Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Nicholas Sammond: "Hidden," or Fear of a Black Planet

(Comparative analysis of Haneke's Cache; the French banlieues riots, Jeremiah Wright's sermons, Gate's arrest in his home, Obama's speeches, and the rise of militias in the US)

"Hidden," or fear of a black planet
by Nicholas Sammond
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On July 23, 2009, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, who is African American, was arrested on the front porch of his home in Cambridge Massachusetts, on charges of disorderly conduct. The professor had yelled at the white police officer who was responding to a neighbor’s call about a suspicious looking man (Gates himself) trying to break into Gates’ home. The charges were soon dropped. Several days later, when asked about the arrest, President Barack Obama suggested that the Cambridge Police Department had acted “stupidly,” setting off a storm of media criticism. Regretting his words, President Obama invited Gates and the arresting officer to join him for a beer and a private conversation about the incident. The President and his aides described the event as a “teachable moment” about race, without specifying exactly who was teaching whom or what might actually be learned.

This empty moment of racial panic and its containment recalls the day in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign when he had to repudiate the words of his onetime mentor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, after it came out that Wright had earlier delivered sermons critical of the United States. While the speech that Obama gave was moving and beautifully crafted, it reduced Wright’s complex commentaries on the history of racial oppression and its current expressions to a “teachable moment” about those who cling to outmoded ideas of race and those who do not. Wright’s sermons had been much more than that. They had explored the relationship between racism and colonialism, and between U.S. foreign and domestic policies, in interesting and troubling ways. Given that Barack Obama then reduced them to caricature in order to call for a postracial capitalist United States, “teachable moment” would seem to mean “forgetting.” This brief essay explores three distinct but related moments of race and its erasure, one of which is the Jeremiah Wright incident, with an eye to reclaiming teachable moments from the dustbin of history.

Caché: beheading the chicken

Michael Haneke’s Caché ("Hidden," France 2005) is a story about urban bourgeois anxiety. Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) are a successful couple with a handsome teenage son, living in a stylish townhouse in Paris. Georges hosts a television talk show; Anne is a player in the Parisian literary scene. Their life is elegant, graceful, and good. Then, someone begins to videotape their home and to leave the tapes—sometimes accompanied by bloody, childish, violent drawings—on their doorstep. The mystery of who is behind this is never fully resolved, but it reveals discord in the marriage and the family. This seeming invasion of the Laurents’ privacy also spurs Georges to relive a childhood trauma surrounding the betrayal of his boyhood playmate and foster brother, Majid (Maurice Bénichou), an orphan of the brutal 1961 massacre of peaceful Algerian protesters by the French police.

Though we will not learn much of this till later in the film, from its very beginning Caché imposes on us a question that makes this information seem like a series of clues that will help us solve the mystery. The film’s first establishing shot shows a building seen from street level. By convention, we are to understand that both the scene and our relationship to it as neutral observers has been established. But then the shot goes on, and on, and on. We are presented with a decision. Is this an establishing shot or a point of view shot? If a POV, then whose? In an intervening shot from a different angle a man comes out of the same building and looks up the street. Then we are back in the first shot…which then shudders, and the bars of a tape rewinding appear on the screen. We discover we are watching a videotape of the Laurent home…playing on the television in the living room of that home.

This is the question we are offered: “Who’s watching?” It’s the one the film asks us to address. It’s also the wrong question. Although it persists throughout the film and is never fully answered, it obscures the very real relationship between the Laurents’ comfort and security and the eventual immiseration of Majid and his son (Walid Afkir).

A series of scenes describes the problem in miniature. After the film has been going on for a while, we have learned some things. We know that someone is watching the Laurent family. We know that the observation throws the family into crisis and that Anne may be romantically involved with a close friend. We come to know that Georges suspects his boyhood playmate, Majid—whom he coldly betrayed to secure his mother’s love all for himself—of being the voyeur. The scene is set.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

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