Friday, March 20, 2015

In Asphalt, Nitrous, and Rubber: The Token White Guy

Famous person deaths are weird. In all likelihood, you never met them, and yet there is a sort of a loss all the same. And the weirdness is compounded by how we usually learn of famous person deaths these days—we read it on the internet, which just sort of reinforces the remove. And that’s how it’s been for me, and I bet many, many more, with most recent famous person deaths. Leonard Nimoy? Internet. Maya Angelou? Internet. Philip Seymour Hoffman? Internet. Then again, I didn’t know any of them, so shouldn’t that be the way? Yet I recall distinctly hearing about Paul Walker’s death, because someone else read it on the internet. I was at either a book club or a game night, when someone else looked at their phone and flatly said that he had died. It sort of took me a minute. “Man,” I said, “I’m legitimately bummed.” He was, after all, an integral part of something I loved.

            The mercenary Hollywood logic of “white guy=profit” has given us a succession of bland whiteys in prominent action roles. Your…uh, is it Sam Worthingtons? You know, Avatar guy. Your Jai Courtneys, so great as a supporter on Spartacus, so nothing otherwise. Your…dude who was in Tron? The new one. And, of course, who could forget Thor’s brother? You know, lil’ Thor in his role as…didn’t he fight J-Law or something?
            Paul Walker could have pretty easily fallen into that same trap. He had the whiteness, the good looks, the athleticism, and the just barely insufficient charisma. But I think he realized this. So instead, he turned into the skid, and found his niche. While those other guys may be remembered as Johnny Avatar, Son of McClaine (or Varro, dammit! Give him credit, he was Varro!), Son of Jeff Bridges, and, again, Thor’s brother, Paul Walker will always be known for Brian O’Conner, LAPD, FBI, Fugitive, Mia’s man, import enthusiast, and, of course, token white guy. A vital role in the series.
            I’ve talked a fair bit about diversity over the course of this project, but that’s just because it’s such an issue now, and it’s been so prominent throughout this 14 year old series. There was probably some hope, in 2001, that Paul Walker would become the next Tom Cruise, but it soon became apparent the real draw was Vin Diesel, who doesn’t seem to like discussing his heritage, but has been unequivocal in saying he is a person of color. Even still, in that first movie you might call Dom, despite his prominence, the “token brown guy” of his gang. Yes, there was Letty, but the other three, discounting Brian, were white and they were dudes—Vince, Jesse, and that other guy who isn’t really memorable. That’s pretty bog standard Hollywood casting since the 70’s or the 80’s, right? But then look at the next movie, and who Brain’s allies are there. Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Eva Mendes, Devon Aoki, Amaury Nolasco. Even his allied FBI contact, that eternal edifice of white authority, is Bilkins, a black guy.
            And so it went. Look at the final crew of Fast Five, which I’d say consensus calls Dom, Brian, Mia, Roman, Tej, Han, Rico, Tego, Gisele, Elena, and Hobbs. Hollywood Cynical Demographics-wise, that consists of 5 under the wide umbrella of “Latin,” 2 African-Americans,  2 Asians…sigh, fine, one Asian (you know what I mean some might and have said), and one Jewish Israeli, 1 Pacific Islander, and 1 straight up white guy. Just one token white guy. And Brain seems more than cool with that, he doesn’t even seem to notice or think about it. When race comes up, it’s usually Roman or Tej cracking on someone.
            Among the many issues with white guys these days is that we can’t shut the fuck up and stop whining. Whaaaaa, Donald Glover can’t be Spider-Man! Kreeeee, women Ghostbusters! Feeeeeew, I feel attacked because someone pointed out all the real Avengers are crackers, and it’s just a coincidence that black men keep dying on The Walking Dead! Boohoofuckinghoofuckinghoo!
            Profoundly connected to notions of diversity in culture is the idea of representation—the profound power of seeing someone like you as heroic in the stories you enjoy. Just to pull an example from the ether, this is what the Shymalan Airbender critically missed—how important it was for so many viewers to see someone they felt looked like themselves kicking ass. And that’s what Brian and Paul Walker provided.
            I’m not saying this in the limited and idiotic sense that it takes a white guy to make a white guy care, or that a white guy can only empathize with a white guy. That’s the sort of ridiculous logic the white guy whiners love. And I’m certainly not asserting there is a lack of white guy representation. I mean, that’s just fucking ridiculous.
            No, the representation Paul Walker offered was that of the non-whiner white guy, someone for whom a more obviously diverse world holds no fear—and lets be frank, silly as it is, white guys whining over a lady Thor are doing so because they are afraid. Brian isn’t. He’s perfectly comfortable, perfectly assured, confident that the value of others’ backgrounds does nothing to diminish his own, and thus there isn’t a need to comment on his place. And that’s a rare role to see a white guy in.
            However, a canny reader may point out, in many ways Brian gets to not whine or crow about race. The benefit of indifference is allowed to him in ways it isn’t to Roman because of their respective heritages. And that reader would be right—that is a function of the privilege we often must check. But Brian is well aware of this. I may have lightly mocked the wild strange ride of O’Conner from the first to fourth movie, and the series doesn’t dwell overly on the past, especially where 2F2F is concerned, but all that did happen. Brian flaunted the law, jammed his finger in the eye of authority, even stole a bunch of drug money as a further reward, and for all that the system gives him a promotion—after all, he did take down a drug lord. But when Dom does the same, he gets sent to prison. That injustice, that institutional unfairness, enrages Brian, so he busts Dom out, but unlike so many noble white guys who support some underprivileged youth through a football program or whatever, Dom isn’t an accessory or a symbol of how fantastically noble and enlightened he is to Brian. They are, after all, a family, and it’s not fair that his brother doesn’t get the same considerations he got.
            And that representation, a white guy, accepting of progress and enraged by injustice because it is unjust is all too rare, but powerful to see. By contrast, you know how many times I saw the trailer for Kevin Hart teaching Will Farrell how to be “gangsta” tonight? Too many.
            I’d already decided on this course before I watched Brick Mansions yesterday. Paul Walker’s final film, it’s a remake of the French parkour action movie District B13. In both, a cop and a criminal (one guess who Paul Walker plays) must join forces to infiltrate a wall-off ghetto ruled by a drug lord in a dystopian future to retrieve a nuclear bomb controlled by said drug lord—all the ingredients for the all-too-common movie where a pair of white guys murder a largely faceless black gang to restore order. In fact, had Brick Mansions been a more faithful remake of the original, that’s pretty much what it would have been, even factoring in the twist where TPTB intend to use the bomb to destroy the ghetto. But, instead of an ignominious death, the drug lord, who is the RZA by the way, decides to give up the bomb (such mass murder is bad business when cash rules everything around one), and the entire gang (rather than just the two white heroes) takes the bomb to confront TPTB with their crimes. Really easily, the movie could have made Paul Walker the Mighty Whitey, the savior of the downtrodden. Instead, he’s a stooge of the white power structure, enraged by the injustice when he learns this, and in the end, he’s a helper, not a savior—while the RZA is running for mayor, Paul Walker is made sheriff. Did he choose the role in this movie because of the way it all played out?
            We’ll never know, but maybe the best tribute we can offer is to assume he did, and live our lives by that example.

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