Backlot Bitch: Are White Authors the Only One Who Can Tell Stories?

Screenshot of Life of Pi

To escape the ebb and flow of holiday crowds, I slipped into a familiar theater seat in a middle row to catch Life of Pi, the highly anticipated Ang Lee movie. It's a literary adaptation of Yann Martel's bestselling book, which follows the story of Pi and his recollection of surviving a shipwreck for when he was a teenager. The story is told in flashback: Pi remembers growing up in a zoo owned by his parents, learning about the brutality of the animal kingdom, studying various religions, falling in love. His parents decide to relocate to Canada for better future for their two sons and to sell off the animals in the zoo. But tragedy strikes in the form of a horrific storm that takes his family, leaving Pi alone with a very hungry comrade and fellow survivor.

The movie is visually gorgeous, and we spend most of it in a colorful, entrancing limbo between life and death with Pi (Suraj Sharma) and his carnivorous companion, a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. But the story only starts when a middle-aged Pi meets a French-Canadian writer for the first time. They have a mutual acquaintance who tells the author (a stand-in for Martel) that he should talk to Pi and hear a story that will make him believe in God. It's a haphazard frame that all the beautiful images in the movie can't make up for.

Call it the Forrest Gump technique: A storyteller shares his life story with a perfect stranger who serves as proxy for the audience. This surrogate gets to ask all the stupid questions and have everything explained in laborious detail. Not only does it kill the magic of dreamlike visuals like those in Life of Pi, it clogs the story and takes the viewer out of the moment in order to interject trivial detail. It's also problematic that, inevitably, the perfect outsider is a white writer.

I'll bring up the ghost of The Help, in case you've forgotten. Kathryn Stockett's book and subsequent movie stirred so much controversy that Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer responded to it head-on. Perhaps the most glaring issue pointed out in the critical op-eds was that Emma Stone's character, Skeeter, moves from being a witness to these events to the very reason shit gets real for the upper class. Her fictional book, also titled The Help, is an exposé that sends chills through the heart of genteel white society in 1960's Mississippi. She's not just telling the audience a story anymore, she becomes the story, especially as we follow her family drama and love life. After the death of Aibileen's son and Minny's mean husband is pushed to the background, Skeeter's story dominates, save for the scene-stealing shit pie moment. No half credits for having Aibileen narrate the intro and outro of the movie or to send her off to become a writer. Her story's just started, but the movie ends with Skeeter scoring a job in the big city and Aibileen walking off into the distance.

The IMDB synopsis reads as follows: "An aspiring author during the civil rights movement of the 1960s decides to write a book detailing the African-American maids' point of view on the white families for which they work, and the hardships they go through on a daily basis." Many people had serious grudges against or furious support for this movie. I doubt Life of Pi will rekindle any of these discussions, seeing as no rewriting of history took place.

At least Life of Pi is an improvement in that the stranger doesn't actually come in to rescue Pi or solve his problems. The Help inadvertently created an egregious whitewashing of the civil rights struggle by making Skeeter the catalyst of events. On the Life of Pi cast sheet, the writer is not even given a name, just "The Writer." And while it allows the narrator the chance to interject his thoughts on the events in the flashback, why couldn't they have left the story with the company men during their interview at the end or by having Pi tell the story to his children to pass on his legacy? Or hell, just drop the interjections altogether and let us get lost in an ocean of CGI effects. I know it's the source material, and I may be playing hard to please, but I don't think it's too much to ask for POC characters to tell their own stories. Making it more palatable or relatable for the imaginary white audience of middle America does no one any favors being that people of color make up 42 percent of all tickets sold in the United States and studios are focusing on international box office now more than ever before.

Did this come to your attention at all when you caught Life of Pi? What did you think?

by Monica Castillo
View profile »

Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic. You can usually find her on Twitter talking about the movie she just watched at @mcastimovies.

Still Reading? Sign up for our Weekly Reader!

5 Comments Have Been Posted

Book vs. Movie

Monica, have you read the book? There's much more backstory given to the writer than the movie acknowledges. It may reshape how you feel about his position as the narrator. Still, I see where you're coming from--what with the story being told through the eyes of a white male and all.

Because it's a work of

Because it's a work of fiction, it didn't bother me. Full disclosure, I haven't read the book or seen the movie yet but I know as much as the general synopsis. When you wrote "At least Life of Pi is an improvement in that the stranger doesn't actually come in to rescue Pi or solve his problems." That pretty much was enough for me. It doesn't seem that race is what this story is about. And for you to get upset over "POC characters [not getting] to tell their own stories" I agree in certain instances (like The Help) but my inner English major thinks this doesn't necessarily mean it's true across the board.

Humanity has an ancient tradition of oral storytelling that is much older than written. Before written language was invented that's how our stories and information got preserved for future generations. And even after written language, oral storytelling is still used by many cultures who don't have access the means of writting to a literate audience. Obviously Pi is educated and can write his own story if he wanted to, but he doesn't instead he delivers it orally. I don't think Martel is saying a white person is needed to transcribe a person of color's life experience, I think Martel is employing an old tradition of transcribing another narrator's oral account. You see a lot of this in epistolary novels of the 19th century, such as Frankenstein.

This discussion actually

This discussion actually reminded me of a book, and later film adaptation, that annoyed the hell out me - Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. The novel itself is written in the first person, but it based off interviews the author had with Mineko Iwasaki (who he credits as a source in the books acknowledgements section), a retired geisha who wrote her own memoir ten years later to set her story straight. Big shocker - the novel written by a white, American male is quite different from an autobiography written by the Japanese woman who's life inspired his bestselling book.

Life of Pi

Just do a quick wiki read of Yann Matel's bio. Yes, there is a white narrator as a stand in for Martel in the film but not in the self congratulatory liberal way as it is in that ***t fest The Help. If you read Life of Pi you can see the transnational elements of Pi's life, ending up in Montreal as Martel did; the book/film if anything emphasis the interconnectedness between people, white, brown, black whatever, rather than their differences which is what racist movies like The Help reinforces. Life of Pi is not even about a "spiritual" Indian teaching a white person about spirituality either (which I think was tacit in the film, if I had a problem with the film at all it is this). I think the film is beautiful and portrayed a human character who had to face violently scary aspects of himself. Not to mention it was visually stunning. One of the best films I have seen in a long time, especially after how disappointed I was in Cloud Atlas.

tiger tales

Why complain about how an author chooses to frame a work of art? He/she didn't write the book you wanted? Too bad, so sad. Why are people always telling stories about animals?

Add new comment