Flawed Portrait

08.30.14

Black 'Boyhood' Is Always Black First, Boy Later

As a treatise on the essential vacuity of the white liberal male, Boyhood is a staggering achievement. As a portrait of childhood in America, it is incomplete.

This year has afforded few cinematic touchstones that can compare with Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. In a summer of blockbuster disappointments, Boyhood has been the great success story, a welcome reminder that a movie about kids can be grown up, and that a movie that’s grown up can still be a hit. Thanks to its now famous conceit following a boy as he ages over the course of twelve years, Boyhood has been heralded by critics as an unparalleled and unprecedented achievement of cinema, the American film event of the year, and an instant classic.

It wasn’t necessarily a surprise that Boyhood left me cold—universal praise can be its own warning sign—but considering the rapturous praise it has received from seemingly all corners, it was still a disappointment. It’s an achievement, no doubt, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that after three hours—and twelve years of life—this kid’s biggest problem was a relatively amicable breakup. Must be nice. As lame as it is to dismiss a movie just because you don’t like a character, well…what else can you do when you don’t like the boy at the heart of Boyhood?

Beyond the dubious pleasure of Mason’s company, what else does Linklater bring to the table? Boyhood is like watching a twelve season television series reduced to a three-hour highlight reel. It’s almost as if sensing his own innovation, Linklater frantically sought to sand down the edges of the rest of his film, seeking conventionality at every possible turn as compensation for the gambit it took to make the film at all.

But contrary to popular belief, Boyhood isn’t the first film to condense years of childhood into the span of a couple hours. Last year’s American Promise pulled the same trick, though as a documentary, not as a narrative feature. The filmmakers, Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, followed their son Idris, his friend Seun, and Seun’s family for fourteen years through their education as black students at New York’s mostly white Dalton Academy, one of the most prestigious private schools in the country.

Maybe it’s the difference in format, maybe when documentaries experiment with time or form, it’s somehow expected, a manipulation of reality in a medium built on manipulations of reality. And hey, maybe all that talk of private school and pushing for the Ivy League was a turn off, especially when compared to the familiar middle class rural comforts of Boyhood—but American Promise never received the masterpiece label that has been almost uniformly bestowed upon Linklater’s film.

American Promise was billed as a film about race, not about the universal experience of childhood—and that’s probably fair. But Boyhood is no less specific to its own milieu, and the insistence on constructing the familiar white suburbia of Linklater’s films as a somehow universal norm erases all of the ways in which race and racism is inextricable from childhood, especially for young black and brown children. Even if you’ve got it made on the Upper East Side, even if you’re surrounded by friends and family and potential witnesses in a majority black suburb of St. Louis, even if you just want to forget about it—black boyhood is always black first, boy later.

After three hours—and twelve years of life—this kid’s biggest problem was a relatively amicable breakup. Must be nice.

American Promise charts the growth of the two boys with all the care that you’d expect coming from parents filming their own child. Idris and Seun are specific in ways that Mason Jr. never manages to be, no matter how many eccentric rants about Facebook Linklater throws his way. When a young Idris looks into the camera and asks if he’d have an easier time with girls if he weren’t black, it’s no less entitled an attitude than the one Mason takes with the girls in his life. But where Boyhood’s conflicts ease by with the assurance of a memory that has since been resolved, the problems Idris and Seun face burrow.

Their questions might be just as simple, but they come with no easy answers.

Brewster and Stephenson don’t need to manufacture tension with drunk husbands or overbearing teachers—in every moment of Idris and Seun’s boyhood there is the sense that the hopes that have been pinned to these boys’ school uniforms could be crushed at any moment. It could be a bad grade, it could be a hostile classmate, but failure is always just around the corner.

Brewster and Stephenson are reflexive filmmakers—sometimes brutally so—and they turn the camera onto themselves as often as they do on the children. The resulting film stands as a frustrating testament to the contradictions and negotiations black and brown families face if they dare to reach out for their piece of the American dream. No pride without pressure, no achievement without anxiety—there is little in American Promise besides the passage of time that could remind you of Linklater’s easygoing slacker.

In Boyhood there’s never any doubt—for the characters or for the audience—that Mason will graduate high school, that he’ll make it to college. Mason ambles through life, free to enjoy the little moments and shrug off the big ones, just like his father did before him. Linklater feints early in the film toward a more balanced portrait of Mason’s family, but as the film goes on both Mason’s mother and his sister recede into the background, buried under a stream of deadbeat boyfriends and cliché teenaged apathy. No, Linklater’s real interest is in the story of the two Masons, father and son—and through them, Boyhood becomes a chronicle of two children growing together across the generational divide into adulthood. If Mason Sr. is any indication, the adolescence that his son faces could persist for decades, and Linklater doesn’t really seem to mind.

If the point was to create a paean to mediocrity, then Linklater has made maybe the definitive work on the subject. The Coldplay opener, Mason Jr.’s off-center black and white photographs of traffic lights, Linklater’s own pedestrian compositions—it all does add up to a whole, but I think maybe not the one Linklater intended.

As a treatise on the essential vacuity of the white liberal male, Boyhood is a staggering achievement. As a portrait of childhood in America, it is incomplete enough to be irresponsible.

With one eye closed, it’s easy to find myself in the vague banalities of Boyhood. My parents reading Harry Potter, my homework shoved into the bottom of my backpack, my family’s Obama sign planted in the yard. But with both eyes open, it’s clear that if I want to go searching for myself, I’m better off looking elsewhere. Innovation is a poor substitute for insight, at least where boyhood is concerned.