|M. Night Shyamalan|
by Andy Nowicki
The same cultural commissars who unanimously praised The Sixth Sense (1999) and generally approved of Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2002) began to turn on their once-favored cinematic prodigy when The Village was released in 2004; since that pivotal turning point in elite collective taste, they have never looked back.
It is as though the India-born, Philadelphia-raised director has committed some unforgivable cinematic sin against the Holy Ghost, as far as critics are concerned -- one suspects that even if he were to deliver the next Citizen Kane or Vertigo, it would still be greeted with a sour, bitter, contemptuous hate-loogie from the representative sampling of scribblers at Rotten Tomatoes, and the kind of accompanying astronomically low "rotten" score on the "tomato-meter" usually reserved for Pauly Shore or Larry the Cable Guy joints.
In point of fact, however, Shyamalan's latest, The Last Airbender, an adaptation of the popular fantasy anime series, is his first truly "bad" film. While visually stunning, Airbender features wince-inducing acting and dialogue, along with a convoluted plot and an overall pomposity of tone that even drains it of any charm it might otherwise possess. But of course, the real tempest in a teapot surrounding this big-budget summer film (which did surprisingly well in its first week of release, given the bloodsucking competition from Eclipse as well as the requisite critical bloodletting that follows any Shyalman release) is something unrelated to questions of its filmic worthiness. Rather, it concerns the "race-bending" the director daringly employed in the making of Airbender, casting young white actors in roles presumed to have been meant for Asians.
Numerous commentators have railed against Shyamalan for his alleged -- what else? -- "racism" and insensitivity. For his part, Shyamalan has somewhat petulantly argued back that as a nonwhite director, he can't truly be racist, and that his critics are the real racists for choosing to attack him in such a manner. A careful examination of Shyamalan's cinematic canon, however, renders his "nothing to see here; move along" stance on this controversy somewhat disingenuous. Even leaving the racial politics of Airbender aside, it is easy to discern a certain subversively pro-white sensibility manifesting itself throughout the entire M. Night oeuvre.
For one thing, in an age where multiculturalism is all the rage, and everyone feels pressure to show he's "down" with people of other races, Shyamalan unflinchingly sticks with white characters in predominantly white settings, in which sensitive yet stoic white heroes win the day.
Think of Bruce Willis in Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Joaquin Phoenix in Signs and The Village, or Mark Wahlberg in The Happening. Though black, Hispanic, and Asian faces are occasionally seen, the Philadelphian auteur appears utterly uninterested in bending over backwards to fill any type of racial quota in his films.
In fact, M. Night scarcely seems interested in non-whites at all. Looking over the casts of nearly all of his films, one is struck by their relentless Caucasoidian orientation. The only black character of any importance is Samuel L. Jackson's inUnbreakable, and he (it is worth noting) turns out to be the villain. The only Hispanic of note is the exceedingly white-looking John Leguizamo in The Happening, who plays Mark Wahlberg's buddy and gets killed off halfway through. A certain loudly-squabbling North Asian mother and daughter serve as broadly comic relief in Lady in the Water, but are of little relevance to the plot; like the numerous Asian extras in The Last Airbender, they show up briefly, deliver a few lines, and then are gone.
The only non-white race that occasionally plays a significant role is Shyamalan's own: the high-caste "Aryan" Indian: dark-skinned but statuesque, lordly, and aristocratic. In Lady in the Water, Shyamalan himself appears as a man who has written a brilliant book that will soon change the course of history and usher in a reign of peace and goodwill. (Critics pounced on this moment as instance of Shyamalan's runaway egotism on display, not suspecting that he may have simply been ironically riffing on his own reputation for narcissism, winking at the camera all the while.) In Airbender, high-caste Aryan Indians appear en masse as a race of arrogant, imperious and domineering "fire people," who aim to usurp the authority of the gods and rule the world in their place. The white characters in the movie, by contrast, seek to restore balance between the various races of the earth by doing their best to repel the nefarious, genocidal designs of the "fire kingdom."
But certainly the most blatant example of Shyamalan's partiality to whites is on display in The Village, which also happens to be his most powerful film to date. Here, the story revolves around a group of Caucasians who flee modern life and crime-filled urban settings in order to start a utopian pastoral community in the midst of a deep forest. The group even adopts traditional Victorian-era clothes and cultivates formal, old-style manners of speech in order to inculcate an atmosphere of virtue and goodness (the audience at first thinks the film is set around 120 year ago, before a "twist" reveals that it's all happening in the present).
The Village -- whose praises I have sung elsewhere -- is many things at once: a cerebral monster movie, a parable on the nature of innocence and evil, and a sensitive examination of the permissibility of extreme responses to rampant social and moral decay. But it is also, ineluctably, a generally sympathetic treatise on white separatism. The prevalence of violent crime in what the Villagers call "the towns" is relentlessly invoked throughout the movie, at times in horrifying detail; one would need to be dense indeed to escape the suggestion that this all-white group, formerly from downtown Philadelphia, set up their rural colony in part to escape victimization at the hands of urban blacks.
***************************Alternative Right readers will recognize that I do not point out these aspects of M. Night Shyamalan's aesthetic tendencies to condemn him. An artist must follow his muse, chase what interests him. For whatever set of reasons, this highly talented and largely misunderstood filmmaker of Eastern heritage seems largely taken with white, Western men, women, and children, and moreover enjoys portraying such people in a sympathetic and heroic light. One is almost tempted to express gratitude that someone has such inclinations in our day and age. Yet it should not escape our irony-detector that the one person most fearlessly treading this artistic path in plain sight is non-white himself.
(originally published at Alternative Right, July 2010)
Andy Nowicki, co-editor of Alternative Right, is a Catholic reactionary writer who loathes all modernist dogmas and superstitions. He is the author of five books, including Heart Killer and The Columbine Pilgrim. He occasionally updates his blog (www.andynowicki.blogspot.com) when the spirit moves him to do so.