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‘Little Boxes’ and the issue of nonblack artists depicting black subjects

The indie movie is just the latest in a string of works wrestling with how to authentically portray black lives

Little Boxes, a hit at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, comes out Friday in theaters and video on-demand. And yet it somehow already feels a bit anachronistic in a world where racial division is much more sharply defined than it was just months ago.

Based on writer Annie J. Howell’s own experiences in an interracial relationship, according to Reel Talk Online, Little Boxes follows a family of liberal Brooklyn intellectuals during their first days in the fictional town of Rome, Washington, which is a three-hour drive from Seattle.

Gina (Melanie Lynskey) is a white photographer and professor who just got a tenure-track position at the local college. Her black husband, Mack (Nelsan Ellis), is trying to bang out his second novel. They have an 11-year-old son, Clark (Armani Jackson), with an enormous Afro. All of them are trying to adjust to new surroundings and the unfurnished, moldy house in the middle of white exurbia.

Directed by Rob Meyer (A Birder’s Guide to Everything), Little Boxes ends on a note of Pollyanna-like optimism, suggesting the world’s racial problems could be solved if people just talked to each other more and black people didn’t make everything about race. (There is actually a line in the film in which Gina yells at Mack, “Not everyone is racist!”) It suggests that two black men can be the flies in middle-of-nowhere buttermilk and make it out OK, even as they’re side-eyeing microaggressions, in Mack’s case, or, in Clark’s case, beginning to learn that the world sees them differently. And maybe they can, although they’ll certainly sustain a few emotional scars.

Nelsan Ellis, Melanie Lynskey and Armani Jackson in a scene from “Little Boxes.”

Courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky

Little Boxes is the latest in a succession of indie films in which nonblack directors and screenwriters wrestle with black or multiracial leads in spaces that are overwhelmingly white. There’s Deidra and Laney Rob a Train (directed by Sydney Freeland, who is Navajo, and written by Shelby Farrell), as well as Morris From America (written and directed by Chad Hartigan).

These films raise questions about writing and empathy: When you have black or multiracial characters in settings that are largely white, how important is it to address race and racism? How do you present characters who are authentic when their experiences may be vastly different from your own?

Such questions aren’t limited to the big and small screens. They exist across the artistic spectrum. In literature, the current answer seems to be an explosion of sensitivity readers, who read books before they’re published in order to flag culturally insensitive stereotyping or details that are culturally inaccurate. These people are paid to submit detailed, honest critiques to authors dealing in subject matter that may be foreign to them, and they are most common in children’s and young adult literature.

Sensitivity readers are an intellectual workaround to address the consequences of white people having systematically separated themselves from everyone else in housing, education and the workplace. They are a stopgap. They are not a replacement for writers of color, and they’re not a solution to the overwhelming whiteness of the publishing industry. But they can play a valuable role.

The fracas over artist Dana Schutz’s Open Casket suggests that an art world equivalent to sensitivity readers wouldn’t be a bad idea. Schutz’s depiction of the face of murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till has perhaps drawn more publicity than any other work in this year’s Whitney Biennial because of the racial politics surrounding it and the exhibition’s own troubled reputation when it comes to race and gender (too many white guys, not enough women and people of color). Schutz is white, and her subject is the victim of one of the most notorious instances of racist terroristic violence in American history. Schutz’s work drew protests because, even though it was based on the gruesome open-casket photo of Till’s disfigured face, it was an abstraction, seemingly devoid of connection to the historic circumstances that led to his death.

“Open Casket” by Dana Schutz

MATTHIAS KOLB 12355 BERLIN / Collection of the artist

In response to Schutz’s painting, Hyperallergic’s Ryan Wong published A Syllabus for Making Work About Race as a White Artist in America. Wong suggested that rather than trying to depict black suffering, white artists instead interrogate their own histories and ties to racist institutions. “Consider the fact that your insurance company, alma mater, housing deed, bank, hospital, etc. probably all have direct ties to segregation and slavery,” Wong wrote. “Think about that uncle who served in Korea or Vietnam and how he processes the millions of civilian murders that happened ‘over there.’ Remember that, in this moment, you are sitting on land violently stolen from indigenous people. How do you recreate the archive of that intentionally erased history?”

While Open Casket drew protests and calls for Schutz’s painting to be removed, it’s not uncommon as a person of color to find yourself eagerly lapping up an exquisite work while also lamenting that your reflection in it is a little shallow. That’s what happened with the recent HBO hit Big Little Lies, written by David E. Kelley and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée.

Writers for Refinery 29 and Vulture both pointed out how the character of Bonnie Carlson did a disservice to actress Zoë Kravitz’s considerable talents. Bonnie, the only black lead, is the most underwritten character on the show, and there’s no attempt to reconcile her identity as a black woman living among wealthy white liberals in Monterey, California.

It’s easy to point to Little Boxes or Big Little Lies or Open Casket as evidence of white people’s deficiencies with anything remotely having to do with race. It’s even easier to use that failure to say that white people should just stick to writing what they know and not bother writing about people of color at all.

But inclusion requires not just more people of color telling their own stories but also white artists creating nonwhite characters who are more than just the Black Best Friend. Nonblack writers and directors should stretch outside their own experiences because it’s been demonstrated, time and again, that it’s possible, if not easy, to get it right. Most black film and television writers wouldn’t be able to feed themselves if they could write only black characters. For people of color, “knowing your whites,” as sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom has argued, is a survival tactic. We cannot afford to not know them.

It’s just as important then, that they should know us too. That’s not an easy thing. Most white people have no nonwhite friends. They live in places surrounded by other white people, and decades of housing and banking policy have subsidized that existence.

So what has to happen for such art to do more than just inspire criticism about what it’s lacking?

In film and television, it’s imperative to genuinely prize collaboration. These are the moments when it’s important for actors of color to have the freedom to give honest notes about their characters and about dialogue and for writers and filmmakers to listen to them.

Maurice Berger, a research professor and the chief curator at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, put it best in a piece for The New York Times about Schutz and Till:

Ultimately, the white artist who chooses to explore issues of race has a responsibility to the history and content of work they appropriate. And while some critics have made Ms. Schutz’s race the overarching issue — that a white artist should not traffic in black pain — the problem is not about her race. White artists should, and indeed have a responsibility to, examine the most vexing and intransigent issue of our time: white racism in all of its forms, from that of the complacent liberal to the neo-Nazi supremacist.

But cross-cultural work demands insight, respect, sensitivity and rigor. It also requires honesty about and self-inquiry into one’s own racial attitudes. To be an artist, no matter how expressive or interpretive, does not give anyone license — or cover — to casually appropriate African-American history and culture.

Little Boxes generally accomplishes what Berger prescribes. Meyer and Howell aren’t shy about depicting the eyeroll-inducing blind spots of white people in rural Washington state who’ve only ever known other white people.

Consider an encounter Mack has with his neighbor, Tom (David Ebert). When the two go to a local bar together, Tom tells another patron: “The thing about this guy is, if you close your eyes, you can’t even tell he’s black.” A look of familiar exasperation makes its way across Mack’s face.

While the film does a fairly good job of holding up a mirror to white racial clumsiness, it flubs some details with Mack and Clark. But it’s not malicious.

For instance, when Clark introduces himself to two neighborhood girls who become his first friends in Rome, he lists his favorite music: “AfroPunk, Bjork, ’90s hip-hop, free jazz.” It’s a small detail, but one that would stick out to anyone familiar with the Afropunk Festival, which is that no one really refers to Afropunk as a genre. It’s known more as a movement or music festival and Clark would have been more realistic had he named bands such as Morcheeba or Fishbone.

It’s also worth remembering that having a black writer or director is no guarantee that they will render black characters without issue, as evidenced by the controversy surrounding writer/director John Ridley and the upcoming Showtime miniseries Guerrilla.

Guerrilla, which stars Idris Elba and Freida Pinto, depicts the work of Britain’s black revolutionaries during the 1970s. Elba and Pinto collaborate to free a political prisoner and form a radical underground group. Audience members at a recent London screening accused Ridley, the screenwriter for 12 Years a Slave, of erasing black women from historic events. Pinto, the only female lead in Guerrilla, is Indian.

“I don’t want to make this overly personal, but part of why I chose to have a mixed-race couple at the center of this is that I’m in a mixed-race relationship,” Ridley responded. “My wife is a fighter, my wife is an activist, and yet because our races are different, there are a lot of things we have to still put up with.”

So who can we trust to tell complicated, challenging, messy stories about black people and tell them well? Such artists come in an array of races and genders, from Ava DuVernay to Steven Spielberg to Mira Nair, just to name a few. What they all share is passion, empathy and a respect for source material and the people whose stories they are telling.

In Little Boxes, there’s cause for optimism because Meyer and Howell are doing interesting work that’s absolutely necessary and not always easy: interrogating whiteness and the ways it shapes the people of color who encounter it. In an interracial relationship, those encounters aren’t just limited to the outside world. They happen right at home.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.