Friday, February 15, 2019

Why is it okay for Eddie Murphy to wear whiteface in Coming to America but not okay for Jimmy Kimmel to wear blackface as Karl Malone?

If you hadn't read my post on Wednesday, I've been thinking about blackface recently, and questions have popped into my mind about it. To give you a little context, in case you haven't seen the movie Coming to America, this little comedy gem came out in the 1980's, starred Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, and it featured the both of them playing multiple characters (all for comedic purposes).
Eddie Murphy is unrecognizeable in this
role do to makeup effects (whiteface).
One of the characters that Eddie Murphy plays is a white Jew (which kind of has its own implications in today's hyper-sensitive society, but I'm not going to get into that in today's post). Also I would like to note that this movie has been greenlit for a sequel that's supposed to come out next year, and it even has a release date (I think the original cast is all cominb back for it as well).

At the time of the movie's release (I was still a kid), I thought Eddie Murphy's portrayal was a credit to his acting chops. But now that I look back on it in time, and especially through the lens of recent calls for Jimmy Kimmel and Sarah Silverman (another comedian who has done blackface) to up and apologize for performances that took place years ago, I wonder why it's okay for Eddie Murphy not to be asked to apologize for his portrayal of whiteface.

As far as Jimmy Kimmel's portrayal of Karl Malone goes, I've never actually seen the skit. But I've heard from people I know who have, and they said it was really funny. Okay, so that established to me that it was done in the name of comedy, just like Eddie Murphy's portrayal. However, blackface remains incredibly problematic. It's been talked about on Saturday Night Live, it's been talked about on my blog regarding cosplay, it's been talked about on the New York Times in an article called "Why won't blackface go away?" and "Race is not a costume." The national conversation right now could be categorized easily as a firestorm (that also happens to be a circular firing squad for the democratic party--I only say this last part because the rules don't apply to a group that seems okay with offensive things).
Jimmy Kimmel portraying Karl Malone (the makeup
effects are considered blackface)

In trying to answer the question in the title of this article I'm writing, i.e., why is whiteface okay but blackface is not, it all seems to boil down to one thing: reverse racism is not possible (or is not a thing).

Here's how a good friend explained it (and I had pretty much assimilated all this in articles that I had read, but he really frames it well):
"My understanding of the issue is that blackface is seen as highly problematic, because it has very explicit historical ties to slavery and minstrel shows, which were fundamental tools of historic white supremacy. Blackface evokes very specifically an incarnation of structural racism in which white people parody black stereotypes to dehumanize them. For similar reasons (although admittedly a lot less talked about), yellowface also comes up occasionally as highly problematic (think Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's). As to why whiteface is okay but blackface isn't...I think that's a complicated question. The easy and short answer seems to be that blackface entails racism, and since reverse-racism isn't a thing, whiteface isn't inherently problematic because its an inversion of power structure, not a continuation of oppression. That's tricker though if its Jewish people being portrayed, because antisemitism is a major issue."
And on the issue of reverse racism, it seems to be that the "support" (and yes I've argued about this in another post too) lies with the fact that white people have privilege in society that stems from hundreds of years of institutionalized power. Here's a quote from a blog called The Root, and it's written by author Michael Harriot (I'll link it HERE) that postulates the following:
"If white people built a time machine, went back to 1619 and subjected themselves to slavery, built America into a superpower without compensation or reparation, attended inferior schools, faced double the unemployment of blacks and were killed, lynched and incarcerated disproportionately by black people, I would agree that black people were racist, even if I didn't do anything to them personally.
"But that's a fictional situation that's never going to happen. It's so preposterous there isn't even a term for it.
"Actually, there is:
"Reverse racism."
So basically, unless the above example ever happens then "Reverse Racism" is not a thing and can't be a thing. So it ends up being okay that Eddie Murphy wear whiteface, but not okay for Jimmy Kimmel to wear blackface. What determines this has nothing to do with the individual actions of these people, actors, or comedians, but historical context. In other words, the definition of racism is explicitly tied to history itself, which makes a whole bunch of "other" questions pop into my head. For example, if a person is ignorant of history and has never educated themselves or been given the benefit of education, is it even possible for them to be racist? Or would they just be "biased" in a mean way toward certain groups (as in, "That person is just mean to Korean people" and not "That person is racist toward Korean people). And then of course there's got to be the argument that one cannot use "ignorance" as an excuse to shield oneself from accusations of racism.

In an over-simplified way, the subject of "racism" and "reverse racism" almost seems like an argument about bad karma (which I don't believe in by the way because I'm atheist). However, some people who do believe in bad karma define it as this: "A cosmic law that happens by itself wherein people who inflict harm in the past have that harm revisited upon themselves at present or in the future in another form." In other words, you did this bad thing so this excuses us doing bad behavior to you because it's all payback. Some people might even go so far as to say "an eye for an eye" or "revenge" or "there is a debt owed that has yet to be repaid." Just to clarify, I'm not saying that any of these things could be so boiled down to a sound bite that is expressed so simply. However, on the historical context of how white people treated black people, there doesn't appear to be any notion of forgiveness, hence reverse racism cannot be a thing. It's too big really for me to even wrap my head around, so I'll just say the majority support seems to lie with the notion that some things are unforgivable, and leave it at that (I've no idea whether this idea is right or wrong). It makes me wonder if there's a breaking point somewhere...where the one that owes reparations gets fed up with pouring reparations into a debt that cannot possibly be paid back. What happens at that future hypothetical point? Does anger just burn on forever? Or does our society just become more entrenched and polarized? What happens then?

This is a topic that our society continues to grapple with, and there are rightfully very strong feelings about it. I love observing how different people deal with it, how celebrities and other public persons get held accountable for it, and figuring out why some people will burn in its fire while others remain untouched. Maybe who burns for it and who doesn't is another example of how public support has the final say in everything (embracing the fact that morality, immorality, rightness, and wrongness take a backseat to sheer numbers of people who have the power, and whatever it is that they support is the rule of the day...until it isn't).

For what it's worth, I think that blackface has always been wrong. I also think that whiteface and yellowface and any other "face" just don't have any place in society anymore, and they shouldn't be done (regardless of whether people think whiteface or yellowface is not inherently racist). However, I wonder if anyone else thinks the same thing. I guess only time will tell.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Is cosplaying as a Drow elf considered to be wearing blackface?

The Virginia governor recently had a photograph of him resurface from a college yearbook wherein he was wearing blackface. If you look at my post last Friday regarding support for wrong ideas, you might recognize that there was support for blackface (no matter how wrong it was) from people in the last 100 years. At present, there appears to be quite an erosion of support for blackface of any kind.

Saturday Night Live did a skit on blackface that I found interesting. A group of white people fielded questions at a black man who promised not to get mad for answering questions, but it did try his patience. The message (TL;DR): it never is okay to wear blackface and it never has been okay to wear it despite what era it was or is (going back in time). This statement affirms what I wrote on Friday which (in a nutshell) is this: "Support for something" and "wrongness" are completely unrelated. Ideas can be super wrong and have amazing support, and vice-versa...really amazing ideas can have no public support. What determines whether something has public support really does appear to be an arbitrary and unpredictable thing (in my mind). However, I will leave room to say that someone out there might have a better clue than me as to what people will support in the end.

That being said, I kind of wish I had been in that audience on SNL, because I would have asked if it was okay to cosplay as a Drow elf at a comic book convention. Allow me to explain just a wee bit.

Drow (or dark elves) are a race of beings from the Dungeons & Dragons fantasy role-playing game (and they are probably based upon something else in actual mythology, but I'm not going to investigate that in this post). With the exception of a character called Drizzt, they are (for the most part) evil, deriving their power from the Queen of the Spiders, who is a goddess called Lolth. She's also a demon that occupies three layers of the Abyss known affectionately as "The Demon Web Pits."

Drow organize themselves into powerful houses and they rule their chaotic evil society through extremely viscious and powerful matrons (Drow have a matriarchy and not a patriarchy). They live in underground cities which (with the aid of darkvision) are true wonders to behold. To keep one house from one-upping another house in their toxic civil government structure, they summon and control demons and set them loose on the city streets. Drow who are unable to deal with the demons (because they aren't strong enough) just perish. So needless to say, Drow society is very cutthroat and unforgiving. Their goddess, Lolth, appears to like it this way a lot.

Drow are also described as being inky black with white hair. And that's like "shoe polish" black. Do you see the problem here? I'll include a picture.

This is called "Drow of the Underdark," and it is a painting by the artist Francis001. It is cover art for a book from Wizards of the Coast (the maker of Dungeons & Dragons), and if you like, you can check out more artwork from this artist located HERE.

So here's the question: If someone wanted to cosplay as a drow elf as above, and it required them to darken their skin with shoe polish or some kind of makeup, would this be considered blackface? Is this now (and always has been) a "No No?"

Because it is a fantasy creature, I'm tempted to say, "This would be okay." After all, you've got the pointed ears, the clear as day need for a white shoulder-length wig, and then the costume which is clearly that of a fantasy race. But what I'm tempted to say might be "okay" others might be screaming mad about, which is probably why I shouldn't be the judge of things like this and would never consider myself "woke" as I have clear questions about "what is and is not crossing a line?"

As a caveat, I don't expect to arrive at a solution based on this post or the comments that follow. A lot of social justice has no central authority, and (because of this) there are varying stages of permission and outrage that seem to flow simultaneously from any given sample size (of a population). The course of action then seems to be more of a "let's just muddle through this without getting killed" kind of thing. Either that, or it becomes a "If there's even a question as to the morality of what is right and what is wrong, then just don't do it." And this is probably one example of the in...white people should probably (never again) try to cosplay as a Drow elf. It's just too problematic and doesn't look good. Go as Thor or something else (for that matter). There are plenty of things that wouldn't cause protests or threaten your job and still net you lots of compliments and positive attention at a comic book convention.

But it doesn't stop me from being curious about this whole Drow elf thing. :)

Monday, February 11, 2019

Oh boy the 2019 Genie in Aladdin has got some serious uncanny valley going on.

The "uncanny valley" is a common unsettling feeling people experience when androids (humanoid robots) and audio/visual simulations closely resemble humans in many respects but are not quite convincingly realistic.

My "go to" movie for this is The Polar Express, which (in my opinion) is a good movie but I can't watch it. It just bugs me too much. Applying this to Aladdin (the Guy Ritchie live action adaptation) based on only a one minute trailer is probably not all that fair. However, this "early" look that we got of Will Smith as "Genie" gave me that same feeling.

I'm not an animator. I don't know how complex it is to give life to things like "The Genie" in Aladdin. But I wasn't bothered in this way by Doctor Manhattan in the 2009 film adaptation of The Watchmen. Maybe it's the glow? Genie should have a kind of glow around him that maybe could hide the uncanny valley just a bit, don't you think? In the least, they should do something to make Genie look more supernatural. Because...I don't know...this may be similarly unwatchable as The Polar Express turned out to be.

I'm hoping that the effects still aren't done. Otherwise, it may be a whole new world of terror and screaming children. Check out the trailer if you dare.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Getting support from other people is the single most important thing in just about any endeavor.

Pat Dilloway posted a query on his blog the other day, and asked us to weigh in on whether he was crazy or not in pointing out its flaws. For what it's worth, I agreed with what he said. But it started me thinking about the weird way in which some "things" in our society (and world at large) get support and some just don't. It's like trying to figure out why some things go viral and some things don't. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason. And because of this, it seems like a colossal waste of time to even bother giving advice on things that have to do with writing as everyone has a different opinion on how and why it should be done.

My point in the comment I posted on Pat's post was that the query probably is a terrible query unless for some reason it has support. If (for example) it does have a freakish amount of support, then it probably makes it an excellent query because it has support from lots of people who believe in it. Weird, right? The fact is, you can say that about almost anything. For example, a movie can be can break all the rules of dialogue and plot and everything else...but if it has support, it can be a smashing success. That's just the way things are. But why?

I've thought about this for a couple of days now, and I think it boils down to the fact that industries in a democratic society lack a centralized authority. That's pretty much it. There's no one person that says "this is right" or "this is wrong." Instead, what you have are industries vying for your economic vote in the form of dollars. But everyone is not on the same page, and they never have been. If one thing ends up getting a lot of economic votes, it might be easy to say "it is because they did this right" or "they're just brilliant," but I don't think that's the case. However, I'm not sure if I can name the answer myself. I've seen many things that I thought were stupid achieve astounding success. It could be as simple as appealing to a person's narcissism. In other words, this thing is about me so therefore I support it, and I don't support that other thing because it isn't about me.

We live in strange, strange times. People get their "facts" from different news sources. People who have no scientific background claim to know more than scientists who've devoted their lives to studying just one thing. There are religious exemptions for everything. There are people who have entire careers destroyed by accusations of crime and people who are bulletproof to the exact same accusations. The difference all seems to be driven by support. Having "support" seems to be the goose that lay the golden egg. You can be wrong infinity x 10, and it doesn't matter if the "wrongness" is supported by a wide number of people.

I can't explain it, and it baffles me so much that I've actually stopped correcting things done by other people when I know them to be wrong. For all I know, the wrongness of something may have support. To clarify, it doesn't have support from me, but I am a drop in the ocean. I have no idea anymore what is wrong to everyone else.

To sum this post up, I think that getting support from other people is the single most important thing in just about any endeavor, and that includes whether or not the endeavor is actually any good. If you can get a bunch of suckers to buy into something, then the endeavor doesn't have to be good at all. It can be extraordinarily bad. I think P.T. Barnum once said, "There's a sucker born every minute." It may sound absurd, but the endeavor itself doesn't even actually need to be real as long as the support for it is.

Maybe (as far as the human race is concerned) the only thing that ever mattered was having support for ideas, because ideas that don't have support seem to have a special place in Hell where they go to die. If that ends up being true, then our entire lives are spent in finding support from others for all the things in our lives.

How the heck did we get to this point? Was it lack of accountability? Was it lack of a central authority? Did we become spoiled for choice?

I have no answers, other than to point out, this is what I see happening in our world today. So to take this whole thing full circle to all the writers out there that might be reading this, I say go ahead and publish everything you write. Get it out there. Send out your excellent queries and your terrible queries with both fists full. I have no idea what if anything you do will get support, nor if its even repeatable. All I know is this: some people will get it and others won't.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The February 2019 question from the Insecure Writer's Support Group asks what other creative outlets do I have?

The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer - aim for a dozen new people each time - and return comments. This group is all about connecting! Go HERE to learn more.

And foregoing all of that above, you answer the monthly question (which I oftentimes do these days). 

February 6 question - Besides writing what other creative outlets do you have?

I draw and I play tabletop roleplaying games, which kinda seems to crossover with both drawing and writing? Inevitably, tabletop roleplaying games benefit greatly from the more props you can bring to the table, and drawings and maps and things like that seem to be greatly appreciated by "most" people.

As far as drawing (and by extension just art in general) goes, the biggest challenge to this is space and light. I need lots of light to be able to perceive the colors in which I want to work. Additionally, a lot of the time, it takes so much effort to get everything arranged from having been put away, that there's this desire to just leave it all out. But if you don't clean it up, then it's all just cluttering up my living space.

So foregoing any kind of studio which I set up in my home that has access to lots of natural light (this would mean a pretty major remodel), writing ends up being the outlet I choose the most. All I need for that is a computer with a word-processing program on it.

I'm betting that this is gonna be a pretty common pursuit, so I'll have to read some of the other IWSG posts out there and see how many other writers also draw. I'm betting that the percentage is quite high. And yeah...Alex, I already know you play music :)

Monday, February 4, 2019

How To Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World pushes the message that men will always lose their best friends when a woman comes along to marry them.

This weekend I got a somewhat rare early access ticket for one screening of How To Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World. I'm going to review it now, and this post may have a few spoilers in the sense that I'm examining it for what it is: the end of a trilogy. In other words I'm asking myself and others who read my blog if this really was a good ending for a trilogy.

So here we go.

First off, I want to say that How To Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World is a good movie. It has a solid plot arc, it advances the story from the previous installments, and it provides a conclusion that is indisputable in its finality. I mean...there's literally nowhere else for this franchise to go. It's done, nail in coffin, so to speak.

My big question about this is why? Maybe Dreamworks was just tired of doing this series, even though it was a money-maker for them? It sure seemed that way in the telling of this particular show. We get two big time jumps in this movie: Hiccup marries Astrid (which you know was going to happen), and you see Hiccup with his kids and Astrid at the end of the movie visiting the dragons that (spoiler warning again) they set free to live in the Hidden World that they found in their youth. All the dragons go away to live in this world, including Toothless and his mate. Poignant maybe? But why? If the point of the show was to be about humans and dragons living together, the ultimate lesson we learned is that humans and dragons were incompatible (in this fictionalized universe) and that ultimately it was the humans that caused this to pass. It's a weird thing to be harping on, and it makes for a kind of strange tone as the movie repeats the same theme that you've seen before: bad human threatens dragons yet again and bad human gets defeated but this time there's a permanent way to give dragons a home so that we can't use this plot again.

Additionally, this movie shifts its protagonist from Hiccup (who is front and center in both movies) to him taking a backseat to Toothless courting his mate (the Light Fury you see in the trailer). I'm sure this will be very popular with kids (as it probably should be). But there's probably thirty minutes in this film with no dialogue. It's just Toothless doing cute things with the Light Fury and because we cannot speak dragon, it's like watching cat videos of felines playing with each other with no narration for thirty minutes (there is good music). It's kind of the same thing that 2001: A Space Odyssey did with its enormous expose's of space got musical overlay because in space, there is no sound.

The definition of poignant is a thing that evokes a keen sense of sadness or regret. I felt that in walking out of the theater after having watched this final installment of the HTTYD movie franchise. I felt it mostly because the character of Hiccup was so young when they just decided to time jump, have him marry Astrid, time jump again to middle age with kids that are probably 8 and 10 years old only to see him take a boat to where the Hidden World is located in the hopes of seeing Toothless one last time (which does happen as Toothless is playing with his own litter of kids at this point). And at first, Toothless doesn't even recognize him.

I'm not sure why we needed to see any of that. Maybe it's because there needed to be absolutely no sequels for this thing. Maybe it's because the creators were tired of trying to come up with stories that might be good and worth animating. But as the series ended, I have to think that the final message (and point) of the entire story is that:

1) Humans don't live well with other intelligent species and probably never will (except for maybe a rarified few).

2) Men will always lose their best friends when a woman comes along to marry them (to the point of not even being able to recognize them as Toothless did at first).

3) A woman is worth the sacrifice that the man makes of his best friends because, hey, you get kids.

These are weird messages to be pushing from a series that I very much enjoyed in the first two installments. Additionally, the lack of a fresh story (just more of the same from HTTYD 2) seemed just a bit disappointing.

I would still recommend seeing the movie; it is a lot of fun.

Friday, February 1, 2019

The Expanse Profiles: Winston Duarte

Today is my last profile that I plan to write for The Expanse storyline. I couldn't find any illustrations of him online, and thus far in the series, he hasn't been cast. But he's really the biggest bad guy of the entire series because of what he ends up doing with stolen protomolecule technology.

We first meet Winston Duarte in Nemesis Games. He's formerly an admiral of the Martian Congressional Republic Navy, and he has the soul of a dictator/strong man the same as others of that ilk who are alive and oppressing people in today's modern world. In Nemesis Games, he is commander on Hecate Base, and he kind of gets mixed up in arming Marco Inaros' Free Navy, however, he does not directly reveal any involvement with all that as the distractions that Inaros' is affecting throughout Sol system draw eyes away from the stuff that he's doing.

Duarte has his own long-term goal with regard to the emergence of the Ring Gates: he basically wants to become the first emperor of a galactic-level civilization. To do this, he pilfers some ships and military tech from Mars, and then he finds a system within the Ring Gate complex that offers a planet with what looks like ship-building facilities in orbit around the planet (built by aliens). He then sails into that ring, names it Laconia, and tells people to leave him alone (under pain of death). Unfortunately, that's exactly what the people of Sol System do. They leave him alone for thirty years.

In that time, he experiments on people with a protomolecule sample that he stole from a safe in Fred Johnson's room at Tycho Station, basically turning them into vomit zombies. It's very reminiscent of the stuff you hear that Nazi's did to Jewish people held in concentration camps during World War 2. In the thirty year span where he and his cronies are left entirely to themselves, he institutes a totalitarian government where, if you are guilty of any crimes, then you get turned over to the doctors who are free to experiment on your flesh with protomolecule stuff. It's quite grotesque and ensures almost total obedience.

Additionally, the scientists on Laconia construct three new warships from protomolecule/alien technology. By the time they are done, these things are so advanced that nothing that the Sol system has can even deal with them should they go to war. And that's exactly what happens. One of Duarte's hand-picked commanders takes a battleship into the Medina Station Slow Zone and vaporizes a ship as an example to anyone else that would possibly attack him. When they don't listen, and attack this new warship, all of their weapons are completely useless. It's the same as throwing small rocks and sticks at a modern tank. There's just nothing they can do. And the weapon that the new warship employs uses powerful magnetic powerful that they can spaghettify hydrogen atoms. So yeah...nothing survives.

Well, the warship (having conquered Medina Station and the slow zone space) sails on into the Sol System. All of Earth's fleet, the Martian fleet, and the Belter Fleet attack the new warship. They even hit it with a nuclear weapon. Nothing...nada. Then it destroys a few ships and asks for a system-wide surrender. Being smart, the President of the O.P.A. stands down. And that's basically how Duarte conquers everything and forges the "Laconian Empire." It's not like anyone can say no to him and expect to live. His one warship can destroy an entire planet with billions of people on it the same as one person stepping on a bug. It's kind of ridiculous, and it holds many parallels to the uphill battle all the people without dragons face in A Game of Thrones by HBO. The dragons are basically super weapons that no army can deal with. That's what's going on here. Duarte has the "dragons" of The Expanse universe.

Also, Duarte has the same hubris that a lot of authoritarian leaders seem to share. In Persepolis Rising, he's using protomolecule technology developed by his scientists to give him everlasting life, and (at least from Holden's perspective when he sees him at the end of the book because he's taken prisoner) Duarte doesn't even look human anymore. I think Captain Holden says something like, "You're using that shit on yourself? What happened to you?" So yeah...there's that.

Here's a few great quotes from Persepolis Rising, which is the book where Winston Duarte really gets going:

"We have expended two-thirds of our rail-gun ammunition," the weapons tech announced. "Shall I maintain fire?" "Yes," Drummer said. "Then start putting chairs in the launcher. We hit that thing until we're down to pillows and beer."

"I'm as surprised as you are," Avasarala said. "Though I feel like I shouldn't be. I actually read history. It's like reading prophecy, you know."

"Prepare us for what?" Holden asked. "To poke gods with a sharp stick?" "No, Captain Holden. No sticks," Duarte said. "When you fight gods, you storm heaven."

"The sad fact of the human species that High Consul Duarte understood so well was that you could never overcome tribalism and jingoism with an argument. Tribalism was an irrational position, and it was impossible to defeat an irrational position with a rational argument. And so, instead of presenting a logical plan for why humanity needed to give up the old national and cultural divides and become a single unified species, the high consul obeyed the old forms that everyone would understand, and went to war. Thankfully, a brief one.”

“It’s the reward of old age,” Avasarala said. “You live long enough, and you can watch everything you worked for become irrelevant.”

I'll be back to my regular random topics on blogs this Monday. Thanks for reading and sharing my passion for The Expanse.