Quinsy Gario is a film and television scholar, focusing on gender, race and culture. He’s also a poet, award winning theater-maker and the performance artist behind the Zwarte Piet Is Racism art project for which he was arrested in November 2011. You can find more of his work on www.nonemployees.com or look him up on Facebook. He currently lives and works in Amsterdam.
When the cast for the film Alleen Maar Nette Mensen (Only Decent People) was presented in 2011, it was clear that this would be racist spectacle. Alleen Maar Nette Mensen, originally a book written by Robert Vuijsje, is the story of David, a young Jewish man who is often mistaken for a Moroccan and is thus in an identity crisis. This crisis comes to a head when as a child of the affluent Amsterdam South he decides to seek his ultimate Other, a ‘big black booty ghetto chick’ in the Bijlmer, Amsterdam South East. In his search he meets Rowanda and her family including her cousin who shows him what it means to be a man, or in his case a black man. During this process he becomes estranged from his white friends, who at a certain point tell him that black women are for men who can’t get white women, and his parents, who sneeringly quip after meeting Rowanda’s family for dinner that the bottle of wine they brought along cost more than the weekly grocery shopping of Rowanda’s family. He meets other black women, among them Rita who literally changed her name so that she could do an internship at his father’s magazine, and several others who want to have sex with him simply because he’s a white man. The film ends with Rowanda attacking him and sicking her brothers on him as if they were dogs, followed by Rita dating him. Besides being able to fit in with the white magazine world during the week, she lets her hair down (literally) in the weekend and is as ghetto fabulous as Rowanda. She just knows how to conceal it better around white people. Racism, sexism, white privilege, white supremacist thinking, class based discrimination and cultural appropriation in an ugly nutshell.
Prof. Gloria Wekker brought into stark historical relief that cultural productions based on degrading black women’s bodies was not just an ironic endeavor without material consequence. Vuijsje admitted not being aware of this but the damage had been done.
To be clear, Alleen Maar Nette Mensen is an 89 minute assault and degradation of Afro Surinamese and Dutch Afro Caribbean women and men, the Bijlmer (the multicultural heart of Amsterdam) and their cultures. The film is bursting at the seams with racist and sexist spectacles. Fictionalized spectacle in and of itself is not at issue here, it’s the manner in which the spectacle is used to uncritically reproduce some of the most damaging historical stereotypes of men and women of color. The book although presented as a biting satire of stereotypes in the Netherlands was eviscerated by Professor Gloria Wekker of Utrecht University. When Robert Vuijsje was called on his racist and sexist depictions in the book he kept reiterating that what he made was fiction and thus existed in a different realm removed from day to day reality. During one of the many debates on the book, Prof. Wekker brought into stark historical relief that cultural production based on degrading black women’s bodies was not an ironic endeavor without material consequence. Vuijsje admitted not being aware of this but the damage had been done. His failure to understand that what he deemed fiction was used as the basis for official policy was brought to his understanding but this didn’t stop the rest of the country from devouring the book and making it a certifiable hit.
Hundreds of thousands of reprints and editions later, the book became a film adaptation. Jeroen Krabbé, who most know as the villain in the Fugitive, said at the cast presentation that he found the book to be ‘an ode to the black woman’. After reading the book and now after seeing the film, it’s safe to say that Krabbé doesn’t actually know the meaning of the word. As Vuijsje was distancing himself from the reality of what his book was creating in the minds of the average white Dutch person (like respected journalist Hanneke Groenteman who admitted to Vuijsje on national television that she didn’t know people really lived like that in the Bijlmer, a statement he didn’t correct), Lodewijk Crijns, who wrote and directed the film adaptation, did all he could to ground the film in reality.
The tragedy of lost lives of black men and the emotional public display of grief was turned into background noise.
The lowest of the low of such an instance was when he took a local television incident from 2009 and used it as insignificant and stereotypical Bijlmer background for a scene. The Bijlmer in the summer of 2009 was the scene of tragedy and loss of multiple young lives in broad daylight. In the incident Elvira Sweet, the former head alderwoman of the borough, was accosted by an irate young man who had just lost one of his best friends the day before. The local news station AT5 was doing an interview with her on the dire situation in South East and the young man objected to Sweet using the losses of lives for politics. The film turned the tragedy of lost lives of black men and the emotional public display of grief into background noise. Seeing this used in this way is all the more heart wrenching because while the whole movie indicts black mothers of being uncaring, ignorant, slavery obsessed and sexually depraved, the young man apologized publicly to Sweet after his mother told him to. To add insult to injury the young man has since gone on to score a national hit with his hip hop formation. His hit has now been used in the same film that depicts his display of grief and anger as a sign of a lack of civility. The politics of respectability rears its ugly double standard head.
The astonishment I felt when hearing the hit song after the scene, was the same when seeing various black actors on screen partaking in reenactments of racist stereotypes or degrading depictions. One such scene was when a black actress after attracting David through a naked webcam sex scene spits on her hand to stroke actor Geza Weisz’s penis because he apparently couldn’t get it up for her. In the film black men are shown to regard and promote women as objects to be used and discarded. Maurits Delchot, a rapper known as Negativ, plays Rowanda’s cousin Ryan who during the whole film only talks about sex, is having sex or is showing male bonding through sex with women. He is David’s guide through the supposed seedy underworld that is the Bijlmer that the filmmakers and writer depict. During one scene Ryan picks up a mother with her child in a stroller by whispering in her ear and dragging her out a store after she nods approval. Then they arrive at an open square that leads to cellars of a housing project. As they walk by a bag of garbage is thrown out into the square right next to them and explodes all over the child. Then they get in a cellar the woman bends over against a wall and Ryan pulls down the woman’s panties and tells David to stand in front of her so she can fellate him. All the while the child is in the stroller in the very same cellar.
This character is the cousin to Rowanda and yet finds his male bond to David stronger than his familial bond to Rowanda. In the book the mother in the cellar at least said something but in the film she is completely silenced and muted by Crijns and company. The black male sexual predator and the docile but sexually agressive black female are sexual fantasies steeped in centuries of racist stereotypes. What were all of these black actors doing in this movie that depicted black women as overweight, over-sexed animals and black men as perpetually horny sexual predators? Is the Dutch theater, film and television industry that barren for black actors that these are the only roles that are available to reach a national audience? After seeing the white Hans Kesting get cast as Othello in the big stage production by Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the nationally and locally subsidized Amsterdam based theater group, the answer seems to be: yep.
Is the Netherlands that barren for black actors that these are the only roles that are available? After seeing the white Hans Kesting get cast as Othello the answers seems to be: yep.
And this isn’t just the fault of the arts for creating a situation where black actors literally have to take degrading roles because those are the only roles available, it’s also the fault of Dutch society as a whole. The most puzzling fact about the cellar sex scene is that it was made possible by the social housing agency Ymere. In September of 2011 they rented a cellar at the Heesterveld Creative Community to the filmmakers and because the clearing in the housing project is public space, they were allowed to dress it as they pleased. All the while knowing that the book and the film were everything but flattering about the Bijlmer. This resulted in the clearing being filled with junk and garbage and the cellar sex scene. With one signature, handshake and telephone call Ymere contributed to yet another round of negative portrayal and a continuation of the negative narrative about the Bijlmer. Paradoxically Ymere itself was trying to boost the image of the Bijlmer by two years ago initiating the Heesterveld Creative Community which houses around 86 artists, musicians, dancers, theater makers, filmmakers, photographers, fashion designers, culinary artists, copyright scholars and more. This seems more like a harebrained get-famous-quick scheme than a carefully thought out strategic branding decision.
When looking at the funding of the film the widespread complicity in keeping up racist imagery is astounding. The Abraham Tuschinski Fund Foundation, the National Broadcasters Coproduction fund (the COBO fund) and the Dutch Film Fund have all financed this exercise in visual racism. That all three of these were involved is a call for concern. What the COBO Fund and the Dutch Film Fund gave isn’t available online but the Abraham Tuschinski Fund Foundation gave Topkapi Films 122,000 Euros to make the film. This fund was started by Dutch cinema operators and film distributors to stimulate the Dutch film industry and keep it alive and was named after the Jewish Abraham Tuschinski who helped mold the film industry at the very beginning. By dislocating the very Jewish nature of the cinema exploitation at the turn of the beginning of the 20th century, and simply focusing on his success in the cinema industry, the institutionalized willful ignorance pertaining to race and racism in the Netherlands rears its ugly head. This fund should be more acquainted than any with the knowledge on how images work to dehumanize others in order to make legislation, which treats them as objects and not humans, more easily implemented and carried out.
When looking at the funding of the film the widespread complicity in keeping up racist imagery is astounding.
The COBO Film Fund and the Dutch Film Fund are funds that operate with public money. When writing on the nationally subsidized Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet Parade last year Willem Bosch noted that the state shouldn’t be sanctioning and subsidizing blatant racism. How did this proposal get passed the assessment committees of these public funds? When asked for an international DVD screener of the film to show to journalists outside of the Netherlands the publicity company Wild Bunch, that organized the press screening, did not respond. Here we thus have a film that public money was poured into and that the makers are afraid to show to the outside world. What happened to the outward looking business sense that former Dutch Prime Minister exalted when he said that we should once again have the VOC mentality? What happened to the idea that every form of subsidy needs to be innovative and internationally appealing? With the exchanging of the current minister of immigration with a minister of international trade or a minister of development aid, in the eyes of the Dutch the two are one and the same. The question is whether he or she is going to show this film as a form of successful immigration or a long term failure of international trade and development aid.
The Bijlmer, despite all of the improvements over the last twenty years, is still presented as the dangerous, black, multicultural cesspool of the Netherlands. The film upholds the idea the Bijlmer is the way it is because of the people who live there and not because of the conditions created by the state and municipality that created their living conditions in the first place. At least the book gave you the chance to reflect for a second on what you just read, but the film doesn’t let up. There is no room for critical reflection on what you just saw because you roll from one racist and sexist image to the next. We go from the black intern Rita, who is literally introduced to the audience via her ass, to a scene where the male protagonist is calling her a Bounty, the Dutch equivalent of being called an Oreo cookie, because she’s having an intelligent conversation about ‘the Palestinian issue’ with him subsequently saying that Israeli Jews call Dutch Jews weak because they would’ve never let themselves be deported and gassed. By categorizing this fetishistic racist spectacle as a comedy the Dutch audience is once again presented another dehumanizing image of the Afro Dutch community as light entertainment. After being ostracized by his family David simply goes to work at Kentucky Fried Chicken to be closer to black culture, trades up for Rita and goes shopping to the world renowned, and Afro Surinamese owned, Patta sneakers and clothing store. While at the end of the film David’s family is presented as a family with problems and idiosyncrasies, the black family doesn’t get off that lightly and is simply a pack of wild dogs with no redeeming qualities.
While at the end of the film David’s family is presented as a family with its own problems and idiosyncrasies, the black family doesn’t get off that lightly and is simply a pack of wild dogs with no redeeming qualities.
When I walked into the press screening for Alleen Maar Nette Mensen, I hoped that the filmmakers had taken heed of the criticism of the book. I hoped that they knew the difference between a book written with indifference towards the history of dehumanizing fantasies about black women and ignorant and degrading visual depictions of those fantasies. I hoped that at the end of the film the Afro Dutch community would be presented as just another community with its own specific charming quirks. But for the umpteenth time it’s become clear that you better not hope for the depiction of racial equality by the dominant culture, or those who want to appease it, here in the Netherlands. You’ll only get disappointed by the depictions, by those involved and by those who you considered allies and actually would rather you not speak up about it.