Tonight we kick off Episode 3 of the weekly Guest Post series: Medium Cool with BGinCHI.
In case you missed the introduction to the series: Culture as a Hedge Against this Soul-Sucking Political Miasma We’re Living In
Tonight’s Topic: Ethnicity, as it’s expressed in books, films, and TV.
Photo courtesy of ruemara – thank you!
Take it away, BG!
In this week’s Medium Cool, we’re talking about ethnicity, as it’s expressed in books, films, and TV.
I just finished teaching a course called “Ethnic Literatures,” in which we read a bunch of terrific books: a few for context (on the constructions of history and on race), the rest novels, and a couple books of poetry. What emerged in the class was a deep dive into the ethnic groups/minority cultures struggled with poverty, racism, and language, kept traditions vibrant, and worked to construct new lives.
What books or films or TV shows do this in ways that have been interesting to you? How did they do it? If it’s your own ethnicity, how did they get it right or wrong? If it’s another ethnic group, what did you learn? If you’re outside the US, or there’s a work about ethnicity in another country, let us have it.
I know it won awards so is hardly a wildcard, but I thought Moonlight was one of the best, most moving films I have ever seen. I cannot speak to its authenticity but the last 20 minutes made me cry.
@Barbara: I haven’t seen Moonlight, but I googled and it said this:
That’s a pretty good recommendation.
Dorothy A. Winsor
THE HATE U GIVE gave me a look at Black Jesus that I knew nothing about. Great book
The second season of Ugly Delicious – delves into these issues in a really interesting way.
@Dorothy A. Winsor: From what I hear from HS teachers, it’s getting assigned all over the place in classrooms.
Also not a wild card, but I recently saw Roma on Netflix.
@MomSense: I didn’t know the 2nd season was out!!
I loved season 1. So many deep looks into other cultures and practices. Foodways are so important.
@Barbara: Me to. I loved that film.
Uh oh. Kid in a candy store here.
One things about the explosion of cable shows has done has been to fragment the audience so much that appealing to what was niche audiences before is now profitable. I have so many friends working these days, and they are able to bring in expertise (and have expertise HIRED) because it’s more important nowadays to get things right.
Counterbalancing that is a tendency among majority (i.e. white) institutions to be diverse, but to “refine” and re-refine a marginalized writers voice so that it is instantly understandable to their audience…thereby stamping out what was unique and refreshing about that voice in the first place.
For “another country,” I’d recommend Soul by Andrei Platonov.
The 1977 film, Padre Padrone, directed by the Taviani brothers, is inspired by the true story of a young Sardinian shepherd who is cruelly treated by his domineering father. The kid speaks a dialect that is looked down upon by other Italians. He seeks to educate himself, and there is a wonderfully scene where he has joined the military and, sitting in a tank with his new friends and comrades, quotes Virgil.
This scene wonderfully conveys how far the youth has come, and how he has discovered a new world through education.
@Baud: I do not want to admit how hard I cried at that movie, and not just once. OK, not even twice.
@gwangung: I am curious whether this production (from Our Published Authors list) speaks to any of the issues BG raised in the post?
@Dorothy A. Winsor: I started to read that and it was so intense I had to stop. I have a very sweet black grandaughter and that could have been her. Denial isn’t a river in Egypt but I would like to keep it there regarding my own.
The birth scene? Super intense.
@gwangung: By “fragment,” you mean aim at a particular ethnic group or demographic, rather than appealing broadly?
This one was very moving. There was a fascinating conversation between a chef who left Vietnam as a child in the 70s and a journalist in Beirut about living and war – how people view them, their countries, their cuisine. There’s a Palestinian baker who is amazing. Sooooo many great discussions and, of course, amazing food.
@gwangung: OK, I think I see what you mean: there are lots more opportunities now to tell more diverse stories, but when major studios/players get involved, there’s some whitewashing of more challenging (or esoteric) content.
Is that right?
But all you get to do is look at it! :-)
@Brachiator: Geez, I haven’t seen that in forever.
I LOVE the Taviani Bros.
The Night of the Shooting Stars is a film I need to see again soon. It really blew my mind way back when. I’m gonna go see what I’ve missed from them…. Thanks!
I’ll give “Ugly Delicious” a gander. Thanks for recommending something current.
From the something old category, i.e., seminal I find “In the Heat of the Night” just mind boggling for its time.
I’d bet there are more than a few of us who can recite iconic lines and scenes from that movie.
As a white woman, this movie laid the foundation to my exploration into race relations and white privilege.
@Baud: That and the scene at the ocean.
I got all my Indian cookbooks out and I’m going to start practicing. I already make a lot of Syrian and Turkish dishes, but there were some I’ve never tried that I’m going to try to approximate.
@MomSense: I can’t wait to see it.
Did you see The Taco Chronicles (on Netflix)? Amazing. Travels around to look into the various styles, but the people are so amazing and wonderful. I don’t know how anyone can hate on Mexican people and culture. SMDH.
Oh and please everyone watch East Side Sushi. It’s about a woman from Mexico who goes to work in a Sushi restaurant. That’s all I’ll say so I don’t spoil it, but it fits perfectly with the theme of this post.
YES. Please watch East Side Sushi.
Totally agree with you about Moonlight. More than being “authentic,” it is a piece of cinematic poetry. And more than being a movie about race or social conditions, it is an incredibly moving film about loneliness and reaching out to find love.
First titles which spring to mind:
Cane by Jean Toomer
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
@pamelabrown53: I return to that film every few months, especially for the opening 30 minutes.
@MomSense: Where can we find it?
I recently picked up Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has characters that move back and forth between the Dominican Republic and New Jersey. I tend to fall for novels that involve people trying to figure out how to navigate a world they don’t quite understand and this wasn’t one of those — it had some of that, but mostly the conflicts did not involve struggles with or in America so much as struggles with just being Dominican, and with the Dominican past. I liked the absolutely completely unapologetic attitude the narrator and characters had about being in America, reflected in part also by the footnotes, which talk down at American readers about their ignorance of Dominican history, and the insertion of whole passages of Spanish with no attempt whatever to translate. It was a nice change from the “I’m just so thankful to be here in America” trope.
Dorothy A. Winsor
It tells a nuanced and disturbing story.
There’s a whole wealth of relevant things among young adult science fiction and fantasy writers. I think this is only natural, because those genres are about “alien” worlds and cultures.
Let’s start with Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper, a novel where the teen protagonist realizes that the spirits of people from the neighborhood live in the graffiti around her, and where the villain of the book is gentrification. I haven’t read the second book in the series, yet. (I also like his Half-Resurrection blues, but it’s not on topic.) It’s set on the street, and the street-life of an established neighborhood.
Then there is Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series, about a rural Nigerian girl who goes off to, well, Starfleet Academy, but on the way has an encounter with the aliens. It’s rooted in her sense of place, and who her people are, how her relation to the land can be maintained on an interstellar voyage.
Nalo Hopkinson’s The Midnight Robber, set in the world(s) of a Caribbean diaspora, sounds like it was tailor-made for your course.
@NotMax: I teach Cane in my Southern Lit course (coming up this fall). What a tremendously beautiful, moving book.
I’ve taught it, I think, three times now and I learn so much every time I go back to it.
I loved Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, which I think is a small masterpiece. I greatly enjoyed If Beale Street Could Talk, his most recent film, and which won Regina King as Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Based on the novel by James Baldwin, the film is like a black version of the myth of the Garden of Eden. The movie’s protagonists are two young lovers who have known each other since childhood. They are largely protected by their family and friends. The sad irony is that their “original sin” is their blackness, because as they grow up and enter the world beyond the protective shell of their family and community, they are confronted with challenges, hostility and oppression.
The movie is rescued from bleakness by its humor and love for its characters, and for moments of grace and kindness that does not demonize anyone, but which recognizes the complexity of human life. But it also clearly shows how racism and racist assumptions in America undermine every effort that black people, and other people of color, take to just live their lives.
The cinematography and music in the film are outstanding, and again help Jenkins convey the story as a kind of fable.
Speaking of amazing food and our topic, I loved the movie: “The 100 Foot Journey”! Delved into xenophobia and the fear that’s the foundation in the context of food and competition.
@E.: Have you read Tommy Orange’s novel There There?
Struggle with history and identity from a Native American perspective. Set in Oakland (mostly).
Really beautifully written and moving.
There are some movies that stay with you. Padre Padrone and Dicken’s novel Great Expectations are close to my heart for all kinds of reasons.
@dm: I don’t know these and they sound amazing. Many thanks.
I was also reminded of the recent piece on N. K. Jemison in the New Yorker.
Dorothy A. Winsor
@BGinCHI: It’s a book that’s worth discussing, so I can see why high schools would assign it.
It’s included with Prime, Roku and Vudu.
@MomSense: Thanks!! Gonna watch tonight.
Many thanks to ruemara for the image!!
Sorry for the delay on that…..
Their Eyes Were Watching God transported me to a completely different place. Getting an ear for the writing took some effort, I sounded it out loud in my head, but so worth it.
@BGinCHI: No! I will look for it!
@Dorothy A. Winsor: Yes it is. I am glad it got movied, but I stil find it painful to read. Good book therefore.
Things Italian, “My Brilliant Friend” is having a second season on HBO. I was entranced by season 1 and the two lead characters, each played by two actresses to span the years covered.
Yes! The first thirty minutes are so intense, while perfectly setting the stage for the denouement.
One of many scenes that broke all barriers was when Mr. Tibbs slapped the old, rich white guy who was the symbol of unassailable power.
A long time ago when I was in college, I took a bunch of French courses and we read the usual old and modern canon of French “masterpieces.” A course that really stuck with me, however, was a course on the novels of Francophone Africa. Other cultures in another language.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Beautifully shot, lovely music, and tells an evocative, poignant story about holding on to the “truth” as we need to believe it. I hadn’t heard much about this movie before I saw it, and I loved it.
@eclare: Yes Yes Yes.
I’ve been coveting the nickname “Tea Cake” for a long time.
I remember this being so good. Guatemalans migrating through Mexico to California. I guess it’s been a while since I’ve seen it. Maybe time to see it again.
@Omnes Omnibus: I had the same experience with a course in Caribbean lit in grad school, where I first read Césaire, Fanon, Glissant, Condé, et al.
@scribbler: I liked it a lot and totally agree. Wonder if the clunky title didn’t put people off.
Great performances, too.
Gin & Tonic
Since other cultures and food have come up, I was of course a big fan of Anthony Bourdain’s travels on all of his shows – but when he traveled to Ukraine, a country I know well, that episode was painfully “off.” Totally lame, to the point of embarrassment – and it made me wonder how other people who know other countries well felt about his visits there, say Lebanon, or Iran, or lots of other places he went that certainly looked appealing to me.
I understand if you’re in his position you need a local guide, translator, fixer, and you’re totally at his/her mercy, so maybe I shouldn’t be blaming Tony (and he’s dead anyway) but that faux-pas really stuck with me.
I can recommend the novel, Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee, about the multi-generational experience of a Korean immigrant family in Japan in the 20th century. Hits all the themes mentioned above in a very affecting way.
@Jewish Steel: It holds up really well. There’s a similar film from a few years ago, the title escaping me, about the same subject, but focusing on the way C. Americans ride on top of trains through Mexico, and how dangerous it is. Harrowing and brilliant.
Oh this is a good question, I will need to ponder this a bit.
One criticism that later Latin American Boom literature got (think 5th generation magic realism) was that it became sort of a caricature of itself. And that unless a Latin American novel was magic realism it wasn’t seen or perceived by the American reading public as being regional literature. Meaning only magic realism got translated.
Perhaps the best and most harrowing book I have read from Central America in the last few years is The Beast by Oscar Martinez. Reportage from one of the best in the business (he founded/works for El Faro, main source of regional independent journalism).
I want to praise two films about Brazil.
The first is the 1980 film, Pixote,directed by Hector Babenco. A searing portrait of Brazilian street kids and how they try to survive in a society that has discarded them.
I saw this film years ago at Filmex, the Los Angeles international film festival, and even had a chance to ask the director, who made a personal appearance, a couple of questions about the film.
The second film is the 2002 film, City of God, about the favelas of Rio. This is an intense film that draws you into the lives of young gang members trying to make it in a hard world. The key, as in the earlier film, is to make the protagonists human, not simply pathetic figures you want to feel a distancing sympathy for. Issues of crime, race and social class are subtly drawn, not ham fisted or obvious.
This film may well be a masterpiece. But it is a wild ride, sometimes soft, sometimes brutal, and often surprising.
ETA: I want to quickly throw in a movie about food with an ethnic dimension, Like Water For Chocolate.
Did you read the authors in the original language or their translations?
@Baud: Roma is fantastic, it is a very specific slice of Mexican life, done to show how others in society experience it and done with love most of all. I loved that movie.
@Brachiator: Echo your praise for City of God. I came out of the theater breathless, like I’d been on a roller coaster. Brilliant film. And I think it used a lot of local residents, not actors.
Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism
@dm: Yes. LOVE Binti.
@BGinCHI: On my short list! I also liked Men We Reaped, a memoir by Jesmyn Ward, and plan to read some of her fiction. I had to stop reading it for a while because I felt so much grief after one of the deaths. It is a powerful book that I discovered on the recommendation of Dwight Garner, my favorite NYT book critic.
Gonna check that out.
@Gin & Tonic: His visit to Romania was off as well. IIRC he went to those countries with a Russian friend and may have seen things through Russian rather than local eyes. But his shows on France, Germany, and Austria (areas with which I have some familiarity) were fine.
@Brachiator: Moonlight brought Pixote to mind more than once, or at least when the protagonist was a child. I feel like they might have shared directorial influences.
@Valdivia: If you’re going to start on Allende again….
@Brachiator: Wow, you’re really taking me back with these films. I remember being stunned by Pixote.
And City of God an absolute masterpiece.
I haven’t seen anything from Brazil lately that wasn’t an action film, though I did see a film set in the Amazon called The Embrace of the Serpent (2016) that was amazing.
@Omnes Omnibus: shhhhhh, don’t call the haters on me, it took months to get off that blacklist!
@pamelabrown53: I can read French, but I also leaned on translations when I had to. I’m a slow reader in other languages, so when pressed for time…..
And yes, hi y’all hope life is treating everyone well given the confines of our developing dystopia
@BGinCHI: I’ll cop to doing that with Chaucer.
@Barbara: I taught Salvage the Bones last year, and it was devastating. Just a stunning, sledgehammer of a novel.
All her books are great and I can’t say enough about what a flat-out great writer she is.
The Farming of Bones, Edwidge Danticat, historical fiction set against the 1937 massacre of Haitians in the DR under the rule of Gen Trujillo, told in beautiful yet graphic language. She evokes the atmosphere of hatred and terror of the massacre of Haitians by Dominicans through the eyes of Amabelle–a woman whose strength and character, thoughts and dreams make the book a treasure.
… Also Bandit Queen, not for the timid, about Phoolan Devi, caste, the role of women in Indian culture.
@Omnes Omnibus: Mrs. BG currently teaching a Chaucer seminar, and she really forces them to get comfortable with the ME. It ain’t easy. Rewarding, though.
@banditqueen: I loved this book.
It’s the one where they make people say a particular word and if they can’t pronounce it properly they execute them? IIRC.
Time to go back and re-read that one.
Hey you! I’ve missed your SO MUCH!
@Valdivia: So glad to see you here. You are missed!
I liked Oscar Wao a lot.
There There was the best book I read in 2018 (even goodreads.com tells me so).
Yeah, I think so. We’re not talking about ratings of 80, 90 million people…we’re looking at much smaller number of audiences to be successful, and specific ethnic groups can now slip over that lower threshold.
Yes, but I’m also thinking there’s tendency to assume the main audience is white (and upper middle to upper class). And it leads to over-explaining things. It treats that audience as totally naive and needing to be hand held, and unable to pick up things on the fly (as, opposed to, say, a science fiction audience, who can infer things from context).
Hate is easy.
Anyone can find a reason to hate someone with very little effort.
Finding a way to not hate anyone is extremely difficult. One word. trump.
Now finding a legitimate reason to hate, that’s a bit more difficult.
Figuring out how to hate the least amount possible, that’s work.
I read three of Jessmyn Ward’s books in a row (Sing, Unburied, Sing; Where the Line Bleeds; Salvage the Bones), they were that good. What a voice!
Well, I lived in apartheid SAfrica and I live in democratic SAfrica. There are so many different ethnicities here that we have 11 official languages.
Probably the most literarily prolific group are the Afrikaners. They revel in their history and manage surprisingly often to paint themselves as victims, firstly of the British and recently of the entire world, especially them communists, who are , of course, ubiquitous in world affairs. Naturally, they write in Afrikaans, so don’t get much exposure outside the country.
We Anglophones do sometimes crack it – Nadine Gordimer, JM Coetzee, – to whitesplain how awful apartheid was but it is hard for speakers of other languages to break through internationally. Also, most books in Xhosa or Zulu or Sotho are about the Struggle against the oppressors which is understandable but does not really delve into the reality of ethnicity. White privilege continua, much as la luta. (Portuguese is not one of our languages, btw)
@gwangung: Thanks. Your web site and whole project look really brilliant. I’ll send some students your way, and a colleague of mine who does gobs of theater reviews here in Chi.
On a slightly different subject, I’m really pleased at how much Asian cinema is making an impact right now. Though I wish the offerings from, say, Netflix were better. I need to up my game in subscribing to more foreign film services.
@debbie: Totally agree.
She can really write.
@suezboo: Have you read Trevor Noah’s memoir?
@suezboo: Goes to show how much diversity and variety there is around the world. We’re obviously just scratching the surface here.
I’ve always been curious how the wine industry works in SA in terms of mixed ownership, labor, etc. Is it diverse at all?
Not sure this fits in here, but I want to recommend Afterward. Here’s a brief summary of the documentary:
Also the possibility of Israel’s guilt, which she tacitly acknowledges at the end. It’s really very moving.
@WaterGirl: Hi there! It is nice to be back. I try to come at the end afternoon for this thread but work is insane so I am a little late getting back to you guys
@Baud: blush blush. thank you, it’s great to be here even if I have to be multitasking with class prep
@eclare: No, I haven’t yet. I’m sure it must be very interesting, given his background. I am a fan of his and here he would be classified as Coloured (mixed-race, brown). And yes, the Government used to classify us and now we do it ourselves. Non-racialism is a long time coming.
I look forward to reading Born a Crime.
@Valdivia: We’ll take what we can get! One of these days maybe you will have time to fill us in on what you’ve been up to. :-)
@suezboo: Thank you for the info. His book has been on my list for a while.
@BGinCHI: Although I live in one of the great wine-producing regions in the country, I really don’t know much about it. The norm around here seems to be that the farm is owned by a white family/company who employ permanent farmworkers (mostly Coloured) under fair conditions with housing and schools and sports facilities etc. Then there are the seasonal workers, employed only at harvest time. A lot of them are black and come from the Eastern Cape, our poorest province, or even Zimbabwe. They live in our shantytown and are poor and unemployed the rest of the year. They suffer badly under the circle of poverty. The farmworkers come out on strike demanding better conditions every year but as they are seasonal, they are replaced pretty easily by other desperate people. SA has an official unemployment rate of 30%.
People’s desperation is easily exploited.
I had a friend years ago who wrote a definitive book about his country, Tanzania. Post colonialism.
his name was Peter Palangyo and book is Dying In The Sun. One of the most important books by an African author. Check it out!
Thanks folks. Though I’m somewhat resigned that this project may get cancelled or postposed due to the virus…I’m pretty sure there’s going to be an edict to stop indoor gatherings, if not for everyone, then for people in the danger zones….
@WaterGirl: happy to! short version: nothing very exciting, tons and tons of classes and care taking my parents. long version is less exciting but I am not complaining.
Coming late to this dead thread to say I enjoyed the current Netflix series “Gentefied”. Gives a good feel for the Mexican-American culture of East L.A. and the issues around gentrification.
@suezboo: I was afraid that would be the answer….
@Ajabu: Thank you!! I will.
@Valdivia: Well, if you are well, and your parents are doing fairly well, that’s great! Hope to see you again soon.
@FelonyGovt: I wouldn’t assume it’s dead. Last week’s thread was still getting comments a day later. :-)
OMG. Can confirm. Do not watch hungry. About, yes, tacos. But also a love story about Mexico and its people and food.
Oh, I loved the books. I’m slow at getting to things video (too much for me to take in at once) but books I love.
@jonas: Bingo. You said it way better than I did.
It’s good and late, but I want to recommend my friend Gayle Pemberton’s audiobook, “The Hottest Water in Chicago.” It’s a memoir that starts with her father, who worked for the Urban League all his life–the title chapter is about the night he integrated a none-too-deluxe hotel in Chicago. The rest is about her life as his daughter in the 50s and 60s in the Midwest, integrating schools, watching TV and movies, and figuring out how to survive as a smart black woman in America. I just loved it.
@MomSense: I just watched this on your recommendation and I have tears running down my face. Thank you.
I’m so glad you liked it.