The Importance of the Minutiae

I wrote this piece about why it kind of irritates me how quick we all are to refer to movies or TV shows as groundbreaking, and it made me think of something else: who says something needs to be revolutionary to be important? Hell, things don’t even have to be good to be important.

In that post, I brought up Harold and Kumar. And as I said, I don’t think that can be called revolutionary at all. But if you look at Kal Penn, one of the lead actors, you can see the clear progression of his career throughout the history of Hollywood movies with Indian leads. I remember reading an interview that he did once. It was part of the lead up to the release of The Namesake. And in it, he said that he was so happy to be working with Mira Nair because it was partially a movie she made in the 90s – Mississippi Masala – that inspired him to become an actor. The reason she chose him to play the role was that her son had seen Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle and asked her to give him a shot because he was great. You would think that his image from that movie would have damaged his chances of getting the role, and in fact, it did. It made Nair think he was the wrong choice for the role. But he was only in a position where she was aware of him enough to both think he wasn’t a good fit and to have her mind be changed because of that ridiculous movie.

A movie directed by a brown woman with a brown lead inspired Penn to start acting, and a silly comedy where he played the lead launched his career and paved the way for his roles in The Namesake, Superman Returns, How I Met Your Mother, Designated Survivor, and more. From that perspective, Harold and Kumar may not have been revolutionary, but it was certainly important. But that wasn’t something immediately obvious. When it came out, it was just a dumb stoner flick with gross comedy that didn’t do well at the box office. It still helped the careers of its leads. It still mattered.

Sure, sometimes it’s clear when a work is important. Mississippi Masala was pretty clearly crossing boundaries and addressing topics few other movies did. It was a romance…but it was one that tackled the challenges of interracial relationships and intercommunity racism. It wasn’t clear what – if any – impact it would have in the long run, but it certainly was something new. Maybe you could call Harold and Kumar important at the time. I’m not sure anyone would, but you could say it. And it did have an impact. But the real impact isn’t something that could be seen until a few years later. It’s kind of like Star Trek.

Star Trek was a campy sci fi political drama that, in hindsight, looks hilariously terrible, despite the political allegories and moral questions. It was a trailblazer for representation even as declining ratings put it at risk of cancellation multiple times. But Nichelle Nichols as Uhura inspired Whoopi Goldberg to become an actress. She inspired Mae Jemison to study science. And Goldberg and Jemison proceeded to inspire countless people themselves. It goes to show that it takes years for the full impact of something to be seen. We need to give things more time before we decide what their place in history is. There are ripple effects for everything. Something may matter for one person, but that one person may matter for countless more. Something minor – the most trivial seeming of roles – can turn out to be more important than we could imagine. So maybe we should just take things as they are without rushing to declare it either the best thing or the worst thing in the world. Because if something is important, we’ll find out eventually. Why insist we can tell immediately?

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Why I Want Mira Nair To Direct An X-Men Movie

I love the X-Men with all my heart, but the film universe exhausts me. As much as I enjoy aspects of it, on the whole, we’re talking about two decades of tokenism and cynically exploitative use of minorities. The post I linked to was about Jubilee in Apocalypse, but the issue is so much broader than that – the treatment of Storm, Darwin, and Psylocke. The shameless queerbaiting and use of scenes reminiscent of a person coming out without ever including an LGBTQ character, to the point of going out of their way to exclude one (Karma, in The New Mutants). Turning the universe that has traditionally been about oppression and discrimination into what’s mostly just a set of generic action movies and focusing excessively on Wolverine, the one character that’s doesn’t fit into that theme. It’s a clear sign that Fox needs to let minorities tell their own stories, and one of the directors that I think would be well suited to do so is Mira Nair.

Nair has been producing consistently good work for years, and she’s been doing it completely unapologetically. For whatever reason, despite her long career and good work, she’s not a huge name. Possibly, it’s because of the type of movies she directs – even when she’s working with a big studio, her works come across much more indie than anything else. She doesn’t do the big, blockbuster type things. She turned down directing Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix because it interfered with The Namesake. She’s worked with Reese Witherspoon, Lupita N’yongo, Denzel Washington, and several other big name actors, but her movies are the sort of low budget, understated pieces that fly under the radar, even if she doesn’t have much of a specific “type” of movie. All of that means that her making an X-Men movie would be unlikely, but also that she’d be perfect for the job.

Nair isn’t a huge name to the general public, but her work matters – her 1992 movie, Mississippi Masala, was one of the reasons Kal Penn started acting, because it was through her that he could see people that looked like him on the screen. Her movies are filled with heart without being saccharine or overly sentimental. She doesn’t shy away from hard truths, nor does she present grim, hopeless stories. As such, she’d be able to capture what the X-Men and the mutants mean to a whole lot of comics fans and depict the seriousness of the mutant metaphor without making a movie that’s just more of the allegorical minorities suffering endless persecution.

Nair has demonstrated repeatedly that she’s capable of telling this story, because the core of the X-Men is supposed to be civil rights, discrimination, oppression, family, and Nair’s body of work shows off her ability handle those issues very well. The Namesake is a story about family and a character struggling to find himself, just like most stories of new people joining the X-Men or manifesting their mutation. Mississippi Masala is a romance that also takes on race relations and intercommunity racism without ever falling into the trap of treating any group as a monolith – if Nair were to direct an X-Men movie, she’d be well suited to illustrating the perspectives of the different factions without glossing over any of the flaws.

Give me more personal, emotional, human X-Men stories. Take a step back from destruction and the deaths of all the X-Men (twice was too many times, I can’t take that again) and go back to the stories teammates and friends, students and teachers, found families. The X-Men were built on relationships between characters, and Mira Nair bringing them to life in a movie would be a delight to watch.