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Filmism.net Dispatch August 15, 2023

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In this Filmism.net Dispatch I want to talk about cultural appropriation. If you work in Hollywood today and get called out about it on social media, you're as sunk as if a former intern levels a sexual harassment accusation against you.

I've talked about it a little bit before, right here, but today I want to shine a light on how (despite a new age of cultural awareness and minority representation) it still happens in Hollywood when it suits Hollywood, and how the industry has some kind of magical spell that deflects complaints or criticisms about it when it does.

I'll start be returning to Black Panther. Now, because I didn't really like the movie it's possible I was looking for things to nitpick.

But I think they're legitimate complaints, both in my own opinion and according to the new rules of the way both social media and the entertainment media determine your standing in the industry.

It was a celebration of African culture, and at the time the adulation levelled at Marvel for doing so in a mainstream movie was enough to make you think Africa/Africans had never been seen on screens before.

But did nobody remember District 9? Tsotsi? Gorillas in the Mist? Hotel Rwanda? The Gods Must be Crazy? Blood Diamond? Queen of Katwe?

Nevertheless, the hypocrisies in Black Panther stand. For all its supposed representation of Africa not a single frame was shot or post produced there, and most of the major cast were (although black) American. And don't get me started on the lazy stereotype about South Africans all being mercenary cutthroats...

But the deeper issue I had was the cherry picking of mythologies, costumes, artifacts, iconographies and customs from a nebulous 'African-ness' that was then made into a kind of trophy for itself.

Isn't that the definition of appropriation, picking bits you like that suit your purposes and misrepresenting what you're portraying in the course of using them?

in the same vein, a very insightful Twitter user criticised Black Panther sequel Wakanda Forever when it was in cinemas because the scene set in Haiti was shot in Puerto Rico and contained no Haitian actors.

There was a similar (although far more deeply argued) sentiment in this story after Moana came out, one I agreed with wholeheartedly. I'd covered the film as a reporter so knew the story of its development.

Before a single drawing had been sketched or line written, co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker and some designers, writers and other artists did a weeks-long tour of the Pacific to collect ideas.

The idea was to really soak in Pacific Islands cultures, experiencing the settings, costume designs, characters, landscapes, food and everything else.

And they did, by choosing a costume style from here, a tribal belief mythology from there, character names, sailing vessels and weapon designs from farther again.

They collected them into what this writer very perceptively called Pan-Polynesian, but which didn't represent any specific Pacific (poetry FTW!) culture, just the most cinematic bits of all of them.

In popular movies, those bits are often put together with little care about their individual places in the worlds they came from, an endless list of rich cultures Hollywood homogenises for their stylistic appeal.

Because let's not forget, aspects of some of the costumes and iconographies in Black Panther or Moana would be as alien to other Pacific or African people as walking down the street naked would be for those of us in the developed world.

So is this parade of cultural appropriation actually harmful? Probably not, and if you go to the movies expecting an anthropologically accurate depiction of a people, you deserve all the ill-advised ideas about the world you're going to get.

But when so much of our social discourse and the very real effect it can have on people's livelihoods (see; every previous acclaimed artist who's lost their career over a stupid tweet) and lives (see; the families of every teenager who's committed suicide after sustained online bullying or slut-shaming) comes from TV and movies, it can actually be harmful.

You might think an uneducated Marvel fanboy having the wrong idea about which African tribal iconographies belong together is completely harmless, and it is.

But don't you think there might be some uneducated Marvel fanboys who take a dislike to South Africans because of the harm they potentially did to a fictional place in a made up story and go on to harass or torment real South Africans they know or meet? Because I do.

Because here's the other kicker. You don't have to be a trench coat wearing incel, you only have to be a kid. It's kids who watch movies these days, and childhood is when we start to unconsciously internalise the messages about morality movies and TV give us.

Is the answer to make films that only depict cultures with complete fidelity to how those cultures look and work in real life? Of course not. Otherwise Black Panther might have been about modern piracy, apartheid or the poaching trade, not spaceships and cool fights in shallow ponds.

I don't know what the answer is (more complete parenting to give kids context about what they watch, maybe?), but isn't this another example of Hollywood loudly and proudly claiming the good parts of representation, diversity and inclusion, then flying the 'we're only making movies' flag when someone points out potential downsides?

Personally, I'd have loved the South African Entertainment Industry Alliance (there's no such thing) to stage protests up and down Alameda or Olive Avenues when Black Panther or Lethal Weapon II came out like the WGA and SAG-AFTRA is right now, but alas, appropriation is thriving and seemingly unassailable.

On screens now... very little worth crowing about. I will mention The Vast of Night, an absolute cracker of a sci-fi mystery, with shades of the 80s Spielberg aesthetic we all love but an unshakable sense of its own style.

In documentaries, you'll probably watch Money Shot: The Pornhub Story hoping for clips of pornstars, but it's actually a remarkably well balanced and thoughtful dissertation on the digital service that's conquered the adult film industry.

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