Critiquing Boyhood

“The Seattle Times says Boyhood is “the most engrossing coming-of-age movie in the history of the genre.” That assertion may be true, but it’s also true that the popular history of the genre has been largely limited to imagining the lives of white kids.”

I’ve avoided writing a lot about Boyhood because there were issues with it that I didn’t have the language to describe. Luckily for me, Imran Siddiquee at The Atlantic does have the words and provides exactly the criticism that is necessary of this film. So please go and read his piece because the rest of this won’t make a tonne of sense without it.

So I agree with a lot of what he says but I disagree with one of his fundamental assertions towards the end. He says this.

Richard Linklater may have set out to tell one, small story; not the entire story of America. But as long as society continues to present lives like Mason’s as what’s normal, the childhood of people of color, like Michael Brown, will be seen as variant—as other. To be centered is not merely normalizing—it’s elevating. And to be othered is not only to be seen always as potentially dangerous, but also to feel always in danger.”

Its that last thing that I take some issue with. Mason’s life is presented as normal because it is seen as normal, because he is seen as normal. The lives of young people of color are seen as variant and are othered by society as a whole which is one part of the violent cycle of racism. They are seen as other and then their narratives are described as variant which causes more people (privileged and not) to see them as other. So the film describing this is not necessarily inaccurate, especially when the film is seen as a while.

Earlier, Siddiquee says this about the film.

 “What’s most troubling about all of this is not the idea of a fictional 18 year-old who has never had to think about race. It’s the thought of living white men in America mistakenly thinking that race has played no significant role in their own lives. In fact, cinema like Boyhood suggests that it’s the norm for these boys and men not to think about race. Which makes it seem like it’s okay….

 Race and racism shapes the life of everybody, no matter where they live or who they are. This includes white boys. We all grow up in a society that gives us opportunities, or limits opportunities, based on the color of our skin. Mason—who has high-school teachers who believe in him, does drugs without fear of the police, is encouraged to compete in art competitions, and eventually goes to college—is surely the beneficiary of privileges historically bestowed upon white men.”

This is absolutely true and is incredibly important to recognize when watching Boyhood. But I really think its says more about the critical response to the film than the film itself. The last line of that first paragraph is “Which makes it seem like it’s okay.” But I don’t see the film saying that its okay.

Earlier still in the article, he talks about the one interaction the family has with a person of colour; a Hispanic man named Enrique who was working on their house’s septic line. He comes up to them years later telling them about his one conversation he had with Mason’s mother that changed his life and inspired him to go to college. But as he’s saying that we learn that he first had to take English classes, then get an associate’s degree at a community college, and that he’s now working towards a bachelor’s degree while working as a manager at this restaurant. This man’s life is remarkably different than Mason’s and it was because of how Texans (and by extension Americans) generally viewed immigrants from Mexico. Racism is a distinct and visible part of this man’s life and it’s something that Mason never has to see.

In fact there is a doubling here between Enrique and Mason. When Mason’s mother talks with the man working on her house, she tells him that he should go to school but more importantly she says that he is smart. When he sees them years later it was that line that stuck with him and changed his life. Mason has a similar moment with his photography teacher in highschool where Mason it told to take advantage of his talents and smarts and work hard instead of being lazy.

This doubling doesn’t imply to me that they are the same, it implies to me that they are different. That Mason is ridiculously privileged and needed the encouragement to move him away from laziness and follow his destined path to college. Enrique on the other hand had to work harder, through a community college associate’s degree before he could even start a bachelor’s. The film is pointing this out and describing how Mason never faces this reality of the lives of so many people.

And while it doesn’t do anything specific to condemn that, I think that is the film’s mode towards everything. The film is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It describes that the lives of so many white people are only tangentially affected by what they see as “race” even though they benefit from it on a daily basis. Linklater has always been a descriptive director and when I read the film in that light I don’t see it condoning this particular story of “boyhood” as normal or better.

He did set out to tell one story that had many elements that a lot of people could identify with. I don’t identify with all of it, but I don’t think anyone does. And that’s okay. It gets the little moments of growing up right so that most people can find something to hang on to. And for someone like me who likes to think that I’m conscious of racial issues, part of what I identified with strongly was that before getting to college I didn’t have any conversations about how race affected me. That is a bad thing, but it was how I grew up, and this film got it right on the nose.

We do need films that describe how race affects white people in more clear terms. Siddiquee’s article is absolutely fantastic in its description of what is wrong with how we raise white children, however I think Boyhood is on his side in that conversation.



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