Monday, December 10, 2012

Race, Gender, and RED DAWN

Photo from:
The other day, my wife and I went to see Red Dawn, the remake of the 1980's movie.  I hadn't seen the original, so I was going into this completely fresh.  I had no preconceived notions about it, other than "Oh, hey, Thor and the squirrely brother from Drake and Josh are in it."

If you want the quick version: it was okay. I'd give it 3 stars. A resounding "meh." Fairly entertaining, it's your standard big dumb action movie.  Passable, but I can think of many other movies I'd rather see.  To be honest, this movie takes itself a bit too seriously.  As I said, I haven't seen the original, but I feel this movie could have benefited from a little 80's cheese.  There are a slew of problems in the plot, from pacing, to characterization, to the very premise itself.  However, it's certainly not the worst movie I've ever seen, and it was a fairly entertaining way to burn an hour and a half.

As the title of this post indicates, I do have further thoughts about the film.  If you're interested in that sort of thing, keep on reading.  However, be warned that this review will be somewhat spoiler heavy--not because I like spoiling things, but because many of the problems I have reveal significant moments in the movie.

So if you're interested in that kind of thing, read on.  Otherwise, now would be a good time to stop.

::Beyond this point, there be many a SPOILER ye scurvy dogs::

::Are ye sure ye be willin' to venture beyond this here point?::

::Alrighty there, bucko.  But don' say I didn't warn ye::

My first exposure to the Red Dawn remake was from the point of view of a Tumblr post which featured the following quotes:

"This upside-down vision of the world is actually a recurring characteristic of white supremacism: white people imagine and fear people of color doing horrible things to them which, in fact, white people have historically done to people of color."
"In “Red Dawn”, white Hollywood imagines that Koreans are militarily invading Washington state, when in fact recent history has seen the USA invade and partition Korea with an ongoing military presence there[...]" 
                                                                            -- Knowing Coves Tumblr

I also read (cannot remember where) an article which basically said that Red Dawn was White America fighting off the Yellow Menace.

This stuck with me because issues of race are things that, as a white person, I try to pay special attention to because I recognize that I have tons of privileges that can often obscure problems from my caucasian eyes. (By the way, My Caucasian Eyes is the name of my next jazz album.)

I recognize that most movies have their share of problems, and that you often can enjoy something while recognizing its flaws.  However, I also know everyone has their line for when something becomes so offensive it's no longer enjoyable.

This movie didn't really cross that line for me, but I could see why it bothered some people, particularly people of color.  I mean, just look at the way it was marketed.

Picture from  
That posters looking a guys.

I think part of the reason the race angle didn't bother me much was because the movie wasn't really that good, so it just added to the problems already present.  The movie's execution was less than stellar, so I wasn't exactly expecting this movie to be a paragon of racial sensitivity.  What I found was actually quite surprising.

For approximately the first half of the movie, I thought the Tumblr post I read was completely and inappropriately wrong.  I mean, there were three white men, sure, but there were also two white females, one hispanic female, one hispanic male, and two black men.  This actually sort of hurt the film's story because there were so many characters that you barely get to know any of them.  Even the leading characters--Josh Peck (Matt) and Chris Hemsworth (Jed)--barely get any character development.

However, it's around the halfway point that things start to go downhill quickly.  I was thinking about how well the movie was doing at representing people of different races and genders.  Then, all of the minority characters started getting killed off.  No kidding, the movie that started as such a fantastic example of racial and gender diversity (if a little light on character development), then one by one kills off all the people of color.

First its the hispanic guy, Greg, who I'm not sure actually says anything during the movie.  Matt--the giant insufferable douche of a character he is--races off to rescue his Barbie-doll-like girlfriend from a prison camp instead of following Jed's orders.  Greg goes to help and gets shot.

Later, bombs dropped on their base result in the death of Julie and Danny (the second black character).  That's three people of color, and the deaths aren't that far apart either.  That leaves the three white guys, the three white females, and one black character.

The final black character, Daryl, got the most development out of all of the people of color in the film.  The film starts with his dad asking them to turn themselves in and join the Koreans to avoid getting hurt or worse.  Later, when they're trying to stage a strike during a Korean press conference, Daryl has to overcome his sadness when he sees his dad sitting among the Korean officials--turned full traitor.  The movie implies that they killed his dad--punishment for betraying the US.

During a nighttime raid to capture the story's MacGuffin, Daryl almost gets caught by some Korean troops and runs away, but not before getting tackled and stabbed in the back.  When he breaks away and the Koreans don't pursue, you wonder what's up.  After the mission, back at their base, Jed gets capped in the head and we learn the truth: Daryl was implanted with a tracking device and he's been leading the Koreans to the Wolverine's base all along.

Here's where the movie gets really questionable.  When Matt returned to base after going rogue and jeopardizing the mission to save his girlfriend, Julie--Greg's sister--is expected to forgive Matt, EVEN THOUGH his epic douchebaggery is exactly what causes Greg's death.  That is Matt explicitly acting like an childish asshole to serve his own selfish demands--and she's expected to forgive him for the death of her brother.  However, later, when Daryl completely unknowingly leads the enemy to them, resulting in Jed's death, everyone treats him like some sort of traitorous bastard.  Mind you, there's no way he could have known he was implanted with a tracking device.  He just thought it was a stab wound; they all did when they checked out the wound.

But what really, really got under my skin was what happened next.  Daryl, freaking out, asks them to get it out.  And they respond with, "With what?" guys are basically a military operation, right?  I saw you use knives earlier in the movie.  Cut it the fuck out of him!  I mean, it may hurt, but he's your friend.

Nope.  The black guy must be punished for his betrayal--just like his father.  What do they do?  Leave him a gun and abandon him to the Koreans--where he would be forced to choose either death or defection.

The final total in the cast?  Two white chicks, two white guys.  All of the people of color have been eliminated one way or another.  That's where I finally got what the article was talking about.  How difficult would it have been to make Josh Hutcherson's character, Robert, a person of color.  The film desperately needed an Asian character to help balance out the "whites vs. Asians" vibe the movie gives off.  Of course, I shouldn't also need to point out that the main characters could have been people of color.  There's no reason a pair of strong African American or Hispanic actors couldn't carry the movie.

But what about the gender representations?  Well, this movie does better than many at representing gender.  There are three female characters, and they participate in the military operations a bit--once again, because of the massive cast, it's difficult for anyone to get much screen time.

However, it didn't escape my attention that Julie's main role in the group is the medic (until she's killed, anyway).   However, in the climactic battle for the MacGuffin, the two remaining girls are sidelined.  Everyone has jobs assigned to them, but the girls' job is 1) a back up in case shit goes wrong, and 2) all they do.  When shit hits the fan, they blast off a couple of rocket launchers to create some chaos and then completely disappear.  They don't then grab guns and start helping get everyone out.  They're just done.

Meanwhile, Matt runs around gunning down enemies and leaping across gigantic chasms like he's goddamned Neo.

When Jed dies, the character set up to be Jed's love interest, Toni, has a total meltdown.  This is understandable.  However, in order to strengthen Matt's character and make him out to be the leader he needs to be, they have to make Toni a blithering idiot.  She collapses in front of Jed's body and shrieks and cries while Matt screams at her to get out and get to safety.

I can understand being upset that he's dead, but for Christ's sake, that was Matt's brother and he didn't wig out to nearly the level that Toni did.  Her mental capacity dropped to a Def-Con 5 meltdown until Matt snapped her back to focus.  I understand that they were driving home the "lesson" that Matt needed to learn (it's the same reason that they killed off Jed--so that Matt could take over as leader of the group without the issue of barking orders at a Marine), but doing so at the cost of Toni was disappointing and frustrating.

I find it interesting that the crew on the film appeared to have worked so hard to create diversity among the Wolverines--an admirable approach, for sure--only to have that completely fall apart by the end of the film.  By the end of the film, the females were shoved back into a passive role, and all of the people of color had been removed.  Unfortunately, that very much drives home the social norms that people have been trying so hard to break.  Maybe next time, Hollywood.