Editor's note: This is the first of three dispatches on the 2016 Sundance Film Festival written by participants in this year's Roger Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism. For more on this year's participants, go here.
It's fitting that in the era of #OscarsSoWhite, this year’s Sundance movies took a more critical look at whiteness. Last year’s "Dope" was a freshman year essay on race and black identity; this season there are a few more people of color a little more thoroughly drawn. The clearest success is "Birth of a Nation," where Nate Parker writes, directs, produces, and stars in a movie that reclaims a narrative of slavery and rightfully recasts it as less a human horror story than a distinctly American one.
While "Birth" confronts American history head-on, "White Girl" and "Morris from America" received less fanfare, but have a lot to tell us about our country’s conception of the whiteness slavery built on the lives of black bodies.
"White Girl" begins as a fever dream, one set within the confines of the sticky heat of a New York summer. Leah (Morgan Saylor) is a student in the city who moved to a Queens neighborhood she describes as "basically Brooklyn." Soon enough, she meets Blue on the corner (Brian "Sene" Marc); he ogles her from afar and soon enough, they’re sleeping together; later on, he’s in love.
Blue is the movie’s most compelling character, but Leah becomes the peroxide blond paradigm through which the camera records the plot. Like Daisy Buchanan, she creates her own chaos and somehow manages to float above it. Blue watches her bob in the air – she sleeps with her media wunderkind boss (Justin Bartha), smokes blunts two at a time, and drags her dealer beau to a club where the hipster intelligentsia slide wads of twenties into his hand for overpriced coke. He might sell drugs, but she’s the one that has him strung out, intoxicated by her status. She can glide between her world and his own, between the shabby block they share and "Bad Mag," the Vice stand-in where she interns.
"Morris from America" chronicles an identical phenomenon. The movie is set in Heidelberg, Germany, and its leads are pre-teens and their parents, but it’s a psychological rumination on the same sensation: feeling enveloped by whiteness and empowered by it. With one look, 13-year-old Morris (Markees Christmas) is consumed by his crush on Katrin. He’s an outsider, a black American boy living abroad with his father Curtis (Craig Robinson). As the other kids expect him to fill out their stereotypes and ignore him when he won’t, Katrin is beautiful, blond, and flirtatious. When she asks him to tag along with her on tour with her older boyfriend’s band, he agrees against his better judgment.
Blue and Morris aren’t especially similar. They live in different places, have different ambitions, listen to different music, hail from different ethnicities. But they fall under the same spell of whiteness and privilege. They’re in love with women who can’t see the oppression that plagues them, and so somehow it ceases to exist in their presence. Leah takes Blue to a new neighborhood in Manhattan and shows him a new version of his future: With her, he’s more. Suddenly everything is kicked into high gear. He’s a little livelier, a little sloppier – his friends protest, but Blue gets more coke from his menacing supplier than ever before. He brings Leah into the basement apartment with the stash, showing her as proof of his access to the lucrative white world she calls home.
So too does Katrin’s friendship fuel Morris. His rapping, which was once falsely street – "fucking all the bitches, two a time"– becomes authentic and personal. When he performs live at a show, his rhymes are received by a cheering crowd. At parties, he drinks and smokes and works the room, dancing wildly and having fun. Morris teaches Katrin that Jay-Z is more than just "Beyoncé’s husband," but once he’s home alone he listens to the house music she favors.
Film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the still-potent concept of "the male gaze," but directors Elizabeth Wood and Chad Hartigan have shown the effects of a white female one. It’s earnest but also falsely emboldening: Blue and Morris don’t see themselves as white, but they see themselves through their muses’ white eyes, thinking whiteness can expand, extending all the way to their darker bodies.
"White Girl" and "Morris" become cautionary tales: Leah and Katrin play in and around identities and realities they don’t fully understand. It might not be anyone’s fault, but it comes at a price. The girls’ white authority figures might not take them seriously, but the camera is drugged by their youthful optimism. Katrin likes that Morris is always a little bit out of step with the other white boys at their summer camp. Leah is shocked when Blue’s arrest, a third strike for a poor kid from a bad neighborhood, might mean decades behind bars. But the girls are young, gifted, and blonde; they’ll figure it out.
There’s no jealousy here. These men aren’t coveting whiteness; they’re besotted by its power. "I love you," Blue tells Leah. And he does – she’s a free pass to a bastion of confidence brown men were never allowed to access. "I want to fuck you," she responds. Morris stays out late without leaving a note, trading his close trust with his father for the possibility that Katrin might kiss him. James Baldwin said that to raise a black boy is to prepare him for defeat but not destruction, and eventually that's what Morris' father must do.
Soon enough the dream comes crashing down: Leah and Katrin betray the boys they’ve snared a little at a time, until it all adds up. For every moment Blue and Morris have seen themselves through the eyes of the white women they’ve loved, there are a million more where they’re faced with the reality of their skin and status. When each tries to fight for their female counterpart, they fail. They’re "men who were almost men," to borrow a phrase from Richard Wright. Everyone is alive at the end, but Morris survives because he’s had a father who has seen it all before. Blue doesn’t.
"Birth" was Sundance’s star, perhaps rightfully so. But that wasn’t a movie about race so much as it was a movie about the races America built, and how we’re all living in a stunted society still doing that building. Hartigan and Wood, inadvertently or not, look at the legacy of the system that executed Nat Turner and taught his descendants that there would always be places they didn’t belong. "Morris from America" and "White Girl" might take race at face value, but they’re also sharply watching how it empowers people who were never permitted to have it before.