I’m a white man who has neither read the novel “Bird Box” nor seen the movie. Which makes me the perfect person to respond to Michael Harriot’s satirical review of it on The Root.
Harriot’s title says that the movie is really about how white people don’t want to see racism. He makes his case in a spoiler-filled review talking about allegories and metaphors and, of course, the blindfolds.
I’m not going to address the validity of his argument. For one thing, I haven’t seen the movie or read the book. I have seen “Get Out,” which was very clearly a parable about white supremacy and how black people are still treated in our racist culture. And my having seen that is relevant.
I’m not even going to address what Harriot personally meant at any great length. I don’t think he truly meant that Josh Malerman (a white man, apparently) decided to write a horror novel about white supremacy, or that Eric Heisserer (a white man, apparently) adapted the screenplay to be about the persistent refusal of white Americans to accept their privilege, or that Susanne Bier (a white woman, apparently) directed that screenplay infused with a need to wake white people up to the idea that black lives truly do matter.
I don’t know, maybe he did mean all that. But I think his purpose was quite a bit more meta than that. I’ll leave it to him to clarify if he chooses to.
Thinking about what Harriot could have meant did get me thinking, though. We wrap up 2018 as a banner year for black voices in the theater. While white men topped the “highest paid” lists for both movies (George Clooney) and TV (Jim Parsons), Letitia Wright’s appearances in “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and two other films made her the top-grossing actor of 2018 (unless you read Forbes, which feels she didn’t qualify as a star for even “Black Panther”). Six of the top seven actors on Fandango’s list are black.
The year also featured Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” the movie version of “The Hate U Give,” Michael B. Jordan in “Creed II,” and “Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse,” all of which had black protagonists, while other top-grossers like “Deadpool 2,” “Solo,” and “Ralph Breaks the Internet” had black characters in prominent supporting roles.
Increased positive presence is a good direction, but there’s still an undercurrent in many of these stories missing from their white analogs. “Black Panther” has a persistent theme of the historic oppression of Africans, globally and specifically in the United States. The book “The Hate U Give” focuses on the Black Lives Matter movement and police indifference to people of color.
The creation of the character Miles Morales raised a lot of controversy about “a black Spiderman.” There was never any controversy about Peter Parker being “a white Spiderman.”
There are even similarities between the background of Miles Morales and Starr, the protagonist of “The Hate U Give”: In both cases, their parents are sending them out of their main neighborhood to a “safe” school somewhere else. They both have a white love interest. They both have one relative on the police force and another one making “poor life choices.”
Race is not as prominent an issue in “Into the Spider-Verse” as it is in “The Hate U Give,” but it seems inescapable nonetheless.
Which brings me back to “Get Out.” It is such a parable for the black experience that Jordan Peele called it a documentary. On one level, he was being acerbically tongue-in-cheek, responding to the Golden Globes labeling it a comedy instead of a drama. On another level, though, I think he had a serious point, as Harriot does here.
Toni Morrison has discussed the problem of “white gaze” and the insistence by White America that black authors speak for the black reality. By default, white authors don’t write about race; they write about humans. By default, black authors write about the black experience… even when they don’t.
Even though it makes no historical sense, we tend to assume that Jesus is white. This is how “default white” our experience is. When “The Hunger Games” cast black actors to play black characters, some white fans were outraged. This is how “default white” our experience is. Even this year, the illustrator for the book cover of “The Hate U Give” complained that the actor picked for Starr is significantly lighter-skinned than her illustration.
One privilege of being white is being able to not write about race. Readers will simply assume, unless we state otherwise, that our characters are white, and that their stories are the stories of white people.
Back in 1968, the year of my birth, George Romero made a film called “Night of the Living Dead.” He cast Duane Jones, who happened to be black, as Ben, the main protagonist. He winds up holed up for the night with a bunch of white people, fending off zombies. In the last sequence of the movie, Ben is mistaken for a zombie and summarily shot.
I say “happened to be black” because Romero held firm to his insistence that he hired the best actor and had no race allegory in mind. And had Ben been cast with a white actor, there would indeed have been absolutely no race allegory in “Night of the Living Dead.” But because Jones was black, a significant portion of the audience insisted (and continues to insist) on looking for the racial message.
That’s the way our “default whiteness” works. It is a Chekhov’s gun: Place a black character in a role that doesn’t appear to “need blackness,” and we will look for the cultural relevance.
The idea that “Bird Box” has absolutely nothing to do with race is in itself a commentary about race: About the race of the writer, the screenplay adapter, the director, the star… all of whom can, collectively, make a story that has nothing to do with race because they’re white.
“Bird Box” isn’t about race. It doesn’t have to be, because it was made entirely by white people.