Whole People Make Better Allies Than Parts of People: My review of ‘Savages’

This is a review I wrote of the movie Savages soon after it came out. My original draft is dated 8.15.2012 but I work slowly, so you’re getting it almost a year later. If you were ever going to see the film, you’ve probably seen it by now. Still, be warned that this is chock full of spoilers and potentially triggering references to gendered and racialized violence.

. . .

Savages. I have to say something about it, don’t I? I’ll say this: It took me by surprise.

Savages is, first and foremost, a pornographically gratuitous depiction of gory violence committed almost exclusively against people of color by white people. Or by other people of color for reasons directly related to white people. It’s a move about the drug war that pits Good White American hippie pot dealers against malicious and terrifyingly evil yet somehow also hopelessly bumbling Brown Bad Guys. It’s wall-to-wall with insulting caricatures of Mexican folks. And it paints the DEA as a corrupt but well-intentioned group of dudes that ultimately saves the day. Um…what?

Meanwhile, the movie’s gender stereotyping is out of this world. Out of a huge cast, we have only four named female characters: Two spoiled and shallow city girls who love to shop, the hardened drug queenpin who inherited a cartel from her dead husband but who really just wants to be a mom, and a sainted wife dying of cancer who provides emotional motivation for one of the male characters but who we never actually see. The three female characters who do get screentime show some grit but also flail around and cry a lot. They appear toughest mostly while providing men with encouragement to do ruthless things in their defense.

Rolling racism and misogyny tightly together, the camera treats lily white Blake Lively with the most blatant male gaze I’ve seen in a while. It lingers unabashedly on her glowing, gauzy, golden blonde innocence, caressing her pouty lips and designer dresses. The film is inexplicably interspersed with random shots of her looking lost and beautiful on a sunny beach, lest the viewer forget for a moment that all of this gore and brutality is in the interest of saving the princess. O is the Prettiest White Girl and brown people are going to die horribly to protect her feminine purity.

Speaking of which, the movie uses rape as a plot device. Let me tell you how much I hate movies that use a graphic on-screen depiction of rape as a plot device. Someone once gave me a copy of The Other Boleyn Girl as a gift. I like historical fiction, even sort of trashy historical fiction, but half an hour in, the gratuitous rape scene started. I stopped the movie, ejected the brand new DVD, threw it in the trash, and walked out of the room. I realize that rape-as-plot-device is hard to avoid, at least if you ever want to see a movie or watch TV or read a book, because it’s so ingrained in our rape-culture-infused genre conventions. I will say that Savages handled the rape scene in certain ways better than others. But they still included a depiction likely to trigger a huge proportion of their audience just to make it clear, in case we weren’t already sure from all the other murder and torture, that Evil Brown Bad Guy really is Evil and Bad.

In illustrating that people who do horrible things can also be human and fallible (and that even attractive young white people can be cold-blooded and horrible!) the movie seems to be aiming at some kind of clumsy moral ambiguity. It gets close a couple of times, such as the conversation between John Travolta’s corrupt DEA agent and Benicio Del Toro who has come to his house to kill him. Ultimately, though, what we end up with looks more like, “White people can do no wrong and brown people can do no right — because white people have Reasons for being violent, whereas brown people are just violent by nature.”

In the end, the princess is verily rescued by her two handsome lovers (and the DEA) and they all retire happily to Indonesia — land of “savages”. Savages. The word smacks of racism and so does this movie from start to finish.

And I loved it. I loved it because its the first and only film I’ve ever seen in which the romantic subplot is about three people who are in love with each other and the story about that relationship isn’t simply that it exists. Sure, I’ve seen other movies with triads or vees before. Ones in which the idea of a threesome isn’t simply porn or comic relief. Gregg Araki’s screwball comedy Splendor is a cute one.  Vicky Cristina Barcelona is emotionally complex. I like Bandits a lot because it treats its three-way relationship with playfulness and humanity and also because I just like clever heist movies. But even in these films, the structure of the relationship remains a point of contention among the people in the relationship. It’s highlighted throughout that this is a weird thing to do and that the people doing it are struggling with it. Savages never bats an eye.

The story is that O, Ben, and Chon got together and have been together since. Period. At no point is it ever implied that O will have to choose between the two men or that her relationship with one of them is more real than the other. The three have fights and drama about the kind of stuff that couples also have fights and drama about, but there’s never a suggestion that the men have fought over O, or that anybody secretly dreams of monogamy. They all love each other and that’s how it is. It’s a genuinely complex and complicated relationship in which the thing that’s complicated isn’t the fact that there are three people in it. And like any triad in the real world, they deal with outside censure from others, but the most explicitly critical thing anyone says is Elena’s comment to O: “They may Iove you, but they will never Iove you as much as they Iove each other. Otherwise, they wouldn’t share you, would they?” Yes, it’s implicitly homophobic, but it centers the metamour relationship — and so does the movie.

That is the closest I’ve ever seen on-screen to a representation of me. To the kind of intimacy that feels right to me. A kind of intimacy I feel unable to access for all kinds of reasons, including that my way of loving is never even shown as possible in the media that writes our cultural consciousness. Case in point: Other reviews of Savages complain that the relationship between Ben, Chon and O is never explained to their satisfaction, and that this makes the movie seem unbelievable and fantastical since “literally the entire premise of the film hangs on their relationship”. But lots of other action movies hinge on the idea that some guy loves his wife or kid so much he’s willing to go on a killing spree, and reviewers never say, “Prove it.”

Even Savages is a tiny, pathetic crumb of representation. Apart from the one salient detail, these peoples’ lives are nothing like mine. I don’t identify with any of them as an individual. I’m not Taylor Kitsch. I’m not Aaron Johnson. And I sure as hell am not Blake Lively. It’s a love story about three people who don’t resemble me in any way, tucked inside in a badly-written, trigger-riddled flick suggesting that “the drug war” is between white Americans and brown foreigners and that white people deserve to win. Still, I left the theater walking on clouds.

As we walked home in the late night desert heat, my partner asked, “What did you think?”

“I…am completely incapable of critically analyzing that movie right now,” I said.

I knew, distantly and abstractly, that lots of things about the film were problematic. As we’d watched, the part of my brain that clocks oppressive media messages had been tracking them in the back of my head. But that part was completely drowned out by another part of my brain. I haven’t been paying attention to the poly news cycle, or any news cycle. I’d heard nothing about the film, critical or otherwise. We picked it randomly because it was $2 at the cheap seats and we didn’t want to see Men In Black 3. So, I had gone totally unprepared. Unguarded. And found myself hanging on every scrap and scene of the developing love story, going, “…Really? Oh my god. Really? Really??” My stomach fluttering, my nervous heart opening hopefully, tentatively, all the while waiting for the inevitable moment when the angst would start, when she would be forced to choose, when she’d end up happily ever aftering with one or the other of them and I would be crushed. It never came.

I asked my partner what they had thought and they made some comments about the depictions of violence. We discussed the handling of the rape scene. And then I stopped in my tracks. “You know what was actually the most intense part for me?” I said slowly, “The love scene. The one with the three of them. It wasn’t a porno cut scene meant to titillate and scandalize the audience. It wasn’t joke. Hell, they didn’t even show the sex. That was a love scene. A standard-issue Hollywood love scene between three people. Somebody put that in a MOVIE.” And then I started crying and they held me for a while, standing in the middle of the street, with our border town’s imposing ever-present cop cars rolling by.

When we got back to the house, our roommate was there and asked what we’d gone to see. “Savages,” I said, blushing slightly. “Oh god,” she grimaced, “How was it?” I’m a white girl who grew up steeped in middle-class liberal aversive racism. I carry a lot of sticky privilege guilt around the women of color in my life. I was embarrassed to admit to my radical Xicana roommate, who talks explicitly and often about the harm that racism has done her and her family growing up on the border, that I’d spent the cost of a meal to be entertained by this blatantly white supremacist propaganda. “It was…” I paused for a moment, trying to think “You know what it’s like growing up queer and never seeing yourself on TV and then, the first time you walk into a movie, and you see someone who looks like you, or your partner, or your relationship up on the screen…” She nodded, wide eyed. “So, um, it was a terrible movie. Like, it was problematic, and it was also just bad. Bad acting. Bad script. Stupid plot. But…”

We sat and talked, then. She told me about the first time she saw real friendship between women of color on screen. We talked about intersections of oppression and radical compassion, about how sometimes a thing that is triggering for you is healing for someone you care about and vice versa. We hugged. We cried. I gushed. I felt validated, seen, and loved. And in the morning, my critical faculties came back online, and I was able to think clearly and write in detail about how the movie was fucking racist.

There’s a larger point to be made here about how giving each other space to hurt and heal, even though healing can be a twisted road through strange and difficult pastures, allows all of us to become better allies. But this what I have to say about Savages: Don’t go see it; it’s fucking racist. Unless you are one of the few people in the world fortunate enough that you can sit through graphic depictions of racialized violence, misogyny, and rape, and view them critically without being re-traumatized by them. In that case, please go see it. For me.

ETA: I woke up this morning wondering about the etymology of the phrase “off the chain,” which I originally used to describe the gender stereotyping in this film, and whether it had racist connotations. I did some research, by which I of course mean “I asked Google.” I discovered a wide range of conjectures about where the idiom comes from, including slavery, dog fighting, and telephones. But regardless of the phrase’s roots, one thing I learned for sure is that I was using it wrong. *blush* I’ve replaced it above with “out of this world.”

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