Seydou, Katherine, Dorothy, Mary and Monk

Zhang Sanjian is back on May 25, 2024 at 06:02

Recently, I watched three movies: *American Fiction*, *I Am Captain*, and *Hidden Figures*. Although I hesitated to write about them, one afternoon, scattered thoughts in my mind seemed to be threaded together by golden and silver strands, spiraling into coherent sentences.

Let’s start with *I Am Captain*:

Seydou, a sixteen-year-old boy from Senegal in West Africa, dreams of showcasing his musical talents in Europe, envisioning a future where “white people will line up for his autograph.” Together with his cousin Moussa, they secretly plan to save money and leave home, intending to illegally cross from Senegal through Libya to Italy.

They traverse the Sahara Desert to reach the Mediterranean, experiencing deceit over fake passports, seeing women collapse from exhaustion and abandonment under the scorching sun, and witnessing fellow travelers being left to die in the desert. The desolate Sahara desert shows nobody mercy, evaporating even the last drop of tears.

The desert night sky is a dazzling paradise, but for them, it’s a darkness filled with armed robberies, kidnappings, and inhumane treatment in prison. Carpenters and bricklayers are sold as laborers. Seydou befriends a kind uncle, and together they build fountains for the rich, eventually earning their release. In Tripoli, Seydou reunites with his cousin, whose leg wound from a gunshot during an escape attempt has worsened, requiring medical treatment in Italy.

Seydou is deceived again by smugglers and boards a dilapidated boat crowded with migrants crossing the sea. Moonlight bathes the Mediterranean, bringing numerous dangers. The journey’s cruelty is intensified by storms, disease, cramped quarters, and woman giving birth.

As the boat nears Sicily, the crowded cabin erupts in cheers. Standing at the bow, Seydou shouts, “I am the captain, I did it, I saved everyone, no one died, I am the captain!”

The film ends with close-ups of Seydou, sometimes whispering, sometimes silent, his parched lips slightly open. He gazes leftwards without revealing what he sees. Perhaps it’s the radiant Sicily, his long-cherished dream of music, or a harsher reality. Fairy tales, even dark ones, eventually reach shore.

Years later, if these foreign-born Black individuals thrive in Europe and America, receiving quality education and joining top organizations, we enter the world of *Hidden Figures*:

This film, based on true stories, depicts the contributions of three Black female mathematicians at NASA during a time when segregation policies still oppressed Black Americans, who faced discrimination, poverty, and threats to their lives. Despite gender and racial biases, their skills and determination helped them break barriers and earn respect.

The film’s portrayal of discrimination is as forceful as a hammer blow yet expressed with subtlety, like soft vermilion seeping through a hydraulic press.

Discrimination is not just “unequal treatment due to defects, flaws, abilities, or origin.” It’s when Katherine first enters the office and is mistaken for a cleaner, tasked with taking out the trash; when she faces stares for sharing an office with male colleagues; when she’s denied a bus seat; or when she spends twenty minutes walking to a “colored women’s restroom” in another building, and when no one uses the communal coffee pot after she does.

Whites and people of color are segregated, causing resentment and oppression. The three female protagonists display resilience, fighting back without excessive emotional manipulation, showing strength emerging from everyday struggles.

When Katherine’s boss criticizes her for taking long bathroom breaks, the first intense emotional scene unfolds in the office. She stands amidst the crowd, declaring, “There are no restrooms for colored people in this building or any nearby. I can’t ride a bicycle, my uniform must be below the knee, and I can only wear a single strand of pearls—no, I don’t own pearls, your pay doesn’t afford them. I work like a dog, staying awake with coffee you won’t touch.”

After being expelled from a library for trying to buy a book, Dorothy calmly tells her children on the bus that just because something exists doesn’t mean it’s right.

Mary, hindered by racial barriers from becoming an engineer, chooses to confront the judge in court.

Ultimately, through sincerity, effort, and outstanding talent, they earn recognition: Katherine’s boss removes the “colored women’s restroom” sign, a prejudiced male colleague brings her coffee, and a female colleague gifts her a pearl necklace. There’s no overwrought sorrow or accusations, just a powerful resolution through personal merit and value.

As the tide turns favorably, with Black films like *Moonlight* and *Green Book* capturing global attention, and recent flourishing of Asian films like *Parasite* and *Everything Everywhere All at Once*, and recognition for films focusing on disabilities like *CODA*, minority representation at the Oscars has surged. Diverse cultures and skin colors have become “politically correct,” seemingly marking a “best era.” Thus, we open *American Fiction*:

This film by a white director about Black life received five Oscar nominations, winning Best Adapted Screenplay. The protagonist Monk, a university professor and writer, leads a respectable life above the middle class. At the start, he candidly discusses Black literature in class, offending a white female student and resulting in his forced leave of absence.

His sophisticated work, devoid of stereotypical Black traits, aims to transcend racial boundaries but goes unnoticed in the market, with his book launch sparsely attended.

Conversely, a well-educated Black woman’s book, depicting stereotypical Black hardships to cater to white audiences, receives widespread acclaim with sensational statements.

Monk knows what content grabs attention—tragic stories of Black youths killed by police, or single mothers raising five kids in the ghetto—but he refuses to compromise.

Facing professional setbacks and personal misfortunes, including his sister’s accidental death, his mother’s Alzheimer’s, and his brother’s drug addiction, Monk writes a book under a pseudonym using stereotypical Black narratives. This book, which he deems devoid of literary value, ironically gains fame, attracting publishers and filmmakers, offering substantial money.

The story, elegantly yet sarcastically, dances between absurdity and family drama. Unlike the previous two films, which rely on strong plots and core values, this film offers a fresh, artistic touch in its empty shots, like sharp cynics revealing hidden romance.

In the latter part, Monk creates a fictional fugitive persona. The crazed enthusiasm of the white audience for a “real” Black fugitive author amplifies. He then provocatively renames his book *F**K*, expecting the publisher to back off. Unexpectedly, the outrageous title boosts sales, leading to a literary award nomination where Monk serves as a judge. The book wins the award through voting. As the screenwriter, Monk leaves the ending ambiguous, perhaps unsure how to conclude the absurd drama.

There are many excellent works expressing race and color in different ways. The stories and eras of these three films may not serve as real-life references, but having watched them consecutively, I linked them together due to their focus on Black communities.

Today, Black teachers can stand in classrooms and teach. During my recent studies abroad, I experienced diverse cultures on subways, buses, and in classrooms, with students of different skin colors and teachers with unique English accents. Real life seems open and diverse. However, *American Fiction* poignantly and intelligently highlights another kind of predicament beneath this apparent diversity, the harm stereotypes cause to art. The story is small yet beautiful, sharp and elegant.

Though consciousness evolves, some understand the purity. Skin color won’t change, but names need recognition in the spotlight.

He is not just the captain; he is Seydou.

They are not just hidden figures; they are Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary.

He is not just Leigh; he is Monk.