A testament to what white writers can do to raise awareness of anti-racism issues lies in Anna Waterhouse’s recent work on Seberg and Race. These films are aware both of the urgency of these issues, and the often uncomfortable conversations that need to happen in order for change to be made. Seberg and Race were interesting not because they depicted everyone succeeding on the first try, but because they showed white people really awkwardly fucking up. It’s the kind of cringe that makes you unable to deny that you’ve been that cringey, which means it’s the kind of cringe that both validates people who are just starting out with anti-racism and pushes people farther by showing that half-assing it is really, really not enough.
Seberg is in many ways an examination of what it really means to be an ally, and how easy it is for white people to be carried away by their enthusiasm and forget to follow rather than lead. It follows Jean Seberg in the 1960s as she tries (unsuccessfully for the most part) to be an ally to the civil rights movement. Race is an at times ghastly reminder of what can happen if fascism is allowed to grow unchecked, showing that white supremacy and authoritarian governments must be challenged. In Race, the threat to the people of Germany is portrayed as a threat to people everywhere, which reflects the reality of a world where the quote-unquote opinions of racists can hold so much practical power. Together, the two period pieces are a statement on the often messy (but vital) conversations that must be had for anti-racist work to happen.
The relationships between white people and black people in Anna Waterhouse’s work can sometimes hit wrong notes, though this is also typical of a white person trying to be an ally. Race is a sports movie, meaning that Jason Sudeikis in his role as gruff coach Larry Snyder is supposed to yell at Jesse; the trope is comprised of light verbal abuse with respect on both sides. However, in the context of the racial element of this relationship there were many times when this seemed to go sour, though it was highlighted by the film when Snyder is trying to convince Owens to participate in the Olympics in Berlin. Snyder tries to tell Jesse that the political element of the Olympics doesn’t matter, all that matters is the race–“I don’t care about any of that,” he declares, and Jesse retorts, “that’s because you’re white!”
The relationship between Snyder and Owens in Race is a fertile ground for Waterhouse to show that white people often don’t try hard enough to understand race issues. For instance, it’s pretty typical in sports movies for the coach to be kind of mean to the athlete main character; their relationship is usually based on masculine ribbing. However, it was kind of weird to see Sudeikis yelling at Jesse Owens, who is the first person in his family to go to college and seems to feel uncomfortable with the treatment in several scenes. Unlike in other sports movies, it doesn’t seem like both of them are in on the joke here. Snyder also doesn’t understand at first why Owens has to work a part time job to get through college and support his child at the same kind.
Seberg also runs up against this frequent lack of shared understanding, in the form of Jean Seberg’s more reckless attitude, born of her being unaware of the consequences of anti-racist work in the United States. Jean Seberg is stalked by the FBI later in the movie as part of the real-life FBI operation COINTELPRO, but this comes as a complete surprise to her. When she got involved with the movement, she had no more idea that she would be in real danger than she did that the movement leader she was getting involved with had a wife. As that wife later tells Seberg, white people often play a more voyeuristic or touristic role in civil rights movements, to the detriment of the movement. Seberg unfortunately gets caught up in an opposition to the movement that ruins her life, and is a cautionary tale about white people who do not listen to movement leaders when they get involved in anti-racist work.
All in all, Waterhouse might seem to be a little out of tune in some moments, but one can pretty easily argue that she’s trying to depict how many awkward moments ome up when people come together to do anti-racist work. People like Waterhouse’s depictions of Jean Seberg and Larry Snyder are basically everywhere, and if you’re white you probably exhibit this behavior too. What’s important is that these characters are depicted as being able to work through these things and are able to be better people in the long run as a result of that work. While there are some pretty intense consequences to white ignorance, one thing that provides hope is the fact that this ignorance can be dispelled.
Top Photo: Jesse Owens prepares for a race.
Middle Photo: Jean Seberg regards herself in a mirror.
Bottom Photo: Jesse Owens winning the long jump at the Olympics.
Photo Credit: Forecast Pictures, Phreaker Films
© Copyright 2020 FF2 Media Giorgi Plys-Garzotto