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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Can You Imagine Scarlett Johansson In Blackface?

Posted by on Thu, Jul 31, 2014 at 12:56 PM

Andre Seewood recently posted a provocative piece about Lucy, a movie that stars Scarlett Johansson, and was reviewed favorably by Paul Constant. Seewood basically points out that Hollywood has yet to make a film that comes even close to the true story of human origins. Human brains, bodies, and language did not come from space or some forgotten civilization at the bottom of the ocean. The origin of the defining features of our species is Africa. The first humans were black. Modern humans issued from an area around what is now Ethiopia. There is no mystery about this. It's no longer the Out Africa Hypothesis; it's the Out Africa Theory. But you would never get the idea that our origins are scientifically known and understood by watching Hollywood films like Lucy. (True, there is mention of the hominid Lucy in the movie; but Lucy, who lived over 3 million years ago in East Africa, was hardly a human. She was somewhere between a chimp and us.)

Seewood post is generally good, but it does make this mistake:

Luc Besson’s new film tells the story of a woman named Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) who is tricked into being a drug courier by her boyfriend and in turn is forced to become a drug mule when a vicious Asian drug lord has a bag of a powerful new synthetic drug sewn into her abdomen. Unfortunately, due to the rough treatment she receives at the hands of her captors the bag bursts and the mysterious new drug enters into her bloodstream causing her to have continuously increasing access to the untapped mental powers of the human brain.

The central theme of the film is that if humans had access to more than the 10% of the mental capacity that they now use, we would be able to control our body’s involuntary functions, then other people’s bodies, matter and eventually even the flow of time. Along the way this action packed “mind blowing” concept film hits a few rough spots as it avoids the issue of race in ways that spark one’s curiosity as well as confound. For instance, Lucy is able to change her physical appearance by the power of her own mind. She changes her hair color from blond to brunette to avoid detection from the cops- but the film stops short at having her change her racial identity which as implied by the story and her other powers in human cell manipulation, language acquisition and knowledge she would have had the power to do.

This, to me, is a curious willingness to shortchange an idea on the part of the filmmaker Luc Besson who wrote, directed and edited the film after 10 years of research and development. The ability of Lucy to race shift would have elevated the concept of the film’s central theme of the untapped power of humanity to a broader cross-cultural model that would demonstrate that human intelligence and power is shared among different races, classes and genders, but is often hidden from our view because of our own preconceived perceptions, otherwise known as prejudices.


Seewood should have reread the second quoted paragraph and given it some thought. Why did the famous white actress not turn black to elude the cops or who ever wanted to get their grubby little hands on her? It sounds like a pretty cool thing to do (use your brilliant brain to become a sister like that); cool, that is, to someone who has no clue about the history of 20th century entertainment in the US. Scarlett Johansson could not turn black because that would be: blackface. Change the color of your hair, your eyes, your teeth even—but do not change the color of your skin from white to black. We are not there yet. We are not a post-racial society.
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Comments (18) RSS

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1
Or, the director wanted the part to be played by Scarlett Johansson, because she's a big movie star, rather than have the character change shape to the point that she would need to be played by a less famous actress. Occam's Razor.
Posted by Moag on July 31, 2014 at 1:01 PM · Report this
2
Oh jeeze, you're just begging for that one guy to post that picture of Kelly O.
Posted by ChefJoe on July 31, 2014 at 1:22 PM · Report this
3
Change skin color to evade the cops? Since when did cops go to any trouble not to harass and arrest non-whites?
Posted by originalcinner on July 31, 2014 at 1:25 PM · Report this
4
Also at that point in the movie, she is about to go through customs with her passport that looks like her as a white woman. She has not yet been able to manipulate anything besides her body, so if she had changed herself to be a different race, her passport would still have been that of the white woman she began the film as.
Posted by Banana Stand Money on July 31, 2014 at 1:27 PM · Report this
6
Jennifer Lawrence's shape-shifter character did exactly that just a month ago in "X-Men: Days of Future Past" so I don't think it's as big a deal as you imagine it is. Granted, Lawrence does not don blackface to do it.
Posted by MisterBadIdea on July 31, 2014 at 3:24 PM · Report this
7
The filmmakers more than mention hominid Lucy in the film 'Lucy', they show her... twice. And she "was somewhere between a chimp and us" just as you described. Did you not see the film?
Posted by hjermsted on July 31, 2014 at 3:26 PM · Report this
yelahneb 8
I want to believe that everyone here knows that the "we only use 10% of our brains" trope is a myth, and that's why we're not even bothering to discuss it... right? Please tell me I'm right
Posted by yelahneb http://www.strangebutharmless.com on July 31, 2014 at 3:50 PM · Report this
9
So there are no black actresses anywhere in Hollywood who have even a passing resemblance to Scarlett Johannson?
Posted by treehugger on July 31, 2014 at 4:43 PM · Report this
10
Tropic thunder did it.
Posted by mage on July 31, 2014 at 4:46 PM · Report this
Josh Bis 11
I assumed she changed her hair color via a wig.
Posted by Josh Bis http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/Author.html?oid=3815563 on July 31, 2014 at 5:07 PM · Report this
12
Or, you know, just hire a black actor for that part.
Posted by gholtby on July 31, 2014 at 6:32 PM · Report this
Knat 13
@7: He's offered reviews in the past for films he admits he didn't see in full, like the time he arrived late to the screening and missed the first 15 minutes, and proceeded to bitch about the narrative not making sense in his review.
Posted by Knat on July 31, 2014 at 7:04 PM · Report this
14
@8, you're not right; Charles and many others don't understand that that has been disproven. It seems to be too well-loved a myth for people to get over.
Posted by sarah70 on July 31, 2014 at 8:23 PM · Report this
15
Having not seen the film, I would think that exploring race, gender and identity would be a natural course for any character with the ability to morph and alter their physical appearance.

For any dramatic change to be believable, though, would require other actors to play those intermittent roles.

Also, to thwart facial recognition software that is often used by security these days you would need a more significant change than skin color.

If the writers and director(s) gave Lucy this ability, but failed to explore it, the failure was cowardice born of a lack of creativity, not an overabundance of cultural sensitivity.
Posted by Disturb the Universe on July 31, 2014 at 8:54 PM · Report this
16
Getting a different actor, one with a similar basic look as Johansson, would have done the trick, but I have to say I wondered the same thing Mudede does when I first read the Seewood piece. By the way, for a film that's also supposed to be kinda sorta feminist, it would have been nice for one of the cops, surgeons, scientists, even villains working with Morgan Freeman to have also been a woman. Basically we get Johansson, a v/o of her mother, and her dingbat roommate. Sigh
Posted by Danny-0 on August 1, 2014 at 8:28 AM · Report this
17
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia delved into this troubling, modern issue as well, with heart and aplomb.
Posted by diggum on August 1, 2014 at 8:51 AM · Report this
18
No, they couldn't have put her in blackface but they could have had the role played by another actress, or even actor, for a few scenes.
Posted by Root on August 1, 2014 at 11:11 AM · Report this

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