White Gaze, Black Panther, Animal House

Black Panther premiered this week to tremendous box office numbers. As of this writing, it is just shy of $200M domestically, and over $350M globally. That indicates tremendous support across all races and nationalities.

At the same time, there is a small but vocal component of the white audience that has mocked the film. Some people falsely claimed they’d been assaulted outside of theaters, while others acted like they weren’t welcome on opening night.

The former behavior is downright shameful and nauseating. Even the latter behavior is problematic, though. The Root cites a tweet by Emily Lakdawalla, whose Twitter feed is mostly about science but routinely features comments on diversity in STEM; she doesn’t look like a raging bigot, but rather a white liberal feminist.

There’s been quite a bit written on the way in which white liberals perpetuate racism, including feminist “allies.” I don’t know what percentage of the white people who were concerned about seeing “Black Panther” on opening night were trying (sloppily) to stay out of “black people’s” space, and how many genuinely thought they’d get assaulted.

Either way, my mind envisioned the Otis Day scene from the 1978 film “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” Not the first one, where the band sings “Shout” at the Delta House toga party. The second one, which drips of the misogyny that runs as an undercurrent through the entire film but adds overt racism to the mix.

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The set up for the scene involves four of the Delta House frat brothers (Boon, Otter, Flounder, and Pinto) picking up women at Emily Dickenson College, meant to be a caricature of women’s colleges like Bryn Mawr. The octet is driving around aimlessly when Boon spots a sign for Otis Day and the Knights at the Dexter Lake Club.

Boon gets Otter to pull over so they can see the band from the toga party. Getting out of the car, he exclaims, “Wait’ll Otis sees us! He loves us!”

However, the moment they walk into the bar, the music stops and every person in the bar looks at them. Otter leans in and says, “We are gonna die.” Pinto adds, “Boon, we’re the only white people here.”

It’s important to keep in mind that this entire scene is written from the perspective of the white characters. They see the sudden stoppage, and the sudden attention, as a palpable threat, something which just gets more threatening as the scene continues.

In 1978, the country very much consisted of two overlapping worlds: The white world, and the black world. It has pretty much always been this way, from slavery times through Jim Crow, redlining, and segregation. “Animal House” was released a quarter century after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and a decade after the Fair Housing Act.

The movie takes place in 1962, but attitudes hadn’t changed drastically; I was 10 years old when “Animal House” came out, and the entire movie, including its casual humor about racism and sexual assault, was seen as hilarious.

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After the music starts back up, the group settle in at a table and Boon goes to the bar to get drinks. He calls out to Otis, who just stares at him. Boon turns to the man next to him at the bar, who pulls out a switchblade and starts cleaning his fingernails.

As the scene progresses, Otter takes one of the women out to the car on a pretense in order to make out with her, while the others continue to fret inside about their safety.

At one point, Pinto asks his date, “So what are you majoring in?” She responds, “Primitive cultures.” The shot cuts back to Otis Day singing and the all-black audience dancing.

Any generosity we might have that the screenwriters were trying to make an ironic, nuanced point about the dangers of prejudice and bigotry is thrown out with this “joke.” This is about as racist as things can get without flat-out using the n-word.

But the script continues nonetheless. A black man sits next to Flounder, who smiles and says, “So where do you go to school?” Ha-ha. Black people don’t go to college, silly Flounder!

Two more black men step up to the table, including a looming hulk of a man who says, “Do you mind if we dance with your dates?”

Boon says, “Why no, not at all, go right ahead.” The man pulls the table up from its supports and moves it out of the way.

The third man says, “If I was in your shoes, I’d be, uh…”

Boon responds, “Leaving! What a good idea!”

The three white men run out of the bar screaming, they kick the half-dressed woman with Otter out of the car, and they drive off, leaving the four Emily Dickenson students to walk home.

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Throughout the scene, the key topic is the discomfort of the white characters, particularly the men. Even so, there are several ways the scene could have played out: The characters could have realized their paranoia was not called for; the characters could have come to some self-understanding about how they’d invaded a black space.

But “Animal House” isn’t about college men coming to a deeper understanding of themselves. It’s about a bunch of party boys repeatedly doing the wrong thing, and then getting revenge when they’re finally held accountable for those actions.

It is a comedy about white male entitlement. Both the protagonists (Delta House) and the antagonists (Omega House) are focused entirely on what they “deserve,” ignoring just about everyone else in the process.

Even in the context of an over-the-top raucous comedy that started a genre continued by the likes of “Revenge of the Nerds,” “Porky’s,” and “Bachelor Party,” the Otis Day scene is shamefully racist.

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Author Toni Morrison speaks about the white gaze. This refers to the default assumption that the audience is white, or at least that writers of color need to take care that any white readers aren’t confused. White readers can’t be expected to do the work of researching things they’re unfamiliar with.

I’ve been thinking about the bar scene in “Animal House” for a while now, but the public nature of white people wondering if they’re “allowed” to go to “Black Panther” on opening night drove it back to the forefront of my mind. I imagined white people walking into a theater and being confronted by a sea of black people. “We’re the only white people here,” says one. “We’re gonna die,” says another.

Imagine the same scene in a different movie. This movie is about Otis Day, an R&B singer who is trying to stay true to his roots but realizes he can make side money by playing to the racist white audiences in local colleges.

During these college gigs, Otis and his band don’t interact with their audiences except to get money. They’re a sea of white faces, easily forgotten. After a while, all white people start to look alike to him.

Some white people come into a bar. The audience responds with obvious, immediate distrust: White people aren’t to be trusted. Muhammad Ali was outspoken about this, talking about snakes and Vietnam. “Shoot them for what?” he asked about the Viet Cong. “They never called me n****, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality.”

After the audience goes back to what they were doing, one of the white men greets Otis. Why? Who is it? Does he think Otis owes him money? Is he trying to call Otis out among his fans? Is this some sort of shakedown? White people don’t come into this bar unless they’re trying to start trouble.

These white people are the invaders, as we so often are, and yet we expect the people who are already there to be the threat.

This is, as I say, a different film. It’s not a raucous comedy, it’s a drama.

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The discomfort that the vocal minority of the white male population feel at movies created by people who aren’t white men isn’t created by anyone other than ourselves. We have created a narrative in which people who aren’t us are a threat to us.

As a culture, we’ve grown since “Animal House” was released. In 1978, “Black Panther” would have gotten a minimal budget and would have been deemed a “Blaxploitation” film. It’s a definite milestone of cultural growth.

At the same time, the fabricated fear shows that we still have a long way to go.

Originally published at The Good Men Project.

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