Monster’s Ball

Seeing Monster’s Ball made me wish that James Baldwin were still alive, because Baldwin wrote the book on the racial hypocrisy of Hollywood. Monster’s Ball continues the tradition of films like The Defiant Ones and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner–films that wear their ostensibly anti-racist messages on their sleeves, while actually continuing to perpetuate the worst racist stereotypes…

Monster’s Ball is lame in nearly all respects. The cinematography is TV hack work at best, and the editing is almost inexplicably incompetent–think especially of the elision of anything that might have explained the death of Halle Berry’s son; and, even worse, the climactic (no pun intended) cunnilingus scene, where there’s a jump from a close-up of Halle Berry’s face in a state of not-quite-yet bliss to Billy Bob Thornton’s head next to hers, as he calmly proposes going out to get ice cream.

But forget that. Here’s a film that flatters its white audience by congratulating them for being far beyond racism, while perpetuating the hoariest fantasies of jungle fever.

It starts with the typical Hollywood myth that racism has no institutional aspects, but is just the ill-will of a few bad people. So we have Peter Boyle, Hollywood’s all-purpose racist (ever since Joe in 1970), as Billy Bob’s dad who freely uses the N-word. And at first, Billy Bob shares his racism. But after the suicide of his son, all of a sudden Billy Bob gets all gooey and sensitive–resigning from his job at the prison, suddenly becoming Mos Def’s best friend (after previously having threatened to kill Mos’ children), and warming up to Halle Berry’s distraught widow.

By the way, did anyone besides me think it was strange that the last name of Billy Bob’s character was Grotowski? I can’t think of any reason, besides the laziest sort of ethnic stereotyping, that the Southern ‘redneck’ character should implicitly be a Polish American.

But Berry’s character is even more implausible than Thornton’s. All she does, basically, is mope and wail and look vulnerable and alone. An update on the myth of the “tragic mulatto”, perhaps? But what’s really unbelievable here is Berry’s character’s utter unselfconsciousness about race–in a way that is unimaginable for any black person actually living in rural Georgia today. Again, this is the myth, so comforting to middle-class white people, that racism is nothing but an individual character flaw. That is why Halle is traumatized by Peter Boyle’s crass racist comment to her, instead of getting mad and getting even. This is also why she turns to Billy Bob for comfort, without the question of race even being mentioned between them. The white audience gets to have it both ways–the mysterious allure of interracial sex, black and white flesh commingled, combined with the reassurance that this sort of “identity tourism” is perfectly OK, because what really matters is the content of one’s character, not the color of one’s skin. All of it sealed and delivered by the premise that a broken and defeated woman can be made whole again if only she can find a man to take care of her, in a benevolently paternalistic sort of way, by buying her ice cream and going down on her.

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