Friday, March 30, 2007

The Resistance Before the Breakthrough

Last night I received a reminder of a critical principle that should remain in the consciousness of all people – from educators to healers – who want to affect social change by not preaching to the converted.

As part of my stint as the 2007 artist-in-residence for Carolina Circuit Writers, I have been visiting colleges and universities discussing my work. For the past few days I have been speaking with classes at North Carolina Central University, a historically Black college in Durham. Last night I was the guest speaker of NCCU's Lcyeum series, and for my presentation, I decided to do a version of a workshop I developed at Chica Luna Productions in which we deconstruct the gender messages in the film Hustle & Flow.

Yeah, I went there.

And when I go there – when I stand up to cast a harsh light on the harmful messages conveyed in a film that people relish – I fully expect that some will resist. For example, several weeks ago, I was an assembly speaker at Durham Academy, and while I did not have the opportunity to conduct the H&F workshop, I shared my take about the film's messages to women regardless of race and class (i.e. the film is Cinderella in blackface.)

A young man about sixteen years of age raised his hand. "Couldn't you say that the film also has a positive message?" he asked. "That in order to achieve a dream, you have to work together with other people?"

I took a moment to consider that and realized he was right. "Yes, you can take that message away from film," I concede. Another hip hop film – 8 Mile – came to mind as another example of a well-crafted film with mixed messages. "A film can have multiple messages. Some may be good, some may be bad, and some of the messages may even contradict each other." Then I added, "What I would ask you to consider is that even though Hustle & Flow may have that positive message about the collectivity it takes to achieve a dream, that message doesn't contradict the negative one that says women don't have dreams other than the ones of the men in their lives. Just whose dream is everyone organizing to achieve?"

While we would probably disagree about whether that positive message is more powerful than the negative one, I appreciated that he was at least realizing that even a commercial film like Hustle & Flow indeed had any message. As much as it can frustrate me how gendered messages in entertainment are frequently overlooked or dismissed or, at best, acknowledged yet trumped by other concerns, the fact that this young man didn't cry, "It's just a movie!" is a step in the right direction.

But even as I expect resistance, there are times when folks demonstrate an investment in oppressive isms that shakes me. It especially strikes me to the core when I see a person stretch to defend the very ism that targets him or her. That happened last night during the lyceum when a young woman in the audience went to such great lengths to mine Hustle & Flow for messages that support the female empowerment.

"Well, at the end of the movie when he (the character DJay played by Oscar nominee Terrence Howard) says that one day he's going to have a daughter, and he's going to tell her that she can be president?" she says. "Couldn't you say that's a positive message to women?"

If DJay had a daughter, he'd be disappointed, I think. But once again, I concede. "You certainly could make that argument. Now do you believe that single line at the very end of the film is enough to counteract all those negative images and statements that preceded it?" It's a throwaway line at the end of the film, I think but keep to myself.

Then the young woman says, "Well, what about the scene where he's asking her (the character Nola played by Taryn Manning), 'What do you want?' Couldn't you say that he's trying to support her by asking her that?" She is talking about the scene when Nola explodes at DJay for pimping her for a microphone he needs to finish recording his demo. He screams repeatedly at her "What do you want?" to which she yells back, "I don't know!"

"Couldn't that be a counterweight to the other scenes?"

Hell no! I scream in my head. There's no way to interpret the scene that way. Not only are the two characters in the midst of an explosive argument, to buy the "interpretation" that DJay is attempting to help Nola figure out what her dream is requires that we ignore the rest of their exchange.

After screaming at Nola who continues to stand up to him, DJay switches tactics. His voice goes soft, and he starts to talk sweetly to her, promising to buy her new shoes. Nola cuts him off cut by saying, "I know when you're messing with my head because I let you. Because sometimes my head needs to be messed with. But right now, just don't, okay?"

(Which itself is highly problematic in how it suggest that she is somehow the primary architect of her exploitation by relenting to it and rationalizing it, but let me not digress.)

I'm confident that even those who champion Hustle & Flow as a redemptive tale would be reluctant to argue that this scene displays DJay's desire to support the dreams of the women he prostitutes. Indeed, they would argue that it's because of this argument with Nola that DJay begins to see her as someone with needs beyond physical survival. If DJay does change into a man who cares solely about his own needs to a man who recognizes that the women around him have needs, too, this is the moment in which that change takes place and not before.

Mama, why are you reaching so hard? is the question resounding in my mind, the one that I fight to suppress. Although I temper my response, I still push back. "I honestly don't understand how you can read that scene that way," I have to say. "I mean, he's screaming at her, 'What do you want? What do you want?' He's angry, and his objective clearly is to shut her down. He's not saying, 'What do you want, baby?' Only when he sees that it's not working does he switch up, and that's just to implement his pimpology. I mean, even she calls it out when she tells him not to mess with her head.'"

I pause for the young woman's response, but she just looks at me.

Later I reflect on the event with my friend and colleagues in CC Writers and ask for their feedback. Despite the richness of the discussion and learning that took place, I find myself worried about that young woman's resistance to my critique of the film. It's one thing to latch onto that throwaway line at the end of the movie because at least it's there to latch onto. Could a crush on Terrence Howard, pride in a Southern film or even love for crunk music be that blinding? Or has she been through something much darker and more profound? Just what would compel this young woman to be so desperate to see something in that scene that is clearly not there?

When I pose this question, Emily reminds me of that critical principle of change whether we are speaking of individuals or society, the personal or the political, the spiritual or the practical.

"People resist the most when they're about to break through," she says. "Even though she challenged you, she didn't leave."

Exhale. How could I forget? Not that long ago I had told a loved one that he had to believe that he was having an impact even if his students did not seem to respond. That for some of them the effect of his transforming approach to teaching would not be evident to them perhaps years after they left his classroom. That he may have an effect on them that he will never have affirmed. He just had to believe he did.

Last night I was reminded of how easy it is to forget these things when one is in that teaching moment, and the aha! one is striving toward does not occur. Not only was I reminded that learning and transformation can still be taking place unbeknownst to me, in retrospective I realize how fortunate I was to receive a tangible sign that it might be. That sign came was in that young women's resistance, a resistance that I could hear, see and feel.

I have to believe that – whether it happens in the near future or a long time from now and despite the likelihood that I will never know about it when it does – it was the resistance before the breakthrough.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

Thank you for sharing these thoughtful observations comments--esp. about the ways that people learn through resistance. It's something I haven't really thought about in this way, before, and it's such a provocative and rich area to explore, esp. for people who teach/talk about controversial subjects like race and gender and sexuality. Like you, I want that young woman to break through to the other side--to convince her in the midst of her defense that, the intersections of race and sex, of racism and sexism, are complex. We can enjoy something as entertainment, but it's also important to look at the subtle and not-so-subtle messages of oppression and stereotypes being reinforced.

Great job in taking on a bold topic--and it also shows that even when we think we are preaching to the choir, sometimes we're singing in different keys, using different hymnals, and that harmony is something that takes practice and the ability to listen to the other voices around us.