Thursday, November 19, 2009

Commiting racism to record a documentary on racism?

Filmmaker Günter Wallraff wanted to make a documentary on the experience of black people in Germany today. Now most of time when people want to make a documentary on a subject they go out and talk to the people in question right? Not Wallraff. No no he decided to immerse himself into the project and get a first hand account of what its like to be black and to do so he donned that costume. Yes blackface.

Once again we have someone that either totally missed boat on recognizing that painting one's face to imitate another race is not artistic, funny, or edgy. It's racist. Critics are speaking up on this.

Noah Sow, a black journalist, academic and musician, said in an interview with the news website commented, ""He is using white privileges. He is mimicking suppressed minorities and earning money, attention and even respect."

While I totally agree with Sow's second sentence I think the first one is a bit off base. The fact that Wallraff is white isn't the problem for even if he were Indian, Native American, etc.... he would still be donning blackface in an effort to "understand the black experience". The second sentence is on point though explaining that in his efforts he was mimicking a minimalized experience for profit.

Tahir Della, a spokesman for the Initiative of Black People in Germany (ISD) weighed in by drawing parallels between Wallraff's methods and minstrel shows.
"[Those shows] came about because blacks weren't allowed to perform in clubs and theaters, so whites dressed up to caricature them,"

This taps on my problem with this.

Wallraff could have very easily spoken with 300k to 1/2 million black people that live in Germany today. He could have hired some of them to log/chronicle/record their lives for a period of time. If he wanted to get an idea of the black experience in Germany he could have interacted with actual black people in order to get the info. But instead he decided that he pretending to be a black person was more informative?

Perhaps due to his background as an undercover journalist he has concluded that the best way to experience the life of the subjects of the story is to live himself. Now that sounds like a noble (and dangerous) idea and he probably thought that by doing it himself he was just depending on someone else to tell it to him. Nothing wrong with having the drive to learn for yourself however when that drive leads you to ignore the very people you are trying to report on the experience of you have to wonder how informed you will be from the coverage.

He went undercover as a black person for some limited amount of time. That's fine well and good until you realize that his few months or however long it was it is only a drop in the bucket compared to the life time of people who live it day in day out for the entire lives and will never change. Yeah I could put on whiteface (which for the record is racist like blackface) and straighten my hair and pretend to be white for a few days but its nothing when considering that actual white can't take off their makeup at the end of day. When actual white people apply for jobs they have to actually check that box for their race. When actual white people get into the dating scene they are going to be dating as a white person.

So in his effort to film a documentary about being black in Germany he actually managed to leave out a large chunk of, well, the experience of being black in Germany. And besides even if blackface wasn't racist he would only get one portion of the experience, the black man. There are also black women. And even beyond that there still sexual orientation, religion, gender presentation, etc.... many many things that he as one person cannot hope to account for.

Wallraff I can appreciate your efforts but the next time you want to learn about the experience of a group of people you may want to start by getting some words from actual members of that group.