The first time the two central characters of the indie film “Columbus” meet, it’s an awkward chance encounter. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a young white woman who spends her days working in her town’s library. She’s stuck in a world that she cares too deeply for. Although she can spout countless facts about the shocking amount of Modernist architecture present in her hometown, Columbus, Ohio, she’s forgone her dreams of college in order to care for her mother. Casey’s mom is a recovering drug addict working two dead-end jobs, and when Casey drops her off for work and prepares dinner, the gentle switch between mother/daughter roles comes into focus. When Casey takes a cigarette break from work, she stares through a gateway and notices Jin (John Cho) speaking in Korean on the phone.
Casey silently offers a cigarette to Jin, and he refuses, perhaps feeling like a racial outsider beside this young white woman. But the need for connection wins out anyway. “Actually, I’ll take one, if you don’t mind,” Jin says, to which Casey matter-of-factly responds, “You speak English.” Lighting the cigarette, and with little expression on his face, Jin asks, “You don’t think Asians can speak English?” Any wonder has faded away, and a chasm between good intentions and consequential pain becomes clear in Casey’s mind. Apologizing, she mutters, “Yeah, of course. No, yeah I was just—I heard you on the phone and…” But a gentle smile breaks out on Jin’s face. He reassures her saying, “Sorry, I’m being a jerk. You offered me a cigarette, and I’m giving you a hard time.”
Casey is a character who has always put other people’s needs over her own, to the point where it threatens to destroy her identity. Even though this is a small interaction, a minor misstep, the thought that someone this gentle could be accidentally causing pain must be a difficult thing to stomach. “I didn’t mean to…” she starts to say before Jin cuts her off. “I know what you meant,” he states bluntly, a sense of sorrow in his eyes.
What’s remarkable about this scene is that besides offering a slightly strained first interaction between Casey and Jin, it’s thoroughly unimportant to the rest of the film. Weird encounters like this are treated like just a part of everyday life, something that’s awkward and hurtful for both people involved but something that just happens. The film does not make characters hinge entirely on microaggressions. “Columbus” broaches the subject of racial identity with more nuance and effectiveness than most movies last year, during a time when discourses on race are thrust into the American spotlight.
Representation of race in Hollywood has developed greatly over the past few years. For most of the 21st century, the Hollywood system was arguably operating under “neoconservatism” according to racial formation theory. This ideology tries to downplay the importance of race in society. Although we might be aware of different races, neoconservatism states we must ultimately work to function in a “color-blind” world, where race has absolutely no effect on our actions or institutions. This ideology has implications, too. For example, any affirmative action doesn’t work within this framework, because that would meaningfully insert race as something valuable and that needs to be sought after, when the goal of neoconservative ideology is to get rid of “race” as something that is influential. One of the biggest examples of this ideology at work is Oscar nominations for acting. Many members of the Academy believe that the best performances of the year should be the ones nominated, and voting for actors of color just based on their race should be discouraged. In their mind, all nominations should work under a true meritocracy.
The #OscarsSoWhite movement challenged the neoconservative idea of a true meritocracy in acting nominations. If Hollywood really does endorse the idea that anyone from any race can become a star, why does the group of people we’re celebrating year after year continue to look so homogeneous? Why are there are not many roles written explicitly for actors of color? And why is it that so often “color-blind” casting ends up with white actors in the main roles? Studies on implicit bias have dovetailed these questions to argue that even with attempts to remove race from the mind, subconscious attachments to racial stereotypes still continue to shape casting choices and job opportunities.
All of this has led to a switch in some Hollywood circles to what racial formation theory calls a “liberal” perspective. A liberal perspective is much more than just touting ideas of “diversity” and “inclusion.” The liberal viewpoint requires action to counteract historically racist institutions: race should not be simply ignored, but used constructively within a system to benefit marginalized groups.
It’s been undeniable that the liberal viewpoint has had an impact on the Hollywood system. Out of the 20 acting nominees of the 2017 Oscars, seven nominees were actors of color. This year’s crop has four nominees of color, but an oft-overlooked aspect of representation on screen is not just the act of casting actors of color and/or even nominating them for awards. It’s about what the films have to say about race, and how accurately they reflect the lives of people of color. Taking a look at this year’s Best Picture nominees that deal with race, the range and depth of roles for actors of color do not seem to be expanding despite progressive strides that appear to move in the right direction.
Take, for example, two of the Best Picture nominees that attempt to deal with race: “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” The former is an adult fairy tale about a mute woman, Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins), in the 1960s, who works in a government facility and ends up falling in love with an aquatic monster being imprisoned there, while the latter also deals with a white woman, a take-no-prisoners mother who erects giant billboards calling out the police chief of their small town.
Both of these “liberal” and “race-conscious” films seek to tackle race and racism, but wind up using race as the only facet defining the roles played by actors of color. “The Shape of Water” is too much of a fairy tale to tackle the seriousness of oppression; “Three Billboards” attacks racism solely from the point of view of a racist white man. A generous view would offer that Hollywood is slowly inserting race into its dialogues. A cynical view would see all of this as a strange pat on the back in the push for diversity, with race as a prop to create “important” pieces of art that simply uses characters of color to make white protagonists look better.
The failures of the aforementioned movies only become more apparent after seeing other films that may be less race-centric, but end up humanizing their PoC characters in a more effective manner. “Columbus” is one of those films. In “Columbus,” race isn’t the defining feature of its characters, and for characters of color, it is not an obstacle that will one day be conquered and resolved. Instead, it becomes a fact of everyday life: something they must continually struggle to understand, but something that ultimately does not define their entire identity.
Jin is in Columbus, Ohio because his father, a professor of architecture, has passed into a dangerous medical coma, and he is expected to remain by his father’s side for as long as it takes for him to recover. But his relationship with his father has always been strained, and the inability to communicate with him makes the situation even worse. This would be a difficult situation for a character of any race or ethnicity to struggle with. How do you take care of someone who you can’t really help? Should you follow along with what society expects you to do, and thereby change your entire life? But the fact that Jin is Korean only deepens these struggles. He reveals to Casey that he hopes his father doesn’t recover to the point where he can be moved back to Korea, where family tradition would dictate that he would have to dramatically grieve.
“There’s this belief if you’re not there when a family member dies and not adequately grieving, your spirit will roam aimlessly, and become a kaekkwi…a ghost” he sadly states.
Jin’s Korean identity doesn’t create a problem within itself, but rather further complicates problems Jin is already facing. This gets at something the previous movies fail to know: characters of color don’t necessarily need to be engaged in the direct fight against racism in order for race to be meaningfully represented on screen.
There are small, silent moments throughout the movie which provide moments of recognition for Asian audience members without having to explain themselves to white audiences. One of the most powerful is when Jin goes through his father’s old possessions, finding a white hat, a nice camera, and a suit. I was immediately reminded of my Filipino grandfather, who would always wear those white hats, and who in my childhood would always insist on taking photographs with an insistent, “One more! One more!” When Jin smiles to himself, he and I were in on the same shared experience, a kind of secret passed between the film and myself. It is idiosyncratic and specific, representing small details of Asian identity, where the characterizations in the other movies discussed are too broad.
There are more things to celebrate about the film’s representation. The fact that Jin is given a romantic interest combats the damaging idea that Asian men are not sexualized agents. When Jin emphatically states that Casey is “too young for him,” he allows their friendship to avoid any of the cringey age gap dynamics that have plagued movies like “Lost in Translation.”
Casey’s lower socioeconomic status is a powerful restraint on her opportunities without ever becoming something she resents, and although not discussed at as much length, Casey’s white identity is an aspect of herself that she’s occasionally aware of, allowing race to become something that everyone in Columbus is dealing with peripherally. The cross-cultural friendship between Jin and Casey can overcome their initial racialized hurdle without neglecting that the characters come from two vastly different worlds.
This film occupies a lovely middle ground between neoconservative and liberal impulses about race in the film community. While the film is more concerned about themes of grief and obligation to family, this is not a “color-blind” film because the race of each character meaningfully contributes to the story. And yet, the film is also not obsessed with tackling race as an obstacle that must be conquered by its characters, and it doesn’t let characters’ awareness of racial identity completely define their themselves or how they function in the world.
Out of all the Best Picture nominees, “Lady Bird” is the only other movie that comes closest to achieving this happy medium. There’s an entire other world and story tangential to Lady Bird’s, but characters don’t have to explain themselves or their race to the protagonist. Instead, they just do what normal people do: live their lives, free from exposition. It’s an incredibly generous world, that characters of color are simply just a part of.
This “middle path” between neoconservatism and liberalism shown in “Columbus” and “Lady Bird” is not the only way to make a film that meaningfully engages with race. Jordan Peele’s horror film “Get Out” is also nominated for Best Picture, and is distinct in being the only Best Picture nominee to have the protagonist be a person of color. “Get Out” actually works as a stunning rebuke of neoconservatism, where a seemingly progressive white world is revealed to be a facade masking truly disturbing systems. While it sometimes feels like it’s explaining racial politics to white audiences at a few points, Peele also works to capture the interiority of the Black male experience through uniquely visual means as well.
“Columbus” brings up microaggressions in a subtle way without having the plot revolve around it. “Get Out” does the opposite. It works because it isn’t subtle. Microaggressions matter to these characters, and being able to brush them aside eventually dooms them. “Get Out” is a bold stroke, a horrific wake-up call meant to rattle your brain into awareness. Perhaps “Columbus” is allowed to be more meditative and not as conscious about calling out racism because Jin’s Asian identity isn’t under the same paranoid stresses as Chris’s Black identity. But the world deserves movies like “Columbus” and “Get Out” which can engage with race in different ways without resorting to obvious or half-baked characterizations.
Ultimately, more films looking to tackle race should take a page out of “Columbus,” and tell stories about people of color where race doesn’t define them, but still influences their lives. As the push for better representation pushes Hollywood in new directions, it’s important that films don’t simply use race as a narrative tool within their stories, but rather seek to depict the inner lives of people of color.
Nathan Pugh can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.