A Conversation about Cinema, Race, and Bread

In Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ short story “A Conversation About Bread,” a ‘meta narrative’ calls attention to the complexity of storytelling regarding race, culture, and socioeconomic disparities. It questions the function and implications of academic cultural studies by chronicling an interview between two anthropology grad students who are working on an ethnography project.

One can’t help but become painfully sensitive to their own interpretation of the short story, which is later extended to our broader relationship with stories and storytelling. This questioning of storytelling, immediately made me think of film and cinema.

When Eldwin, one of the anthropology students, reflects on the complexity of storytelling; he asks himself the following important question.

Didn’t every story provide a narrow representation at best and fetishize somebody at worst?

Thompson-Spires, Nafissa. “A Conversation About Bread.” Heads of the Colored People, p.183.

This immediately brought to mind a film analysis video essay I watched on one of my favorite directors, Sofia Coppola. You can watch the video essay here.

Although skepticism of Coppola’s privileged and narrow narrative had surfaced for a while, her 2017 film The Beguiled was the recipient of the most controversy. Consistent with Coppola’s hallmark style, the film was chock-full of painteresque tableaux featuring a group of southern women portrayed by Kirsten Dunst (as always), Elle Fanning, and Nicole Kidman. Shockingly (or maybe not so shockingly), in Coppola’s rendition of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 Civil War Era novel, the two characters of color (a black slave, and a biracial character) are void from the plot entirely. This directorial decision sparked passionate debates and criticism, drawing attention to Coppola’s privilege and blindness to the diversity of femininity.

According to Eldwin’s philosophy, wouldn’t Coppola’s decision to omit Black characters from her film be better than portraying them problematically?

I feel as if a stereotypical, tokenized, and flat addition of black characters to accompany the white leads or to promote a narrative of white saviorism could be far worse than the narrow view Coppola offered. Read this article about Viola Davis and The Help.

It is hardest to question the things we love and cherish the most, but as a Chinese American girl coming of age – I can’t help but feeling subordinate to this limited, warped portrayal of the delicacies of female adolescence. How could someone who looked like me, or my friends ever exist in this universe of long gazes out of passing windows or the effluvia of the Lisbon sisters’ bedroom paired with melancholically eerie soundtracks by the French band, Air. Would anyone other than a Kirsten Dunst archetype ruin the aesthetic and dreaminess of these films centered around this angelic pinnacles of Eurocentric beauty? Simultaneously, Coppola has been one of the most successful female directors, and has carved out a space for the rawness of female adolescence that was previously nonexistent in mainstream Hollywood. Her attention to feminine aesthetics and detail has often been criticized as superfluous; interestingly enough male directors who do the same, such as Wes Anderson, are often praised for being unique and artistic. Her films have played a critical role in my coming of age, and serve as constant artistic inspirations. Yet her choice to prioritize the privileged, white female narratives in times of historical urgency is questionable. Not only that, but I feel as lonesome as her delicately shielded protagonists when I am led to believe that artistry and beauty is defined by characters such as these. As my own coping mechanism, I have attempted to build this world around myself and for my friends in a way that feels authentic. The ruffles, the longing emptiness, the way the light reflects through the lawns of a suburban neighborhood – it all is translated through my own mind to somehow redefine these stories starring girls like me.

The critical role white female fragility plays in systems of oppression is undeniable. At times, it can arguably be the most oppressive and influential when it comes to the marginalization of womxn of color. Womxn is intentionally spelled with an “x” in order to awknowlege trans and non-binary womxn (who undoubtedly have no place in Coppola’s worlds), and to avoid the sexism associated with man and men. Read this interesting essay on the power of white female fragility over womxn of color.

The solution that the video and I both come to is that Hollywood needs to make more space for womxn of color, instead of tasking Coppola with representing all womxn. As we learn through Thompson-Spires’ characters, the readers are just as responsible as the writers when it comes to highlighting the stories of marginalized people. As an audience, how can we learn to compensate for the finite representation we are given? How can we do so without fetishizing or tokenizing a group that is culturally different from our own? That is a question without a clean and simple answer that we must revisit throughout our lives.

kirsten dunst as Marie Antoinette – if it's hip, it's here

The Human Connection and Poetry

One of the most prominent concepts I take away from this piece is the separation between romance, desire, platonic connection, and human empathy. Are these various connections that are defined under the umbrella of “love” independent from each other, or are they melanged in a blend of raw human emotion? In the end, Jeff sacrifices himself for – and cares deeply for Rachael. Not because he loves her romantically or sexually. But because beneath any criminal, beneath any monster there always seems to be an underlying current of love. Those who are most hardened by life are not forced to grapple with and reveal this tenderness until dire circumstances are imposed. Or sometimes they never have the chance at all …

An interest detail I picked up on was the character of Verlaine. Last year I was rifling through the cabinets in the French classroom, and I took home this book of poetry. Verlaine’s work is synonymous with the beauty and elegance of words. His poems weave words together in a truly artistic way. Saunder’s must’ve intentionally known this when naming one of his characters Verlaine. The most prominent connect I draw is between Verlaine’s (the poet, not the character) poetry and the drug Verbaluce. In Escape from Spiderhead, the drug Verbaluce inflicted by Abnesti and Verlaine (the character, not the poet) causes its recipients to describe experiences in great poetic detail with vivid imagery. When Jeff is induced by Verbaluce his description and perception of a garden meanders from simpistic, mundane, and childlike to one of great detail and literary skill:

“The garden still looked nice. It was like the bushes were so tight-seeming and the sun made everything stand out? It was like any moment you expected some Victorians to wander in withe their cups of tea. It was as if the garden had become a sort of embodiment of the domestic dreams forever intrinsic to human consciousness. It was as if I could suddenly discern, in this contemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled; to wit, I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral” (46).

Jeff continues these poetic descriptions when recalling his experiences with the girl’s he is artificially induced to love and desire. Every time they make love under the influence of Verbaluce, Jeff verbalizes the mental images of places he has never seen in great detail, “… a certain pine packed valley in high white mountains, a chalet-type house in a cul-de-sac, a yard of which was overgrown with wide, stunted Seussian trees” (50). These mental images appear regardless of the girl Jeff is with. This imagery reminds me of the way Verlaine composes his poems.

A view from my workspace of a book of Verlaine’s poetry
What kinds of unique books does the library have? Are there any handcrafted  books like the livre d'artiste? – Booked Solid
One of Verlaine’s poems in an illustrated edition of one of his books.Paul Verlaine, Parallèlement  Lithographs by Pierre Bonnard (Paris: Ambroise Vollard, 1900)
Considered to be the originator of the livre d’artiste, dealer Ambroise Vollard commissioned Pierre Bonnard to create lithographs to illustrate Parallèlement, poems by Paul Verlaine. The work was published in Paris in 1900.