(learning from my students) Birdman won four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Directing - Alejandro Inarritu, Best Cinematography and Best Writing, Original Screenplay. I went on a campaign to get all of my friends to see it. As an English teacher, this film was more than golden. First it is a great movie in which to teach the ideas of magical realism, symbolism and dark comedy. Next we have the literary allusion to Macbeth with his famous soliloquy, Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow... Then there is the meta-cinema concept to be explored using Raymond Carver's short story Beginners in the collection titled What do We Talk About When we Talk About Love.
Then there is the very real topic of generation gaps highlighted by a remarkable monologue delivered by Emma Stone. Other topics for discussion are on mental health, art versus pulp, authenticity - what is real or even reality for that matter: A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing. Students read Carver's short story, Beginners and watched the delivery of Macbeth's speech and get a synopsis of the play to understand its importance in the movie.
Yet this year is the last year we will study this film. I have become quite adept at showing films and knowing where to skip over the "inappropriate" aka "sex" scenes, so that is not the reason I am not showing it anymore. I am ashamed to say that it has to do with the offensive portrayal of Asians in the film that I wasn't aware of until this year, even though the film was released three years ago and I have watched it numerous times.
What roused this awareness? At the beginning of the school year I give my students the writing prompt: When was the first time you realized racism existed? I ask for great detail in describing the event and the impact it had on them. A Korean student shared a couple of horrible experiences that made me want to cry. So, near the beginning of the film, as Sam's daughter is fussing and complaining and snarls, "I hate the smell of kimchi" and treats the shop owner like an annoying fly - I immediately looked at the student who shared her experience with prejudice in the writing prompt.
The next scene is with reporters. The white male is speaking philosophically with the main character, Riggan. The white woman reporter is talking gibberish about pig semen and youth to create silly non news - she is obviously the stereotypical vapid woman in the entertainment industry and then there is the Japanese man speaking broken English as though all he understands is the superhero presentation of the actor, in other words, he is talking like a tourist with limited command of the English language. Although there is commentary to be made about the presentation of the stereotypes, there is not enough to justify its placement.
I asked to talk with the student after class and I apologized. I thanked her for her honesty in responding to the writing prompt I gave at the beginning of the year and told her it was because of her willingness to be so honest and open that I realized how offensive the portrayals are. She thanked me for understanding and admitted that when they presented themselves in the movie her first thought was, "here we go again."
No matter how brief the scene or line - it is in the film and it changes the experience. I couldn't enjoy it like I had before. As an African American educator I am painfully aware of what it feels like to be marginalized for the sake of presenting an idea. So, I am clipping the wings of Birdman and putting what used to be one of my favorite films in the never to be watched again piles.
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