For one reason or another I recently found myself getting my ducks in a row about making photographs of transracially adopted people. At the root was the simple wish to make voices like mine heard because I think we have some interesting information that might illuminate some of the febrile discussion around race. I also wanted the excuse to write about two of my favorite films: The Watermelon Man by Melvin Van Peebles and The Uncle by Desmond Davis. Both of these movies are about individuals who have and identity imposed upon them by external interests and in both cases the movie charts this experience, not least the confusion and discomfort of the protagonist undergoes at this sudden shift in their own perception of themselves coupled with the absolute failure of empathy of those they had considered close.
The Watermelon Man seems far more a product of its times than The Uncle. The basic plot is: a fairly unpleasant white guy wakes up one morning to discover that he has turned into a black man. After the initial shock of his new appearance, his fundamental self attempts to carry on as normal and almost immediately the bindings of white privilege unravel to his dismay. The movie shifts from ur Farrelley Brothers into far more complex territory and ends with a Jeff Gerber teetering on the brink of radical black politics. This is all wrapped in 1960s sensibilities so there is a visual, social and linguistic tone to the movie that locks it into that period. The racism that Gerber shells out and then receives in the movie however, is timeless.
The Uncle is a film about a child that children can watch, though it doesn’t make it childish. It is located within the world of a 7 year who happens to be a boy. The conundrum is simple, he has a much older sister who had a son at the same time as he was born and that makes him an uncle. The other children use this as a means to bully him and the adults fail to understand just why this hurts. The movie could easily be called The Auntie and tell the same story with different genders. One of the things that makes it so believable is Davis’ decision to shoot, for the most part, at eye level of a 7 year old. You see what Gus sees and what he sees confuses the hell out of him.
This empathetic view works in unexpected ways. It seems hard to imagine now, but at the time, Van Peebles had to fight against the intention to cast Jack Lemmon in the role of Jeff Gerber. Had Van Peebles failed to get his wish, Lemmon would have spent all but 10 minuites of the running time in blackface. It could so easily have become Lemmon’s The Day the Clown Cried. In refusing to bow under pressure Van Peebles shows the audience the inherent tinearedness of blackface by putting Godfry Cambridge in whiteface and it grates.
Empathy is something I bang on about a lot. I think most of us are hard wired to have it and as we grow up those wires are snipped by experience, by family, by the need to fit in. The nature of transracial adoption is the narrative around who you are shifts a lot and those shifts affect your own self image. I can honestly say I have been taken by surprise by my own appearance in photographs: from a brown face with a frizzy mop of hair in school photos to sitting next to my mother in a Parisian cafe about 12 years ago where we look like stock photos of international, intergenerational friendship. I am sure I belong in each of those images, but to a stranger, if these were found photos, there are always going to be questions, superficial or not.
Casting about for other movies that might fit this I came up with these titles, but I’m not entirely convinced by all of them: Lars and the Real Girl, the Lives of Others, Moonlight, It’s a Wonderful Life, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing. I am sure I could extend that indefinitely, just not sure if I should. However, none of those films explores liminality per se and certainly none of them, in my opinion, gets under the skin of living constrained by the imagination of others to quite the same effect of The Watermelon Man and The Uncle.