When Ethnic Ambiguity Becomes a Privilege

Posted on June 8, 2011 by

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by Wendell Hassan Marsh

Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson

Taking a look at recent box office results, it is the ethnically ambiguous star and ambiguously ethnic films that appear to be making bank.

Ambiguity reaches around and hugs the color line while supporting the weight of overlapping identities. It’s not a question of black or white, but black and white, and Asian, and Latino, and Muslim, and gay ad infinitum.

Take Fast Five for example. The entire Fast and Furious franchise has been celebrated as a celebration of today’s multicultural pluralism. This iteration in particular with its romps in Brazilian favelas practically makes ethnic ambiguity a theme.

The two leading forces at odds in the film are Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson, two of the most ethnically ambiguous figures in Hollywood most can think of. Even though the ethnically ambiguous man on the run (Diesel) dukes it out with the ethnically ambiguous G-man (Johnson) in some incredible fight scenes, they eventually put their differences aside long enough to stick it to the unambiguously corrupt (kind of) white power structure in Brazil.

But to make it happen, they have to assemble, you guessed it, an ethnically ambigious team who “can fit in everywhere” as one sequence says showing a tanned Asian guy (Sung Kang) with long, California boy hair. There’s also the sexy former Mossad (Israeli intelligence) agent who he falls in love with while flying down the German Autobahn on the way to Tokyo. Then of course you have the two brothers (of both the blood and the black variety), but they are speaking Spanish! Throw in a few more race-bending Latinos and a couple of old-school American Negro types and you have quite the ethnically ambiguous party!

Despite the indisputably black title, Jumping the Broom also dabbles in an aesthetic ambiguity. The hyper-successful Sabrina Watson falls in love with the respectable and chivalrous homeboy Jason Taylor and on marriage weekend intra-race class conflict ensues. However, the decidedly anti-Tyler Perry-esque film departs from many other “black film” conventions. And as black film blog Shadow and Act points out: “It’s really just another so-so romcom,” that just so happens to have black characters. But at least one of those black characters takes the lead role, looking very, ah, ethnically ambiguous. I mean, Paula Patton could be from anywhere.

Of course, light-skinned people on the silver screen is anything, everything, and all things but new. After all, the tragic mulatto theme has been replayed since before Imitation of Life. But the suggestion with these figures of yore used to be that those between the race lines were bound to be, as Du Bois describes, “torn asunder” from a conflicting double consciousness. No, the suggestion of today’s ethnically ambiguous cinema is more in line with Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos’ vision of the future. For him, the Americas is the place where all the peoples of the world mix together and synthesize all of the best elements while weeding out the bad in order to, ahem, “win the future.”

Although the thesis that humanity is going to become a single, morphed, yellow-brown race is more than problematic, the real potential of a pluralistic cinema that reflects our world appears to resound in the box office. On their opening weekend, Fast Five broke out the gate at number one raking in $86.2 million and Jumping the Broom held its own, debuting at fourth but but making a decent $16 million. But then again, the money those films made pales in comparison to what the the uber-white film of Nordic myth Thor made. Even if the box office does not take a particular liking to the ethnically ambiguous, though, CNN certainly seems to like them.

The problem with the rising prevalence of ethnic ambiguity is that it is becoming a privilege, the criterion for a new discrimination, particularly in the globalist (read colonialist) pop culture whose hunger for ubiquity and profit necessitates that cultural actors be all things to all people.

It is by no means negligible that it is becoming more acceptable for more ethnically ambiguous figures to appear in the expressions of popular consciousness. White figures are making way for the rest of the world and the rest of the world is standing up in one large, homogeneous brown blur. Perhaps that blur can eventually take a more refined, generous group of shapes and colors.

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