Taking the criticism with a grain of salt

June 25, 2013 § 4 Comments

after earth

A little over a week ago, I went to the movie theater to chase the Monday blues with two movies; After Earth and Man of Steel. I saw on the news the dismal turnout at the box office and read the less than enthusiastic reviews by some critics and movie goers for the former. However, I also saw the trailer and it caught my interest. I tend to take most of the film guru’s critical reviews with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, it seems as if some of their assertions had seeped in and grown roots because I was ill-prepared for what After Earth had to offer.

It was better than expected and had great philosophy without being didactic; one could sit in their seat and not feel as if they were being preached to. The themes explored fatherhood, how parents mean well but sometimes their humanity often breaks our hearts. It is also a coming of age story which we see from Kitai Raige’s (Jaden Smith) journey. He thinks he knows more than he actually does, is tougher than he actually is, and as his mother Faia Raige (Sophie Okenedo) notes, “he’s a feeling boy who needs his father.” It glances over climate change and our role in it; how we treat Earth and how it is forced to change in turn. Most of all, it addresses a common strand in our humanity: Fear. In one of Cypher Raige’s (Will Smith) exhortation to Kitai, he said:

“Fear is not real. The only place fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity. Do not misunderstand me; danger is very real but fear is a choice.”

How many times have we sent our minds staggering, our blood pressure through the roof, and our hearts racing thinking about the what-ifs of tomorrow? Mind you, I am one for planning for the future and thinking ahead but as it has been said many times over, we lose many moments by not being present. And so Cypher Raige offers the antidote for those moments when panic, angst, anxiety, fear, worry etc comes; “take a knee…ground yourself in this moment.” In the film, fear is symbolized by Ursa who can smell it on humans then hunts them down and kills them. It is a clear depiction of how many are crippled by their fears and that in itself is a form of death.

It is hard not to appreciate After Earth especially when it employs so many devices, has such beautiful wisdom, and relatable themes. The most disappointing aspect of going to the movies that day was watching Man of Steel after. Alone, I am sure it stands on sturdy ground but coming out of After Earth, it felt shallow, almost empty. I couldn’t help wondering what the critics’ bone of contention was with After Earth, so I went back and perused the internet. The common theme was summed up by one reviewer from the New York Times who claimed it was nothing more than “a big-screen vanity project.” And that’s when I realized that the problem wasn’t the message or the writing; it was the fact that 90% of the film featured the relationship between Kitai and Cypher (Will and Jaden Smith.)

It’s sad. I’ve seen worse movies get great reviews just because it had many A-list actors, good advertising, or both. For me, this movie goes on the same shelf with Crash, The Pursuit of Happyness, I am Legend, The Ides of March, and Michael Clayton. It is one of Will Smith’s better roles, if not his most mature. As for Jaden, I didn’t laugh as much as I did watching karate Kid but it’s not always about laughter. Sometimes, we have to watch a character grow. Sometimes a story doesn’t need a large chorus for support or laughter to chase. It can stand on its own, be as it is. In those cases you really have to take the criticism cum grano salis.

The human stories that matter are those that endure

June 13, 2013 § 2 Comments

Americanah

Ever read something that makes you feel naked, but not in a way that embarrasses you? Instead it tells a truth you were unable to articulate, or only disclosed to a select few because the shame or pain of that experience was still raw and required a kind of vulnerability you didn’t have the strength for, or could not afford. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s most recent novel, Americanah did this to me. The more I read, the more undressed I felt; large fractions of my most intimate stories, save for a few differences, splayed across pages.

It is no secret that I have an affinity for books that address the immigrant experience. More so, those that tackle the subject in a fashion that doesn’t beg for sympathy but authentically explores the struggles, triumphs, and the things we consider too taboo to disclose to the outside community so we keep them amongst ourselves. Some of my favorites are Jhumpa Lahiri’s the namesake, Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brown stones, Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation, and now Amerincanah.

Like one of the main characters in Adichie’s novel, Ifemelu, I was a foreign student and as a result found it quite easy to identify with her. I won’t be presumptuous to assume that every foreign student or immigrant would feel this kind of kinship. However, a lot of her experiences mirrored mine. From the letters in bold print from the bursars office; “YOUR RECORDS WILL BE FROZEN UNLESS PAYMENT IS RECEIVED BY THE DATE AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS NOTICE,” and the voice of the love she left behind trying to buoy her via a phone line, to her inability to work because of her status. Or, more seriously, the circumstances that would eventually cause the fissure that grew between them.

I am not sure if Adichie’s life or that of someone close to her informed this book. However it is very clear that she took care in making sure that it was as authentic as possible. For example, the exchange in the hair braiding salon:
“How you get your papers? Aisha asked.
“What?”
“How you get your papers?”
Ifemelu was startled into silence. A sacrilege, that question, immigrants did not ask other immigrants how they got their papers, did not burrow into those layered, private places, it was sufficient simply to admire that the papers had been got, a legal status acquired.
“Me, I try an American when I come, to marry. But he bring many problems, no job and every day he say give me money, money, money.” Aisha said, shaking her head. “How you get your own?”
…I got mine from work.” She said. “The company I worked for sponsored my green card.”
“Oh.” Aisha said, as though she had just realized that Ifemelu belonged to a group of people whose green cards simply fell from the sky. People like her could not, of course, get theirs from an employer.

Ifemelu’s observation of Aisha’s reaction reminded me of the hierarchy in some fractions of the immigrant community. Not that Ifemelu was guilty of it, but I’ve found that a lot of immigrants can be judgmental, even harsher than a group of Xenophobic Americans. With those immigrants, there are tiers of relevance and importance. At the top are naturalized citizens, followed by permanent residents, and just above the undocumented or illegal aliens but below the permanent residents are the visa categories (F-1/international students, H-1 work visas, H-1b/spouses and children under 21 of H-1 holders etc). Also, how one gains their green card may rate their importance. It is not sufficient that this type of scrutiny already exists outside of the community. We must be perpetrators too and carry it out on each other.

But Americanah does not only explore the immigrant experience. It is in essence, a love story; definitely not a cliché but one that examines other themes such as race in America. For example, the dinner party that Ifemelu attended where she belted, “When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better, because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, look how far we’ve come. Just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We’re thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It’s true. I speak from experience.”

Adichie allows her characters to say things we have all thought of at one point or the other. At least I have, and seeing it on paper made me chuckle. Case in point: “He had at first been excited about Facebook, ghosts of old friends suddenly morphed to life with wives and husbands and children, and photos trailed by comments. But he began to be appalled by the air of unreality, the careful manipulation of images to create a parallel life, pictures that people had taken with Facebook in mind, placing in the background the things of which they were proud.”

However, it would be a severe injustice to portray Americanah as a collection of heavy themes, political commentary and satire. It is more than all of these. Chimananda Adichie wrote a story that is honest, unpretentious and very realistic. It is exquisite literary fiction that explores a lot of the things people, more so expats experience and does it with a very careful hand. It is a very well constructed novel worthy of every minute spent reading its 477 pages. Quite honestly, I am tempted to disclose more of its content; the lighter, laughter inducing stuff. But that’s a disservice to you. On the other hand, I will admit that the ending is a little unbelievable. I thought the conclusion was a little too easy and that in reality, it might not end that way. Nevertheless, Americanah will be one of my all time favorites because, as one of the characters said, “The human stories that matter are those that endure.” And this one definitely mattered.

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