Is Wes Anderson a racist?

wesanderson.jpgPax Arcana was never more excited for a movie’s release than he was for The Royal Tenenbaums, the follow-up to Wes Anderson’s astounding roman-a-clef Rushmore and outrageous-if-amateurish Bottle Rocket.

We were less excited for The Life Aquatic.

We could care less about The Darjeeling Limited.

There’s a lot of things that bug us about Anderson. One is his preference for quirk over substance. Quirk works when, like Rushmore, it seems to grow organically out of convincingly quirky characters.

The quirk factor destroyed The Life Aquatic, a movie so in love with its costumes and sea-faring hipster vibe that it forgot to tell a story that anyone would care about.

We admit we’ve also been a bit perturbed at how Anderson treats race. It’s not we think he’s racist. But he does seem to include an awful lot of brown-skinned characters in his movies as loyal sidekicks (Pagoda in The Royal Tenenbaums), meek love interests (Margaret Yang in Rushmore, Ines in Bottle Rocket, or Henry Sherman in The Royal Tenenbaums), or plain old sight gags.

“Hi. I’m white and quirky. Wanna do it?”

Over at Slate, Jonah Weiner says things haven’t gotten better with The Darjeeling Limited, and it’s time people started paying more attention to this:

Like his peers Zach Braff, Noah Baumbach (who directed the excellent Squid and the Whale and co-wrote Life Aquatic), and Sofia Coppola (whose brother Roman helped write Darjeeling Limited), Wes Anderson situates his art squarely in a world of whiteness: privileged, bookish, prudish, woebegone, tennis-playing, Kinks-scored, fusty. He’s wise enough to make fun of it here and there, but in the end, there’s something enamored and uncritical about his attitude toward the gaffes, crises, prejudices, and insularities of those he portrays. In The Darjeeling Limited, he burrows even further into this world, even (especially?) as the story line promises an exotic escape. Hands down, it’s his most obnoxious movie yet.

In fact, the entire premise of The Darjeeling Limited (three American brothers look to reconnect after a year of drifting apart) seems to adhere closely to a very white, very American bourgeois cliche: The long curative trip through a nation of exotic brown people.

From Weiner:

The film is gorgeous to look at: The color palette is riotous, and Anderson’s rapacious eye for bric-a-brac binges on the Hindu prayer altars and crowded street markets of Rajasthan. But needless to say, beware of any film in which an entire race and culture is turned into therapeutic scenery.

From the Beatles’ 1968 hang with the Maharishi to the recent “Imagine India” flower show at Macy’s, South Asia has long been a hotspot in the American and European orientalist imagination. But for a director as willfully idiosyncratic as Anderson, it’s surprising how many white-doofuses-seeking-redemption-in-the-brown-skinned-world clichés Darjeeling Limited inhabits.

None of this makes Anderson less of a talent, but Pax Arcana desperately hopes he uses his next film to channel his considerable energies into making something a little more, well, intellectually mature than he usually does. Anyway, it’s worth considering.

Unbearable Whiteness [Slate]

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Filed under movies, racism

19 responses to “Is Wes Anderson a racist?

  1. perkisabeast

    I think the bit in Royal Tenanbaums with Hackman and Glover where he calls him “Coltrane” and “talkin’ jive” is a weee bit racist.

  2. perryellis

    No, the character is racist. The movie isn’t–in fact, you could argue that it’s anti-racist because Henry Sherman gets the girl.

  3. fatherscott

    Re: Perk’s comment, I don’t think it makes someone racist if they create a somewhat racist character. (Also, I don’t know that it’s fair to characterize Royal as out-and-out racist, he just is kind of oblivious to what is an appropriate comment. He certainly has some prejudicial tendencies, though.)

    Obviously I can’t attest to whether Wes Anderson is a racist or not. However, I think we have to be careful when judging him based on the movies he makes in that he’s not going to try to make something beyond what he knows. If he only knows the bookish, quirky, indie, white scene, that’s what he’s going to write/direct. If he tried to make some movie about some sort of triumph of another race, or something of that nature, it would probably be significantly less than authentic.

  4. perkisabeast

    I was actually just quoting a black friend of mine. i didn’t want to use the black friend of mine thing but now you forced my hand. Great, thanks alot.

  5. You don’t need to make movies about the triumphs of other races. You just need to stop cramming non-white people in stereotypical niches. Henry Sherman gets the girl, but is still presented as an ineffectual half-man throughout.

    I think the problem is deeper than all this. Royal Tenenbaum is presented as an out-and-out racist in the movie (consciously), yet as an audience we’re meant to realize that he’s not all that bad because Pagoda is clearly his best, and most trusted friend.

    Problem is that Pagoda’s whole portrayal, when compared to all the whites in the movie, is basically that of a non-thinking person. Like an animal. Like Henry Sherman, the sweet puppy.

    In other words, Wes Anderson doesn’t appear to hate brown-skinned people. But he clearly can’t conceive of them operating on the same intellectual and emotional plane as those bookish white folk.

  6. fatherscott

    I think the animal comparison might be a little strong, but Henry and Pagoda are certainly second-rate in the movie. They both kind of chase Etheline and Royal around and don’t really have any say in anything. Eli Cash (with the whole family), Raleigh St. Clair (with Margot), and Richie (with Margot) all do the same thing, though. I see it more of a control/power situation than necessarily a race thing, as the Tenenbaums all have someone who idolizes them and is powerless around them.

    Royal’s racism is a very minor part of his character in my opinion…I think it’s really just an extension of other parts of his personality. He sees Henry as weak (in the feeble way he chases Etheline around) and just tries to attack him and intimidate him. Obviously the way he does it is racist, but I don’t think he hates him because he’s black. I think he hates him because Henry’s different from Royal, and that’s what Etheline likes in him. Because Royal doesn’t have the same analytical skills as some of the other members of his family, I think he just wraps the difference up in their appearances and tries to go after him.

  7. perkisabeast

    Rushmore is clearly Wes Anderson’s finest hour. The rest haven’t ever come close.

  8. I don’t think you can put the Pagodas and Henry Shermans of the film on par with Richie (depressed genius tennis star who becomes the star of the movie at times) and the others.

    My complaint is that Anderson sets up whole universes for his protagonists, which are uniformly white, then decorates that universe with darker-skinned accent characters whose function is merely to support the white world.

    I bet Anderson doesn’t consider himself racist. In fact I think he was making a stab at anti-racism with Royal’s racist shortcomings. But it doesn’t change the fact that in the worlds he creates, non-whites are relegated exclusively to roles of plot movement, humor, or window dressing.

    IMHO, some of the most racist movies out there are the ones that go out of their way to prove how unracist they are. The Legend of Bagger Vance itself set this country back about 40 years.

  9. Agreed with Perk. That movie is mind-blowing.

  10. perryellis

    Royal hates Henry because he’s usurping Royal’s role in the family. The slurs are just a way to bait Henry into a fight.

    And what about the portrayals of the non-brown characters? For one thing, Royal is a royal jackass. His adopted daughter is a f****d up, depressive ninny, the Bill Murray character is a nebbish who meekly accepts being a cuckhold, the Ben Stiller character is a paranoid, obsessive-compulsive wreck (who names one of his kids Uzi!) and one of the sons attempts suicide after becoming a recluse.

    Not exactly Liefenstal-esque representations of white people.

    The point is that all of the characters are caricatures, regardless of their race.

    That said, I do think Pax and Weiner are on to something about Anderson. I just think it’s less race-based than “Write what you know.” He’s a suburban white hipster who writes about suburban white hipsters.

  11. Even if the white characters aren’t perfect, they’re interesting. That’s my whole point. Anderson seems capable of perceiving whites as interesting, genius, troubled, while non-whites are accessories or cliches.

    I’m gonna go home and get my college paper on “Cotton Comes to Harlem” vs. “Sweet Sweetback’s Badddassssss Revenge” and learn you guys some shit, for real.

  12. fatherscott

    I agree that Anderson probably doesn’t consider himself a racist, much like most of us don’t, even though probably just about everyone is to some degree. That’s what makes the “stabs at being anti-racism” so ineffective.

  13. perryellis

    Word to your mother!

  14. Wow,

    …Wes Anderson….

    You start talking about your Coffin and your Grave Digger and your Melvin Van Peeples and I will get on you like honey to Amy Ruth’s chicken. (James Sallis bio of Chester is worth the read though)

    Euphemus Miller is my mom’s mom’s mom’s mom and she was pwned down in Georgia but I’m whiter than all of you – figure that out suckas.

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  17. Wes Anderson is creating movies, not treating race. This discussion is treating race.

  18. SenorElKlingon

    That guy sounds like a wiener.

  19. jdn212

    In my opinion, by placing a racial lens on any analysis of Wes Anderson’s films you are creating a race “issue” that doesn’t really exist. Any percieved racist undertones are more of just reflections of a reality that Wes Anderson grew up in, attending the rosy-white The St. John’s School in Houston that’s mascot used to be confederate symbol Johnny Rebel. Does Andersonperpetuate these notions of racism, or parody them, with his films? The answer to this, just as anything regarding film critique, lies in the eye of the beholder. I feel like if Anderson actually had a racist personality, towards Indians in particular, associates such as Kumar Pallana (who plays Pagoda) would not have remained close friends with him for years.

    Does Wes Anderson embrace his whiteness? Sure. Does this make him a racist? I don’t think so…

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