Reading Denzel Washington in English 141

A few years ago, following a stunningly silent moment in a class discussion, my creative-writing students let me know that race was indeed a taboo topic on campus, at least in polite conversation. (To be fair, creative-writing classes have often and famously suffered from an overabundance of politeness.) My response was to begin teaching a course I called “Race, [Creative] Writing, and Difference,” the title borrowed from the Kwame Anthony Appiah-Henry Louis Gates Jr. volume. We read some literature of race (Noel Ignatiev, Toni Morrrison, Kenji Yoshino, Mark Twain, many others), but the vehicle for the writing in the course is the personal essay, the most raucous and open-ended and close to poetry of the well-known prose forms. Phillip Lopate’s encyclopedic Art of the Personal Essay is the point of departure here—Lopate directs us toward both intimacy and experiment, he reminds us that essay is a verb, he encourages us to interrogate our ignorance, and to use our language skills to tell a good story.

Now the language of movies is a horse of a different color. So one of my favorite assignments is to ask students to select and watch a movie that does not purport to be about race and to write about the ways race figures into the film in question. And about the experience of going to the movies, which is normally pure pleasure itself, with an assignment—an agenda—in tow. Class members have written well on a variety of viewing experiences involving seeing Patch Adams, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, 21 Grams (which actually is about race but brilliantly so), Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Saw, etc.  I’ve learned from reading the essays; class discussions have been lively. I will most likely teach the course again in the fall of 2013. So halfway through my own experience last week of watching Flight, the new Denzel Washington flick, I began thinking about the assignment.

In the movie, as everyone surely knows by now, Mr. Washington plays a commercial pilot who successfully and brilliantly lands a crippled airliner. But he’s an alcoholic and a coke-head and has successfully hidden that until the moment that the situation—and his heroism—focuses attention on him. That’s what the film’s about. I submit this writing to my students, a first essay, an incomplete account of the questions with which I left the theater.

If we, as writers, are delighted with the possibilities that language gives us for constructing and/or documenting interior states, why do we love movies so much? If race is a huge question in American culture—and if most Hollywood films feature white men in the leading roles—why is race unmentioned or ignored in the reviews of Flight in The New Yorker, The New York Times, even in, the publication of the African-American News & Information Consortium? Or is it mentioned or alluded to in some oblique way?  Either way, what’s the effect? Isn’t Denzel Washington—who has, with aplomb and graceful skill, played a range of different characters—a very fine actor? If the pilot were played by an equally talented white actor—Ralph Fiennes, say—would the early scene of the film in which the naked pilot is shown waking up with a naked Hispanic flight attendant, have a different “value” than it has in the film in question? What value does it have? Denzel Washington also recently starred as a brave train engineer (in the quite exciting Unstoppable in 2010) and this reminded me that my habit, since the 1960s, has been to pause at railroad crossings and wave to the engineers of passing trains—do you have this habit as well and, if you do, has your experience been similar to mine? That is, how many black engineers have you waved to? If you, like your teacher, are a frequent passenger on airplanes and find yourself thanking the pilots as you deplane (because you are polite but also because the pilots have successfully avoided flying us into a lake, the side of a mountain, another airplane, etc.), how many black or nonwhite pilots have you thanked? Is Toni Morrison right when she writes, of public discourse, that “the habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture”? If she’s right, are the film critics in fact being generous and liberal? What value does the generosity have? What might they say if they were less generous? Did you know what you wanted to say when you sat down to write about Flight? Did that change—and how?—as you actually wrote?




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