I just saw Selma in the Downtown Centre Cinemas—which wouldn’t be unusual, except that “black” movies usually don’t play in SLO Town theaters. If you’re thinking, “What do you mean ‘black’ movies don’t play in SLO Town theaters?” maybe you didn’t notice that usually they don’t.
I’d been noticing the trend for a while, so a few years ago, I started loosely keeping track. In January of 2012, the based-on-a-true-story World War II action-drama Red Tails, about the famed Tuskegee African-American pilot training program, couldn’t find a SLO Town theater. In February, neither could Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds. In March, Eddie Murphy’s A Thousand Words got the SLO Town snub. In June, so did Madea’s Witness Protection. Later in October, when Perry headlined the cast of Alex Cross, a role formerly played by Morgan Freeman, it didn’t open in SLO. In January of 2013, the Marlon Wayans vehicle A Haunted House didn’t make it either, nor did Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor in March. Peeples in May 2013? Nope. Baggage Claim in September of 2013? Nope. The James Brown August 2014 biopic Get On Up? Nope.
It’s not like mostly black films never come to SLO. In April 2012, Think Like a Man, a certified blockbuster that earned $91 million (on a $12 million budget) opened in SLO Town for a week, then left the theater though it played nationally for weeks. The Best Man Holiday from November of 2013 also briefly played SLO. Meanwhile, all of these films I mentioned did open in towns around SLO County.
So what does it all mean? I’m certainly not suggesting those who book films into SLO are racist. They are, however, business people, and they make decisions based on whether or not they’re going to make a profit. What this really means is that the people of San Luis Obispo—you and me—have little interest in films largely cast with African-Americans.
Does that in and of itself mean SLO Towners are racists? Of course not. But it does seem to suggest we’re blissfully ignorant of the African-American experience. We don’t know and we don’t want to know, and when we try to engage in it—for instance when SLOPD Chief Steve Gesell decided to weigh in on the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson to argue that anyone who’s shot by police simply hadn’t complied sufficiently to police commands, or when the five Cal Poly football players were arrested for robbery and online commenters said things like “When you import the ghetto you get ghetto behavior”—well, we sound like jackasses.
I’ve also noticed a rather disturbing trend when it comes to pointing out racism in our culture: namely that whomever is pointing it out is labeled a “race baiter” or “racist” him- or herself. It amounts to the Pee Wee Hermanesque “I know you are but what am I?” defense. I know conservatives like to claim we’re living in a “post-racial” America and everyone has equal opportunity, but it doesn’t take much observation or research to disprove that.
Then there are those who point to our black president: “See? How could we be racist? We have a black president!” Yeah, right. How’s he been treated? Rep. Joe Wilson yelled “You lie!” at him during a presidential address in the capital. Between birtherism, Obama’s “secret” Islamic faith, his death panels and FEMA concentration camps, and on and on, only a Steve Colbert-style “colorblind” hypocrite would attempt to argue than President Obama has been afforded the respect usually attached to his office.
A few months ago I found myself in proximity of a woman hissing about how evil Obama is, how he “screwed” her, and though I should have kept my mouth shut (sadly, not my strong suit), instead I asked, “How? How has he screwed you?” “Taxes,” she seethed.
“Income taxes are historically low,” I said, responding to this elderly white woman. “Do you live on Social Security?”
“I guess so,” she said.
“You don’t pay income taxes. Do you have Medicare for health care?” I asked.
“I guess so,” she said.
“Well, those are programs enacted by Democrats and voted against by Republicans. If it wasn’t for Democrats, you’d be starving in the streets!” “Those programs came before Obama. He hasn’t done anything for anybody!” she seethed.
“He’s the one trying to protect those programs from Republicans who want to dismantle them,” I responded, but she would have none of it.
And that’s the problem. Racists can’t see their own racism, and scapegoating is easier than critical thinking.
Back to Selma. It’s an amazing film: infuriating and inspiring, emotionally resonate, historically important, and famously snubbed by the Oscars save for a Best Picture and Best Song nomination. Nothing for David Oyelowo’s remarkable performance as King; nothing for young, gifted, female black director Ava DuVernay. Yes, we’ve heard the charge that the film was released too late or there’s blowback about the way LBJ is portrayed as a less than eager partner in the Voting Rights Act, but let’s face the facts. Of the Academy’s 6,000 voting members, 94 percent are white, 77 percent are male, and their average age is 63.
The film’s star and director stood about as much chance of being recognized by the Academy as the next Tyler Perry comedy does playing an extended run at the Fremont Theater.
One of the messages of Selma boils down to this: If you’re not willing to be part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. That doesn’t mean we need to support black films to understand race relations in America, but we should recognize that outside of lily-white SLO, bad things are happening.
It’s easy to claim we’re not a racist country, but until young black men can walk down America’s streets without being found inherently suspicious and hassled by the police, until young black teenagers can—as teenagers have always done—play their music too loud as they pull into a gas station without being fired at 10 times by a white man who doesn’t like “thug” music, until a young black man on a cell phone in Wal-Mart holding a toy gun can do so without being shot dead, until selling single cigarettes while black isn’t considered a death sentence, we are a racist country. There’s simply no other explanation. Everyone who’s not ready to scream at the top of their lungs—“No more! We will tolerate this evil no more!”—is part of the problem.
Glen Starkey is a New Times Staff Writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.