Stephen Webster, American Renaissance, February 2009
“A Conversation About Race,” written, produced, and directed by Craig Bodeker, New Century Productions, 2008, black & white, 58 minutes.
In March 2008, Barack Obama gave a speech meant to defuse the controversy about Jeremiah Wright, his anti-white pastor of 20 years. “Racism,” he said, is the key to understanding America. He complained that the country has ignored the problem for far too long and that it was time to confront racial divisions in order to “perfect our union.”
“A Conversation About Race” is a brilliant, film-documentary response to Mr. Obama’s invitation to confront racial divisions, and it is with the many Americans who agree with Mr. Obama — “the believers” — with whom filmmaker Craig Bodeker has a conversation. He advertised for people in the Denver area who were willing to appear in a documentary about “ending racism now,” and also did man-on-the-street interviews.
There was no shortage of eager participants; he spoke to 50 people on camera, including whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians. All were believers. In his introduction to the interviews, Mr. Bodeker explains that he did not set out to make the subjects look foolish but that “the conventional wisdom on racism is so convoluted today that sometimes it’s unavoidable.”
Mr. Bodeker begins his interviews by asking each subject if he sees racism is his daily life. All say yes; they see racism “every day,” “a lot,” or “all the time,” and the whites see it as much as the non-whites. After establishing that “racism” is everywhere, Mr. Bodeker asks, “What is racism?” This is where his subjects first begin to stumble. None can give a good definition of racism. It is “chopping ourselves into categories,” “police harassing the homeless,” and “ignorance, a lack of knowledge.” It is “racial profiling, why we have so many men of color in prison.” It is “economic class.” It is fascinating to watch people who are earnest and well-spoken — for the most part the interview subjects are surprisingly articulate and are sincerely attempting to answer the questions — flail about.
The believers flail a lot. Mr. Bodeker offers a dictionary definition of racism as “the belief in the superiority of one race over another,” and then asks his subjects to describe specific instances of racism they’ve seen. A dapper black man named Martin claims he experienced racism at a public library, when librarians stared at him when he entered, asked if he needed help when he didn’t, and said goodbye to him when he left. He says the “goodbye” really meant “good-riddance.” Paul, a rough-looking black man with dreadlocks, a wild goatee, and crooked teeth says it is racism when a woman he passes on the street shifts her purse to the other arm. A young black woman sees racism when a non-black co-worker says, “Yes, I understand what you’re saying.” She seems to think that what this really means is that she has been understood even though she is black. One black man, after having agreed that racism is everywhere, cannot give a single example of it.
A middle-aged white woman, Mary Ann, believes she is racist because she notices black people in her all-white neighborhood. A white coed named Tina says she is racist for noticing that blacks on public transportation sometimes make a lot of noise. No one comes close to giving an example of a belief in racial superiority.
Young Tina appears on camera several times, consistently parroting the believer catechism and even apologizing for being brought up in “this white culture, this racist culture.” All white believers express varying degrees of self-reproach. It is one of the most striking aspects of the film: non-whites are resentful; whites feel guilty.
Mr. Bodeker cleverly brings up the question of racial superiority by asking if blacks are better than whites at basketball. They all agree, with many of the blacks appearing to take pride in athletic superiority. When Mr. Bodeker asks if whites are better than blacks at anything, the believers seem offended. When he suggests whites are better than blacks at standardized tests, the believers have a standard answer: It is because whites cheated by making tests that are culturally biased in their favor.
There is desperate flailing when Mr. Bodeker asks why Asians do better than whites on culturally-biased “white” tests. No one is willing to say it is because Asians are smarter than whites, because that would suggest whites are smarter than blacks. The look on poor Tina’s face as she struggles with this conundrum is priceless.
Mr. Bodeker asks the subjects to name a racist public figure. None can, so he suggests Jesse Jackson. Mary Ann, the middle-aged white woman who lives in the all-white neighborhood, doesn’t think Mr. Jackson is a racist. He is, she says, just an “advocate for black people.” When asked if she can name an advocate for white people, she fumbles, looks embarrassed, and goes silent.
Most of the interview subjects admit that blacks commit more crime than whites. Blacks are especially ready to admit this, and to agree that some blacks try to intimidate whites. Interestingly, blacks do not offer “racism” as an excuse for high crime rates, but whites do. Many come close to saying that racism justifies black crime, that it is retaliation for white oppression.
Blacks are also far more sensible about immigration than whites. Nearly all want less immigration, with several calling for immediate deportation of all illegals. Not one white says that immigration should be cut, and Mary Ann says that since immigrants are poor they should all be let in.
The whites in the film have clearly lost all racial feeling. Several suggest that it will be a good thing when whites become a minority, and some believe the solution to racism will be the elimination of whites through miscegenation. Mary Ann, however, concedes that “white nationalists” might mourn the disappearance of whites. Overall, the whites act like members of a vanquished tribe, meekly acquiescing to their displacement.
At the end of the film, Mr. Bodeker concludes that what passes for “racism” in America is nothing more than an effort to instill collective guilt in whites. Whites are supposed to be indifferent to themselves as a race. If they are not indifferent, they can only be supremacists, and for a believer, white supremacy is the worst possible crime. Mr. Bodeker should know because he tells us he used to be a believer, thanks to the propaganda he was fed in elementary school.
This is an excellent film, especially when one considers that it is Mr. Bodeker’s first attempt. The production values are high, with crisp camera work and a very subtle musical score. It is skillfully, even artfully, edited. The running time is under an hour, and it never loses the viewer’s attention. Mr. Bodeker provides the narration and from time to time addresses the viewer in cutaways from the interviews. He has a pleasant voice and an appealing personality.
With his faded jeans, long hair and stubbly chin, Craig Bodeker looks like a typical liberal. He certainly does not look like a man who would make a documentary that deftly exposes liberal myths. Yet that is precisely what Mr. Bodeker has done, and he has done it both entertainingly and effectively.
“A Conversation About Race” is good enough and thoughtful enough to run on PBS but, of course, it never will. Instead, it would make a perfect gift for a friend or family member who could do with a gentle nudge in the direction of common sense.