Laughing in the Dark: Watching Melanated Films with White People

“Don’t scare me like that, colonizer!”

I was in a theatre full of white people in a small city in western Canada. We were watching the Wakandan princess Shuri, played to perfection by Letitia Wright, calling Everett Ross, played by white British actor Martin Freeman, a “colonizer” in Black Panther. I laughed so hard I almost fell out of my theatre seat. In the darkness, I heard some dispersed laughter, but many of the white people sitting around me were silent. Suddenly, a strange, unsettling feeling crept over me and lingered for the rest of the film.

In the last few years, there has been a steady uptick of major motion picture films directed by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) creatives, starring BIPOC actors in lead roles, with storylines that do not centre whiteness or white characters. In the last 12 months, I quickly overspent my annual movie budget by splurging on tickets to see CoCo (2017), Black Panther (2018), Sorry to Bother You (2018), BlacKkKlansman (2018), and Crazy Rich Asians (2018). In my twenty years of living in Canada as a racialized immigrant, I’ve never had such a diverse array of films to choose from in mainstream theatres. During my childhood, nearly all of the movies in the big theatres starred a majority white cast. If there were characters of colour, they were usually stereotyped or tokenized, hypersexualized or emasculated, the butt of a racist joke, reduced to a sidekick, or did not survive the first half of the film. As a result, I would get my dose of diverse entertainment from smaller theatres, indie festivals, YouTube, and international films. So it’s no wonder howfor folks like methis torrent of cinematic choices feels like a watershed moment.

This brings us back to the Black Panther opening night. I had been counting down to the film’s release for months in eager anticipation. After reading on Twitter that theatres were sold out of tickets within minutes, I scrambled to buy my tickets online. But here in my lily-white citywhere Black Canadians are 1% of the total populationthere was no need to panic. That was how I ended up watching Black Panther in a theatre of mostly white people, with a small handful of Black and non-Black people of colour scattered throughout. In a city named after a British queen, with a large diaspora community from European countries that colonized many parts of the world, it’s not surprising that only a few people laughed when Shuri delivered such a brilliantly scathing line.

I’ve had many moments of internal conflict while watching films that were touted as wins for positive representation, or as signals of the sea change in diverse casting for Hollywood. In addition to the five movies mentioned above, I also watched relatively smaller productions like Meditation Park (2017), Indian Horse (2018), and the Pixar short Bao (2018) in theatres where the white patrons were the overwhelming majority. Each film was entertaining, validating, and thought-provoking in their own way. These films also had well-developed female characters who felt real, flawed, empowered, and relatable. But the one thing that tied these films together was the unsettling feeling of being seen on the screen, yet othered in my seat.

Let’s consider the time when I ugly-cried through the whole eight minutes of the animated short film Bao, directed by Chinese Canadian animator Domee Shi. That film yanked at my heartstrings in ways I did not know was possible. But as I was languishing in a pool of emotions and yearning for my mother like a toddler lost in a crowd, I overheard the young white man sitting next to me laugh and say to his white female companion, “What the hell is this? I’m so confused”. For one second, a familiar sense of alienation swept over me. I recalled childhood memories of white kids who openly and sometimes cruelly mocked foods from my culture. As an adult, I can clearly see how their inability to appreciate difference was a sad side effect of being born into a society that values suburban sameness and cultural conformity. These white kids have grown up now and they are perplexedperhaps even angryat the medley of experiences shown on the big screen.

Yet within the growing numbers of films about different narratives, they diverge in notable ways; one example is the portrayal of women. While some films focus on their bravery, intelligence, and wit, others continue to favour a certain type of feminine beauty that is often light-skinned, thin, able-bodied, and Eurocentric. Much has been written about how women in film are rarely portrayed as geniuses or courageous heroines with agency over their own lives. But Shuri defied these restrictive conventions to become an inspiration to nerdy girls and Blerds everywhere. Other examples include Naomi Mandamin’s selfless love in Indian Horse; Mama Imelda’s stoic perseverance in CoCo; Maria’s tender defiance of Confucian patriarchy in Meditation Parkthese are the kinds of female characters that I respect and admire.

So naturally, I bristled at the portrayal of Dr. Rachel Chu, Goh Peik Lin, and Astrid Leong in Crazy Rich Asians. Even though we are told that Dr. Chu is an accomplished, young, female academic in a male-dominated profession, her intellect felt more like an accessory than a celebrated part of her identity. The portrayal of Dr. Chu’s college friend Peik Lin was deeply troublesome for me to digest. She adopts a bastardized version of African American vernacular English and espouses blatant Indigenous erasure by claiming that, before the arrival of Chinese settlers, Singapore was just “pig farmers and jungle”. We are also encouraged to believe that Astrid, the Chinese Singaporean heiress and cousin of Dr. Chu’s love interest, is a humanitarian. Yet the only evidence of her compassion is a scene where she briefly stops to greet a young Asian girl before buying $1.2 million earrings that, in a later scene, become a symbol of her (re)embracing the elite lifestyle she was born into. It is hard for me to buy into the pretense of Astrid’s charitable persona when we have characters like Black Panther’s Nakia, who risks her own life to protect the most vulnerable people in her society. Of course, it is unfair that these films are held to such an absurdly high standard of perfection, when films starring all-white casts can be problematic, inaccurate, or implausible, but still get a multi-million dollar budget for sequels and remakes.

In the North American context, actors and other creatives of colour have long suffered injustices. They range from explicitly exclusionary policies like the Hays Code to more covert discrimination such as having limited choices for roles and cultural or racial insensitivity on sets. So when a film like Crazy Rich Asians was made with the specific intention to stroke the wounded nostalgia of diasporic, 20-something, middle-class moviegoers of Chinese descent like myself, I believed the marketing spiel that it was “a major step forward for representation”. People in my general demographic tapped our credit cards and broke box office predictions, churning out high profits for Warner Brothers Inc. We turned up in waves to watch, and re-watch, a film that made us feel like we could finally achieve the mainstream success that white people have monopolized for years. But at what cost? When Crazy Rich Asians commandeered the depiction of a “pan-Asian” identity that was stiflingly Chinese at the expense of browner Asian peoples with significantly less purchasing power, we desperately needed to hear from voices outside of the Hollywood bubble. Singaporean writers Poonja Nansi, Kristen Han, Sangeetha Thanapal, and Gregory Ng Yong He have written eloquently on the dangers of celebrating this kind of shallow misrepresentation. As a Chinese Canadian woman living in a settler-colonial nation who has benefited from the overlapping privileges of being light-skinned, university-educated, and white-adjacent, I would be highly hypocritical if I didn’t at least read and reflect on their supremely educational critiques.

Some might protest and say that we should stop trying to connect these films to our society, that they are just movies. But what does it say about our society when white folks are guffawing at the KKK members’ jokes in BlacKkKlansman? Or when the actress Awkwafina is praised for her “hilarious” performance in Crazy Rich Asians without noting her “blaccent”? It raises the eternal question: are they laughing with us, or at us? As we ponder this question, let’s not forget that, only a few decades ago, Black, Aboriginal, and Chinese peoples were segregated in movie theatres, and playhouses regularly featured blackface minstrel shows.

We can, and should, dream bigger. Instead of settling for problematic misrepresentation where we are portrayed as the Asian-American Daisy and Gatsby, we need to create even more films that truly push the boundaries. Imagine if we had more films that celebrate queer tenderness between Black and brown lovers; centre Asian activists who fight against gentrification and deportations; and where utopian worlds are inspired by Afro- and Indigenous futurisms. Let’s dare to dream, at the very least, since recent films have shown that our wildest dreams sometimes do come true.