Strictly speaking, I’m not a huge fan of documentaries. Or, more accurately, they aren’t my first choice in viewing because they ask a lot of me that I’m not always ready to give. Sometimes, I find them memorable. One example was New York Doll (2005), the story of Arthur “Killer” Kane, former bassist of the group New York Dolls who had overcome drugs and become a Mormon. Reviews were excellent, and since I know virtually nothing about the rock band world, I found it compelling on many levels. However—and this is the point—it never made me uncomfortable.
Two people recently recommended two documentaries, one of which I avoided for at least six weeks. Once I’d conquered that one, I could move on to the next. Warning: I can pretty much bet some will be offended by one, if not both, of these films. Discomfort may not be the word you use, but the feeling will be at least contentious or negative or worse.
The first, Larry Elder’s Uncle Tom: An Oral History of the American Black Conservative (2020), consists of a number of Black men and women talking about their conversion to the conservative side of the political divide. The old saying that there’s nothing like a convert seems relevant enough. The stories these people tell, however, reflect a depth that a simple dismissal like that doesn’t capture. Reviews are hard to come by. This one from the Chicago Tribune quotes from the film and lauds the effort. Rotten Tomatoes is largely silent, with just one review. Yet even there the documentary earns a 94% audience score. The opening was verifiably successful, making Uncle Tom one of the most successful documentaries on record. And it’s not about Trump, if that’s an immediate turn off. It’s about conservative Republicans.
Several things make this documentary remarkable. First, the speakers are diverse in backgrounds, professions, and narratives. In fact, the person with the most continuity is a contractor named Chad Jackson. We see him applying joint compound to PVC, cutting tin, and working on drywall. Yes, there are academics and politicians, commentators and pundits, but it is Jackson whose straightforward explanations are key. Some policies are discussed, but the message is more directed at the pressure to conform to one way of thinking. Another element of that is the suppression of Black voices that are successful but conservative. Biden made two mistakes recently: Telling a commentator who said he had more questions, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” (He went on that the NAACP had endorsed him every time he’d run, which wasn’t true; the organization never endorses anyone.) Later, he said, “…unlike the African-American community, with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community with incredibly different attitudes.” He had to walk both comments back, and while neither is particularly terrible, each reflects the attitudes that the film takes on.
Second, the documentary is important not just for Black people but for everyone else as well. We often lack insight into the lives of others in general, but unless someone has told how things are in other cultures, we remain ignorant and, often, content with that ignorance. Culture extends to people from other parts of the country, other countries, other races, other denominations, other religions. Understanding should come after education, but that’s not always the case; understanding our own limitations includes awareness of the things we think we think we know but are wrong about. That’s inelegant. Mark Twain (well, probably not really) said it better: “It ain’t what you know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Oh, for a touch of humility. For example, while most understand that “Uncle Tom” is a slur, few may know that the character from Harriett Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin had nothing in his behavior that would suggest he was a turncoat or disloyal or any other pejorative term. Stowe intended him as a “noble character” who stood up for his beliefs. He dies because he refuses to disclose the whereabouts of two women escaping slavery. It is also important to remember that the book was a powerful anti-slavery tool. Published in 1852, it went on to become the best-selling novel of the entire century. Abraham Lincoln said to Stowe when he met her in 1862 (well, probably not really), “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”
Our next film also sports a long name. Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen (2020). Peter Debruge writing for Variety: “Rather than making audiences feel bad about trans-themed movies they may have naively enjoyed in the past, it educates on the larger issues while unpacking a legacy of problematic representation.” His is one of 47 reviews, compared to the single for Uncle Tom. That bit of a discrepancy could be dealt with elsewhere perhaps.
Disclosure has much the same format as Uncle Tom, without the plumbing scenes. Actors, writers, and activists discuss specific scenes in films dating from 1914 to the recent past. We all know some of them: Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, Dallas Buyers Club, The Danish Girl, and episodes in The Jeffersons and Nip/Tuck, to name a very few. The subtext is more interesting, as they discuss their own reactions and histories. At one level, then, we are taught or reminded to notice what we are seeing. Running the gamut, the reaction is reminiscent of our innocence (Bugs Bunny dressed as the Wagnerian soprano here at 2:24) or revulsion presented as comedic in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The speakers discuss their own reactions to these depictions, and the result is that we are better able to understand their viewpoints on a topic we have likely never considered. Suddenly, we remember making unkind remarks about a topic without realizing someone affected by that topic was standing out of sight. (I did this once in my youth, and I have seen it done recently. Perhaps you have your own example. It stings.)
Recent transgender transformations have been notable for their publicity. Coming out was something of interest years ago, but the difference is revealing orientation versus dramatic changes in appearance is stark. Bruce now Caitlyn Jenner is one. Lana and Lilly Wachowski of The Matrix films and Sense8 fame are others. It is a small community, however, with a demographic of 0.6% of Americans identifying as transgender. Not of this plays a part in the film, however. Rather, the focus remains personal.
People are free to align themselves with one party or another. People are free to seek reconciliation with gender dysphoria in ways that make them happy. Disagreement with the issues, one hopes, does not extend to an individual involved. This FaceBook picture captures perspective. This video from an American church has a group-building exercise. This one from Denmark begins with the same stage and script but deviates in several places. This one is called #RethinkLabels; some words will likely make you uncomfortable, but the ending makes it worth it. This one and this one and this one dramatize being judgmental. Most of us like to think of ourselves as savvy. These videos reveal a side of ourselves that is also tender.
The idea about pearls got me looking at their origin. It’s not true, for example, that a grain of sand inside an oyster produce the reaction that generates nacre to make a pearl. Usually, the culprit is some sort of parasite. And there are many kinds of pearls in many shapes and sizes; the perfect round white ones are actually the exception. (My hometown of San Angelo includes three branches of the Concho River, a source of freshwater pearls that have been treasured since the 17th century Spaniards tried to market them.) So mussels and oysters have the ability to turn an irritant into something beautiful. It seems like a good enough metaphor. Notably, vinegar dissolves pearls. That, also, seems fitting.
With these two documentaries, I learned a lot, I realized I was wrong about a lot, and I confronted some discomfort of my own. I think they call that having an open mind.