November 23, 2008

Twilight movie premieres

The Twilight movie debuted Friday and fans are going ga-ga over it. It's relevant here because it features Quileute werewolves as secondary characters.

'Twilight' faces harsh glare of fans' high expectationsBefore a single frame had run through a projector, Twilight was all but assured of being a hit. The film based on the teenager-who-loves-a-vampire novel had already sold out more than 2,000 showings for opening weekend as of Thursday, according to and With 17 million copies of the Stephenie Meyer book in print, the actors are being greeted with a sea of screaming teens at autograph signings and fan events across the country.

"Now I know what it's like to be in a boy band," jokes Taylor Lautner, 16, who plays Jacob in the film.

"Our actors, they knew what they were getting into when they signed on for this," says director Catherine Hardwicke. "But I don't know how much we really knew."

This "cultural tsunami," as Patrick Goldstein described Twilight in The Los Angeles Times, is a story of that teen staple, "forbidden love," the love between a human (Kristen Stewart) and a hot young vampire (Robert Pattinson).
The movie gives us another chance to look at Twilight's racial themes. Here's a revealing note about author Stephenie Meyer:The characters Meyer, a self-described "Mormon mom," wrote and that the fans imagined were white. Hardwicke says she first met Meyer at a book signing, "and as I looked out on the crowd, I could see it wasn't just a sea of white faces. Kids of every race seem to love the books. Stephenie told me which characters I might be able to cast in a way that would be as diverse as the readership. She wasn't as precious about the bad vampires, the nomads; and some of the other teenagers she didn't mind if we cast with Latinos, Asians."

For Laurent, one of the nomads, she cast Edi Gathegi, a veteran of TV's House and the movie Gone Baby Gone and a native of Kenya.

"We all knew fans might be upset by my casting," Gathegi says. "But Stephenie left me a loophole. My character is described as 'olive-toned.' My answer to that is, 'Shouldn't there be black olives?'"
If I read this correctly, Meyer insisted that all the major characters be white. She didn't care if the minor or "bad" characters were nonwhite. And she obviously didn't care if a non-Native played Jacob, the most prominent Indian character.

In other words, my suggestion in Meyer's Unconscious Racism? seems to be right. Meyer had racial models somewhere in her mind when she wrote the Twilight books.

Then there's this charming bit about Lautner:Lautner, one of the youngest members of the company, plays sort of the teenage Jeff Goldblum character, the one who explains the vampire legend to the outsider (Stewart) and the audience. He took the part very seriously, enduring a too-long wig ("Man, how do girls do that?") and doing his homework.

"Jacob is part of the Quileute Tribe," he says. "So I created a booklet containing all the Quileute legends and traditions that I could find. . . . I brought that with me to Portland when we started filming. I got to meet actual kids from the tribe, and their parents. The kids had the same hobbies as anybody else in high school. I'd learned all their legends, but the kids didn't have a clue what I was talking about. 'Legend of the Thunderbird? What's that?'"
Um, Twilight is supposedly based on genuine Quileute legends. Why would Lautner need to compile such legends if the book already contains them?

I wonder if Lautner thought learning the actual Quileute legends would make him more acceptable as Jacob. My answer to that implied question is: No, not really. But it's better than nothing, I guess.

How did the Quileutes react when Lautner pointed out their cluelessness? "Gee, thanks for motivating us to study our own culture"? Or, "Gee, thanks for rubbing our noses in our ignorance. Have fun jetting back to Hollywood while we struggle to survive"?

Lautner recently learned he's part Potawatomi and Ottawa. I wonder how he'd do on a quiz about the Potawatomi and Ottawa cultures. Not too well, I'd guess.

The message of Twilight

Here's a thought on why Quileute kids don't know their own legends. When they look around, they see a white author falsifying their legends to get ahead. They see a non-Indian actor getting a role that could've gone to one of them.

What's the message here? That Quileute people and culture don't matter. That anyone can make a buck by inventing Quileute lore. That being rich and famous is more important that honoring ancient traditions.

Look at what's on the screen. Handsome (white) Edward and beautiful (white) Bella are the stars. Nonwhite actors are evil vampires, werewolves, or other unglamorous characters. Indians don't get a significant role until the sequel, assuming there is one.

Faced with these cultural attitudes, why would Quileute kids read books or listen to elders about their history? Why would they strive to be unique and Indian rather than white like everyone else? Twilight is telling them that the mainstream is the road to success.

And if they're too poor to keep up with the Joneses? If they're too far removed from good schools, jobs, and health care? Why wouldn't they drop out, do drugs, and give up? When society tells you you're out of luck because of your background, you tend to believe it.

You can apply this hypothesis to Native and pop culture in general. What's the message when a role like Tonto goes to Johnny Depp instead of a real Indian? When white folks honor mascots but ignore real Indians? When society builds monuments to stereotypical Indians but cuts the budget for real Indians?

Answer:  Real Indians don't matter.

Rating the movie

I've read several reviews of Twilight. On a scale of 1-5, with five being the best, the reviews range from 1 to 4. The average reviewer seems to think Twilight is about a 2.5--i.e., an average movie.

I gather Jacob and the other Quileutes don't play a major role in this movie. The reviews barely mention them. I trust they'll play a bigger role in the inevitable sequels.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.

Below:  "I know Quileute legends! I'm more Indian than you are!"


dmarks said...

In casting, they chose to make most of the girl's high-school friends nonwhite too.

brownstocking said...

I purposely never got into Twilight because I'd been hearing how white it was. But the cultural appropriation Meyer has stooped to is so typical and vulgar. Ugh!

dmarks said...

It's a careless appropriation, too. She could have used authentic Quileute legends as the backstory for her wolf-shapeshifters without changing a thing of the story.

It's not too late, though, for the screenwriters for the sequel movies to be authentic on Quileute matters, unlike the books.

The sequel movie, "New Moon" has been greenlighted, and much of it takes place on the La Push reservation, and the whole wolf thing is a very big deal in it.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I wonder if the furor is necessary over the selection of actors for movies or characters in books. If you have ever been to Arizona or a Mormon temple (more to the point), you'd know that Stephenie Meyer is surrounded by white people predominantly. That's probably been the mix most of her life. While having more imagination to blend other ethnicities in would be laudable, I do not find a fault with it.

Even our imaginations tend to pull directly from our surroundings, those places and people we are comfortable with. Does that mean she is racist? I would instead conclude that she is sheltered. Most of us are, regardless of race.

Now, she could have been more accurate to the legends, but then she would probably have been faulted for co-opting an authentic Native legend for profit.

I think the real question is why focus on the negative. Is all this focus on the evils of Hollywood doing anything for Native teens? I don't believe that "real Indian" teens drop out of school and take drugs because they are left out of Hollywood movies. I think there is deeper pain that needs to be addressed within the community. Opportunity is there, but the question must be raised: what opportunity do we want for our children? Do we want them chasing wealth as the white population does? Or do we want them chasing an ideal?

In a year when our nation has elected the first African American president, I feel hopeful for this country. This is just a step in the healing of racial tensions for us, but I think we should be a positive part of this.

When I read the Twilight series and watched the movies, I was elated that the Native community was portrayed in a positive light. That the legends were to be respected. That the families were strong. That there was love and respect rooted in the characters. That the beautiful white girl knew in her heart that she loved her handsome Quileute friend. That he was a Native American did not even enter the equation for her. What did was that she had another love.

Does that mean she chose Edward because he was white? No. That was where the story was headed.

While I know this was not a flawless foray into pop culture for the Native community, I saw the publicity as positive. More people are curious about the legends, about Taylor Lautner's actual ethnic background, and about the future for the tribe.

So, kids, it is up to you to flood the Hollywood studios and make good on the authenticity of the movies. It won't be 100% up take, but there are opportunities out there. Making them a reality is a tough shot, but that's true no matter the color of your skin.

dmarks said...

The Jacob werewolf character is not a villain, unglamorous minor character. Through the rest of the series, he is one of three major characters. Compared to how the girl and the vampire act, he is also the one who acts like a normal human being. Despite having shapeshifting abilities.

The Forks high school is in a county of the country that is in reality 89% white and 5% Native. It is shown in the movie as very racially diverse, much more so than reality. This includes a few of the girl's school friends, who were assumed to be white in the books but were made into blacks and Asian-Americans in the movie.

Anonymous said...

Bottom line for me is simple and obvious. No one would ever (in any other race or the ACLU and especially the NAACP) would cast a role that is supposed to represent an Asian, African-American or person of any other race in this country as ANYONE other than a person of the corresponding race! Period.

Writer's ignorance, etc. not-withstanding, it's about "Hollywood" and it's about how far we have unfortunately NOT come in "race relations" as it relates to our Native American community in this country. There's no excuse. None.

As it relates to the how this affects the Hope, and how our Native children and teenagers feel about themselves...they don't need any help feeling hopeless. "Hollywood" or any situation of this kind tells them that they don't count. Worse yet, that they aren't "good enough" to represent themselves! With all the Native talent out there that would not have needed wigs, it's disgusting and backwards.

Rob said...

Almost every movie and TV show includes minorities among the secondary characters these days. That's not enough to impress me. What does impress me is when minorities are the lead characters and the white characters are secondary. lists 631 movies with domestic grosses in 2007. I believe only two Native films--the low-budget Four Sheets to the Wind and Imprint--made the list. Since Natives make up 1% of the US population, they should've starred in six major movies, not two relatively minor ones. They're getting only a third of the exposure they deserve.

It's time to stop accepting crumbs from Hollywood's table and start demanding real change.

Rob said...

Is this so-called "furor" necessary, Anonymous #1? Fifty years ago, people like Rock Hudson and Audrey Hepburn were playing Indians. In the last decade or two, people like Wes Studi and Adam Beach have started playing Indians. That's a significant improvement.

What do you think caused these casting changes? Did Hollywood ignore all the voices raised in protest and just naturally evolve on its own? If that's what you think, okay, but I'd love to see the evidence for your hypothesis.

The smarter guess is that Hollywood heard the "furor" in the 1950s and 1960s and responded accordingly. In fact, I'm confident we could find quotes from studio executives saying they were reacting to public criticism. Do you really doubt that this happened?

And now Johnny Depp and Taylor Lautner are playing Indians. So what do you think...that we should return to the era of the 1950s and 1960s? Because that was such a good time for Indians in Hollywood and overall? If that's what you think, okay, but I disagree.

Rob said...

As for the claim that movies have no relevance to Native life today, that's a perennial topic in this blog. For one response, see The Influence of Movies.

Unknown said...

Bottom line for me is simple and obvious. No one would ever (in any other race or the ACLU and especially the NAACP) cast a role that is supposed to represent an Asian, African-American or person of any other race in this country as ANYONE other than a person of the corresponding race! Period.

Not true. Look up the movie "21", for example, where a group of college kids, mostly Asian IRL, were played by white actors. Or the upcoming Lone Ranger movie with Johnny Depp. Or Memoirs of a Geisha, which cast Chinese actresses in the main roles. Or the short film "West Bank Story" which cast an ethnically Indian woman as the female lead, rather than an Arab actress. Or "A Mighty Heart" with Angelina Jolie as Marianne Pearl... so many examples to choose from, and these are just relatively recent ones.

dmarks said...

I think Anonymous meant that this is only done to Native characters. The Depp "Lone Ranger" would be an example of that.

Yet again, I am not sure what he is trying to say.

Anonymous said...

There's no way that Lautner would ever be confused for white. Come on. The guy has brown skin! You have a more white phenotype than he does. Right?

As for casting Johnny Depp as Tonto, that's a travesty. No excuse there.