M. Night Shyamalan's Racist Game
Unbreakable is the Birth of a Nation of our day. Not in terms of greatness or innovation; it simply embraces noxious attitudes that many people hold without question or shame. Like Birth, it is most dangerous in precisely the moments some people find "entertaining"?when its childish story lulls their consciousness, or appeals to unexamined, seemingly unbreakable, social prejudices.
Prefaced with an encomium on comic book culture (thus asking the audience's adolescent indulgence), Unbreakable is unlikely to cause the kind of outcry The Birth of a Nation did, precisely because it represents an hegemony that no one wants to oppose. Fans of, shall we say, "the graphic novel" are comfortable with the trivialization of social dangers, and Shyamalan plays to their weakness by effecting mystery-suspense tension without raising the audience's intelligence or providing a reality check.
When a film is this insidious a critic need not feel stymied by the false etiquette (promotional tool) of plot secrecy. Tell the truth and shame the shameless:
Bruce Willis plays David Dunn, a former college football hero in a faltering marriage (to Robin Wright Penn as a physical therapist) and the loving father of a fantasy-prone son (Spencer Treat Clark) who wants his lumpen-prole dad to be heroic. Dunn is sought out by Elijah, a black, queer, lonely comic book collector and art dealer (Samuel L. Jackson) who was born with a skeletal deformity that makes his bones easily breakable. Elijah's spiritually decrepit, too (having been the object of grade school bullies). In their encounters, Elijah inquires about Dunn's remarkable physical health and medical history, encouraging Dunn to accept all aspects of his indomitability. Envy? Love? Or just a desire to form a Batman-and-Robin symbiosis? Dunn and Elijah act out comic book aggressions in their own lives: Dunn a defender of the weak and Elijah, it turns out, his nemesis. Finally introducing himself as the incarnation of evil?a serial killer/terrorist despite his infirmity?Elijah has been dispatching hundreds of innocent people in large-scale, catastrophic train wrecks and bombings. Elijah's essential motivation is: "Stop me before I kill again." Not before he gets rid of the boob(s) who hatched this insupportable story.
Racial stereotypes as on view in Unbreakable wouldn't be as pernicious if we?an audience unified by the hunger for fantasy-satisfaction?weren't so susceptible to believing them. It's not the "little bit of truth" (or lie) that makes stereotypes disturbing, but the way they seem to justify contempt and discourage compassion. When a movie this dangerous becomes a hit (grossing $47 million its first weekend)?largely as a result of the media's cooperation and confirmation?it can no longer be denied that the subtle promotion of racism is a large, unacknowledged part of American popular mythmaking. And you can bet, with dread certainty, that it will never stop.
Take Unbreakable's two lead characters: Willis' white Everyman-Superhero and Jackson's black miscreant and villain. Multiply them and you'd approximate the same ideological positions in Griffith's war between the states. The major exception is that Unbreakable ignores class conflict. Dunn's job as security guard carries implicit authority and working-class nobility, with no sense of how such occupational privilege relates to power-wielding and social inequity. Shyamalan's sci-fi horror tale is thoroughly Hollywood in the way it attempts to normalize an invidious, antagonistic social system represented by such genre conventions as Elijah's black neediness and Dunn's white wariness.
Certain that movies have inherited the comics' cretinous viewership ("Comics are a form of history," Elijah pronounces), Shyamalan has made a graphic-novel-on-film that exercises political anxieties. People can pretend it's getting at something unfathomable yet true. But unlike the last such movie, the multiculti messianic-fantasy The Matrix, Unbreakable is entertainment for people who don't believe in social justice, who grasp after a bugaboo scapegoat for society's breakdowns.
Shyamalan's explanation of strife (choosing a particular figure of blame) shows that Unbreakable advances a faulty moral premise in which white equals good and black equals evil. "You were born good," Jackson tells Willis before revealing his own Satanic essence. He wears Shaft's purple cloak but now floor-length and outfitted with s&m accessories including a glass cane, as if he were Ming the Merciless. Why is it that only a British-born critic, LA Weekly's Ella Taylor, saw fit to ask the obvious question about Elijah? American critics take their ideological cues?never questioning hegemony?from the traditional moral dynamics of pop fiction. But Taylor punctured that self-protective cocoon. She saw "in Shyamalan's queasily unreconstructed reading...[that] the good goes unquestioned as whiter than white, while the sinister (in a woolly wig and a suit apparently made of fiberglass, Samuel L. looks like a cross between a superannuated Michael Jackson and one of those awful golliwogs that disgraced Max Fleischer cartoons before we all knew better) is all inky black."
Such elementary racist semiotics make Unbreakable anything but fascinating. Because we get the same Manichean dynamics in movie after movie (Liberty Heights, Pay It Forward, Billy Elliot, the entire Samuel L. Jackson filmography and more), most critics and viewers no longer question it. It's just life (movies being a form of history). The ending that perplexes some reviewers?causing them to grumble that Unbreakable is less than perfect?simply catches them asleep. Fact is: Unbreakable's climactic revelation is as absurd and poorly reasoned as its first half. That means critics fall for Shyamalan's bogus drama and trite fantasy?narrative elements bearing a sick, dehumanizing ideology.
This racist indoctrination has been going on a long time: it's what makes Samuel L. Jackson the contemporary reverse-Stepin Fetchit. Was any white movie star ever so unrelentingly unsympathetic? White people can feel condescension toward Jackson, but with an element of stealthily expressed loathing. Consider how critics articulate this ignorance:
Rolling Stone describes Elijah as "Just off-normal" (Serial killing "just off-normal"!). "Who are these people?" Newsweek asks?though not about Elijah. The inquiry was only about Willis and Penn; Jackson's perversity is accepted as right and believable. The New Yorker excused, "If Jackson did not have his stinging focus and clarity, the character would be remarkably absurd." So it's that bug-eyed sting (since focus and clarity are redundant) that The New Yorker finds believable. Jackson's usual menace pierces gentlemanly tact. So much so that Entertainment Weekly calls the Elijah stereotype Jackson's "finest" performance in years?a complete denial, and avoidance, of what it represents. The New York Times even referred to Jackson's "dignified curiosity"?a whopper considering the debased Frederick Douglass hairdo.
Elijah's high-rising pompadour also looks like a 60s James Brown. If Brown, it's a black man deprived of energy and grace; if Douglass, it's a black sufferer without the moral sustenance to stave off rancor and psychosis. That's what Elijah more likely signifies for Shyamalan, whose "original" screenplay goes all out to demonize and negate any valorous black heritage (opening with Elijah's mutilated birth?a perverse primal scene), denying all possibilities for the black child-man's health and growth.
In this role Jackson looks more bedeviled than usual. Though he doesn't shout, he still glowers. Yet his smoldering speciality doesn't indicate a tragic fall like the grievous anger that takes over Victor Bannerjee's countenance after the trial sequence in A Passage to India. Elijah is just another variation of Jackson's inconsolable black threat. This outrageous characterization completes the spectacle of black humiliation in popular entertainment. Jackson singlehandedly makes moot Spike Lee's polemical hysteria in Bamboozled.
Some people have ideas that shouldn't been given public utterance, let alone big-budget clearance, big-screen magnification or the sanctioning of a multimillion-dollar promotional campaign. As a Third World descendant, Shyamalan is an even more dubious (because unscrupulous) assimilationist than Ang Lee. He plays the same racist game as a Hollywood natural like Barry Levinson, concocting a bedrock racist fantasy that congratulates the status quo.
Unbreakable's biggest shock is in its reversal of the humane sentiment everyone expected of Shyamalan; his narrow viewpoint might actually be even closer to Hollywood's heart. How calculating! How diabolic! Journalists and film industry types have been praising Shyamalan following the box-office success of the extremely mediocre The Sixth Sense. That always happens in Hollywood, where art perplexes and irritates the suits. Let's face facts about that overrated film: The Sixth Sense reaped the benefit of moviegoers' massive disappointment with the outrageously hyped The Blair Witch Project, which had opened in the same season. A fluke hit, The Sixth Sense went on to outstrip Blair Witch simply because it was competently put together and offered basic narrative satisfactions.
Shyamalan's follow-up doesn't stretch out; it turns inward, confessing Hollywood's corrupt, unspeakable soul. Nonsense sequences, like Elijah hurrying down a cement staircase that merely ratchets viewer unease, or Dunn being held at gunpoint by his son who wants to shoot him to prove his invulnerability, show Shyamalan sacrificing credulity for easy emotional response. Plus, he seems to have no ethnic solidarity. That Shyamalan, a dark-skinned Indian, could make a movie that demonizes dark-skinned Americans is an alarming illustration of the racism that people of all colors fall into when they migrate to the Hollywood big time. He isn't adding anything to Hollywood genres that will improve their proverbial lack of ethics or redeem reckless sensationalism.
Shyamalan isn't a great director, but he did have a big hit, and in Hollywood parlance that makes even a barely competent director "a genius," even when his encore is an atrocity. The racist stereotype that Unbreakable unexpectedly erects is so easily at hand in Hollywood that even a hack like Shyamalan and a reprobate like Samuel L. Jackson can purvey it to delirious results, as though following an artistic obligation. It has the effect of promulgating subconscious hatreds?the wrong Griffith legacy.
Critics mistake Shyamalan's con-artistry for sensitivity. Willis' glumness probably connects with people's unacknowledged misery. A sense of information-age disconnect and alienation from oneself pervades the movie as it dulls Dunn's barely functioning home life. But Shyamalan is not on top of such childlike myopia?the two great pop examples of it being the Beatles single "Penny Lane" backed with "Strawberry Fields Forever" and Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird. Instead, Shyamalan steals the latter's narrative pattern, climax and denouement but reworks it ignorantly, not to satisfy the contemporary fear that we all are Boo Radleys but rather the routine cynicism and racist conventions of the Hollywood system he has joined. He denies Elijah Boo Radley's social sympathy, leaving Jackson to play the same scornful ingratitude of his last role opposite Willis. (Remember them both tied to a bomb in Die Hard with a Vengeance and Jackson advising Willis, "Leave me here. Save yourself!")
Elijah's successful art career never assuages his sociopathic nature. He can't overcome his childhood slights (the black memory of denigration, the legacy of slavery) and so, in step with conservative political myth, Elijah is locked away for society's benefit. Boo Radley, meet America's modern prison industry.
Mulligan, who specialized in stories of childhood sensitivity (The Other, Man in the Moon, Inside Daisy Clover) and constricting social customs (Love with the Proper Stranger, Up the Down Staircase), was never regarded a wizard like Shyamalan. That's because no Mulligan film ever grossed more than $200 million. But a few years of moviegoing?and my movie-loving instincts?tell me that Shyamalan is a charlatan. It is Shyamalan, not Spike Lee, who inherently understands the unbreakable chain of American racist sentiment. Working with smoke and mirrors, Shyamalan ensures cultural racism continues.
In the pop tradition of addressing large issues and on a broad scale, movies can frequently provide different kinds of moral instruction, as a friend demonstrated when he took his grade-school kids to see The Green Mile. But there are also lessons the zeitgeist rejects: Amistad, Beloved, George Washington. That's the invidious tradition by which Unbreakable gets accepted and goes uncontested. People can't see how dangerous it is simply because, in the end, it offers superficial placation and ugly reassurance.
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