Nadine Zylberberg | Whitewashed Hollywood
Twenty Something | Thoughts from a Philly immigration waiting room
January 17, 2013, 1:12 am·
When I was eight years old, my best friend was a 10-inch sheriff with a pull string on his back. He went by Woody. Perhaps you’re familiar.
Movies have given us characters to identify with for as long as they’ve been around. Through the likes of Dorothy and Nemo, we became absolutely certain that scarecrows could dance and sharks had Australian accents. They helped us understand and marvel at unlikely scenarios, if only for a few hours.
“The Impossible” — a tale of one family’s survival during the horrific tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in 2004 — is one such case. It’s a harrowing yet inspiring true story that tugs at our heartstrings and brings us as close to the water and the rubble as the medium will allow.
The film remains honest to the Alvarez-Belon family’s experience, but makes a fundamental, barely noticeable switch. It was made by a Spanish filmmaker, financed by Spanish producers and shot in Spanish water tanks, but its characters, curiously, didn’t follow the obvious trend.
According to director Juan-Antonio Bayona, the decision to replace the Spanish quintet with a British one for the main cast came down to an issue of funding. The presence of Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor — tried and true Western movie stars — would ensure ticket sales and award nominations that other actors may not have. And as San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Mick LaSalle posits, “maybe Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz were busy.”
Reality dictates that when capitalism flexes its muscles, it can be too tempting to resist. As such, “The Impossible” was surely influenced by the Hollywood way, which entails emptying deep pockets in hopes of creating characters audiences can identify with.
Unfortunately, this sense of identity tends to come in the form of white Anglo-Saxons — very often thin, very often beautiful. True, the Bennett family onscreen is still fair-skinned and wealthy like its real-life Spanish counterpart. However, it only illuminates the unsettling idea that white — in both the racial and cultural senses of the word — is what we all identify with.
Robert Luketic’s 2008 film, “21,” based on the true story of MIT whiz kids-turned-card counters, replaced Asian-American students with an Americanized Jim Sturgess and friends. Likewise, Angelina Jolie took on the role of an Afro-Chinese-Cuban-Dutch writer in “A Mighty Heart.” And this summer, we’ll see Kentucky native Johnny Depp starring as Tonto in “The Lone Ranger.”
This rather homogenized bleached identity has pervaded Western cinema for decades and has informed my own complacency. When we enter the theater, we surrender ourselves to the discretion of the filmmaker. We are transported to another world for a few hours and hardly ask questions.
But one day, I was given the rare opportunity to ponder how identity plays out in America, more specifically, in the waiting room of the Philadelphia Immigration and Naturalization Services office. It was the day of my American citizenship exam. I had arrived a habitual 45 minutes early and could only stare at Ansel Adams prints and patriotic slogans for so long.
Sitting and waiting, I looked around and found myself in the midst of this elusive “melting pot” we’re constantly referring to, right there in a nondescript building on the corner of 16th and Callowhill streets.
This past Monday, I became an American citizen along with 60 strangers, altogether representing 31 countries. Again, “melting pot” etched its way across my mind, reminding me that identification comes in the form of a shared or inspired human experience, not the flesh that portrays it.
If we are an increasingly diverse people (and we are — the most recent census shows that over half of the children born in the U.S. are minorities), why have representations on film not kept up? In every other sense, mainstream cinema has been updated — the technology, the genres and the narratives all play into modern sensibilities. So why not the characters?
Before signing on a British-Scottish dynamic duo, sitting back and watching the numbers climb, filmmakers and producers would do well to ponder what really molds and shapes identity.
Because if the fabric of our country — or of an immigration waiting room — tells us anything, it’s that if a story is compelling enough, it’ll speak for itself.
Nadine Zylberberg is a College senior from Boca Raton, Fla. Her email address is email@example.com. Follow her @nadine_zyl. “twentysomething” appears every other Thursday.