Thursday, January 10, 2008

Juno's Subtle Racist Slip-Up

This post concerns a slip in the film Juno that arguably implies a small bit of racism on someone's part. I'm not sure whose. But it will take a bit to get there. Just so you know.

To set this up, I need to briefly map the route of a particular train of thought: While discussing bad movies over dinner, Aly mentioned Spanglish, which I've never seen and which I only recall as starring Paz Vega, an actress who I like to describe as the woman who stole Penelope Cruz's DNA. (Seriously, the two look similar enough that, had they been competing species and not sexy, Spanish-speaking actresses, one would have gone extinct by now. And I think that one would be Paz Vega.) Anyway, Spanglish brought me to that movie Along Came a Spider, which stars Morgan Freeman and a blonde actress who has Julia Roberts' face. (Possibly for reals; Roberts may have shed her God-given face sometime in the late 90s.) Only, at the time, I recall neither the title of the movie nor pseudo-Julia Roberts's name. (The latter is Monica Potter, the internet tells me, and I now recall that I've written about both her and Paz Vega before, on this very blog and in the very same post.) But about Along Came a Spider: I could only recall that it was a prequel to another movie whose name I couldn't recall. This second, temporarily nameless film starred Freeman and Ashley Judd and had the pair solving murders and so forth. (Another recalled tidbit: Mena Suvari and the younger sister from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air were also in it.) Both Aly and Spencer informed me that the film I was thinking of was The Bone Collector. I, however, wasn't sure this was right, because I actually saw The Bone Collector in the theater and I could have sworn I remember Angelina Jolie being in it. Thus, a computer made its way to the dinner table and — with the help of IMDb, that ender of so many "Who was in that one movie?" arguements — we discovered that not only was Angelina Jolie the female lead in The Bone Collector but that Morgan Freeman wasn't in the film at all. It was Denzel Washington. We had conflated The Bone Collector and Kiss the Girls.

So what, then, put the idea in all of our heads that Morgan Freeman played the hero in The Bone Collector?

Well, in the past few weeks, all three of us saw Juno at least once. (Aly and I actually saw it twice.) And in the movie, the title character delivers this one line during a telephone conversation with Leah, the best friend character. Leah questions whether she's speaking with Juno and Juno joke-answer's "No, it's Morgan Freeman. Do you have any bones that need collecting?" (Part of the line is even in the film's trailer, I'm pretty sure. Leah's response, "Only the one in my pants," isn't.) So I guess Aly, Spencer and I can all weasel out of owning up to the mistake ourselves by claiming that Juno put the idea in our heads that Morgan Freeman, not Denzel Washington, starred in The Bone Collector. Theoretically, we could also say that Diablo Cody, the film's writer, is at fault for confusing one accomplished African-American actor with another, though she could have possibly written the scene knowing who actually starred in what with the intention of making Juno at fault. (I couldn't imagine why one would deliberately give a character that specific flaw though, especially since Juno seems otherwise preternaturally pop culture-savvy.) At the same time, however, we can't really blame anyone here. Whether Cody or Juno biffed this one, none of us questioned it until confronted with the irrefutable proof that is IMDb.

I have to admit that whether the mistake implies racism is totally arguable. One could view the Morgan Freeman-Denzel Washington confusion as a totally innocent case of mistaken identity. Sometimes you confuse one person with another, after all, and both men acting in fairly similar roles: crime-crusading mystery solvers paired with Caucasian women who eventually save the day. However, whenever a member of Race A mistakes two people of Race B, it opens the gate for that old complaint of "Oh, I guess we all look alike to you." Hackneyed, yes, but totally present nonetheless. Bob J. Whitey can confuse Judi Dench and Maggie Smith all day, but the minute he mistakes Cicely Tyson for CCH Pounder, the specter of racism arises, warranted or not. (An appendix to this rule: Refer to Ruby Dee as Sandra Dee and people just think you're an idiot.)

Let's say for a minute that the Juno line does, in fact, imply a small bit of racism. The complaint, I guess, is a tiny one in the scope of the movie itself, especially because if one wanted to accuse Juno of being racist, one's best bet would be picking on the scene in which the title character meets her Asian-American pro-lifer classmate Su-Chin outside the abortion clinic. For whatever reason, Su-Chin can't seem to grasp the concept of irregular verbs and, thus, chants the phrase "All babies want to get borned!" Pretty lame, really, in light of the fact that the advanced placement-seeming Juno and Su-Chin are in the same class. They even discuss having to write a paper, which I'd bet would be especially problematic for someone who speaks English as badly as Su-Chin does. One could counter even this, however, with the idea that Cody dumbed down the lone pro-lifer in a film about teen pregnancy in order to avoid being categorized as an anti-abortion writer.

If that's not clear enough, dear readers, I'll summarize my answer to your question: In short, I'd have to say "lobster."


  1. Anonymous2:41 PM

    This line's intentional, and it's great. You think Cody wrote the script, revised it umpteen number of times, watched it distributed to pertinent people at the studio where it was read and reviewed, where it was eventually sent to the film's crew (including Jason Reitman, ADs and the script supervisor) and nobody caught it from development to shooting?! Ridiculous.

    It's not a subtle hint of racism. Like it or not, Juno makes a dumb mistake a lot of average white people make all the time -- she confused two Black actors. She's the typical suburban white kid, even if she thinks she isn't.

    Norm //

  2. You're welcome to to your opinion, and I even said that the point was arguable, but I know quite a few people who would read a bit of racism into the slip. Granted, you gave a good reason as for why Cody might have written that into Juno's character, but I still feel like enough factual errors make their way into movies that I, Joe Blow Nobody Who Can't Read Diablo Cody's Mind, couldn't say with certainty that it was intentional or not.

  3. Anonymous3:12 AM

    I am not sure how I came across this site, but I agree with Norm. After the film released in select cities, and receiving the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award Nominations, they revised the trailer to even spotlight the fact that the line was intentional. I am not sure how its racial at the least bit, but it certainly made for an interesting conversation, some people look to far into things, and while some could debate its "racists" it was definitely intentional which should be the arguement of the conversation, not whether its racist.

  4. I think that the line is actually a reference to "Kiss The Girls", in which Morgan Freeman stars alongside Ashley Judd, and plays a detective hunting down a serial killer. Interestingly, this is the sequel to "Along Came A Spider" that you confused with "The Bone Collector" in your story. Juno's reference to "bone collecting" was an unfortunate coincidence and refers to the plot of the Freeman movie, not the Denzel movie with a similar name.

  5. I know. I said as much. And Kiss the Girls isn't the sequel to Along Came a Spider. The latter is a prequel and came out in theaters after the first.

  6. Anonymous12:14 AM

    "I should go to CHINA, I hear they give out babies like free iPods..."
    thats racist..actually I call it subliminal racism. Mention like going to Africa and giving out babies or anywhere else and it wouldnt have made it on the script. How about going to India and giving out babies or Ireland, trading a baby for a pint of ale? How about going to Israel or Palestine and selling a baby for a car bomb. That would be a funny line too and totally ridiculous...right...Dang Racists!

  7. That's actually closer to what I was trying to get at with this post than I think previous commenters understood. "Subliminal racism" gets pretty close to it. I'm not saying that either Diablo Cody or Juno herself are flaming bigots who hate everybody. However, at least one of them seems to let rather stereotypical views of non-white people inform her views of them. Sure, it could be only Juno, with Cody writing her that way in order to underscore the fact that she's sheltered and doesn't understand the world as well as she'd like to think she does. However, there's still the problem with Su-Chin, whom Diablo Cody also created. Furthermore, I'm just confused as to why Cody would create a character who's purportedly savvy and on top of things and let her fall prey to this casual racism. Isn't this movie supposed to be some sort of fantasy world? Isn't Juno supposed to be some sort of cool girl roll model?

    This racial references don't render Juno bad, really, but when you start counting them on your fingers, they would seem to form a pattern, and one that's especially surprising for this purposefully cute indie film aimed at hipsters-to-be.

  8. Anonymous10:31 AM

    I completely disagree with you. For starters how is getting two people confused (purposely or not) racist? I must seriously be missing something here because it just seems so ridiculous to me.

    Anywho.. I would imagine it wasn't a mistake, just as Norm said, many many many people will have been involved with the making of this movie and I'm sure at least one of them wasn't a white supremist!

    Great blog other wise :)

  9. Anonymous8:23 PM

    It's funny that you wrote a whole article about a "racist" mistake when you were the one who made a mistake! You have the movies confused!

  10. I suppose you do make a point, but I would not have confused them if the movie hadn't initially put the idea in my head that Morgan Freeman appeared in the bone collector. I feel like I can't blame myself entirely.

  11. Anonymous8:20 AM

    Wow people were quick to jump on the "how could you even think that's racism!" Accusation train. The funny thing is I found this post because I was using movie clips to make a cd and used that sound bite. As I was listening to it again in my car I clued into the morgan freeman slip (denzil is my fav actor and I know all his movies) and so I wanted to know if anyone else had thought this was a racist slip and was intentional. I am a white female and was hanging with a black male friend the other day who went to see Silver Linnings Playbook, when he left a group of older women came up to him saying "we knew you were that guy the in the movie" they are reffering the one black chartacter in the movie. Considering they watched the movie in small town Canada I'm not sure how they made that mistake. I'm not saying either slip WAS racist but it is interesting to me how white people seem unable to even open up racist dialoge with out getting deffensive. Consider posibility people, and don't attack others for asking questings... What do you fear?

  12. I think the Su-chin portrayal was a case of intentional casual racism (why the chant "babies should get borned " chant the rest of her dialogue was grammatically perfect and accent-less. I could almost here the white casting director in the background yelling "Be more Asian! F*ck up your English!" )

    Actually, I came here because of my problem with her comment regarding the ideal adoptive parents. The character wanted someone cool, meaning " a 30-year graphic designer with an asian girlfriend." That comment, more than anything, reminds me that this movie was for a white audience. Asian women are just accessories to make you edgy and cool, apparently.

    What a shame. This is probably my favorite movie, lines wise. You see how a bit of casual racism can ruin even the things you love? I wan to personally address Cody Diablo, and ask her why she'd alienate her asian audience members for cheap laughs.