Just recently having watched the film Rogue One I sat and wondered what brilliant casting director cast all of these cool actors of color? I then remembered when I was just starting out in film school and watched the film Birth of a Nation (1915). Birth of a Nation happens to be one of the most racist films of all time since it chronicled the birth of the Klu Klux Klan. The film had a deep and lasting impact on the narratives of race and racism in the U.S. in the early 1900’s. For all the structural shortcomings of Rogue One, I thoroughly enjoyed the beautifully diverse ensemble cast. Rogue One is not rooted in a specific geography or culture, yet was vastly entertaining. The director, Gareth Edwards does not attempt to transmit an imperialistic culture as Birth of a Nation, rather it tells the story of a motley group of rebels up against a vicious empire. Art is always political and as I started to compare the vast differences in the two films it occurred to me how many times while in film school I became acquainted with myths that were destructively wrong.
Myth #1- Films Should Feature Universal Stories
I heard this myth so many times, there was a period in my career where I really believed it. I wanted to tell stories so bad I wondered if my characters were wrong for being diverse. Yet, what saved me is that I kept reminding myself who I was writing for, where I come from and why I wanted to be a film director. I remembered that stories in Mexican and Indigenous cultures are medicine. Now that we have a president elect endorsed by the Klu Klux Klan we need good stories more than ever. Just as there is no such thing as universal medicine for every sickness, stories need to be unique and specific to the audience they engage. There is a reason why the Spaniards burned all of the Aztec codexes–they were erasing the historical memory of a people. Memory is a healing medicine for all of us who have suffered historical trauma and it comes in different forms; from stories, to prayer to physical healing. To erase historical memory is a way of obliterating the identity and power of a nation and a people. Great films are entertaining, and can transport us to different worlds yet they can also be transformative and a part of healing if they tell the specific stories that are needed. The Birth of a Nation is an example of a film that was extremely racist and toxic, in fact a court ruling in 1916 from the state of Ohio found the film so offensive it legally banned the film. The film was found by the court to have caused vivid psychological effects on impressionable audiences (women, children, and the “lower classes”) who were deemed more impressionable than readers of printed matter. (Source:http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/film/socialhist.html)
Myth #2- You Will Confuse Your Audience If A Script Is “Too Ethnic”
This myth belongs to the school of thought that attempts to pretend cultural and racial identiy is not part of U.S. history and that it is an imagined space. As much as the mythical melting pot in America is promoted, this belief attempts to belie the history of people of color. When another human being shares the fact that they have been through the same discrimination, that they have suffered the same pain and share a common understaanding, it is an empowering experience. It is when we study the mechanisms of survival of those that came before us that we start to have hope again. In Rogue One, just as the rebels are about to lose hope Jyn Erso reminds them that they need to fight or “be condemned to an enternity of submission.” For Jyn hope is real because she is fighting not just for herself but rather for those that came before her (in her case her parents who were both killed) and for the generations to come. In contrast to myth #2, Rogue One features a diverse ensemble cast without being deemed as “too ethnic” except by the alt-right the new racist right wing group. The film features beautiful performances from Diego Luna, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang and Forest Whitaker. Other actors in the film who are also noteworthy including Felicity Jones and Jimmy Smits yet the aforementioned actors really stole the show for their honest and nuanced performances. Notice that Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang evoke Eastern spiritual traditions that could only have that power, as played by actors who are of their caliber and background.
Myth #3- You Should Use Your Identity As A Latina In Your Marketing
This myth masqueraded as well meaning advice from several instructors. In other words, it was not ok for me to write “too ethnic” but marketing was a whole different beast where playing up my Latinaness could help me become a recognizable brand. I was definitely not ok with this advice because even though I do not believe the myth of stories being universal, at the same time I was not excited about being enclosed in a box. All storytellers, artists and filmmakers are powerful and they are also humans with shortcomings and biases. Artists are in a constant and monumental struggle to be brutally honest about who we are in creating art. I do not want to be labeled as a Latina director but rather as an artist that creates relentlesly honest films that are true to my historical memory. I carry the weight of my Chicana identity with me because I see it from the perspective of a specific historical process of reflection and a form of meditation on the pain that I have endured as a Mexican immigrant who has adopted U.S. culture. My identity is an inheritance and not a brand. Ultimately, I see myself as an artist and a filmmaker brimming with stories.