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Daring to Do the Daring: Storytellers and the Stories They Tell

Recently Clint Eastwood has been praised / assailed for a film he made (Gran Torino) where he ventures into somewhat foreign territory to tell a tale of one man’s xenophobic excursion through a culturally diverse neighborhood. While I would like to laud Eastwood’s efforts, especially in light of other stories he has recently told that provided insight into underclass realities (the plight of the 18th Century Western prostitute in Unforgiven the plight of women in a man’s sport in Million Dollar Baby), he missed the mark for me considerably. His story is of one man’s perspective on a burgeoning Hmong culture within a context of that man’s refusal to succumb to white flight (a phenomenon whereby Whites depart from once racially White communities as those communities begin to become more racially diverse). Where the story fails for me is in its overtly banal use of stereotypes. Now, I am definitely averse to cavalierly dismissing stereotypes, recognizing that they originate from somewhere real and therefore do occasionally have merit. However, wanton use often reveals the users lack of sophistication with the subject matter.

Having said all of that, what I am wondering is this: Should Eastwood have even attempted to tell this story of a aging White male’s difficulties transitioning into relationships with a new culture that he already has a bias towards? It is the same old discussion that took place with Spike Lee’s frustration with Debbie Allen enticing Steven Spielberg to direct Amistad, and Alice Walker’s green lighting Spielberg to take on The Color Purple. Woody Allen, to advance his stories would often appropriate marginalized cultural groups in a stereotypically inclusive-systematically exclusive manner. Should we allow storytellers to tell stories that they are culturally distant from? Is it appropriate or artistically responsible for storytellers to bastardize images of people that they know nothing about and haven't thoroughly researched?

I remember when I first arrived at SUNY Plattsburgh and two of my colleagues, Dr. Amy Bass and Dr. Tracie Guzzio were both teaching with a research interest that delved into the African American experience. I, a Black man, benefited greatly from these two talented White scholars when the time came for me to teach my version of African American Culture. However, there are purists who insist that Whites shouldn’t be teaching African American anything, heterosexuals shouldn’t be teaching Queer Studies, etc.

Is this throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Don’t people outside of certain cultures have a perspective on those cultures that is worth hearing? While the risk is always run that “The Spook Who Sat By the Door” will emerge, with this outsider learning the ways of the differing culture and then using what they learned against the culture that taught them (Is anyone thinking of the Afghanistan Mujahideen?), it isn’t the best strategy to prematurely dodge bullets from a gun that hasn’t been fired, is it?

I once addressed a Gay-Lesbian group by prefacing my remarks acknowledging that as a heterosexual male my perspective was limited as to the lived realities that Gays and Lesbians must face. Later, as I left that moment I was informed that the advisor to that group used my preface as an indicator to these impressionable young women and men that I was homophobic. While I was blown away by how the advisor manipulated my words to advance an agenda, I also wouldn’t have done anything different. If I had addressed that group and not put out there a preface of my limited perspective, I would have come across as obnoxious, so on some level I couldn't win. What do we do when we (artists, teachers, neighbors, lovers, colleagues, humans) dare to enter forbidden or not often traveled territory? What are your suggestions about things we should do? What are your observations or stories about those moments when we dare to do the daring?

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Comments

JW-

I think our society often times puts too much emphasis on "proper experience". We have to have a degree to teach, or invest for others, or manage a company. While an education is important...in many cases, qualified people are excluded simply because they don't have the requisite educational background.

Where am I going with this? I think the same goes for people from different backgrounds or orientations or economic status. I've never bought into the whole "you'd have to walk in my shoes" arguments (we've had this discussion before :) ).

By way of example, I say that you, JW, would have been as good a professor and teacher without your degrees as you are with them. Your education isn't what makes you a successful communicator...it's you...your methods...your rapport...your willingness to talk about the uncomfortable. You can't teach that...and you can't learn it in a classroom.

Likewise...you need not be Gay/Lesbian to speak to a GL group with any credibility. That's patently absurd. I'm sure the topic wasn't "what it feels like to be a gay person". If so, then maybe they have a point. But if you're talking about oppression, or fairness, or inclusion, or love...those are overriding concepts...beyond race, culture, and economics.

Now to be clear...I'm not saying there aren't culturals intricacies involved in these topics...there are. However, when you speak, you are always speaking from your perspective and that perspective is shaped by who you are and the life you've lived. If anything...I feel your perspective is MORE valuable being an "outsider". It gives the opportunity to hear a different perspective...the chance to gain insight on a topic from an angle sharper...or more obtuse...than your own.

I tend to trust and respect those who can think clearly...those who have a foundation for their thought, and have the ability to articulate it to others. I trust the people who are thinkers, and those who have their heart in the right place. Not to be a suck up...but I get that feeling from you, JW...as I do with our new President. Although we've butted heads in the past...and will in the future...I learn far more from the discussions we've had over the points we've disagreed on, than I ever would have talking about the things we see completely eye to eye.

Storytelling: A Spectator Sport for the Audience?
The more and more storytellers attempt to cross the cultural divide, the closer we get as a society to bringing the divide of difference an inch closer. Unfortunately, it seems that oftentimes when this metaphysical rift is pulled closer by some daring artists, the often missed cultural nuances and unsubstantial replication of stereotypes widens the gap again.
But should outsiders of any culture cower or refrain from telling stories about the “other”? I don’t necessarily think so. Nevertheless, there needs to be an understanding between the storyteller and her or his audience. This informal agreement could imply that the story being presented is just a fragment of a fragmented reality. The story is just a take or thought the needs to be refined and tweaked to meet the needs and expectations of the viewer or listener upon receiving or digesting the content.
We often expect directors and writers to get everything right. Now, they should be held accountable for “half-ass” (pardon my colorful language) attempts to “inadequately” shine light on a reality they haven’t directly experienced. But as viewers, we should not be let off the hook either without considering that maybe there are some responsibilities tied to being a spectator. Our critical thinking might need to extend beyond just pinpointing what storytellers get wrong or right, but also include a process through which we fill in the gaps and tie the loose ends of the messages in stories that were created by “outsiders” to specific cultures and communities.

I saw the movie Gran Torino when it first came out. I am not a big movie buff so I do not know of many of the movies that Eastwood has played in. I have seen enough however, to think the same thing of Eastwood as I do of many other current Hollywood stars. That is; they need to take a break. I am always upset at the fact that we see the same Actor or Actress portray a character in too many movies. It seems that some of them can knock out two films a year. At this point I start to confuse the character’s they portray in one film with the next one and eventually with the actual star themselves. I start to wonder why Brad Pitt is not growing younger as he did in Benjamin Button while at the same time I wonder how many casino’s he has robbed in the past week with his Ocean’s crew. It becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish from the character a Hollywood star plays to who they really are; an Actor or Actress. They don’t really perform heists, clean up a neighborhood from gang members of different cultures, save cities from evil people that wear face paint and hand out playing cards. None of that, they just act. They pretend to be someone they are not for the sake of making a movie and I feel now more than ever, they are doing too many movies. Eastwood might have done the same thing with this movie, after seeing him be a macho not to mess with in many other movies, he breaks down in this one too far for what I believe he would. But in real life, he is living up in the Hollywood hills, or many other desired housing locations for stars, and reading from a script the words he needs to say. This is why I really think Eastwood should have left this role to some unknown, somebody with a bit more experience with living in such situations and with a lot less previous characters under their belt for us to expect to see. If Hollywood would start casting some fresh one-movie actors/actress’s with the most experience relative to the role as possible then they might start churning out some really incredible movies with us watching them remembering the character and not the star.

(SPOILER ALERT) I do also agree that this movie was riddled with some stereotypes that could have been left out and that if they made Eastwood break down and warm up to his new friends as he did, they could have made it last longer than the one minute on his front porch as it did. But this is my opinion and opinions vary vastly among each individual.

Enough with the movie reviews for now, you mention the perspective of those outside the culture. Are they worth being listened to? Well if they are articulated in a respectful way and willing to be molded, they certainly are. As long as you don’t talk about your perspective on another culture other than your own with the intention to harm them it is important to hear other cross-culture perspectives. If we never listened to other perspectives from outside our own culture how would we help them form a more accurate perspective if theirs is a bit skewed? Education is not expensive, ignorance is. If we don’t hear out and voice our cross-culture perspectives they form inaccurate stereotypes and I think that is more harmful than anything. Perspectives are often opinions based upon experiences such as firsthand accounts, readings, things others tell you, what you see on the media, etc. The more experiences you have the more well rounded your perspective could turn out to be.

If you base your perspective on one culture from the small five minute segment of them on the news then you’re left with a shallow view. If you learn about a culture from the news segment, reading articles, talking with others and talking with that culture (respectfully of course) itself then the better off your perspective will probably be. Therefore it seems silly to deny cross-cultural interaction and learning. Don’t you want others to know what you are all about? You talk about how you teach African American Studies at SUNY Plattsburgh currently. What are your thoughts on those culturally/racially different students in your class? Do you want them to get a better understanding of your culture and if so, do you feel you achieve your goal and their perspective’s are more well rounded than before? Do any of them ever come off as obnoxious for being there? It is unfortunate that one professor had manipulated your words in such a way; perhaps they are the one that really needs to expand their perspectives. On a positive note, your perspective could have definitely been improved by your interaction with that group and others. It is something I feel that we as a society really need to do more of. We need to engage with other cultures a lot more and learn what they are all about for our own perspective. As different as we seem we may find we are all really alike and just don’t know it.

So having said all that, I think Eastwood lacked the perspective he really needed for this role. That along with seeing him in too many other roles made the movie a disappointing one for me. But that does not mean we should not cross cultural boundaries. There are some things that I feel need to be noted. First of all when I interact outside my cultural boundaries and listen to the perspectives and opinions of that group and if I don’t completely disagree I often find myself taking their perspective as my own. I see this too often with others as well. It is vital that we take what we see and learn and make our own unique perspective. The exact opposite is something to be cautious of as well. There are many people out there that go into these engagements extremely close-minded and refuse to actually comprehend the things foreign to them. I have also been a victim of shutting out others perspective on topics I feel I know way more about. I find myself having to take a step back and be thankful they are willing to express what they know and believe and allow me to see how they view the world. It keeps me in check and reminds me I am not the only perspective in the world. Hopefully future movies will take note and learn from such mistakes that Gran Torino might have made. Engaging with other cultures, races, religions, countries and people will only help in my opinion. Clint Eastwood may not have known as much as he should have about the role he was playing and this may not have been the right movie for him. However, that is just my perspective which could be flawed and shallow in comparison to the perspective of another.

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