PARK CITY, Utah--The man in the audience was angry. "How could you," he asked the director, his voice trembling with sincerity, "despite your talented cast and great production values, make such a bleak, negative, amoral film? What kind of a portrait is this of Asian Americans? Don't you have a responsibility to paint a more positive and helpful portrait of your community?"
Justin Lin, whose "Better Luck Tomorrow" had just played to an enthusiastic reception at the Sundance Film Festival, replied that he had made the film he wanted to make, the way he had wanted to make it. He felt it depicted a reality among teenagers of any race.
I usually don't speak during the Q&A sessions after screenings, but I couldn't restrain myself. I told the man I thought he was being condescending: "You would never make a comment like that to a white filmmaker."
I quoted Chris Eyre, the Native American filmmaker, who was on a panel with me that afternoon. "For 100 years," he said, "American Indians have played the same roles in movies. Either savages or spiritual peoples who exist on some mystical plane. It is time to let us just simply be people."
The same could be said of Asian-American characters, who are often either martial-arts practitioners, exotic sexual prizes or winners of the spelling bee. Justin Lin's film tells the story of a group of bright, ambitious Asian high school kids who live in an affluent suburb and have their sights set on Ivy League schools. The hero is a brain who captains an academic decathlon team. Because he wants his college application to look good, he also plays basketball, does community service and belongs to half the clubs in school, in addition to getting high grades.
Meanwhile, he and his friends drift into criminal activity--at first selling cheat sheets, then dealing in drugs. Eventually they commit murder. He considers turning himself in to the police, but "I couldn't let one mistake get in the way of everything I'd worked for. I know the difference between right and wrong, but I guess in the end, I really wanted to go to a good college."
Amoral, yes. Shockingly. He seems to exist in a world of achievement and ambition that operates entirely apart from moral values. Another audience member drew a parallel with Enron executives who apparently concealed the fact that their numbers didn't add up. Justin Lin said he senses a moral disconnect in some of today's teenagers and wanted to make a movie about it. His cast was all Asian-American because--well, why not?
For years filmmakers have tiptoed around the sensibilities of some ethnic groups, afraid to offend. Maybe the tiptoeing is the real offense. Until Indians, Asians and African Americans are shown with the same moral complexity as white characters, they are being short-changed, stereotyped, closed off from the full range of human response. Some Italian Americans are offended by "The Godfather," but isn't it one of the best American movies of all time?
I thought about "Our America," which played here a few days ago. Ernest Dickerson's wonderful film, based on fact, tells the story of two black teenagers from a poverty-stricken Chicago public housing complex. Given tape recorders by the local NPR station and asked to make a radio documentary of their lives, they produce a result so powerful that they become the youngest people ever to win a Peabody Award.
But they are attacked by power brokers within the black community. A school official and a talk-show host say the portrait they painted was too negative--that a white producer must have put words in their mouths, in order to show only the bad side of the Ida B. Wells complex. The kids are shaken; they respect these black adults, and question themselves, but decide at last they told their own story in their own words.
Consider, in a different kind of film, Denzel Washington's astonishing performance in "Training Day," where he plays a completely evil, vicious, corrupt cop. A negative portrait? Yes. Should he have shown the bright side, by playing a dedicated black cop? And denied us that performance? If there can be a corrupt white cop in the movies, why not a black one?
Morgan Freeman told me once that he liked to play villains in the movies because they were often the most interesting characters. His Oscar-nominated performance in "Street Smart" (1987), as a violent pimp, launched his starring career. But often producers preferred to have a white villain. James Woods, Tommy Lee Jones and Christopher Walken got the juicy bad-guy roles, because Hollywood fears to portray blacks in a negative way.
That kind of thinking is an artistic straitjacket, exiling minority characters to a benevolent limbo. Denzel Washington may play a bad cop in "Training Day," but he also represents a great black actor. In "Skins," Chris Eyre shows alcoholism, poverty and despair on an Indian reservation, but he also shows vibrant human characters both good and bad, in a real world. If Justin Lin had made "Good Luck Tomorrow" about white teenagers, no one would have batted an eye--and his cast of gifted young Asian-American actors would have been denied important roles.
One of the many qualities of the great film "Monster's Ball" is that it avoids stereotypes about black-white relationships and shows two characters who come together out of human need and desperation. Race is the last thing on their minds. That movie, and "Better Luck Tomorrow," "Skins" and "Our America," are pointed in the right direction, toward films that celebrate the full range of their characters without the emasculation of political correctness. If Justin Lin had a responsibility to "his community," it was to make the best film he possibly could.