Race, Fandom, and The Years of Living Mel-lessly

{I know the right way to approach the Mel Gibson story (if you don’t know about his racist, misogynistic outbursts caught on tape you  might wanna read this first) is to be either hiply cynical (y’all sure he didn’t say nigga?) or just casually jaded (racism! from Mel? whatever, man!), but maybe cause I was a fan, neither approach satisfies me. I’m too old to be shocked, yet too shocked to avoid it…}

I’m one of those people who likes to know which movies people consider their favorites. Especially if I sense you might be a person I might get close(r) to: I ask, very early on, “What’s your favorite movies?” It’s not that I judge their tastes—God knows I’d prefer someone to have very bad taste than no taste at all—it’s more that I like to learn from others, and if you seem cool, your choices in movies might be cool, and I’ll discover something I didn’t know about.

I’m also the type of person who, depending on the day, will try to make sure that you see at least some of the movies that I love—partly because I have a tendency to quote them, but also because sharing flicks is, to me, sharing a deep part of me: the movies I love really do, like the books I love, I think, define who I am. I am a fan, and proud to call myself one, someone who nonetheless understands and relishes his fandom as a complicated site of oft-needed pleasures and cultural belonging.

Two movies I’d always refer peeps to: The Year of Living Dangerously (problematic in some ways but oh so sexy) and Tequila Sunrise (problematic in other ways but endlessly fascinating as an investigation into the nuances of male friendship). Both because I think they’re top-notch examples of Hollywood filmcraft, rich of character and ambience, filled with grace notes of longing and loss, and because they starred one of my very favorite movie stars: Mel Gibson.

Suffice to say, it’s been years since I’ve watched a Mel Gibson movie. Dating back to 2006, to be exact.

When I was a teenager, Mel Gibson was The Man: coming off the over-the-top action of the Mad Max flicks, he was infinitely watchable in the Lethal Weapon flicks, and by the time I was an adult, Mrs. Soffel and Gallipoli (which I discovered late), showed him off to be quite the actor, equipped to perform touching moments that felt real and true, who also had—compared to other big stars—impeccable taste in material and the directors he worked with. And though I saw Payback and Signs, the last Gibson film I can say I really liked was Ransom. A Ron Howard throwback to high-Hollywood suspense burnished by a sleek contemporary world-weariness that wore well on its entire top-flight cast, Ransom felt in many ways like Mel cementing his eventual Clint-ness (as in Eastwood)—as wrinkles deepened along with the presence, as maturity began to take the place of rip-roaring braggadaccio.

I didn’t much love Braveheart; it felt a little over-determined to me, and I won’t even get started on the blatantly nasty homophobia that marred the representation of King Edward as such a complete, I don’t know, nelly(?), that he might as well have been—as the direct opposite to “masculinity” in which he was portrayed—literally, a Queen. Thinking back, was this the beginning…?

When I was a freshman in college I had a poster of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome on my wall. It was there as much for Tina Turner as it was for Mel, but I remember a new friend—quite the revolutionary, full of the Black Power that he’d learned reading Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver in his summers off from Groton—who told me that he’d never put a white person on his wall for the same reason he’d never really have a white friend: because you never know deep down inside if that person is a racist who will, one day, in a fit of anger or despair, call you a nigger.  I remember writing about our conversation in my journal that night after dinner, about our discussion of “good” white people and “bad” white people (they were all bad, to my friend), about racists and white people who were merely prejudiced, and if there was a difference.

I thought about this conversation again when Mel Gibson was arrested for drunk driving in 2006, when he launched into his brazenly anti-Semitic tirade. By that time I couldn’t remember the last Gibson flick I’d seen, though I was still recommending The Year of Living Dangerously to friends, and had, in fact, very recently watched Tequila Sunrise, in bed, interestingly enough, with a biracial partner who’d recently told me stories about his own family’s internecine battles around blackness and whiteness. I didn’t want Mel Gibson to be so virulently anti-Semitic, not my Mel Gibson, the rowdy Aussie who’d given me so much entertainment over the years, who’d paired with Danny Glover in the biggest interracial buddy flick series ever, who’s face had been plastered on my college dorm wall next to Prince and Dave Winfield.

But it was Mel. And I thought about my friend from college, who didn’t have any truck with white folks and what might come out of their mouths. I’d met my share of racists by that time though, all kinds, the ones who shove it in your face; the kind who hide it in their smiles, saying “the blacks” or “your people” instead of “niggers” or “jigaboo;” the kind who merely follow young black men around stores or don’t think the papers black students write could possibly be theirs or, well, hesitate a few seconds when they meet their daughter’s new black boyfriend. But again, this was Mel. Had I been so blinded by the glare of his celebrity wattage that I was surprised by the outburst? Should I have been?

So I gave up on him. I couldn’t be a fan of a guy who spoke so nastily, who obviously felt so degradingly of a group of people just based on how they worshipped.  Was this how Dog the Bounty Hunter fans felt after he got caught — well, at least the ones who were offended by his behaviour? Or Michael Richards fans? Or John Mayer fans?

And now I find out that someone I was a big fan of, even someone I’d given up on after his last outburst of intolerance and hatred and nastiness, extends it beyond the Jews and throws it, like Dog and Richards, onto black folks. Of course he does. But it’s not just the words he uses that mess with my mind so much—Lord knows, by this time in our sad cultural history, the N-word, as we’ve come to politely call it, is damn near everywhere, in black mouths more often than I care to admit. But it’s the hidden quality of nastiness that gets to me. Perhaps I’m not supposed to care about, or shouldn’t be surprised by, the negative shit that takes place in a person’s heart and mind, or in their personal life behind closed doors (when the tape recorder’s running, even) but it makes me wonder: when Danny Glover missed a line on the set, was Mel thinking, “This nigger! What the fuck?” And then you factor in the misogyny of Gibson’s words: Was Jodie Foster, who defended Gibson so vehemently in 2006, something of a “cunt” or a “whore” when and if she ever disagreed with the dude? Add all the homophobia to the mix and Gibson’s pretty much a one-stop shop of white hetero male “other” anxiety.

Almost makes you long for the white folks who claim to love black people, at least publicly. Not to be too arch about it, but…

Maybe for all my massive dislike of Quentin Tarantino and his painfully awkward White Negro-isms, I should give him some dap? At least he seems to work out his racism on screen and in interviews, rather than letting it fester til it has to explode. And a whole lotta black folks check for Tarantino and his “dead nigger storage” movies…Or Eminem? I remember when the allegations of his racist language surfaced, he talked about a black ex-girlfriend and how she’d pissed him off—are those all white peeps buying his CDs now? Or have black folks forgiven him his “mistake” and rolled back cause the beats and rhymes are so good? (And we all know he wasn’t, ultimately, really homophobic; Elton John worked with him.)

Again, I think back to my friend in college: I bet he’s sitting somewhere now, laughing, flipping through a copy of Soul on Ice, and thinking, See, man, I told you so.

It’s hard to be a fan, to think that the folks you make rich and famous probably hate you as much as a Klan member in a D. W. Griffith flick.

Or, as a good friend, another Mel Gibson fan from way back, tweeted me today: “Hate 2 make it about race (even tho Mel G. already did!) but we’re too old to be disappointed by white folks…aren’t we? #NoEzraPoundfan!”

*************************************

Someone said to me today that Mel Gibson will probably issue an apology and all this will blow over just like his anti-Semitism did (did it?) But I don’t need or care about an apology from Mel. I’m good. Scholar and pundit Marc Lamont Hill has written an interesting piece about the nature of public(ity) apologies, read it here.

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12 Comments

Filed under film, flicks, Race, Rants, Uncategorized

12 responses to “Race, Fandom, and The Years of Living Mel-lessly

  1. Scott,

    *THIS* is a blog post: honest, self-reflective, insightful, probing, complex, and much more. Guess I shouldn’t expect anything less from you.

    I for one wasn’t a Mel fan. Wasn’t a hater either. Neutral, I suppose.

    By now, yes, I too am kind of numbed by the “oops, i made a mistake, please forgive me” celeb routine (Tiger included). But I guess it’s just an unfortunate byproduct of celeb deification.

    It’s hard, for sure, but I’ve been trying to temper my “fanness” by asking myself “Would this person say hello to me on the street if I walked up and gave them a compliment or just said ‘Hi’?”

    More often than not, I find the answer is “Probably not.” (Sometimes it’s “Hell no!”) It has actually happened to me few times as you can imagine (once with someone whose house party I’d attended and who I’d introduced to my Mom! Geez.).

    So, now more often than not I’m like “whatever”: Make the movie good; don’t strike out with with the winning run in scoring position; if you need a decent songwriter, get one. Don’t screw up what you’re supposed to be good at. And puh-leeze don’t tell me what to think, how to live my life or what “cause to support.” Cuz it really is all about whether I’m buying a ticket anyway….right?

    But now, back to the original subject of my comment – you, and more specifically, your work — this work, this post.

    …It is yet another one of the many reasons why I love you so. And am proud to call you my friend.

    Peace Out,
    Ben

    • Wow. Thanks for this, Ben. As i sit here struggling over another piece of writing, this was very pleasant to receive today–partly cause I’d also struggled over this.
      Hope you keep coming back to the blog–if only to inspire you to do some blogging yourself if you find the time. You know I always enjoyed your writing as well!

      Love 2 u too, bro,
      always,
      SPB

  2. It’s a question I ask myself over and over, do we forgive other people for their mistakes, and if so, how often? Besides, how do we judge a mistake? If someone uses loaded language as an expression of anger, do they really mean what they’re saying or are they just trying to get a rise out of the person their language is aimed at? All very grey areas.

    I think what seals the deal for me on Mel is that this is not the first, nor the second, nor the third time that Gibson has been caught out there saying/doing some stupid shit. Homophobia, misogny, racist language (and this guy calls himself a Christian?)…not that I was ever a big fan, but I definitely am NOT checking for this cat anymore. Far be it for me to determine who deserves to have a career anymore or not, but someone needs to drum this dude out of the business forever.

    • Exactly Mike, even as a “fan” of the dude, it’s like, damn, how many strikes do you get before your “angry outbursts” should just keep you out the damn ballpark! lol

      thanks for stopping by and thanks for commenting…

  3. justlondz

    Great writing.i enjoyed your post.. Food for thought huh…. Race issues are the same all round the world aint they ?

  4. JJ

    Hi Scott:

    Regarding “Had I been so blinded by the glare of his celebrity wattage that I was surprised by the outburst? Should I have been?” I don’t know you, but I would guess yes, and no, respectively. For our own needs, we project onto celebs all kinds of qualities, most often positive ones having to do with the characters they play in movies, or their public personas, rather than who they truly are. As for Gibson, I was a big fan since The Year of Living Dangerously, but I could tell starting with Signs, and then Passion of the Christ, that here was a man who could no longer contain demons that were starting to bubble to the surface. He appears to have been in an unresolved spiritual crisis ever since; and especially after learning more about his childhood, subsequent events haven’t surprised me, although they are demoralizing to say the least.

    But more depressing to me, and rather chilling, was finding out, upon ending a 6 month relationship, when I was living in New Zealand, that the guy was a closet racist and that I had somehow missed it. So I guess love, or in this case, more likely lust, had blinded me the way celebrity projection can, but it was unnerving because unlike with my “relatioinship” with Mel Gibson, I thought I was close enough to this guy that I would have seen it coming much sooner.

    But still, I do have to say, as demoralizing as all of this is, by far the saddest thing I read here was about your college friend who had given up completely on ever trusting a white person again. I would be interested to see if you could track him down and see if this is still where he stands on that after years of experience. If he still truly feels like that, then, ironically, in trying to avoiding hurt and victimization, it would seem to me that he has become a victim of racism himself.

    JJ

    P.S. Interesting that you made reference to Elton John; he was one of my childhood idols who later disappointed me with his personal life in the way Gibson did for you, but in his case it was easy to let go of, because his music started mostly sucking by the 80’s. 😉 He does seem to like to work with homophobes, mabye to work out his own homophobia…..

    • yo man, thanks for reading, and commenting.
      i can only imagine that personal relationship you went through! sounds horrible to say the least.
      but i love your point re my college bud. i sent him a link to the blog. one day i’ll tell the story about his adventure in interracial dating!

      and re elton, that’s something i’ve thought about, too, in terms of working with homophobes, based on my own relationships to cross certain divides in the name of “Friendship”–probably why I love “tequila sunrise” so much…fraught male bonding shit does a number on my brain.

      and as crazy as all this is, it’s always good to meet another “year of living dangerously” fan. one day i’ll watch it again and not feel so icky.

      be cool brotha.

      • JJ

        Interesting, I haven’t gone back and watched TYOLD since Gibson started unravelling. It was the ultimate romantic adventure flick, but wonder if I could get thru it myself now with the ick factor!

        It was horrible finding out that my ex-BF was racist at the end, yet I still have some fond memories of our time together before that, an unsettling paradox. Maybe it’s because I view racism as sort of a “spiritual illness”, but I probably wouldn’t be so generous about that if I was black. Which reminds me, I wanted to say I’m definitely not judging your college friend; I am sure I have unnecessarily missed out on friendships or relationships myself because as a gay man, I have at times avoided whole categories of people who I thought had the potential to be homophobic. It’s just sad. I would like to hear your friend’s interracial dating war stories someday; I have some of my own, too, though in my case the wars were more often with the family/friends on either side, than with the guy himself.

        I do try to cross the divides when I’m up for it, which is admittedly not all the time. I have an interesting new friend who is half my age, multiracial, straight guy, homophobic. I initially distanced myself and started winding down the friendship once I discovered he was homophobic, but I decided to stick it out and continually confront him, and see how it goes. Maybe it’s because he’s young and not so set in his ways yet; I think part of why Gibson is so discouraging is to see him apparently regressing rather than evolving with age. I always thought age would bring wisdom; I think that’s true if one has lived an authentic life, which I have trie to do, but it scares me to wonder if I have suppressed demons of my own that will rear their ugly head someday.

  5. Hey Scott,

    Nuffs been by the folks commenting already. Great piece. And, like Ben, glad to see your voice back out here…

  6. LarryD

    Scott, do not fall into the defacto media language, be smarter. Mel is a culturalist, not a racist, as far I have so far seen. There are many cultures in American and other countries, that we just do not like, and some we hate. Some do not like the Amish of Penn., it is not racism, it is culturism, to not like inner city gang activity-even hate it, is not racism, it is a culture one does not like, and may speak up against.

    It is not a crime to be a culturlist or a racist, it is protected, and speech of being a racist in this country is protected and encouraged. The word racism is constantly substituted in America for ‘culturlist’ because it gets greater media splash to use racism. (a note, I have never been a Mel fan).

    If one does not like inner-city gangs, one is not necessarily being a racist, they do not like the culture that has evolved from inner cities, the same as some do not like the backwoods culture that is prevalent in my own state. To not like the culture of inner city black gangs does not mean you dislike Ugandans. It is not about race or skin color, it is culture. Remember, the British and Irish have fought for centuries, both white skinned, it is about culture, religion, and belief systems, some are tolerable, and some just intolerable.

    I am just saying, recognize the dislikes for what they are, and not what the media wants us to call them so they can sell more TV news time. I truly believe we have to stop being led around, by the nose, by the media, and speak up against their sloppy and inflammatory news, so we can get back to intelligent analysis as a standard.

    • Thanks. But I’m not sure I agree. From what I heard Gibson say, he wasn’t yelling about “inner city gangs,” he was yelling about “niggers,” and where I come from that has no class or cultural or any other reading than a racial and thus racist one. Likening it to someone not “liking” Amish people misses the point, distorts history and diminishes the power that such a word has an entire race of people…that said, sure, speech is “protected” but, as i hoped my piece made clear, i dont wanna support someone who needs that word and the ideas about it as some sort of default to describe a group of people, especially a group of people that has nurtured and developed my own sense of history and selfhood. Or support someone who also needs anti-Semitic ramblings to talk about Jewish people…or is anti-Semitism a product of “the media” as well?

      As for your reference to “inner city gangs”? The one thing you neglect, it seems, is who “inner city gangs,” in this country, at least, tend to be, and the sorts of institutional failings–frankly, the twisted pair of racism and classism–that create them and allow them to persist and exist. Euphemisms don’t make racism any less ugly, damning or damaging.

      At the end of the day, whether you’re talking about “inner city gangs” or the Irish v the British, you’re starting with “secondly” rather than “firstly” to twist this discussion into something it really isn’t even about; as the poet and philosopher Barghouti wrote:

      “If you want to dispossess a people the simplest way to do it is the tell their story and to start with ‘secondly.’ Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans and not with the arrival of the British and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.”

      Thanks for checking into the blog. Be cool man…!

  7. JJ

    I’d say if Gibson really meant inner-city gangs, he could have used “gangsters” or “gang-bangers”, thugs, punks, etc. I don’t know how far back “nigger” goes but I know it predates modern-day gangs, (which come in all colors, by the way), and goes back at least to the time in our country’s history when African-Americans were first being terrorized and murdered in conjunction with the use of that word. That’s why it may be legal, but it’s never cool, to use it.

    If Gibson is a culturalist, then what subcategory of women did he mean that deserved to get raped? Which subculture of Jews is responsible for all the world’s wars, etc.?? Sounds like Gibson is the one who needs to be “smarter” with his language, but even if he was, you can see that his hatred would still be apparent.

    He may not have broken any laws with any of his hate speech. But along with his previous DUI, he did threaten to burn down his ex’s house this time, and that may end up being investigated as a terrorist threat. I hope it does; he’s already gotten away with too much, and needs consequences.

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