Saturday, January 12, 2008

denigrate

I am sorry that the Golden Globes have been cancelled because there are some really good movies out there right now that deserve to be recognized. I am all for the television writers getting their due, but I would like to see Ellen Page and Emile Hirsch pick up trophies for Juno and Into the Wild. I hear that Daniel Day Lewis is a shoo-in for best actor, but I haven’t seen his performance in There Will Be Blood yet, so I’m rooting for the young Hirsch, who I think deserves every award out there.

Both Into the Wild and Juno have Minnesota connections. Into the Wild was produced by Minnesotan Bill Pohlad, who previously produced Brokeback Mountain and is the son of Minnesota Twins’ owner Carl Pohlad. It is a faithful retelling of Jon Krakauer’s tragic account of a young man who dropped out of American society to live on his own in Alaska. It is based on a true story and I loved both the book and the movie.

Juno was written at the Target store in Crystal, Minnesota, where I shop when my husband doesn’t do it for me, by a former stripper; who reportedly still owns a house in Robbinsdale, the suburb next to mine. The writer, who goes by the pen name Diablo Cody, says she wrote the screenplay about a boy she hurt in high school. A few years ago she wrote a book, Candy Girl, about her experiences in Minneapolis strip clubs such as Sex World and Déjà Vu. The book is pornographic and less than great literature, but I could not put it down. Juno shows off Cody’s writing abilities better than Candy Girl, and the movie is beautifully acted, comedic and poignant.

One of the Christmas releases that I really enjoyed, The Great Debaters, is not getting the attention that it should be getting. I saw it with my family Christmas week and it was already relegated to a small theatre with a smaller audience. All the movie trailers that preceded it seemed to feature black actors in violent roles, as if these were the only movies a Great Debaters’ audience would enjoy. The film does have a primarily African American cast, led by Denzel Washington, but it is not violent and it is not just for blacks. It is an uplifting, motivational coming-of-age story with universal appeal, based on a true story.

There may be a bit of a pattern to my movie preferences here. My favorite books and movies usually fall into the category of memoirs, based on true stories or historical fiction. That doesn’t really explain my interest in Juno, but it is a quirky version of a real high school relationship by a person who used to live in my neighborhood, so it feels like it fits my genre.

The Great Debaters is also excellent because it educates its audience on the word “denigrate.” The word comes from the Latin words “de+nigrare,” meaning “to make black.” Washington’s character makes the case that the word we use to mean “disparage” or “defame” also means “to blacken” and that it has racist undertones.

I have used the word denigrate without knowing its origin or its ability to offend. I have also used other words unintentionally that were equally insensitive. Mulatto, a word that is sometimes used to describe a person with both black and white ancestry, comes from the Spanish word mulato, meaning “a young mule.” Papago, the name given by the Spanish to an Indian nation in Arizona, means “bean eaters.” Unfortunately, there are probably other words that I still use that are unintentionally insulting to someone.

The words we use have the power to inflame and incite or to heal and uplift. This holds true for debaters, screenwriters, television writers and all the rest of us. The lesson in denigrate is that it is important to choose our words well, and that it is unfortunate that even when we do so we may still accidentally offend. Resolved (as they say in The Great Debaters): Sticks and stones can break your bones and words can be MORE hurtful.

4 comments:

Jonathan said...

Dude, what's with the dull black background to your blog while all the important stuff - the wisdom is sparkling white? The default color-scheme is the very reverse.

I think you need to take a long hard look at yourself. Your bizarre and inexplicable choice almost certainly reflects deeply felt, virulent, anti-black sentiment.

Dennis Dale said...

Jonathan,
Hear, hear.
Notice how the white scars and etches the immobile, inert black background. The white is given form and meaning, while the black is literally formless, a blank canvas reduced to the background. Marginalized. And on MLK day too!
We really need to choose our color schemes more carefully.

Muswell Hillbilly said...

I'm ashamed of you, SSD. I don't think "Into the Wild" should get any sort of award. Its protagonist is clearly a racist. Christopher McCandless used to urge his Cross Country teammates to victory by telling them to imagine themselves "running against the forces of darkness..."

How can you support a movie that fetes such a person?! I'm sickened with immense heartache at your insensitivity.

Hurricane Karina said...

of course people from muswell hill would leave comments like that. it's easy to laugh at the racist origins of words when you've never experienced historical and institutional racism.