Last Friday night, my husband, my daughter and I gathered around my laptop to choose a movie to watch as a family. The adults in the house narrowed the selection down to three titles and from them, the child chose The Wiz, which was cool, even though I remembered it being long. We were happy to be able to show our black daughter an all-black cast.
Months prior to this, during the holidays, I had been flipping through the channels one night when I came across White Christmas with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. I’m a huge fan of old movies, but somehow I’d never seen that one, and so I lingered on it just long enough to hook my kid.
Two of the great disappointments of my Life as a Parent have been that my child was never into a) Sesame Street, or b) going to the movies. I really should go to therapy about it. It’s been a struggle for me, the fact that I can’t get my kid into a theater even with the promise of bottomless M&Ms, a Coke and popcorn with real butter flavoring. That’s right: Real butter flavoring. My treat! Still: Nuh-uh. It’s home viewing or bust.
And so I was particularly and quietly thrilled out of my mind when my daughter begged, “No, mama! Don’t turn it off!” Which is how White Christmas launched the 2012 holiday season in Belferland, where alongside the usual fare of A Charlie Brown Christmas and other animated shorts, The Wizard of Oz, Funny Face, and my hands’ down all-time favorite, Auntie Mame (with Rosalind Russell, not Lucille Ball. Make note) were in heavy rotation. Big Bird and any future therapist could stuff it for all I cared. Once my kid asked to see Auntie Mame for a fourth time, I was already in parenting nirvana, sitting on my cloud, dangling my feet and stuffing my face with a tin of Almond Roca. I had dreamed of sharing these films with Ruby since she was eight days old. Now it would be a matter of time before I showed her the jubilance of Singin’ In The Rain and, someday down the road, the heartbreak of West Side Story.
“Mama,” Ruby said, bringing me back to earth. “There are no brown people. Where are the brown people?”
To be clear, it wasn’t as if I hadn’t noticed. I noticed. I always notice. I notice how most films play to the normative white-as-default. I notice how pretty much every kid flick ever released has a white protagonist, though often nowadays (especially if you’re Disney) with a POC as a silly sidekick. I notice how every single animated film that comes out today boasts white main characters, something that especially irritates me since animated characters are the product of someone’s imagination and can be anything. I notice how there aren’t many characters in films, animated otherwise, who reflect my child. Clearly, she notices, too.
So. Last weekend and The Wiz. Despite it being unfortunately long; as in long-ass long; as in GOOD GOD SHE’S SINGING AGAIN/STILL/MORE; as in I’m fairly certain there was no extra reel tape on the cutting room floor way back in 1978, but if I’d had the scissors, it would have been a slasher flick; despite this aspect of run time that perhaps played a role in the film’s box office failure, we used it to show our girl a possibility. We explained to her that every single person in the cast is brown like her. She had a hard time believing it and kept pointing to various dancers saying, “She’s not brown,” and “he’s brown?”
“Yup,” we said. “Everyone in this movie is brown.”
“Everyone?” She said.
And we went back and forth like that throughout the movie, her understandable skepticism meeting our reassurance that this is happening. So focused we were on convincing her, that we barely had opportunity to point out the film’s running themes of oppression and freedom (Scarecrow, about himself: “This is an experiment and the subject is a hopeless failure.” Dorothy: “No you’re not. You’re just a product of some negative thinking.”) But we’re vigilant and we managed to drop those pebbles, too.