Film

Ferris Bueller, Quentin Tarantino, and the Construction of Whiteness in American Cinema

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I remember seeing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on the big screen in 1986, back when I was nine. I was amused at what I was watching — and yet, I felt even then, at that young age, that the protagonist was an arrogant, bratty little shit. Kids playing hooky is nothing new, but writer-director John Hughes presents Bueller (Matthew Broderick) as more than just a typical teen playing sick so he can spend the day seeing the Chicago sights. He makes him a folk hero. He’s the most popular kid in school (“They all think he’s a righteous dude,” Edie McClurg’s secretary memorably says). When word gets around about his supposed “illness,” his home is overrun by get-well bouquets and sexually suggestive singing telegrams. “Save Ferris” soon becomes a mantra that spreads like wildfire. (A skacore band later adopted the name.) He even has the respect of both cops and criminals.

Ferris is among the several vexing and enduring heroes of “BAMcinématek and The Racial Imaginary Institute: On Whiteness,” a fascinatingly curated series (Steve Martin’s The Jerk is even in here!) kicking off this Wednesday. He paints the town red with his girl, Sloane (Mia Sara), and his less-confident buddy Cameron (Alan Ruck). He exudes rock-star swagger, literally taking over a parade and wowing the crowd by lip-syncing the Beatles’ rendition of “Twist and Shout.” (I guess he didn’t think the versions made by Black groups the Top Notes and the Isley Brothers would sound right coming out of his mouth.) He is the coolest person in all of Shermer (the fictional town where Hughes set many of his movies), and when uppity haters like the high-school principal (Jeffrey Jones) or his jealous sister (Jennifer Grey, Broderick’s then-girlfriend) try to catch him in the act, they somehow end up abused and reprimanded while he gets away with his mad-dash adventure.

By making his ideal version of the Greatest Teenager Ever a cocky, scrawny white boy, Hughes subconsciously reminded audiences of a fact of American life: how white men usually get away with a lot and yet are still beloved and embraced by the (predominantly pale-skinned) populace. This is true even when it seems like the figure in question doesn’t appreciate the love all that much: We know school can be a pain in the ass, but what does it say about Ferris that he’d distance himself from the place where people treat him like a fuckin’ king? In fact, you could argue Hughes’s entire Shermer-set filmography comprises a universe where self-centered white kids roam free, while the minorities they meet — whenever they’re actually represented — are often characterized as shifty or intimidating. And, eventually, the white kids still come off as the cool ones. (Remember that scene in Weird Science where a shitfaced Anthony Michael Hall won over a blues bar full of black folk with a story about a “crazy little eighth-grade bitch” he was in love with?) If someone made contemporary sequels to those movies today, many of the beloved characters — Bueller, especially — would probably be Fox News viewers.

Much of “On Whiteness,” which is presented in collaboration with Claudia Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute, communicates a general impression that being white can save your ass — if not the whole day. Several selections envision twisted takes on the white-savior story: Gran Torino (2008), where director-star Clint Eastwood assumes the role of a racist old man who evolves into a Christ-like figure, laying his life on the line to protect an innocent family in his minority-filled neighborhood; Claire Denis’s White Material (2009), with Isabelle Huppert as a coffee-plantation owner who stubbornly stands her ground amid a bubbling civil war in Africa; and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), where Robert De Niro’s unhinged Travis Bickle emerges as a local hero after saving child sex worker Jodie Foster from depraved men by blowing out their brains.

Even Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) is essentially a trilogy of stories about cool white dudes coming to the rescue, whether it’s John Travolta’s druggie hit-man Vincent bringing his boss’s wife (Uma Thurman) back to life or Bruce Willis taking a samurai sword to slash the hillbillies who sodomize that same boss (Ving Rhames) whom he previously double-crossed. Or take Tarantino himself, who cameos as a guy who lets Vincent and his partner, Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), temporarily stash their corpse-filled, blood-and-brain-soaked car on his property — but not before infamously clarifying to his good buddy Jules that there isn’t a sign outside his house that says “Dead Nigger Storage.” (In an ironic twist, the movie ends with Jules as the final savior, taking mercy on small-time thieves Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer during a diner robbery.)

We also have films that deal with assimilation, particularly as it pertains to Black girls passing for white. In the opening title in the series, the 1949 melodrama Pinky, Elia Kazan cast lily-white Jeanne Crain as a light-skinned Black woman who can pass for a sista. There’s also Shadows, John Cassavetes’s aptly-named 1959 debut, about a trio of African-American siblings, two of whom (including the fair-skinned Lelia Goldoni) are more light-skinned than the other. Black girls play white in a pair of shorts: Illusions, Julie Dash’s 1982 film with Lonette McKee infiltrating Second World War–era Hollywood by passing as a white studio assistant (this also screened during BAMcinématek’s “Strange Victories” series last November); and Free, White, and 21, a jarring 1980 piece wherein African-American artist Howardena Pindell verbally reveals the injustices she’s experienced while also going whiteface and playing a woman who simply dismisses her for being ungrateful.

Another extreme example of this identity-swapping theme is the madhouse 2004 farce White Chicks, in which co-writers-stars-brothers Shawn and Marlon Wayans (with big-bro Keenen Ivory directing) perform a racial spin on Some Like It Hot by starring as FBI agents who pretend to be a pair of Paris and Nicky Hilton–esque socialite sisters in order to foil a kidnapping scheme. But being a privileged white girl isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be, as evidenced by the inclusion in “On Whiteness” of Sofia Coppola’s 1999 debut The Virgin Suicides, which shows what happens when you keep a quintet of isolated sisters from going out and experiencing the world. (If you want to see white, middle-class ennui from the male perspective, the series includes the 1968 Burt Lancaster vehicle The Swimmer.)

Additional intriguing selections deal with Italian-Americans taking on the throne of the white, all-American hero. In 1974’s The Godfather Part II, we get the origin story of the Corleone family’s immense crime empire; in his underappreciated 1999 Summer of Sam, Spike Lee dramatizes how Italian-Americans were on the lookout for the notorious killer Son of Sam; and, of course, the legendary 1976 Rocky features Sylvester Stallone’s Italian palooka going up against Carl Weathers’s Black-and-proud Apollo Creed.

It seems fitting that the series ends with Get Out, Jordan Peele’s surprise hit from last year. Besides it being among the best paranoid thrillers ever made about creepy-ass white people (take that, Stepford Wives!), the movie concludes with our hero Daniel Kaluuya literally taking out, one by one, a deranged white family who tries to turn him into a brain-dead brotha who can unthreateningly mingle with the white folk. The spectacle is virtually a violent battle cry for Black folk to stomp away white superiority and proclaim their blackness. You may not end up as cool and awesome as the Ferris Buellers of the world, but gotdammit — at least you’ll be yourself.

‘BAMcinématek and The Racial Imaginary Institute: On Whiteness’
BAMcinématek
July 11–19

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