Jodie Foster as Bernhard Goetz Proves Popular

The box office was good this weekend for closeted-lesbian Jodie Foster’s new movie “The Brave One” this weekend (she both stars and is credited as Executive Producer). Some reviewers have compared this film, directed by Neil Jordan, to “Death Wish,” and it does share similar gun-violence and revenge-fantasy themes with that earlier film. But for me, more salient referent is Bernhard Goetz, the white racist subway vigilante that gunned down four African American teenagers on the 2 train at 14th Street in 1984.

Now, before I continue my critique of this film, in the spirit of full disclosure I have to confess that I saw this film over the weekend, so some of my coins (ok, $11 here in Manhattan) went to the box office totals. I also went to see this film with my long-term partner, Julie, and we did enjoy Ms. Foster’s, ahem, acting. As lovely as she and her chiseled jawline, cropped hair and form-fitting t-shirts are, she is a perennial disappointment in terms of her politics. The fact that someone of her stature doesn’t have the strength of character to come out publicly confirms the kind of societal level homophobia that contributes to the high rates of suicide and homelessness among LGBTQ teenagers. Her recent donation to The Trevor Project doesn’t ameliorate the larger message of her being in the closet, in fact, it only serves to highlight the duplicity of what Michael Musto calls “the glass closet.”

Her abysmal sexual politics are now joined by some pretty deplorable racial politics in “The Brave One.” [SPOILER ALERT: For those of you who haven’t seen the film and plan on it, the rest of this post contains numerous spoilers.] Foster’s character in the film, Erica Bain, is an NPR-style radio host who is engaged to a dark-skinned South Asian (male) nurse, David Kirmani, played by Naveen Andrews. The white woman – dark lover idyll is meant to signify that the Foster character is “not a racist,” as is the presence of a Caribbean woman who is her neighbor, and later voices the moral of the film (more about her in a moment).

As the couple walks their dog late at night through Central Park, entering ominously through the “Stranger’s Gate” at 106th Street, they are attacked by a group of tatooted, bandana-wearing, whisky-guzzling Latino thugs who are equipped with metal pipes as weapons, and with a small, handheld digital video camera to record the attack. Foster’s character is badly injured and is in a coma for three weeks, her boyfriend is killed. After she emerges from the coma, she goes on a grief-stricken killing spree as a sort of vengence-as-recovery strategy. She kills a number of people, some of them white all of them men, in her revenge spree, but the quintessential moment in the film is the incident on the subway by two young African American guys, and as with Bernhard Goetz, she doesn’t only shoot them, she unloads her gun into them. The rather straightforward white racist reaction (two young African American guys on a subway must be a threat), is complicated by the gender and class dynamics. After the two African American guys harass a young white guy and steal his iPod, a current urban symbol of class status (and make fun of his musical choices on the iPod as they steal it), the subway car empties and they turn their menacing attention to Foster’s character, who – – packing a Glock – – has chosen to remain on the subway. As the two men approach, they make an explicitly sexual threat to her involving a knife, and she responds by emptying the gun into both of them and calmly walking away. This image, of two, large, Black men, one with a phallic-and-threatening knife, approaching an assumed-to-be-innocent white woman resonates with the deepest strains of white supremacy in the U.S. The entire history of lynching was premised on just such an image of gendered racism, and the response is evokes from most whites is one of fear, outrage and identification with (or a desire to protect) Foster’s character. However, the image of a woman with agency, who acts in her own defense and does not wait to be rescued, barely registers on the American political landscape; so, for most of the film, people don’t suspect Foster’s character because they assume the vigilante is a man. The subversive possibilities of a woman fighting back against male violence (“who’s a b*tch now?” she asks as she shoots one of her perpetrators) are competely overshadowed by the regressive racial and class politics of the film. Once she as is back at home, Foster listens to an audio recording of the shooting again and again, much like the perpetrators of the attack on are assumed to have watched the video recording of the attack on her, thus blurring the lines between them. Yet, it’s not the similarities between Foster and the various Black, Latino and even white, perpetrators that the audience is left with, but rather the distance between her and her attackers marked by racial and class differences.

While Stephanie Zacharek, reviewing the film for Salon, writes that the Dublin-born director Neil Jordan “has a surprisingly strong grasp of what living in New York is like, and he translates it beautifully onto the screen,” I think Jordan completely misrepresents the city and what it’s like to live here. More accurate is Neil Rosen’s take in his review for NY1 in which he writes that, “Although the movie is set in the present, the crime ridden New York that’s depicted in the film bears more resemblance to the 1970’s.” And, this is a key point in my critique of the film. While Foster’s NPR-radio announcer character refers repeatedly to New York as “the safest big city in the world,” a line from the Guiliani-administration, neither she nor the film as a whole make reference to the police state that Guiliani established that has made Black and Latino young men are the primary targets and vicitms, the very people configured in this film as the menacing villains. The reality of living in New York City today if you look like white and middle-class, is that it is one of the “safest big cities in the world.” However, if you’re a young Black or Latino man, and also happen to live in — or are just passing through — one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, this is a very dangerous city, and that danger very often comes from the police. For example, the New York Daily News this morning is reporting a story about the teen-aged African American son of an NYPD veteran who was repeatedly tasered, hit him 15 times with a nightstick and put into a choke hold for no apparent reason at a “community sponsored” barbecue at 126th St. and Park Ave. last month. The carcicatured portrayal of young Black and Latino men on the screen, and the spectacle of one after the other gunned down, the last one with help from the police detective played by Terrence Howard, renders the film an apologia for the police-state in New York City, rather than simply entertainment or, as one might hope, a cogent social analysis wrapped in an entertaining package.

It is not only Black and Latino young men who are targets here of racial profiling by the filmmaker: a Black woman is also portrayed in stereotypical fashion. Ene Ojala, who plays Josai, the apartment-building-neighbor to Erica and David. Josai first appears as a large, gruff presence that Erica and David make jokes about. Then, once Erica begins her revenge-killing-spree, it is only Josai, in almost supernatural fashion, that discerns Erica’s secret. Josai conveys the central message of the film when she tells Erica, “There are plenty of ways to die. You have to figure out a way to live.” And, fulfilling the “mammy-role” by serving as nurse to Erica who shows up wounded in the apartment hallway in the middle of the night, Josai is not moved when Erica tells her she killed a man, and Josai replies that “in her country” (which is unnamed) she saw lots of killing. The final shot of Josai in the film is one from above, further depersonalizing her, as she scrubs Erica’s blood off the hallway, on her hands and knees. By giving Erica a neighbor who is Black and an immigrant (as well as her boyfriend), director Jordan intends to deflect the broader racial implications of a film in which Jodie Foster plays a thinly veiled version of Bernhard Goetz. Such casting also allows white audiences to go and enjoy Foster and Jordan’s creation with little thought about what is implied.

There is a rich legacy in this country of progressive, even radical, white lesbians who are anti-racist, such women as Lillian Smith, Adrienne Rich, Mab Segrest, and Dorothy Allison. Yet, Jodie Foster — who had access to an elite education — seems unaware or unmoved by such a legacy. While there is no denying that Jodie Foster looks great in a t-shirt, and she just looks better with age, her politics are more troubling than ever.

9/11 Memorials, Anti-Arab Hate Crimes and Restorative Justice

Today in New York City there is a memorial service downtown for the victims of 9/11, and the local news channels serve as a kind of reverb chamber for those services as they simultaneously broadcast the same event on multiple channels, this despite the mayor’s nudge to the city to move forward, beyond grief.

There are only certain kinds of deaths that get memorialized today. The deaths of white, heteronormative families – the kinds of people who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald or the other financial services firms, and the firefighters. The facts of racial and economic inequality in place before the events of 9/11/01, ensured that those working at Cantor Fitzgerald and at the FDNY were predominantly white, male, and heterosexual. And, as the flags wave, the bagpipes wail, and the politicians speechify, it is not only these fallen victims and heroes that get mourned, it is also the systems of inequality that get legitimated in the process. Little remembered in the official ceremonies are the victims who did not fit this hegemonic image, such as the workers at the Windows on the World restaurant, many of whom were immigrants (some undocumented) or gay, and because of their liminal legal status not eligible for benefits and not visible in the landscape of 9/11 memorial iconography.

Also missing from the memorializing are remembrances of people like Balbir Singh Sodhi who was gunned down on Sept. 15, 2001 in Mesa, Arizona. The turban-wearing Sikh man was killed outside his gas station. Sodhi’s killer spent the hours before the murder in a bar,bragging of his intention to “kill the ragheads responsible for September 11.” He has been convicted and sits on death row. And, in a cruel bit of irony, just before his murder Balbir Singh Sodhi emptied the contents of his wallet, $75, into a Red Cross 9/11 Fund relief jar–though when he became the victim, his family received nothing.

Anti-arab hate crimes, or perhaps more accurately, anti-arab-looking hate crimes, escalated astronomically after 9/11. This graph published by the BBC in 2005 and compiled from FBI statistics charts this dramatic increase.

Immediately following 9/11, there was a huge increase in anti-arab hate crimes, a surge of something like 1600% according to the FBI data and social scientists who have analyzed the data. Bryan Byers, a Ball State University professor who has done research on hate crimes following terrorist attacks, finds that the spike after 9/11 had a wide-reaching impact. In an interview in 2003, Byers is quoted saying,

We knew that followers of the Islamic faith were victims of hate crimes, but other groups suffered just as badly,” Byers said. “That is the nature of prejudice. People perceived as being different because of the color of their skin or dress, or perhaps mistaken as Islamic, were immediately considered outsiders. They became the new enemy for some Americans.

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) is an American Muslim civil rights organization. Their annual report on anti-Muslim incidents is the most thorough of its kind. According to the most recent report released in May 2005 entitled “Unequal Protection: The Status of Muslim Civil Rights in the United States, nearly 80% of anti-Muslim crime was committed in only 10 states. 20% of crimes were committed in California, followed by New York (10%), Arizona (9%), Virginia (7%), Texas (7%), Florida (7%), Ohio (5%), Maryland (5%), New Jersey (5%), and Illinois (3%). One of the most salient increases from 2003 to 2004 is that of discrimination by police such as unwarranted arrests and searches. Along with some discussion of the CAIR report, The Pluralism Project at Harvard University, has an analysis of how hate crimes have affected Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Jews since 9/11.

As Byers notes in his research, the unique quality and greater magnitude of the attacks on 9/11, account in some measure for the sharp increase in hate crimes, the constant media coverage of the attacks also bears some of the responsibility for stirring up hostilities. But, blaming the media is too facile an explanation for the dynamics at play here.

Writing for the Village Voice, Solana Pyne has an excellent piece on the social science of racism, prejudice and discrimination following 9/11, in which she interviews some of the leading experts in the field. Among the interesting findings, Pyne connects the dots for readers about the pro-American jingoism that passes for patriotism and the rise in anti-Arab feelings when she writes:

“One of the new studies found that after 9-11 people thought better of politicians, firefighters, and Americans in general, but felt more negative toward U.S. citizens of Arab descent, new immigrants, Palestinians, and residents of Islamic or Middle Eastern countries. The findings, by social psychologist Linda Skitka of the University of Illinois at Chicago, to be published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, dovetail with other, smaller studies in the wake of 9-11 that found that the more positively one felt about the U.S., the more likely one was to be anti-Arab.

“When you’re under threat, you tend to think of ‘who’s with me’ and ‘who’s against me,’ ” explained … psychologist Jack Dovidio, a specialist in the issues of prejudice and stereotyping.

Another ongoing research project, headed by Harvard social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, focuses on the subtler “implicit” feelings of 89 student participants and has found that the more they unconsciously favor the U.S. and even their university, the stronger their bias against Arab Americans. A similar study by researchers at Purdue and San Diego State University of 374 students, including 102 from NYU, identified the same link between patriotic feelings and prejudice against Arab Americans.

“We’re trying to figure out who we should be nervous about. We’re looking for social cues to tell us,” said David R. Harris, a racial demographer at the University of Michigan. “If the federal government has rules that tell us, or certain people get pulled off planes, that’s telling us pretty blatantly that this is the group to worry about.”

And, of course, race is always inflected with gender, because in determining the “racial Other” we are situating this within particular, gendered bodies, Pyne continues:

“By requiring male immigrants from Middle Eastern, South Asian, and other Muslim countries to register with authorities, the government is signaling that all males from those countries are dangerous, Harris and others agree. A similar message was sent in the months after 9-11, when the Justice Department detained 750 immigrants, mostly South Asian and Middle Eastern, on minor immigration violations to look for terrorist ties. A recent Department of Justice internal report tells how the government held many people without any proof of terrorist links, often for long periods of time, effectively stigmatizing entire groups.”

So, is there any way out of this morass of anti-Other hostility fueled by government surveillance and media pseudo-reporting? Perhaps the pathway lies in the notion of restorative justice. Writing in the peer-reviewed journal Contemporary Justice Review (Dec2003, Vol. 6 Issue 4, p383-391, copy-righted), Mark Umbreit and colleagues describe a particular incident which may provide a model. In the hours following 9/11, a hate crime was committed against the Islamic Cultural Center in Eugene, Oregon. Rather than following the conventional criminal justice process, the director of the center and his wife chose to engage in a process of restorative dialogue with other community members and the offender himself. This case study of moving from hatred to healing occurred in the larger context of restorative justice, a movement that is now developing in many hundreds of communities in more than 17 countries.

Restorative justice seems like a progressive alternative to the current, punitive and destructively harsh (not to mention racist) criminal justice system. I wonder, though, if restorative justice does not place too great burden on those who are victims of hate crimes to do the work of “restoring” the perpetrators. It may be a partial, beginning answer to our current dilemma. I know that we must find a way to move beyond a grief that memorializes inequality and glorifies pro-American sentiment, and justifies the continued loss of life, such as Balbir Singh Sodhi.

Racism in NYC Housing

Sometimes people have the impression that New York City, because it is a global city and there is such amazing diversity here, is somehow more ‘tolerant’ or less racist than say, Texas, where I grew up. In fact, it used to really annoy me when, back in the day after I finished my dissertation about white supremacy at UT-Austin, people from New York and other points north of the Mason-Dixon line, would say things like, “oh, Texas…that must be a really good place to study white supremacy.” As if racism, white supremacy, and overt discrimination, for example in housing, don’t exist outside the South.

A couple of stories from the New York Daily News, one of tabloids here in the city, make this point for me. First up, all the ‘race-blind’ talk about the financial crisis in subprime mortgages disguises the fact that this is an issue steeped in racism. The news story from yesterday about eight Brooklyn homeowners, all working-class Blacks, who won a huge legal victory yesterday when a federal judge green-lighted their suits against a real estate company accused of targeting African Americans and other minority-group members with predatory lending practices.

The homeowners assert that they were victims of fast-talking salesmen for United Homes LLC, who pressed to close deals on dilapidated homes appraised at grossly inflated values without concern for the buyers’ ability to pay.

Sylvia Gibbons, who contends United Mortgage pressured her and her husband to take out two mortgages to buy a house in Bushwick, is quoted in the story saying, “It’s a nightmare we’re still trying to cope with.”

The second story from the Daily News, this one from this morning, highlights the kind of overt racism in housing that most people associate with the South. And, indeed, an unidentified “police source” in the story is quoted as saying: “It’s something out of the Deep South, or the backwoods, circa 1950,” a police source said.

But this is happening right here in New York City right now. According to the story in the News, Kris Gouden, who is of Guyanese descent, and his family are being harassed by white neighbors have launched a racist campaign to run him out of the neighborhood. Now, there is a constant police presence outside his home in Hamilton Beach and a neighbor has been busted on felony hate-crime charges.

Gouden says that his family was threatened while they were sitting on the deck in their own backyard. A white neighbor attacked Gouden and his family, “He comes back with a baseball bat,” Gounden said. “He said, ‘F–k you, n—-r. You don’t belong in here. I will burn this house. I’ll kill all of you.'”

This happened in a section of Queens known as Howard Beach, where several other racist attacks have occurred. But, rather than look at the way these attacks are connected to larger systems of racism, what I predict will happen here in New York is that people will dismiss it as an “isolated” incident precisely because it happened in Howard Beach.