Angry letters: ‘Akeelah and the Bee,’ ‘Peaceful Warrior,’ ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’

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Remember those “Akeelah and the Bee” e-mails I got a couple months back? I just got another one, which I’ll include later in this post. But first I want to publish an exchange I had with a reader named Frank, lo, almost two months ago now.

It’s an instructive back-and-forth, I think. Watch how the arguments start out being about lofty things like race and tolerance, and then eventually boil down to what the REAL issue was all along: “How could you possibly not like a movie that I liked?!”

Frank writes:

I do think that you missed the point in your review of Akeelah. Allow me to quote:

[This is Eric quoting someone who had previously written to him]“But here, in racist America, in post-manumission times, just 141 years on the other side of centuries of atrocity and just forty years on the other side of Civil Rights, people who have been held from reading and writing, people who have been held from enterprising, such as movie-making, are trying their hand at it.

[This was Eric’s response.] “All of this is true enough … and yet it has nothing to do with what we’re talking about. Unless your point is that since blacks have been oppressed for so long, we ought to cut them some slack and like their movies just because they went to the trouble of making them, whether they’re any good or not.”

[This is Frank again.] No it means that if you cannot understand how some people may find this movie refreshing and enjoyable your lens is quite racist; at the very least you are insensitive to the African American experience, which unlike some other dominant group who will remain nameless, has not afforded us centuries of ethnocentric propaganda from which to grow weary of cliched messages of love, community and personal triumph. [In other words: Sure, it was full of clichés. But for the first time, it was BLACK characters experiencing those clichés! That makes it new and fresh and exciting!]

I replied:

See, but I CAN understand how some people may find this movie refreshing and enjoyable. I’m just not one of them.

Frank writes back:

Your complete disregard for the responders of your article on Akeelah as well as the tone of the article itself would suggest that you dont.

My response:

You may recall that one of those responders implied I was racist for not liking the film, and another said it outright. If that kind of foolishness doesn’t deserve to be disregarded, I don’t know what does.

As for the article itself, ALL movie reviews express the reviewer’s own opinion. Unless he says specifically that he can’t imagine anyone disagreeing with him, I think it can be assumed that he allows for the possibility.

Frank says:

I would argue the latter. Whether or not you agree with it, your insistence on calling it foolishness denotes insensitivity and a lack of deeper understanding.

We aren’t talking about ALL movie reviews. We’re talking about this one. And frankly by insisting that the film was utterly derivative, 100-percent-recycled, completely forgettable while facilely referring to two films about Italian American athletes to support your claim, you reveal your shortcomings as a film critic, precisely for your failure to comprehend (or acknowledge) how race works in American film. It’s not so much that your review says that it’s not possible for people to disagree with your “opinion” but the tone that implies to do so is laughable. I would argue that for the disproportionate numbers of African American who were brought to tears by this film, your review essentially mocking them naturally resonates as offensive.

I say:

It’s not so much that your review says that it’s not possible for people to disagree with your “opinion� but the tone that implies to do so is laughable.

I assure you, that was not my intention. My intention was only to say what I thought of the FILM, not what I thought of people who like it. I can think a movie is derivative and generic but still respect the people who enjoy it. It happens all the time. We can all be friends, even if we don’t agree on the movies.

Frank:

I can think a movie is derivative and generic but still respect the people who enjoy it.

The film is no more generic than half the violent movies you give positive ratings to. The different here is the PG rating, XX chromosomes and high melanin content of the lead character — the new twist, by the way, that makes this film different from your Italian American fairy tales. [I’m sorry, but the same old cliches don’t suddenly become new merely by being applied to a new race.] Obviously you can’t force yourself to enjoy a film that you don’t like. But there’s no way you can argue, convincingly at least, that race had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Me:

See, and that’s where you lose me. Since you can’t imagine any good reason why I didn’t like it, it MUST be because of race. And that’s preposterous.

Where in my review do you find support for the idea that the reason I didn’t like it was because of the race of the characters? The only time I even mentioned race was at the end, when I said the movie deserved credit for showing African-Americans in a different light than they are usually shown in Hollywood movies — a POSITIVE observation, you will notice, not a negative one.

I’m telling you race had nothing to do with it. I know me pretty well. I’ve been well-acquainted with me for more than 30 years. I would know if race were a factor in my dislike of the film. And I’m telling you it’s not. Now, if you, a stranger who only knows me from glancing at a couple movie reviews, want to psychoanalyze me and tell me race WAS a factor and I just don’t know it — well, then be my guest. But don’t expect me to take you seriously, any more than you would take me seriously if I started trying to tell you about your motivations.

The reasons I didn’t like the film are clearly enumerated in my review. Race is not one of them. Period.

Someone suggested that when people say I’m racist for not liking a movie about African-Americans, I should just reply, “You’re right. I hate black people. You can imagine how difficult it is for me when I have to watch movies about them.” But what purpose would sarcasm serve, really?

Also, I wonder what people like Frank say to the black critics who didn’t like this movie.

Anyway, a few days ago I got this e-mail from someone named Robert:

I’m not sure who you are, or what makes you a venerated movie critic. [Who says I’m venerated?]But after stumbling upon your review of “Akeelah and the Bee” I can assure you that I won’t be reading your comments again. [Bah. You’ll be back. They always come back.]

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a critic miss it as badly as you missed it with this film.

One of the most enjoyable films I’ve ever seen.

A solid 7.5 out of 10. Maybe 8. [My C- grade would be about a 4 on a 10-point scale, and you only give it a 7.5 or 8. And I’m the furthest off you’ve ever seen someone? You never saw a 10-point movie that a critic only gave a 1 or 2? Come on!]

Dude, if I were you I’d choose another line of work. [You’re right. If one guy disagrees with me about one movie, I pretty much have no choice but to start over in a new profession.]

Eh, at least he didn’t play the race card. Good thing, because you know how I hate those black people.

But you know who I REALLY hate? Child molesters. There, I said it. And I said it in my review of “Peaceful Warrior,” which was directed by a confessed child molester, Victor Salva. I pointed out the man’s prior record, which prompted a reader named Chris to write in — yes — defending him.

I’ve known Victor Salva for a number of years and it pains me when I see ‘hit’ descriptions like you included in your interview. He’s a realy nice guy and he paid the price. For someone who objects to moral preaching in film, perhaps you should adhere to your advice and take it out of your reviews.

As to the film, I saw it, and found it to be inspiring. I didn’t read the book, but I imagine it wasn’t very easy to translate. I’d love to see you try..

Yeah, and I’d love to see you try to write a movie review, too.

Anyway, I don’t consider coming out against child molestation to be “moral preaching.” If that qualifies as moral preaching, then what else does? Saying I don’t think people should murder each other? Coming out in favor of curing cancer?

I’m sorry, but if you molest a kid, you’re tarred with it for life. It’s on your permanent record. The best way to avoid being known forever as a child molester is to not molest children. I’m just sayin’.

Finally, my dis of “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” elicited this response from a reader named Trevor. Trevor’s e-mail address implies he was born in 1988, so take what he says with an 18-year-old grain of salt.

I think critics are the most annoying people in the entire world, especially you. [You don’t know the half of it. Try eating with me!] you want to know why? [No.] well, i will tell you. [Damn.] critics completely miss the point of movies. you are supposed to go in, sit down and get comfortable and be taken away into a different world. movies are made so that we can forget about our own lives, and be entertained. and critics walk into the movie, waiting to see what they can bash first, which completely destroys the magic. [We do?! All of us?! Every time?! Why wasn’t I taught that at Film Critic University?!] it’s like you were tying to NOT like the movie, so that you can seem like you know what your talking about.

and what the heck was up with your whole popcorn reference? “People call flicks like this “popcorn movies,” but I think cotton candy is a more accurate comparison. Popcorn comes from an actual food product and has some substance to it. You could live on popcorn, at least for a little while. Cotton candy is light and fluffy and not only has no nutritional value, but doesn’t even really fill you up, either.” that has nothing to do with the movie at all!!! [It’s what we call a metaphor. It’s when you compare one thing to another thing. This isn’t even a very complicated metaphor. If Trevor truly doesn’t understand what I’m saying, then I have to conclude that Trevor needs to retake freshman English.] i wanted to know how the movie was, not to get nutritional facts about popcorn and cotton candy. [Oh. My bad. Here’s how the movie was: not very good.]

and besides, you said dead man’s chest wasn’t entertaining? [Well, no, I didn’t say that. I said it was dazzling and amusing, but not in any kind of memorable way.] well i felt like i was in the theatre for half an hour! and forgetful you say? [Um, again, no. “Forgettable” would be closer, though still a paraphrase.] AND superman returns (which you gave an A- for…) was the most anti climactic movie i have ever watched. i think the movie should hav ended once he landed the plane in the baseball field, just as much as i think you should stop writing reviews

I wrote back to Trevor, quoted his last line — “I think you should stop writing reviews” — and said, “I’ll take that under advisement.” He apparently thought I was telling HIM to stop writing reviews, because he responded: “cool. cos i’ve never actually written one……yeahhh”

So he’s pretty smart, that Trevor.

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