Editor’s Note: Originally published at author’s personal blog page. Reprinted with permission.
I propose to you that a film with the subtle racism of Boyhood is worse than a film with the overt racism of, say, The Birth of a Nation, for example. When we see The Birth of a Nation, after returning from the bathroom because of becoming sick to our stomachs, we know without a doubt what the problem is and we can easily criticize the film —despite its merits in editing— for its horrendous content.
A film like Boyhood, on the other hand, has been praised universally for its “life-like” dialogue and visual realism, largely due to the fact that it was shot over the course of 12 years. Much like The Birth of a Nation, it is being praised for its innovative technique and will likely be shown in many a film school, just like The Birth of a Nation often is. However, unlike The Birth of a Nation, the racism depicted in Boyhood, I suspect, will not be seen as clearly as the racism in the former film.
Let me explain. Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater, is a film about a family. Truth be told, I’m not sure why the film is called Boyhood because it seems to be more about the entire family than just the male child in the family. Nonetheless, the film follows the growth of the family over 12 years in Texas. The family is white and everyone around them is white, except for one character, who is a migrant worker. We only see Enrique, the migrant worker, twice in the film. There are two problems with this dynamic: 1) the idea of “reality” which the film is clearly trying to convey; and 2) the problematic Enrique storyline.
1. Boyhood is a film that will be praised for years to come for its techniques in presenting “reality.” If you are only looking at the family in an isolationist kind of way, the film does seem realistic. The characters are not polished, their dialogue is awkward with believable levels of emotion, and the difficulties and joys they face are ones we are familiar with. HOWEVER, the setting is completely unrealistic in the sense that anyone who lives in Texas KNOWS that you cannot walk five feet without encountering people of Mexican descent. We see Patricia Arquette’s character, simply known as “Mom” (which I think is a bit reductive), travel throughout the state, have various jobs —including one as a professor at Texas State University— and at no level in her life do we see friends who are of Mexican descent, co-workers who are of Mexican descent or even people in restaurants who are of Mexican descent. I was LOOKING. As someone who lived in Texas for five years, and whose parents lived in San Marcos, where Texas State University is located, I know for a fact that this is an impossibility. The bulk of people in these areas are of Mexican descent —some of them are White Latinos/as (which can pass for plain, ol’ White), but many of them are not— and you can see these folks in everyday life. Furthermore, you simply cannot avoid having them in your own everyday life. If you somehow manage this task, you must be trying very, very hard, and the Mom character is not depicted as that kind of person. She would literally have to stay in her house 24/7 and shoo people away from her door who are delivering her mail.
The reason this type of racism, by elimination, is so insidious, is because in such a supposedly realistic film, it implies that deleting reality is normal and even wholesome. When we see a hard-working family being real and caring toward each other, and oddly removed from a state that has a majority of people of color, we think that this kind of removal is understandable and normal. We simply don’t think anything is wrong. It’s like watching “Friends” (which showed NYC homogeneous instead of realistically multicultural), except you are convinced that it’s not a bad TV show; no, you are actually watching art, art that deserves awards, but which does the exact same thing as “Friends,” in terms of our perception of the world/reality.
2. The actual storyline that actor Roland Ruiz was forced to bring to life —bless him, we all need work— is the horrific “save me White person” trope that has been depicted in countless films, from Dangerous Minds to The Blind Side. A simple Google search will bring up many criticisms of this pervasive form of racism. Not only does his presence in the film stand out more because of the lack of other Latinos/as throughout the film, but the interaction he has with Mom is so ridiculous that one simply cannot ignore how it underscores the deletion of reality/brown people throughout the film.
In the first scene Enrique and Mom are together. He is fixing some plumbing issues and Arquette says that he’s smart and should go to school. I cringed and hoped that was the end of it. Unfortunately, years later, we see him coming towards Mom in a restaurant, beaming and the friend I was with knew the words before they came out of Enrique’s grateful mouth: “You changed my life!” Mom’s brief statement had inspired him to turn around his life. Ugh. Both of us were furious. I met hundreds ofLatinos/as in Texas while I was there and the majority of them were extremely educated and capable people even the ones who ALSO, not ONLY, knew how to do physical labor. You cannot go to Texas State U. and not encounterLatinos/as professors. There are overachieving, type-A Latinos/as everywhere! At every level of society! I should mention that I was not in some Ivory Tower when in Texas; I lived in a variety of neighborhoods, including the working-class West Side of San Antonio, and taught everywhere, including a juvenile detention center. So to think that Enrique needed this woman, who was struggling herself, to give him advice and introduce education as a “novel” concept is more than condescending. Furthermore, people who talk to you for less than one minute do not change your life. If Linklater wants a realistic film that spans years, he should know that.
Some folks will argue, “Well, what’s wrong with the Mom character being nice?” You must look at the overall structure of the story. If you delete all people of Mexican descent from the imagery onscreen, then only have one interaction with a person of Mexican descent, and that one interaction is one of a white savior uplifting the Mexican, THAT IS RACIST. But, because it is cushioned in the decade-plus depiction of a warm, interesting family, we will accept it. We will say, “Oh, but it’s still such a wonderful film.” We will say, “Oh, but didn’t Linklater really accomplish something with this.” We will say, “Look at how brilliant we can be.” We won’t say, “Damn, we made a really racist film.” Ever. I mean, it’s not like we have the KKK running around lynching people, right?
No, there is no lynching taking place. Only sweetness abounds in this film. And for us Latinos/as, it’s the kind of sweetness that places us in the same category as a dog, who you teach tricks, who makes you happy when he does said tricks. Or perhaps the same category as wallpaper, lovely wallpaper you only notice when you want to admire your interesting-looking surroundings.
But the truth is we are not dogs or wallpaper. We are like keratinocytes, which make up the main part of your skin, Mr. Linklater. You don’t think of us much, but we are very important to everyone’s existence. We build, we protect, we are flexible, and those of us in the know are very aware that if we went missing, the world would be exposed to all kinds of dangers. I can tell when we are missing. When will you be able to?
Grisel Y. Acosta is a writer, journalist and professor who knows how to dance. She teaches college students, conducts poetry workshops with middle and high school students, writes and produces plays, and performs her poetry all over the U.S. Her urban, multi-national, multi-ethnic background, mixed with her love of punk music, is fun and vicious.
in other words-this film is just as realistic as any film depiction of Texas ordinary life made in the 1940s or 50s or 60s or 70s.
Frankly, I’d rather watch West Side Story. Cliche-ridden and full of racist stereotypes as it is, at least Latinos are not invisible.
I don’t think you’ve seen WEST SIDE STORY
This is looking for racism where it isn’t. When I watched the film, I wa happy there was a Latino character that wasn’t a gang member and spoke english.
And this isn’t some unbelievable storyline, either. People of different racial and ethnic heritages look out for others, some of my favorite teachers were white and I didn’t ignore them simplt because I didn’t want to credit them a a “savior”. Going out of you’re way to get angry at a one minute scene in a two and a half hour film, where two people of different backgrounds succeed (heck, the Latino makes out better in the end than the mother who is twice divorced and all alone) seems ridiculous.
Machete is a racist stereotype that puts Mexicans down, this character that depicts a successful businessman in no way does.
All I’ll say is that its a sad commentary when a film made over fifty years ago, Geoge Stevens’ Giant, gets more things right about race relations in Texas than a film made in a supposedly more progressive era. Yeah, Rock Hudson kind of “saves” the Mexican family at the segregated diner by getting into a fist fight over them, but only after acting like an intolerant bigoted prick towards Mexicans for over two hours And even then its only after he’s come to accept his son’s mixed race union with a Mexican woman, who gives him a brown skinned grandchild. To watch Giant and Boyhood consecutively is pretty striking. Like night and day. Too bad Boyhood’s team didn’t watch it they mght have learned something
In fact, at TXSTU, therr is a theatre festival call the Texas Black and Latino Theatre Festival. I too, was troubled by the lack of representation in a modern Texas setting. The fact of the matter is that my home has always been multicultural state, tense as those unions may be. There is a strong Black community in TX, especially in the Houston area, and all major, and to a lesser extent smaller, communities have seen a significant influx of Asian Americans over he last twenty years. It made somewhat sense to me that the boy’s immediate relationships were not integrated, friends and family, et al., that is a very Texas thing still, sadly.
One other quick thing, we probably shouldn’t be that overly critical of Linklatter today. 1) his movies have usually portrayed this kind of white-washed Texas, 2) his casting and viewpoint is in line with mainstream Hollywood, at least right now…he is a great filmmaker that is part of an ecology that loves the sin of omission.
I’m sorry, but this is total and utter bullshit. I respect a person’s desire to see themselves and their community represented in films, television, etc., but I think sometimes the anger and frustration is misdirected. To accuse Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood of racism? That’s completely misguided and you, Grisel, should know better. So, based on what I could decipher from your article, if Linklater had included a person of Mexican descent as one of Patricia Arquette’s character’s friends, the charge of racism would not have been made? i’m sorry, that’s ridiculous.
Do I want to see actual, real, fully-fleshed Latino characters represented in film/tv? Absolutely. But will I attack a film for depicting an encounter that, by the way, my father had almost identically 15 years ago (he’s Salvadoran) in a film that focuses on a white family in TX? No. You know why? Because that would be a completely misguided and misdirected attack on the issue that I believe you’re trying to get at. I know plenty of families like the family depicted in Boyhood. And yes, some of them are of Mexican and Central American descent, and perhaps their stories should ALSO be depicted on screen. But that’s not what this story was about. This was semi-autobiographical film that Linklater made. He grew up w/ a single mom in Eastern Texas, in the 70s, with a distant father. And will i dismiss the entire film for a scene that, while perhaps awkward, is actually quite honest? Will I condemn the film for choosing to depict an encounter that happens daily? No. You know why? Because I understand the difference between filmmakers who tell the stories and experiences they have lived, and the public’s desire to see themselves on screen. Hey, what didn’t Innaritu cast a SINGLE Latino actor in his film? Surely there are DOZENS of NY actors whom he could’ve represented in Birdman; their desires, frustrations, fears, dreams…. But does he get this kind of charge from the Latin community. Eh, nah.
Do I want to see my life, and the lives of others like me, depicted and examined on screen? Absolutely. But will I attack a PERSONAL film that represents what ONE, particular family has encountered and decide that it is the root of all racist problems? No, I’m thoughtful.
I make this comment as a Latin person: this is one of the worst pieces on cinema I’ve ever read. It’s painful to watch. It’s not even film criticism. It’s an article full of prejudice, which reveals the writer’s own intolerance. And above all, it’s an ignorant article.
Anyone with some knowledge of the history of cinema and the arts in general will realize that Grisel Acosta is pretty illiterate when he writes a sentence like this: “I’m not sure why the film is called Boyhood because it seems to be more about the entire family than just the male child in the family.” Really? That’s like asking why Fanny and Alexander was called like that by Ingmar Bergman, since he also focused on the rest of the family. Or why Tolstoy’s semi-aubiographic novel is entitled Childhood, Boyhood and Youth? (By the way, that was the main source of inspiration for Linklater). The film is told from the perspective of the boy, from Mason’s point of view, so the title makes perfect sense.
Grisel Acosta should also know that Richard Linklater (a liberal with anarchist sympathies, who supported Barack Obama) made the adaptation of Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser’s non fiction exposé of the local and global ramifications of the U.S. fast food industry, which depicts the exploitation of illegal Mexican workers in America. If he were a racist, would he have made such a film?
Acosta should send this miserable article to one of Linklater’s best friends, Robert Rodríguez, the director of El Mariachi, among other movies. He should also write an apology to Linklater for such a miserable note. And then, he should know more, be more careful and thoughtful, before making a hideous and wrong accusation to Boyhood and Linklater. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of real racism in the U.S. and the rest of the world to look for it in the wrong places.
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