white man kills a black man and shacks up with his victims black widow. That plotline, despite valiant efforts to be a salvation story for a hopelessly racist white southerner, is nevertheless the essential narrative arc of Monsters Ball. Its a story that, like many Hollywood films, ends up subconsciously transmitting the exact opposite of its purported message.
The viewer is supposed to have her faith restored for the hopes of a racially reconciled culture because, the film implies, if this dirty white bastard can be redeemed, then anyone can. Instead, by the films conclusion, the viewer comes to see just how stubborn, virulent, and resistant to social antibiotics the strain of racism really is in American cultureor at least how blind Hollywood writers can be both about states theyve never visited and people theyve only met in their imaginations. Monster Balls is the white mans sexual burden for black women, a story so blatant and obvious you wouldnt be surprised if the ACLU makes a lawsuit out of it.
First, count the clichés. The three male characters are Sonny, Buck, and Hank, three redneck names so trite, overused, and clichéd (not to mention redundant) they practically leap off the tongue of any do-good liberal concocting a story of southern racial prejudice.
And where does the story take place? Supposedly all in the same backwards town, which is never named. According to the films cues, though, it just happens to besimultaneously!in all three of the deep Souths most famously racist states. License plates and restaurants say Georgia on them. Leticia says her husband was executed in Jackson (a town in Mississippi), yet when the actual execution takes place, the prison guards are wearing Louisiana-shaped badges that say Louisiana Department of Corrections on them. Like the clichéd names of the main characters, these three states are easy whipping boys, straw men in straw states that our enlightened screenwriter proceeds to topple with seeming ease as the film progresses.
You may be wondering now why Alabama (a Southern man dont need him around, as they famously replied to Neil Young) isnt in the film, despite being as good a racist southern state as any. After all, Alabama is the only southern state that still uses the electric chair for executions (the only other state still using the chair is Nebraska), although all four of Alabamas planned executions last year were halted by the higher courts. Perhaps its omission will give illumination to the films cultural, historic, and factual reliability, or lack thereof.
As propaganda, its brilliant. But those who claim to see the light are often most easily blinded by it, and Monsters Ball seems completely unaware of its own complicity in perpetuating the racist status quonot just in these states but across the entire country. In truth, Monsters Ball is to race relations what Maxim magazine is to hardcore pornography: far worse precisely because it pretends to be the exact opposite of what it really is.
Second, consider what the phrase monsters ball is actually intended to refer to: the night-before-execution party that jailers traditionally give to death row inmates. Not only do we never get to see this scene in the film, by implication it never even happens since Lawrence Musgrove is denied his final phone call as he walks his black mile.
Musgrove, played beautifully by Puff Daddy/P Diddy/Sean John/Sean Combs is, of course, guilty of nothing other than his blackness. When asked by his son why he is going away, Musgrove replies, Because Im a bad man, just a typo away from the cultural claim that is explicitly being made here, which is, Because Im a black man. By Puff Daddys brand extension, the entire rap music genre, with its glorification of sex and violence against the white man, is also an ersatz enemy that the film must eliminate.
Third, consider an alternative version of the same story. Imagine that Oscar-winner Denzel Washington plays Hank, a racist death row prison guard, while Oscar-winner Julia Roberts plays Leticia, the single mother. Imagine, other than a race-reversal of the characters, the movie playing itself out exactly as scripted.
Pretty hard to picture, isnt it? Such a film would horrify you.
You would be horrified in general because it would offend every sensibility you had. Specifically, youd be horrified at how unequal the supposed love story is, which comprises a dominant male authority figure in full control over all the economic power in the story. Youd be horrified at how submissive a doormat the female lead is as she is forced, damsel-in-distress style, out of her own house and into the bedroom of her new patron saint with the line, I really need someone to take care of me.
And finally, youd be horrified by the fact that Leticias self-esteem as a woman, and especially as a black woman (as the film actually shows it), is so incredibly low that on discovering the news that Hank is her husbands executioner, she does not kill Hank, but continues to sublimate his psychosexual fantasies, which started with chocolate ice cream, then black coffee, and now, finally, a presumably unending feast of her own American chocolate pie.
The message the movie sends is clear: Hey white men! If youre going to sleep with black girls, then at least be decent enough to pay their rent, buy them a car, and name your businesses after them. Listen to the background noise underlying this motif: Can you hear thirty years worth of white men whining about welfare mothers? Because the message is equally clear if you read it in reverse: Hey white men! Youve been subsidizing the rent on single black moms for a while. Nows the time you saw some action in return for your favor. Think of it as the cultural return on your default black tax.
Talk about monster balls! This is easily the most racist movie to come out of Hollywood since Birth of a Nation. Its almost as though the film is trying to offer the only possible justification for the welfare system that would appease the (shortsighted) angry white man: Kill the husbands, kill the male children, but leave the black female flesh for white men to consume.
In truth, the film is a sort of reverse fulfillment of all the white mans fears after the emancipation proclamation. In Birth of a Nation, secret white societies like the KKK were organized allegedly to protect the white women of the South from being ravaged by the sexually insatiable black man. Little did whitey know then that the three brothers Ku, Klux, and Klan were simply doing what psychologists call projecting their worst fears about their own devious desires onto their darker-skinned cousins.
In recorded historical fact and observable truth, it is the white man who has had monster balls for the black woman ever since the earliest days of colonialism, slavery, and the founding of the countryfrom Thomas Jefferson on down. And it is this same sordid history of white sexual oppression of blacks that gave rise to the mulatto problem in American history, only considered a problem in the first place because in a racially segregated culture it revealed the white mans guilt when biracial couplings produced a visibly darker offspring.
It is ironic that Ms. Berry, who is herself mulatto, would have no problem making such a film. Vanessa Williams, also a mulatto, turned down the lead role because of the full frontal nudity. For Ms. Berrywho said of her previous nudity, Swordfish was exploitive, but so what?the double-whammy-mammy of blaxsexploitation has spelled only Oscar gold, so her So what? becomes largely rhetorical in her individual case. It is blacks and women at large who will be paying for years to come for the regressive steps shes taken in this one film.
But the film isnt simply bad for blacks. Like TVs The Bachelor, Monsters Ball sets progress for women back another fifty years.
On one hand, it says that these three southern states are terribly racist and all the police are just like Nazis, especially their uniforms and jackboots. On the other hand, it says that nigger juice is pretty sweet and that splitting the dark oak is what makes you a man. This message is articulated in the character of Buck, father of Hank and grandfather of Sonny, three good old bubbas whose desire to rut indifferently and anonymously is made clear through the shared white hooker and the fact of the grandmothers suicidejustified by grandpa with the line that that woman failed me, a reference, we subsequently learn, to her unwillingness to rut as frequently as the appropriately named Buck would have desired.
But the two real lynchpins of the film come in the character of the white prostitute played by Amber Rules and the flashed image of the caged bird during the Oscar-winning sex scene.
Rules plays a no-nonsense white hooker who provides her clients with exactly what they want: a little late-night pussy. An absolute model of unrestrained capitalisms chief requirementefficiencyshe wastes no time on small talk but simply walks in, removes her clothing, and bends over on the desk. She knows why shes there and she knows what shes worth, so she makes no bones about taking their money even if they cant perform.
Her initial scene with Sonny is perhaps one of Hollywoods most honest sex scenes because it reveals just how unsatisfying sex can be when stripped down to its raw mechanics. Both characters and audience experience the scene as more existentially painful than lemon juice in a raw wound, yet it is at least completely honest about its purposes. Poor Sonny, who kills himself in front of his father and grandfather, is quite aware of his lifes hypocrisy and his souls numbness. His suicide is almost a noble effort to put an end to the sins of his forefatherswhile we in the audience are forced to watch Hank indulge his desires for the rest of the movie.
Hanks sexual desires, which we are supposed to believe change depending upon the race of the girl hes with, go from anonymous and indifferent for cash to personal and caringfor cash. Maya Angelou knows why the caged bird sings. In her autobiography, she says Monster Balls made her do it too. According to the USA Weekend interview, Halle Berry understood her sex scene to be about so much more than sex. Its without this Im gonna die, not just, I wanna feel good tonight.
This, which we can call the Marvin Gaye Sexual Healing rubric, is a favorite Hollywood scene-solving technique that says when two characters become inexplicably and unavoidably involved in each others life, the only way to justify it is to have them suddenly make the beast with two backs, thereby guaranteeing audience involvement just at the moment one would otherwise start thinking about leaving the theater and demanding a refund. Did you get hot and bothered? Did you then forget why these two were together in the first place? Goodthe technique still works!
Interestingly, however, the cinematographer seems to have gotten a few quarter-second flashes of meaning into the scene. The caged bird isnt singing here, shes flapping, trying for all the world to get out. Is the black woman caged by the white man and trying to escape but incapable of doing so for economic and historic reasons? Only these few quarter seconds give the viewer any reason to imagine that someone on set might have been aware of the deeper implications of the overall story, and how sex was being used here to cement the traditional relationship of black women to white men. Then again, it could simply have been that the actual bird on set got hot and bothered watching the black Berry get Thorntoned by Billy Bob, and simply couldnt sit still.
But even if you take the movie with a bucket of salty popcorn and give it the benefit of its numerous self-produced doubts, Monsters Ball is still pretty bleak news for race relations in America. The movie portrays the near-impossibility of blacks and whites having a successful relationship in contemporary culture. While attempting to show how true love conquers all, the script is nevertheless filled with so many contrived coincidences to bring these two unlikely and race-crossed lovers together that you can only walk away with the unintended but opposite message: In real life, not even a miracle could make this work.
As such, Monsters Ball is a film that asks and answers only one question:
Question: When will blacks and whites get along together in America?
Answer: Never. Or rather, only when the white man can screw the black woman without any consequences whatsoever. And when will that happen, according to the film? Only when all the black men are dead and the black women are already half white, already measure up to the white beauty standard, and are so economically dependent (i.e., enslaved) that they have no real choice in the matter.
Whats that again? That the film unintentionally paints a more virulent picture of racism than the one it is intending to overcome. Only if the white man kills the black womans spouse, helps dispose of her dead black sons body, and basically ensures that there are no other threatening black males around, such as the kids on his property that can only be frightened away with a shotgun blast, is he then free to love her. The love story works only if her spouse is killed by him (whose former spouse is already dead), only if his kid commits suicide while her kid gets hit by a car and dies, only if she gets evicted while he evicts his father, only if the state requests that he take her home, only if they get drunk together, only if he buys her a car, only if he already has a pre-existing predilection for chocolate ice cream and black coffee (not to mention a genetically inherited trait for splitting dark oak), only if she enslaves herself sexually to him by becoming completely economically dependent on his spiritual and physical welfare, confessing her helplessness both as black and as female by pleading that she really needs someone to take care of me, only if he pays substitutionary atonement by renaming his used car company after herthen, and only then, will these two truly be able to say, I think were going to be all right.
And of course, they wont be all right. Theyll be anything but. Shell wake up one day to the true nature of her plight and hopefully put a shotgun between his eyes, pull the trigger and say, Did you feel that?
In other words, it's a pretty terrifying time to be a black man or woman in either the Deep South or the Shallow North, but perhaps especially in the Vapid West where erotic fantasies are made to look like redemption and where racism, with just enough white light, can be made to look like reconciliation.