Racism and Relatability

In the wake of the Golden Globes, I want to see two movies — for two different reasons. I want to see “Manchester-by-the-Sea” because I can “relate” to it and I want to see “Fences” for the cast and director.

“Relatability,” is a new word, a neologism. “The New Yorker” and “The Atlantic” had a spat over whether the word even exists. In “The Atlantic,” an article about relatability alludes to it as “almost a God-particle of drama.”

“Manchester” is relatable because I lived among working people in Boston. In Maine, I have friends who live and work where lobstering is THE industry.  The North Atlantic may be a pricey playground for some, but for many more it’s a cold, unforgiving, and beautiful workplace. If you ask a young man what he does, he says, “Stern-man.” He assumes you know he works on a lobster boat; he only tells you what position he has. Whatever his passion (a master’s degree in engineering, or making it in the performing arts), working the sea pays the bills.

On the other hand, I want to see “Fences” because I’d pay good money to watch Denzel Washington and Viola Davis read a grocery list. No, I don’t know any black sanitation workers from Philadelphia. But Denzel and Viola will bring that experience to my heart and, hopefully, I’ll be a better person.

Am I a racist because I prioritize them? Would an African-American reverse the order? Probably. Is he/she a racist?

Don’t get me wrong; racism is an ugly, evil, and pervasive part of this country. But we have to delineate what is evil from what is benign. “Manchester” is more relatable, both in geography and experience for me.”Fences” will appeal to my “common core” of human experience.  It will be different from “Manchester,” but it may stretch me.

Casey Affleck has no box office appeal to me. I don’t know him, yet. Denzel and Viola are American icons. I adored him in “St. Elsewhere” for his do-gooder doctor-character (I could relate). But in “Glory,” he revealed the molten, shining core of a former slave. He MADE  me — and others — relate. He took home a well-deserved Oscar for it in 1989.

Viola won a Tony (2001) before she collected acclaim for playing the mothers in “Doubt” and in “Antwone Fisher.” You know the rest, about “The Help” and “How to Get Away With Murder.” She IS NOT the “black Meryl Streep,” she IS Viola Davis.

An African-American choosing to see “Fences” first and “Manchester” second reflects preference, not prejudice. Relatability is not racism. Denzel’s character in “Mississippi Masala” was in love with a girl from India. When her father remarked on the color difference of their skins, Denzel replied, “Shades.” The same applies to us all. Blacks and whites are really browns and beiges in skin tones. Same melanin, just differing amounts. We have different shades of experience, but we’re all on the same spectrum of humanity.

I have little desire to see “La La Land.” It seems a wisp of fluff. I cannot relate because of my age, my paucity of experience with Los Angeles, and my total inability to dance or sing. (When I sang a lullaby to a sick newborn in a hospital,  she burst into tears. I no longer sing, even in the shower. Kids are a tough audience.)

I see no malicious force in prioritizing what movie to see. There is no disrespect in either direction. It is a matter sometimes of familiarity and nothing more. As we contemplate serious racism in this country, let’s not ascribe bias where it does NOT exist.

That’s the least we owe each other.