I'm glad you've taken up the issue of white artists trying to capture black experience. Treacherous ground, indeed. There's quite an interesting exchange about this between two other Slate readers of our columns. "Ohigetit" makes a strong statement about why whites should not tell the stories of African-Americans: that white artists cannot fully and honestly capture those worlds, and even if our motivations are noble, ohigetit wishes that "well-meaning liberals would do what's right, and stop making the tragedy of black life 'entertainment' for their evening viewing consumption on television and screen. … Quit helping destroy our culture. You are killing kids yourselves by giving them 'bad people' to emulate." Another reader, "scarpy," answers ohigetit at some length. Acknowledging that The Wire may engage in some "cross-racial and cross-cultural voyeurism," scarpy questions—like you—the reductionism of ohigetit's position, saying:
Race isn't a god. It's not a fundamental. It goes deep, sure, and practically speaking I don't think any American ever really escapes thinking in its patterns. But race obscures more about us than it reveals. Beneath it we still share the same common urges, needs and actions. … Real artists I would hope would attempt something like The Wire, which though it fails in a lot of ways (like the kind of magical absence of racial division in the police department) still at least makes the effort.
Obviously, being white and having made the films I have, I agree with both you and scarpy. But that doesn't mean that ohigetit's position doesn't resonate with me. When we began Hoop Dreams, I didn't do so with the intention of spending years following the Gates and Agee families and delving as deeply as we did into their lives. My initial motivation for wanting to do the film was more modest and had its roots in my own experience of having been a lifelong (to that point) basketball player who had grown up playing with and against African-American ballplayers. Indeed, perhaps the most influential teacher of my youth was my 7th-grade gym teacher—he was the first African-American teacher I'd ever had and a former ballplayer. When I got to high school, it was so divided along racial lines that during pep rallies for football and basketball, one half of the gym was the "black side" and the other half was the "white side"—each cheering only for players from their respective races. If the goal of the pep rally was to pull the school and team together in common athletic pursuit, it failed miserably. And amazingly enough, my black teammates and I never discussed it, even though we always had good sport over our differences of language and music. Race was there but never dealt with in any real way. And in all my years of playing ball, I never had a close friendship with a black ballplayer. We joked, and made fun of each other, and occasionally clashed as athletes do, but we never really got to know each other. I never went to a black teammate's house or party. They never came to mine. Such was the reality growing up in Hampton, Va. What ultimately fueled my desire to make Hoop Dreams was wanting to understand what this game really meant to those African-American teammates. I was aware that, for all my own unrequited dreams of sports success, basketball played a great deal more significant and complex role in the their lives.
This gets at the question that always needs to be asked of any artistic endeavor but especially, perhaps, when artists try to traverse boundaries of race and class and culture. What are you trying to do and why? In Hollywood, the answer is often merely to make money, tap a "niche market," pander to the least common denominator. In this regard, there are many artists—both black and white—who have exploited the lives of poor black people, and poor whites, for that matter. (Is there any greater caricatured and misunderstood slice of America these days than poor whites? We call them "trailer trash" and worse without apology.) And then there are the well-meaning, but earnest and mythologizing, works that cast the poor and black as noble victims of Exploitation and Racism and Powerlessness. And while all these terrible realities are still very much with us in America today, such portraits, I would argue, can do as much damage as help. But if your quest is understanding what makes us all different from one another and what binds us together; if it is a genuine inquiry into the real, the messy, the complexly human—I think artists of any race and class can have something to offer us all.
Which does not give The Wire or you and me a total pass. We may come by our observations of the worlds we have documented honestly through spending the time there and trying our best to set aside our preconceptions. But we are and always will be outsiders. And sometimes that may be a good thing. In Hoop Dreams, what started as an inquiry for me into the meaning of basketball became a journey to understanding something deeper about race in America.
When we did the DVD commentary for the film a year ago, Arthur and William talked about that raw moment where we showed Arthur's family with their power turned off. On-screen, as the Agees wandered through a dark house, William said that was such a common occurrence in their neighborhoods that, had he been making the film, he wouldn't have made a big deal of it. For a host of reasons, that would have been a valid and sensitive creative decision. But for white America, just like me as a white filmmaker in that moment, getting to know this black family intimately and seeing that happen and how it happened, was a bracing dose of reality. Frankly, I am glad artists like Spike Lee are now able to make films like 25th Hour that grapple with the worlds of white characters, because I think his vantage point can give us all—whites and his African-American audience—a fresh view of a certain slice of white American experience. We need to speak to one another across the divides. If not in art, then where?