So yeah, if you know anything at all about me, then you know I’m a pretty gigantic Star Wars fan. Yeah, I’m one of those passionate, passionate fans(geeks, nerds, etc.) that reads a bunch of books, comics and games Star Wars related. It’s a lot of fun and entertaining on the surface, but there are deeper themes and meanings that I pay attention and insist others do as well. Themes of religion, history, human nature, and society that make what’s essentially a couple of “popcorn movies” stick in the cultural zeigeist of America.
Well, another one of my favorite movies(without Star Wars in the title) does the same thing. Pleasantville is a movie that came out in the late 1990s, starring Tobey Maguire, Reece Witherspoon, Jeff Daniels and a couple of other faces you might have noticed from the 1990s and 2000s. The movie itself entertains one of those childhood wish fulfillment fantasies where we’ve all dreamed of being in our favorite TV show or movie interacting with the characters we see and go the places they go.
Well, in this story, it had Tobey Maguire and Reece Witherspoon playing teenaged siblings, growing up in present-day America, however the two had two divergent personalities, which reflected in their television interest. Witherspoon’s Jennifer was the popular girl, very… umm.. “social” and was very much a product of the “MTV Generation” that she watched when she would watch TV and not out at a party. Maguire’s David was the total opposite. He was shy, reserved, extremely unpopular and was much more comfortable at home on a Friday night than at a party. And he would spend those Friday nights watching reruns of his favorite show, a 1950s era sitcom called “Pleasantville”. This show, is a fictional version of other shows at the time like the “Dick Van Dyke Show”, “Leave It To Beaver” or “The Donna Reed Show”. Those picturesque families of the time in single family homes with white picket fences, well-manicured grass in a suburbia heaven, also called Pleasantville. The show, like others like it, was in black and white and starred a middle-class family, mother, father and two teen-aged kids, a boy and a girl.
As the movie progressed through the first act, you see David is preparing for a Friday night at home with a “Pleasantville” marathon. Meanwhile Jennifer had a hot date with the popular jock and they planned to watch the MTV Music Awards. So as the two siblings get ready for their night, not aware of each others plans they converage over the TV remote and a fight ensues, which results in the remote being busted against the wall. All of sudden Don Knots, a hallmark from that era of television, shows up and after being impressed with David’s knowledge of TV trivia gives him a “special” remote, which after more arguing, causes both David and Jennifer to be zapped from their real present-day lives of the movie to the idyllic life of the two kids in the show Pleasantville. They were literally trapped in their television, completely in black and white, with all the trappings of life, not just in that age but with the warped reality of television that defined life at that time. And the reality rules of “Pleasantville” were quite different than the normal reality we know or that David and Jennifer knew. Everything in Pleasantville wasn’t just in black and white, but everything was the idealized “Pleasant”. The weather was always “pleasant”. The food was always “pleasant”. Neighbors were “pleasant”. Everything everyone said and did was what was defined as “pleasant”. Husbands came home after work ready to eat dinner made by content housewives. The end of one road out of Pleasantville inevitably lead back beginning of that same road. The high school basketball team always won(because they never missed shots). Books and bathrooms were for show and did not enlighten or give comfort. The only purpose of the fire department was to rescue cats stuck in trees.
However as the movie progressed, you see the veneer of “pleasant” being pierced with the more David and Jennifer forced or accidently made the people of Pleasantville feel anything that was not deemed “pleasant”. The first time this happened was when the basketball team captain, Skip(played by a pre-Fast and Furious Paul Walker) was supposed to ask out Jennifer, or who he thought Jennifer was from the “Pleasantville” show. David, who knew each episode, knew that they were in the episode where he ask her out and they have a date. But David also knew that as happy as he was living his perfect fantasy world, Jennifer was struggling having to live by the 1950s era rules and morals. So he suggested to Skip that perhaps he can ask her out another time when she’s more accustom to how things were, which caused him to feel despondent and out of frustration, Skip threw the basketball to the hoop and it rolled out surprising everyone in the gym that made every shot they attempted. Of course, the changes did not stop there. The more noticeable change outside of changes feelings and actions were the changes in color that came with it. Later in the movie, Skip did get his date and instead of showing his interest by giving Jennifer his school pin, Jennifer took the opportunity to show her interest and have sex with him in the backseat of his car, which is something that wasn’t done in the 1950s era “Pleasantville”. And as he dropped her off, still in ecstasy over being with Jennifer, he sees a single flower in a void of black and white that’s a vibrant pink. And as the movie goes on, whenever a character feels or does or acts in a way that’s different than who they are, the world around them will go from black and white to color. If they felt or acted silly or excited, rageful, sensual or even content, the world around them would change. First it started with flowers or wallpaper and soon it goes to whole people. We later start to see noticeable reactions from those who are “pleasant” and still in black and white versus those who are, as they would term it “colored”. The Citizens Council of Pleasantville instituted new rules to keep things “pleasant” by banning colors of paint, closing down places where people would meet to enjoy themselves as well as other prohibitions. The movie eventually devolves to an allegory of the Jim Crow era of America and the nation’s embrace of the modern age with all the constructs of a diverse population, the good and the bad. We learn that sometimes humanity is not always the perfect vision of what was considered “pleasant”.
Three months ago, 25 year old Ahmaud Arbrey went for a jog in a neighborhood in Brusnwick, Georgia. After making a brief stop at a house that was under contrustion to took take a look around, verified by video evidence, the owners word and the fact that he was wearing jogging clothes in broad daylight, Arbrey was approached by three individuals. One in a single vehicles and the other two, father and son, Gregory and Travis McMichael. They were armed with firearms. Arbrey was not. After a confrontation with Arbrey, Travis McMichael exited his vehicle, approached Arbrey with his firearm in hand and as Arbrey resisted McMichael’s efforts to retrain and detain him for nothing he did wrong, he was shot and killed.
Two full months would pass by. And the only action that was taken in response to this shooting was to justify the actions of the murderers by saying that Arbrey was suspected in a burglery(he was not), in an area with a recent rash of burglaries(which there were none) and that he, an unarmed man, attacked three armed men, which was cause enough for them to shoot him to death, thereby blaming Arbrey for his own death. Nevermind the fact that if he were to flee, in their eyes he would be resisting, just same as if he were to attempt to wrestle away a firearm prepared to kill him would also be resisting in their eyes. Pretty much leaving Arbrey with no alternative other than to either be dead or be a criminal, neither of which should have been the case. For months after and likely for a multitude of years prior, the people of Brunswick, Georgia knew nothing and did even less. They were practically living in the same Pleasantville from the movie. And for that matter, given this case most of this country has been living in Pleasantville. Everything is wonderful. There are no societal ills. Any problems in a community are solved within 30 minutes. These same people who either have no awareness of the threat black men and women are under as we live our everyday lives or like to pretend that the world is still as pleasant as it was when it was in black and white. They will literally and willingly tell you that “they don’t see color.” Which is precisely what afflicted the people of Pleasantville. They didn’t just not see color. It is this process of thought that assumes things are pleasant by ignoring color, literally and figuratively. But in doing so, it shows a willingness to ignore an entire facet of our identity. That “color”, it’s a part of who we are. To ignore it, is to ignore us. It is to have no awareness or grasp of entire truths and experiences living outside of a make-believe bubble. There’s a desire for their worlds to be devoid of such conflict and strife. They are content with the oblivion of a perfectly pleasant but absolutely unrealistic world.
In Pleasantville, things might be black and white in a literal sense, but with those that refuse to see the shade of America that exist whether they know it or not are living in a figurative black and white world. This country was built on the back of those with challenges to an idyllic order. Frankly, we wouldn’t have a country without them. It’s a part of the human experience. Our own humanity has challenged us to always seek to be a better country. Better than what we were before. But when you have those who desire to go back to a America that was defined by a place like Pleasantville, they desire to live in a America that no longer exist and quite frankly, never really did. Their America is as fictional as Pleasantville’s. They just didn’t know it. That’s the America Ahmaud Arbrey literally ran into. That’s the America some politicians promise to legislate us back to. An America that is devoid of color. An America that is not challenged by the humanity of others. An America that is pleasant again.