters the (presumably white) audience will relate to. A couple of problems with this approach. First, it marginalizes the people who are putatively the focus of the story, as black characters take to the sidelines so that a more marketeable white star can get screen time. Second, history teaches us that white people usually aren't the heroes of African stories, so the white leads distort reality, and make the suspension of disbelief just a little bit harder than it usually is.

So at the climax of the Interpreter, when Nicole Kidman (a great actress, but perhaps the whitest woman in Hollywood) confronts an african tyrant, screaming, "Why did you do this to our country?" I was out of that willing suspension of disbelief--with a resounding thump.

You see, in the Interpreter, Kidman plays the eponymous translator, working at the U.N. to bring together the peacemakers with her linguistic skills. In a turn of events so improbable that Kidman's co-star, Sean Penn, later remarks upon it, Kidman's character just happens to overhear a whispered conversation in an African dialect rare enough that "maybe seven people in the whole UN," including Kidman--a British born white African--know it.

Penn's involved because the conversation Kidman overheard was about a plot to kill the leader of a fictional African nation of Matobo. You see, Penn is a secret service agent (must...hold suspension of disbelief) assigned to figure out if the threat Kidman reports is for real or not.

Now, this is a Hollywood movie, and Kidman is an established star, so we pretty much know which way this is going. Nonetheless, the movie insists on throwing red herrings at us--just enough red herrings to render the plot near-incomprehensible. It's a testament to director Sydney Pollack that the film's slow middle section is watchable, and manages to build some suspense. Pollack does a good job of using the U.N. (and New York City) as a backdrop for the action; Kidman and Penn do good work bringing heft to their roles. Catherine Keener, an actress whose work I usually hate, does a good job in a pretty small role as Penn's partner.

[By the way, there is one scene in the General Assembly room where Sean Penn is at the speakers' podium, staring intently at the various representatives as they're filing in. I do hope that there are outtakes on the DVD of him shouting "At last, I'm here and you all have to listen to me babble incoherently about whichever cause I please! Bwahahaha!" I doubt Penn actually has a sense of humor, so I'm bound to be disappointed.]

In the end, I don't have nearly as many problems with the plot as I do with the casting. Has Hollywood run out of black actresses? Throughout the movie, I kept thinking about Thandie Newton, who starred with Kidman 15 or so years ago in a nice little movie out of Australia called Flirting. Newton doesn't have Kidman's awards and isn't a box-office draw, but she's every bit as good an actress as the former Mrs. Tom Cruise, every bit as attractive, and she's got one thing for her that Kidman doesn't: she's actually African.

I understand the box office realities of the situation, but my point is that at least with Newton, there isn't the bizarre discomfort of having tall, blond Kidman lecture Penn about African tribal customs, or playing tribal melodies on the flute; and things don't work out so that all of the protagonists are white, leaving black characters as only villains or shady possible allies.

If it wasn't for the otherwise fawning presentation of the U.N., you might take this for commentary or even criticism on the U.N.'s role in the world. In reality, all that it is is the politics of Hollywood outranking the realities of politics.

Overall, the Interpreter wasn't a complete waste of time and money, but it wasn't such a good movie that I could just let its bizarre stand on race slide. As that the cineplex has been pretty much a wasteland since December, this film gets a weak recommendation.


Cliff said...

Derek, I'd be interested to read your take on "Crash" which does star the excellent Mrs. Newton, as well as Rwanda's Don Cheadle and addresses race issues head-on.

DJ said...


Haven't seen Crash, and had no intention to, since the reviews I saw all seemed rather negative. Have you seen the movie? Do you recommend it?