RACE, CLASS, AND MILLION DOLLAR BABY
I read review after review of Million Dollar Baby and thought I’d better see it, even though I knew it would be one beating after another, which would cause me to close my eyes and hold my breath. Not relaxing, but according to the reviewers, required viewing.
I did indeed find a fine film, well-acted (especially by Hillary Swank as Maggie Fitzgerald). It was violent and I did spend much of the film with my eyes closed, wondering why there needed to be so much time devoted to graphic brutality in order to tell the movie’s story. Its tragic ending, featuring a principled struggle over euthanasia, has aroused the Christian Right, as I thought it would. Rush Limbaugh has thundered to his “ditto heads,” climbing opportunistically onto the only soapbox available to him at the moment in Hollywood (apologies to SpongeBob Square Pants). Unmentioned in right-wing rants is that throughout the film the Catholic Church appears uncaring and remote; always something to appreciate, in my opinion. Far more important, disability rights groups have raised objections, which must be considered carefully. Clint Eastwood, who stars in the movie and is its director, must have known that he was opening a can of worms with the film’s complex resolution.
But among the white, mainstream critics I’ve read, such as Frank Rich in the New York Times, Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun Times, David Denby in the New Yorker, John Anderson in Newsday, to name just a few, no one has taken up my own objection to the film – its racial and class politics. Seasoned African American actor Morgan Freeman, who plays Scrap, an older boxer who is our moral guide throughout the film, is a disquieting character in that he seems cut from an old movie stereotype – a sympathetic and wise old Black man who sweeps the floor with dignity and without complaint. His influence over events is muted and he is often, literally, in Clint Eastwood’s shadow. As we reach the film’s pivotal moment (the match for the title of welterweight champion of the world), we find our by-now-beloved Hillary pitted against a huge Black woman, whose robe is dark and covers much of her face, until she lowers the hood to reveal her scowling, threatening expression. Hillary, by contrast, looks slight, in a light green silk robe that itself plays a role in the film. The Black boxer is a dirty fighter, threatened by the referee with penalties for her illegal moves. She delivers the final devastating blow after the bell has rung. The audience is primed to hate her.
Then there are Hillary’s hillbilly relatives, who are an over-the-top stereotype of Appalachian “white trash”; fat, uncaring and selfish mother, baby-toting hateful sister, threatening, scary brother just out of prison. They care nothing for Maggie and try to bully and exploit her financially, even after she has been generous and loving to them. We are meant to hate them too.
We’re distracted from all this racial and class stereotyping by the scruffy world of Frankie Dunn’s (Clint Eastwood) Hit Pit Gym that gives us, the audience, the sense we’re visiting a very real place, stripped of all the usual Hollywood beautification. So I read that the film is in the genre of American Realism, and certainly it is when compared with Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky films.
But does the fact that a film’s style is “realistic” place it above criticism? Will someone please note that (mainstream) reviewers almost never mention race and class stereotyping in films anymore? Instead of complaining about the “liberal media,” the Right should celebrate that their “political correctness” campaign to mock any comment on racism or class distortion has succeeded appallingly well. Now, far too many people have become convinced that to comment on class stereotyping is petty and irrelevant, and to criticize the Right’s “colorblind” standard on race (that denies the existence of ongoing racism) is itself racist! This denial of overt and institutional racism has been called the “new racism,” but it is happening hand in hand with a “new censorship.” To the extent that we allow its practice to become self-censorship, we should be ashamed.