A couple summers back my wife and I watched THE PURGE on Netflix. We weren’t expecting great chops as either sci-fi or horror (it’s sort of the lazier ends of both), but we were both sorta taken aback by how bafflingly racist the whole thing was.
Just to be super-duper clear: I’m not saying that the filmmaker is racist (I don’t really have any clue who the guy is; he looks white-ish in pictures, but who knows—or really cares—what his identity is). I’m not saying the actors are racist. I’m not saying that any aspect of the conscious intent of the film is racist. In fact, it sorta goes out of its way to be tokenishly multicultural and non-racist (the only totally morally uncompromised primary character is the nameless black male, one of the more prominent secondary characters is a black woman, there’s an Asian man in the mix, and all of the villains are white and explicitly upper-class)—which what was precisely what made it so baffling: even though the film worked to be formally racially progressive, both my wife and I (nominally white people) found ourselves queasy with some of the lines these actors were obliged to say (specifically constantly and exclusively referring to the black man as a “pig”) and found ourselves almost simultaneously asking aloud mid-film:
“Jeez! How the hell would a black person feel watching this?”
Or, more to the point, how would a black person feel watching this film knowing what I know?
Because, through a crazy coincidence, I happened to know something about this film not immediately apperent to average viewers, but certainly known to the filmmakers:
The film opens with a montage of faux surveillance cam footage of various violent crimes, establishing the cultural mood of this near-future dystopia (you see some of this montage at around the 26sec mark in the trailer embedded above). The sort of things you’d expect: Liquor store robberies, riots, a woman getting held up at an ATM, a black man with a sawed off shotgun jumping a police station lobby counter and firing at police officers, etc.
But here’s the catch: I recognized that last piece of footage, which I’d stumbled across in 2013 doing research for a client. It was not faux anything; it was actual CCTV footage from a Detroit police station. The black man with the shotgun was 38 year-old Lamar Moore, his motive is still unknown, and he died during that attack. In fact, he was fatally shot just after the piece of footage used in THE PURGE‘s mood-setting montage.
The final, violent minutes of a black man’s life were used to set the mood for a mediocre Ethan Hawke vehicle. Someone found that footage and edited it in. Someone made sure the rights were cleared, so they wouldn’t get stung on copyright infringement later. And that someone didn’t seem to think, in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, that this might plausibly be a sore spot for anyone (for example, 37 million Americans).
This, for me, finally highlighted the bright line difference between “racism” and “white supremacy.” Racism is really about a conscious framework, a deeply seated belief that people of color or Jews or immigrants or whoever have certain essential characteristics that make them unfit. White supremacy is assigning the interests of white people primacy–generally in complete ignorance of the experience of non-Whites, in much the same way that you probably never think about the impact patching a hole in your eaves has on the squirrels who’d set up house in your attic. A racist thinks black people are lazy and Jews are greedy cheats (or whatever), while the vast majority of rank-and-file white supremacists probably don’t think about them at all. While all white racists are implicitly white supremacists, not all white supremacists are necessarily racist.
Do the makers of THE PURGE think ill of black people? I don’t think so–but I also don’t think they honestly considered the existence of black viewers as sentient entities who might view this film and think “What the fuck are you people doing?!”
And this, right here, brings me to the President, and why it makes me insane to hear him get all huffy about being “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life” and “the least racist person.”
’cause Donald Trump is the guy who’s says stuff like this:
“Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. … I think that the guy is lazy. And it’s probably not his fault, because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is, I believe that. It’s not anything they can control.”
Meanwhile, I’m a Jew, and even if I’d never met another Jew in my life, I’ve still met me. And earlier today I was hanging out with Brian, and he’s black, and he–likewise–has met himself (as well as his sister, his children, his parents, etc., etc., etc.) Obviously, we’ve met each other.
And I really and sincerely do not believe that Donald Trump is so tremendously stupid or naive that he honestly believes that he is less anti-Semitic than every living Jew and less racist than every living African American.
As such, the only possible way that he could believe the sentence “I’m the least anti-Semitic/racist person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life” is if he either doesn’t conceive of Brian and me as being part of the “you” he is speaking to (which is weird, since I heard him say that in a live presser, and therefore literarily was part of that “you” at the very moment he spoke) or he does not conceive of us as being “people.”
Does this make him a racist or an anti-Semite? No, not at all; he’s a white supremacist, and he really and honestly doesn’t even think about me and Brian existing at all, nor how his words and silences impact our lives.
Meanwhile, as I write this, the wave of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers continues: There was one two hours ago in New Orleans, on top of the 11 on Monday, bringing us to a total of more than 70 this year. For comparison, a “normal” year might see two dozen bomb threats targeting JCCs and synagogues total for the entire year.
I imagine some of you are getting damn tired of hearing this, all this whining and “identity politics” that “divide America” by “drawing attention to our differences” because, after all, we’re all the same underneath. I hear you, and I understand. But I’m absolutely terrified that, in the absence of me saying this stuff, then you aren’t thinking about the fact that I exist at all, and might just do things—or fail to do things—that get me and my children killed.
UPDATE: Exactly twenty minutes after posting this I got an email telling me that a bomb threat had been called into my daughter’s daycare at 9:10 AM. They’ve evacuated the building, and my daughter is currently being hidden someplace secure, someplace I do not know where she is, while they sweep the building.
So here we are. This is my day. This is America in 2017.