Can a white person sing the blues? Or as the parody went decades ago, can a blue person sing the whites?
Our term of the day is cultural appropriation, a concept dealing with the adoption of the elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture.
There is much to discuss and certainly more than one simple newspaper column (or as my sweet beloved Rome friends say, “I just love your letters to the paper!”) can cover.
I had lunch today with a brilliant young Navajo filmmaker, Mr. Tony Estrada. Tony served as second unit camera operator on my reality television series pilot, “Horse People.”
Tony is what some would call an activist filmmaker. He went north to Standing Rock to film the battle between Native Americans defending their rivers and the oil pipeline forces. Tony documents the needs of his people, a group of Native Americans who want ridiculous things like clean water from rivers that are currently being defiled by careless mining practices.
I asked Tony to advise me on a book project idea that is struggling to emerge from the vapors of my writer’s mind. I am attempting to write about a culture that is not mine.
Tony brought up the word “carpetbagger.” This word, actually a combination of two words, concerns the luggage carried by nefarious schemers who descended upon the vulnerable post-Civil War South.
We discussed the recent film by Chloe Zhao, “The Rider.” Ms. Zhao, a Chinese-American filmmaker, grew up far from the world of the reservation and the rodeo but nevertheless brought home a brilliant characterization of both worlds. To my knowledge, she has not been accused of cultural appropriation.
The days of a white man like actor Chuck Connors portraying a legendary Indian warrior are long gone. My friend Wes Studi has been a leader in performing strong native characters in such films as “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Dances with Wolves,” and more recently, “Hostiles.” A non-native playing such iconic parts would nowadays be laughed out of the theatre, and I believe, rightly so.
Still, as Laurence Olivier most famously said to Dustin Hoffman, “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”
Yes, it is just pretending.
Leontyne Price was not actually the Queen of Egypt in Verdi’s “Aida.” As good as he looked, Mandy Patinkin is not really a world class fencing master (“The Princess Bride”). They pretend pretty good, as in the top of the acting heap.
George Gershwin wrote a masterpiece of an opera that has as its setting a black community near Charleston, South Carolina, named “Catfish Row.” In the opera “Porgy and Bess,” there are only two white characters, a pair of bumbling detectives that appear very briefly near the end of the opera. For me it would be disconcerting that a white or even a Latino baritone would be appear on stage in the lead role of Porgy.
Yet both the composer and lyricist of this operatic work were white. Could they have written this piece in 2018? Can Eminem rap? Can Charley Pride and Darius Rucker sing country music?
“Elvis could sing the blues, and he was white,” said Jimi Hendrix.
So I ask myself, what the hey?
I know what I personally strive for. When my friend and colleague Tony sits across from me at an Albuquerque coffee joint, I really don’t see a member of the Navajo Nation. I do so love to hear him give me the name in his language of the giant monolith in our Four Corners area called Shiprock. What I see is a thoughtful, intellectual and passionate human being. His eyes smile when his mouth doesn’t. He is patient with my unending questions about his people or what lens he used to shoot a particular scene.
We seek authenticity in our filmmaking, whether it be several million dollars to the good or quite the opposite.
I believe that the majority of the artists that I know, and most that I don’t, seek to honor cultures that are not their own. Whether in casting, setting or story, filmmakers seek the truth even in an art form that is the apex of pretend.
When Romans attend the Rome International Film Festival there will be opportunities to see the different, the “off the path,” the “other.” Those films will have been crafted, on the main, by sensitive and caring artists seeking the truth.
Ah, the truth. Perhaps that will be a future and much bolder column.
Former Roman Harry Musselwhite is the author of “Martin the Guitar” and is an award-winning filmmaker.