Sunday Special Edition: The Problem with Pleasantville, July 21st 2013

I really want to like the film Pleasantville. I have seen it several times, and it’s an incredibly arresting movie visually. The transition from black and white to color is gorgeous to look at – reminiscent, as many have observed – of that moment in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door and voila! She and we see the world on the screen in all its rainbow hues.

As a practitioner of the fairy-tale and of magical realism, I appreciate the fairy-tale premise of the movie, its clever use of Don Knotts of Mayberry fame, and its pursuit of magic to make its point.

 I also admire the performance of Joan Allen, and the powerful sexual self-discovery that this character experiences and that Allen enacts with wit and poignancy. Right next to her in the unexpected and rewarding female character development department is Reese Witherspoon, whose character discovers her intellectual self through the erotics of reading – the literal pleasure of the text. Roland Barthes would be happy.

But it’s a film that I find increasingly disturbing to watch, and it’s a film that I cannot in the end endorse.

In the wake of the George Zimmerman trial, it’s worrisome to think that this movie is the best that cable has to offer by way of comfort to its privileged viewers. And it’s not a coincidence, I think, that this movie is airing again right now. Why not other movies? Why not The Hollywood Shuffle or even Do the Right Thing?  Too scary?  Too true? (Although I do note that one channel is showing Undercover Brother, which is something, I guess).

Because this movie – as lovely as it is to look at – whitewashes. It makes race into an allegory, and that allegory is enacted by white people. No actors of color appear in the film. I don’t even see any as extras, although I’d have to look again.

What’s worse (or at least, just as bad) is the film seems to “know” that it is whitewashing on some level and makes that choice deliberately.

Here’s what I mean.

We are told in the movie that the library books in the Pleasantville library are all blank. Then, an actual book with text shows up.

It’s Huckleberry Finn.

Now there’s an opportunity to talk about race. The dialogue between the kids in the coffee shop even opens up the possibility, when a couple of kids ask what the story is about and wonder how the book ends.

The Tobey Maguire character explains the story is about a boy and a slave.

Just a second.

This is a group of people who don’t know what sex is and they don’t know what lies outside of their town. They are completely ignorant/innocent.

So — how do they know what “a slave” is?

This is a huge opportunity – an opportunity offered by the film itself. But the film just jumps over it.

Tobey Maguire says that the story ends with the two characters realizing “they were free all along.”

Uh, not true. That is most certainly not how Twain’s novel ends.

(Read a transcript of the coffee shop scene here)

Then the film makes a second – more visible — jump over race by talking about the characters that are now manifesting themselves in color as “colored.”

But they aren’t “colored.” They are all white.

This is where I get off the Pleasantville train, and can never get back on.

As a privileged, c.i.s. white writer, I have trouble writing about race. But I figure the least I can do is refuse to pretend that there is no problem. I can at least name that there is a problem here.

And I can examine my own aesthetic practices. I can ask myself who I am speaking for, and who I might be leaving out.

I may not like the answer.

Still, I must ask and I invite you, particularly if you are white, privileged and c.i.s.,  to ask that question too.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s