Saturday, February 24, 2018


I grew up around members of the G.I. Generation. They fought in WWII, called by a sense of duty to do "the right thing." They served bravely, and their efforts saved thousands of lives.

But the Greatest Generation sure knew how to dehumanize their enemies.

I sat on the knee of many a G.I. and listened to stories of war. Many were riddled with words like Jap, and Nazi. Those stories typically employed or embellished stereotypical characteristics about their enemies to heighten suspense or create a laugh. They weren't alone in their use of dehumanizing language: the US used cartoons, posters, and public service announcements during wartime to bolster patriotism and dehumanize our wartime enemies. After all, it's much easier to kill an enemy if you believe they are something less than you are.

Something less than human.

Using language to dehumanize people  is a highly effective way to reach a political outcome, and it's used every day:

He's a Muslim is a phrase used in some parts of America to suggest things other than one's faith.

Describing someone as liberal, or conservative, no longer speaks only to the political views of the person. Those are terms used with a sneer of hatred.

The term evangelical invokes judgment: he's considered narrow-minded and judgmental by some; thoughtful and moral by others.

An atheist? She's either immoral or a humanist, depending on who you ask.

The language we use to describe people provides insight into what we think of them and, in turn, shapes how we treat them.

Scott Cooper's Hostiles effectively illustrates one important aspect of how we treat others who are different from us: it's easy to stereotype, marginalize, and mistreat as long as one stays emotionally distant. When we get close enough to know the person behind the stereotype we tend to see and connect with the person as a human being.

Those we dehumanize because of differences are viewed as human once we recognize our similarities.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Black Panther

On the occasional Sunday in the late 1970s, especially when the weather was warm, my father and mother would load us kids into the back seat of the car for a leisurely drive to the home of my paternal grandfather, in south-central West Virginia.

It was one of my favorite places to visit. Not because we were close, really. It was my favorite place to visit because my grandparents had cable TV. Being used to antenna television, anything more than three channels felt cosmopolitan to me. And it seemed that on most every Sunday visit I could find on that cable system an old Tarzan flick. Tarzan and the Amazons. Tarzan and the She-Devil. Tarzan and the Jungle Boy.

I loved them all.

It was only years later that I realized that all those beloved Tarzan flicks were really depictions of a white man overcoming the perils of living in a black society. Most Africans in King of the Jungle movies were portrayed as either animal-like in behavior, or stupid. The characters were stereotypes that Tarzan always outsmarted and outlasted.

And I ate that stuff up.

Tarzan wasn't unique. Most jungle-based adventures in movies, TV, and comic books featured a white savior overcoming challenges created by Africans. Tarzan, Shanna the Savage, Sheena the Jungle Queen, Lorna the Jungle Girl, The Phantom -- all heroic white people who either fought or saved black people portrayed as superstitious, dangerous, or both.

Marvel's Black Panther destroys those stereotypes.

Ryan Coogler's take on the comic book superhero is honest and caricature-free. Black Panther is the first adventure-based movie I recall that portrays Africans as real people -- with all the flaws and complexities that come with the gig.  Coogler shows that heroes can be morally strong and still have ego; that villains can carry out their skullduggery while retaining some aspect of goodness; that women can be beautiful and independent, and strong.

Black Panther is well acted, shot beautifully, and is a story told with tremendous special effects. What makes it a great movie, though, is that the film takes back the portrayal of Africans from white-majority owned Hollywood studios.

Coogler's Black Panther is a movie about people, relationships, and honor. And I can't wait for the sequel.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

I don't know anyone like the characters portrayed in Martin McDonaugh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. 

I don't know anyone like Mildred Hayes, who has been through -- and lives every moment reminded of -- tremendous tragedy. I don't have anyone in my life like Jason Dixon who, despite being deeply flawed and repugnant, I want to know better. I can't think of anyone in my inner circle of friends who'd stare down impending, life-altering personal catastrophe with the dignity and grace of Police Chief Willoughby.

But I want to know those people.

I wanna spend more time with humans who turn grief into action, even if that action is at times misguided. I need a friend who strives to be a better person, even though he doesn't have the skills to make that transformation alone. I gotta find someone who lives only in the present; who understands life is made up of moments, and who doesn't live with regret. 

If I could be around people like Mildred Hayes, Jason Dixon, and Chief Willoughby day-in and day-out I know I could be a better person. 

Three Billboards is that rare work of art that's complex and beautiful because of its simplicity. A portrait in which we can see ourselves, despite the painting being somewhat exaggerated. An examination of lives that few people live but, given the proper circumstances, many of us would.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri reflects the best and the worst of our society. But ultimately, if reflects our human potential.