11/29/2012

THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST MEETS WATERMELON MAN

I saw the US premiere of Mira Nair's film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, at the 2012 Mill Valley Film Festival.  The film is an adaptation of the novel by the same name written by Mohsin Hamid. It is the story of the radicalization of a young Pakistani born, Princeton educated, New York stock broker (Riz Ahmed.)    After the 911 attacks, he is increasingly racially and ethnically profiled. He is also being torn between the new culture he has tried to join and that of his ethnic origin.   One of my cinephile friends, as I recall, felt the reaction of the protagonist was not strong enough for the conditions depicted.  I was reminded of other films where people wake up and find their race means something more than any other part of them -- say than their occupation, education, parenting skills;  where race controls all life's entities.

It happens there have been many films which deal with the issue of racial profiling in the USA.  The trend was initiated by black filmmakers of the LA Rebellion from the 1960s to the 1980s; Burnette, Gerima, Dash.  Among the most relevant comparisons to 
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the film by Melvin Van Peebles, Watermelon Man.

Race is a bioethical concern.  It is usually thought of as a matter related to the principle of justice. However, it historically has been an issue of beneficence, how we use and acquire scientific knowledge and choose to do research.  To begin with,
race is defined not by biology as was theorized in previous centuries but by sociology. The human genome project has put the biological theory of race pretty much to rest. What an expenditure of resources and intellect was required for that gift to this millennium. We now know the genetic difference within races is more different than between races. No longer can science be used as an excuse for the power differential of racism (nor, by the way, of genderism.)  It turns out; your race is what the common person considers your race to be.  By common I mean work force people who have daily contact with you, but not intimate knowledge; a bus driver, cashier, people who see you in passing. 

In Watermelon Man, a white insurance salesman named Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge) wakes up to find himself a black man. While running for his morning bus in an all white suburb, he realizes that everyone else finds him black as well.   As time goes by, Jeff is forced out of his suburban life. Responding to repeated mechanisms of oppression, he seeks internal strength by becoming increasingly drawn to Black Nationalism; conditioning himself for the battle to come. Interestingly, his path is leading him toward being a Moslem with a religious fundamental adherence, much as in
The Reluctant Fundamentalist

By some distance, the Jeff Gerber character travels further and with less compromise along the historically predictable defensive line than Mohsin Hamid's character.  The two stories share the same igniter for radicalization; racial profiling with social, even romance inhibitory, consequences.  Like Melvin Van Peebles' 
Watermelon Man, Mira Nair's film has an element reminiscent of black face. The latter is particularly cloaked in incongruent marketing pings attempting to make the storyline more palatable to a majority audience. This would not be so stark were it not a break from the director's usual "devil may care" courage as a director. However, Nair, as with everyone else, should be applauded for the addition of a coda of humanism and peace in the storyline. Film is different than a book; as characters evolve on-screen, viewers more strongly identify with them. In this case, we want that.  To its credit, this film pressures us to take our own pulse not just that of the Reluctant Fundamentalist.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
. (35 mm) directed by Mira Nair. USA. IFC. 2012.128 min.

Watermelon Man. (
35 mm) directed by Melvin Van Peebles.  USA.  Columbia Pictures. 1970. (98 min)  Hamid, Moshin.  The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Harcourt, USA. ( 2007) p 224

1 comments:

janis ripple said...

Where or how can I see this film?
I enjoyed your writing...I am a readeršŸ¤“