We Have to Do Better
I love to binge series on Netflix and Amazon Video. Recently, finding myself between series, I was looking at available offerings on Amazon Video and stumbled across the Expendables franchise. I thought, “Hey, I like action, and this is just good old fashion gratuitous action, yeah? I’m in!” I seem to recall watching the movies years ago, but after the first movie and a few minutes into the second this time, I’m out.
Here’s the problem… these movies are all about a group of white guys roaming the world indiscriminately destroying black and brown bodies with impunity and a smile. Oh yes, they have a token black Expendable, Terry Crews (whom I adore in other roles). But his character is just shallow sexual comic relief. There’s even a token Asian Expendable, Jet Li, whose character is a punching bag for a white teammate and is always grubbing for more money owed him because of his diminutive stature relative to the white Expendables. I also noticed by the third movie they add a token female to the team. Wow.
The added value of being white in the movies? You can get shot, and not die from it. You can attack your own team, brutalize the token Asian Expendable, and be redeemed by the second movie. In fact, as an added bonus, the Asian Expendable will now be your buddy sidekick.
The added value of being brown or black in the franchise? You’ll be an incompetent. As in you’ll be an incompetent pirate, despot, soldier or hapless bystander who is shot, run over, cut, burned, crushed, exploded or otherwise dismembered by a grinning white Expendable, unless Terry Crew’s character hasn’t delivered an on-camera sexual innuendo about his gun lately, and then he’ll kill you.
So, what’s the big deal? Why this big post? It’s because we who are white have got to wake up to this not so subtle but constant degradation and devaluing of black and brown bodies. How else do we think so many armed police officers who claim not to be racist end up killing all those unarmed black and brown bodies? In part because gratuitous violence by white do-gooders upon black and brown bodies is a movie mainstay, an unquestioned entertainment, and a national on-screen pastime belonging to white America. Most of the time we don’t even notice it when it’s so prominently displayed in front of us without any effort to hide or nuance it.
Notice I’ve not said that Sylvester Stallone, the power house actor and force behind the franchise, is racist. I’m not saying that any of the actors in the franchise is particularly racist. I’m saying that the systems which produce such garbage, the movie industry, the white penchant for needing black and brown antagonists, our viewing habits as consumers, our desensitization toward violence done to brown and black bodies, and our understanding of the world and its people and politics, are steeped in generations of racism and racists assumptions. Every time we white consumers notice the blatant ugliness of the way we devalue and destroy brown and black lives on-screen for our entertainment, we have to stop and seek something better. We can no longer quietly accept the racially destructive and hurtful expressions on-screen and consume them without question. It just may be that our souls are at stake. I know without a doubt that our black and brown neighbors’ lives are at stake.