Friday, July 4, 2008

What Happens When Ethnography Goes to the Movies?

There isn't much sexual salaciousness in Sudhir Venkatesh's ethnographic treatment of gang culture on Chicago's South Side.

He was a relatively naïve graduate student at the University of Chicago when he first started studying crack-dealing gangs in one of the country's most notorious housing projects. Venkatesh embarked on a sociological journey that would educate him about the counter-intuitive inner workings of gangland economies and the brutal realities of what happens when material inequality gets racially and geographically entrenched.

Now, word is that Craig Brewer, director of critically acclaimed "Hustle & Flow" (2005) and "Black Snake Moan" (2007) is slated to direct a film adaptation of Venkatesh's most recent book, Gang Leader for a Day.

Should we be worried?

As a relatively young ethnographer who has been conducting research in urban communities for the past 15 years, I am anxious to see what Hollywood makes of 'the ethnographic impulse.' Indiana Jones transformed archaeology into an icon of pop-cultural Americana. And I'm sure that many curious high schoolers decided to go into the field after watching Harrison Ford's ruggedly glamorized portrayals. But if Brewer can spend some time getting the fieldwork right, capturing what it actually means for ethnographers to live their research in the world, without all of the hyper-exoticisms that glom onto such depictions, then he might be able to show people just how ethnographers stumble upon social truths that are sometimes sublimely irreducible to statistical analyses.

Brewer is a gifted storyteller, and he definitely has a Tarantino-sized hankering for hard-edged tales that flip the script on Hollywood's conventional interracial buddy movies. "Hustle and Flow" featured a memorable and mesmerizing lead performance by Terrence Howard as Djay, a doo-rag wearing Memphis-based pimp with a half-hardened heart of gold and a knack for hip-hop lyricism. Djay has a complex relationship with all of his prostitutes, including the soft-spoken Shug and the fiery Lexus, both black women, but the kinds of subtle mind-games that he plays with Nola, the white member of his harem, seem to get pride of place in the story. Djay is clearly exploiting Nola, psychologically and physically abusing her (even if the latter happens decidedly off-camera and mostly beyond the narrative's unfolding). But he does it with such sweet-tea infectiousness that the audience is treated to a character-study of what classic social theorist Max Weber meant when he said "charismatic authority" was a traditional method of social control.

"Black Snake Moan" is even more pointedly pitched in the direction of what it means to play along the tracks between black masculinity and white femininity, with Brewer seemingly hell-bent on demonstrating all the many ways in which one might hint at the specter of racial miscegenation in a small Southern town without ever quite going there. Even the title of the film seems to ooze with euphemized racial innuendo.

My guess is that three things probably most excited Brewer (and Paramount Vantage) about Venkatesh's exploits in Chicago. First, this story could easily be framed as the now-classic Hollywood tale of an outsider entering the proverbial Heart of Darkness that is urban America. Dangerous Minds (1995) and Freedom Writers (2007) best frame the last 10 years or so of the genre. Hollywood seems to remake this same movie every few summers, with only a slight tweak here or there to the details. A naïve white do-gooder enters the realities of life on the street and has to throw textbook theories about urban life right out the window.
Venkatesh, who was born in India and raised in California, starts out so green when he embarks on his research that he doesn't even realize just how astonishing his project will seem to students and teachers who find out about it. And what he ends up learning about the everyday workings of gang culture will force social scientists to rethink many long-standing academic assumptions on the topic.

The idea that a privileged sociologist from one of the most prestigious schools in the country would also be allowed to actually run the gang's operations, even for a day, might also lend itself to some provocative moviemaking. Traditionally, ethnographers are taught that they must master the culture of the groups they study so completely that they should almost be able to see the world from that group's point of view, as though they were natives, people born into the community. (Of course, if you're like me, a black man conducting ethnographic research in black America—you have to prove something akin to the exact opposite.)

Anthropologists call this an "emic" perspective, something that can only be acquired with long-term participant-observation—many months, even years, of "deep hanging out" with the people being studied. Venkatesh not only provides us with a detailed rendition of how these Chicago gangbangers see their world, he also can demonstrate the limits of "emic" understanding by showcasing his own short stint at the helm of the gang.

Of course, Venkatesh is conducting all of this research in one of America's harshest neighborhoods. The everyday violence that hovers around his ethnographic work only heightens the drama and sweetens the deal in Hollywood's eyes. Plus, Brewer has a penchant for showcasing the thinkerly side of those folks who engage in the unthinkable. And any ethnographer worth his or her salt wants readers to recognize that this one of the things that connects them to people who follow even the most remote and exotic cultural practices.

But there is a personal side to the Venkatesh story that is equally poignant and potentially cinematic—as Hollywood conceptualizes such things.

A careful ethnographer tries not to cast his or her subjects in easy black-and-white terms, as simplistically good or bad people, the social equivalent of redeemed saints or irredeemable sinners. Human beings are always more contradictory and complex than mere caricature. Gang Leader for a Day tries to humanize the flat-footed stereotypes and knee-jerk clichés that get passed off as actual consideration of the lives and life chances of residents from inner-city America. And Brewer's redemptive treatment of a low-level pimp and a vengeful bluesman are nothing if not complex.

Of course, what Brewer appears most invested in (and what also leaps from the pages of Venkatesh's powerful book) would be the profound subtlety of any fragile interracial relationship—between a pimp and his prostitute, between a cuckolded old musician and a young girl hurling herself down the wrong path. Venkatesh's supple and multifaceted relationship with J.T., the real gang leader of his book, is ripe for Brewerian picking. And as with Brewer's previous cinematic portrayals of interpersonal negotiations of America's color lines, Venkatesh and J.T. share a relationship that is genuine and contrived at the same time, seemingly natural and honest, yet propped up by artificiality: Mutual respect between sociologist and research subject is forged by the researcher's thesis-driven entry into an unknown land. It is also an intimate connection steeped in a larger context of vice and violence, which is just how Brewer paints things in his own Memphis, Tenn.

But should we be worried about what drew Brewer to Venkatesh's work? Maybe, but that's only because the same assumptions might draw even more people to the film—and away from the kinds of questions that often get lost or forgotten, caricatured or elided, when race-relations and urban life go to the movies.

Originally penned for


Gregory said...

I wasn't going to read the book, assuming it was a lengthy rehashing of the account of it in Freakonomics, but apparently I am just going to have to. Everyone I know is talking about it, but no one has read it.

My fear is that it will be a good example of a good academic caving in and writing a best-seller. As for the movie, I have few hopes. Too many steps removed from the source material.

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Gregory said...

Just read it. You are very right. The movie really could just end up making ethnographers all look like naifs a la Dangerous Minds.

It's a great book, but does he have to equate ethnography with being a "rogue sociologist"? He says several times that social scientists simply don't talk to people. He has the nerve to say this in the same breath as saying Jean Comaroff is on his committee. No props to anthropology at all, even though the project would have been well-suited for that field. Instead, he acts as if he invented the field of ethnography all by himself.

Nickname unavailable said...

Sadly, this movie probably will not generate much enthusiasm about Anthropology, since Mr. Venkatesh is a sociologist, and as Gregory mentions he doesn't even mention that he is anthropological methods ... damn sociologists stealing our methods, and even gets a movie made out of his book too!

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