24 January 2013

Conditioning, or Pavlov's Dog Goes to the Movies

Last week, I had the pleasure to attend a screening of Middle of Nowhere, the new film by director Ava Duvernay staring newcomer Emayatzy Corinealdi, Omari Hardwick, David Oyelowo and Lorraine Toussaint.

I really enjoyed it. The performances were uniformly good and film has it's own relaxed pace and a beautiful understated quality. I was also impressed by the writing, which I thought was very good and very 'real.' The characters talked the way people actually talk, and nothing seemed forced, which was a great pleasure to luxuriate in.

But one interesting thing that both the friend who invited me (thanks Bernie!) and I commented on afterwards is how we 'kept expecting something to happen.' This is a movie with no gunshots, no drive-bys, no explosions. It is disturbing to realize this, but sadly, we've been conditioned to expect these things when going to the movies - and particularly to movies staring African-American characters.

It bothers me no end that I have fallen for this, to expect to see violence on screen when I watch a movie, or a television show. It disturbs me that a plot point or the resolution of a problem comes so often accompanied by a gun shot, explosion, or the throwing of a fist, that I've been trained to expect to see that all the time, in nearly every show. Many of us, myself included, are so used to 'sensation', spectacle, quick cuts and fast pacing, that a film or TV show that has its own pace, that takes its time, can feel 'slow,' that 'nothing is happening' on screen (I am glad to have seen Nowhere in a theater so that I could be enveloped in it, as opposed to at home on DVD where I may not have given myself up to it as much).

And of course the possibility of violence seems to always lurking when Black characters appear in a movie. Many years ago I read an article that noted how many African-American characters on television have a relationship with the criminal justice system - either as cops or criminals. Part of that is a function of there being so many cop/mystery shows on TV, but much of it also is the LACK of Blacks as regular characters on non-cop shows. We tend to be associated with crime (on both sides of the line) - so is it any wonder that there is this fear of (in particular young) black people in the real world? See enough negative images and one begins to expect things to 'jump off.'

So I am very grateful to the makers of Middle of Nowhere for slowing me down, allowing me to rest for a while in their world, and above all helping me to realize that something not very pleasant that has been happening to me - that I have been turned into a well conditioned test subject. Thank you for helping me to recognize this, and helping me to truly see.

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