Updated: Sep 18, 2021
In a recent a recent Instagram live video, skateboarder Na-kel Smith who stars in Jonah Hill’s Mid 90’s was inspired by the recent protests of the shootings of Ahmad Aubrey, George Flyod, and Breonna Taylor by white citizens and the police, and took the opportunity to call out racism of white and non black p.o.c. pro skateboarders, white team managers, and magazine publishers on their minimization of the racist experiences of black skaters. Na Kel brings to attention the use of the n-word by non blacks and these peoples defense of its use, how skate companies will choose only hip hop or reggae music to play in black skaters' video parts, how team managers have asked him and other black skaters to dance for the camera while filming for company videos, and how white pros and white magazine publishers would hold things over Smith and other black skateboarders in an effort to be excused from being insensitive on issues of black plight.
The video brings up a number of important things but mainly two: of how some anti racist non blacks and non black allies make black existence about their own loss or gain of freedom, and that Smith starred in the film Mid 90’s where its writer and director, a self proclaimed anti racist, does not present black skaters experience or issues in their fullness, especially with racism, and puts a large load on their shoulders to improve and to represent the positive things skateboarding can do.
In Smith’s video, which also features black pro Kevin White who also appears in the film, and Mikey Alfred a black filmmaker and co producer on Mid 90’s, which only now exists in snippets, Smith shares how a non black skater defends their use of the n word, “‘Well you said I could say it. Alright, being drunk, and dumb, and young, yeah, I may have said that, but at the end of it all, everyone gotta use their better judgment as a human being.”
The issue with the racists that Smith, and friends, bring up, many allies of this current protest, and with Jonah Hill is that they operate in a distant and intellectualized and impersonal action, and at times self absorbed behavior, and they make black plight an opportunity to check in with their own freedoms, and not how they can better treat black people. From the friend you have unfriended for being silent about black plight, to the friend you know doesn’t deal with every kind of black person, just ones who make them comfortable, to the allies who posts how much they donated and who they donated to, to the white or non black friend who defends their use of the n word, to the allies who minimize their own racist experiences (some experiences with black people) in order to show how non racist they are, to the non black who sees themselves as a not racist because they wouldn’t disagree with a black person’s experiences, but don’t get to intimately know black people and more– the main objective is making black people view you– when it is not about you.
The problem that is present with folk who think of themselves as not racist, the self proclaimed allies who claim to follow the principles of anti racism, is that the idea of racism is that it is something that exists as surface events, and outside of them. To be anti is a reaction, it is to operate from the mind at all times, and use the body to actively defend, which means you have to work, and for some to make sure to follow a set of rules–which people eventually get tired of doing; rather than explore, take time to understand what you are reacting to, to just be a full human.
Reacting to it does not do much and keeps one checking in with themselves to see if they’re not being racist. Being against racism because it is bad makes racism in society a thing people never consider dealing with rather than something that shouldn’t be here. This is why the current support for the protests slow and appear unfocused and most people protest things that have nothing to do with black equality (i.e. abolishing the police when racism existed before the police) or “take a break” or “go back to normal”. This self absorbed fight against racism introduced the term “allyship fatigue” when no one told people they had to protest. This is why racism and the resistance to deal with ones own issues with race are still here. The person who thinks that racial prejudice is surface level reveal that they think too much about their own freedoms and not the freedoms of the people oppressed.
In Mid 90’s, Hill’s story is about a young kid, Stevie (Sunny Suljic) who joins a skate crew in order to escape his fatherless home, equipped with his abusive brother and his unaware mother. After minimal attempts to get in with the crew, comprising of Ray, (Na-Kel Smith) Fuckshit, (Olan Prenatt) Reuben, (Gio Galacia) and Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), Stevie learns how to skate, and takes on some hard hitting experiences. But while going through these experiences in the film, Stevie latches onto Ray, a black skater, the smartest, the best, and the most mature, the one who is focused on a skateboarding career, and follows after him. Stevie does the same with Fuckshit, who is of mixed race, an equally decent skater as Ray, the one who likes to have fun, party, and lives in for the moment. Ray and Fuckitshit also take on parental roles over the rest of the group from Ray telling Stevie, “it’s not gay to say thank you, it’s common manners”, after Ray and Fuckishit present Stevie with his first complete board, or Fuckshit being first to protect Stevie when a security guard comes to kick them out of a spot.
This lack of representation is shown mostly with Ray. One scene in particular is his first interaction with Stevie’s mom, Dabney (Katherine Waterson) in the skateshop. When Dabney storms through the shop, Stevie being dragged behind, she arrives at the group sitting in the back watching a skate video. She gives an evil look to Fuckshit, and demands they not give Stevie drugs and alcohol, they all laugh, she warns them again, and they continue to laugh. Then gives a look to Ray, the up and down look that whites and other non blacks give to blacks for just existing next to them, says nothing to him, and Ray responds with a shutter and shake, painfully played by Smith, showing she is not trusting of him. This scene gives evidence to what Ray says in an earlier scene in the film, a scene Hill proclaims in multiple interviews as his favorite, but only give 30 seconds of time to, about his experience as a black skater, and getting it worse from white people who look down on him for skating because he is black. But the scene feels forced by the scenes arrival and the timing: Dabney just so happens to turn to Ray to give the look when there was no real tension built before then. Waterson displays this act flawlessly, but not to the belief that Hill knew he was doing this.
It seemed that Hill even missed this, and this may be due to the lack of attentiveness Hill has towards the black experience and more of protectiveness towards a certain white fragility. Fuckshit is not given a moment to reflect on this, he never talks about it, but laughs it off. Ray doesn’t get to talk about how he feels about it, but later defends Dabney for being a protective mother. One would think in a moment like this, racism and how it makes someone feel, especially a black 15- year- old, is more important than someone being a protective mother.
This issue of non representation grows worse when Stevie returns the same day to the backlot of the skateshop, throwing his board, screaming and hollering because he is sad. Ray enters the back lot, and sits down with Stevie, and starts talking to him. Ray tells all of the crews struggles, and his own to make Stevie feel better. Fuckshit has been spacing out, Reuben is abused by his mother, Fourth Grade is extremely poor, and Ray lost his younger brother three years before. He never says a word about the racist experience, or how he feels about it–he never commits an action to express how he feels, like throwing his skateboard or crying, or talking to another friend on the phone about the experience. There is no moment where we see into him. He soaks it up, internalizes it, and moves on, and gives Stevie advice about how people have to be grateful for what they have. Ray says, “you wouldn’t trade your sh*t for anyone else’s” and encourages Sonny to skate the pain away.
But Ray does not give himself the same advice or say something empowering to himself. When it comes to his brother, all he says is that it’s “weird.” Sonny never says “Sorry, dude” and yet throughout the film Sonny can say “Thank you”, and is depicted as good hearted kid.
Ray says nothing about the racism. The racism Hill brings in significant places, the racism he points out that seems like a grasp to make the audience feel something –but he does not spend time with this moment. Instead Hill attempts to give the viewer an emotional tap on the heart, has Ray remain angelic, and for the audience to find safety in. Hill had time to let the character express himself–the film is an hour and 16 minutes. He could have very easily added more lines for Ray. He could have added more scenes of Ray talking about the things Smith talks about in his IG video instead relying on so called realistic dialogue and anecdote.
Ray is leader of the group—but why? He is the most talented, the smartest, he is the most welcoming to Stevie, and is often his protector, parent, guide, and even takes on struggles for him–but why Ray? In a scene near after the scene of the conversation, Ray takes Stevie to skate and takes on his issues by Ray skating amazingly and showing Stevie how it should be done. In the sequence, Ray is shot in a wide angle skating at a legendary stage, and the rest goes into Ray shot in close ups and mid shots, as if he is being filmed in a commercial– working hard, perfect without flaw, nothing to say. Ray takes on Stevie’s issues by the way he skates while Stevie watches. By his skating and through his pulling Stevie up when he falls and giving advice, he stands as a blocker for any harm that can come Stevie’s way. Instead of Ray taking on Stevie’s issues, by existing only for Stevie, and not himself, Ray could have had a scene where he skated alone.
Also, this is around the third time in the film where Stevie talks about how cool Ray is– how he wants to be like Ray, while Ray is either being filmed by someone or we are watching him through the movie’s lense. By this point, the amount Stevie talks about Ray in this manner, and by the way Ray is shot, without a chance to accept or decline the praise, without interaction, without us knowing more about him, it turns from admiration to fetishization. And throughout the movie, Stevie deals with Ray mostly at a distance. He never goes to his house, he never asks Ray about himself, he never asks Ray what his favorite trick to do is. Ray ends up not being human but an abstract.
In Smith’s video when adding in White, Smith asks White what it has been like for him being black and being in skateboarding, to which White responds, “It’s beautiful. But it feels like we have to protect ourselves and protect what we’re feeling because we’re often outnumbered…Some of us don’t speak up because you don’t want a person telling you that what you’re going through don’t matter.”
Mid 90’s mission is to show the glory, and greatness of skateboarding, and showing what it can do for people, what it can do to place people above daily circumstances, but this is put on the shoulders of the black skaters and yet the black person is rarely given a chance to see if he can do this for himself in this film. What we do see is the white characters like Stevie, Fourth Grade, and Ian (Lucas Hedges) have their experiences shown in all fullness, in depth, and are awarded redemption, and all chance to try, and fail, and try. Ian gets to be a jerk the for an entire film, but we see moments into his internal life, and what he struggles with, and while we see his character arch, where he grows to care. Fourth Grade and Stevie get to sit back and watch their black friends make mistakes and all the while they get to carry on with nothing expected of them.
In a scene where the crew talk about their future goals, when his idea of wanting to be a filmmaker gets clowned by Fuckshit, Fourth Grade says, “Well I’ll just go work at the DMV with my dad”. You are made to feel like this choice is undesirable but there’s a feeling of security that Fourth Grade has because he can easily just get a good job whenever he’s ready. These kids never have to be better, and their position is acceptable.
The same should be said in regards for Fuckshit. When it involves Fuckshit, in moments where we see him sitting in the skateshop, sitting with his crew at a spot, to his interaction with Ray on the bus ride, the audience gets the feeling that he must do better. Mid way through the film, the crew chills at one of their spots, talking before they start skating. Fuckshit talks about his being grounded, and how his car has been taken away, and the crew cracks on him. Fuckshit complains about his parents, their strictness, and their high expectations. He is upset about his punishment. But he doesn’t have a scene where he is allowed grace. He explains briefly, when he says, “I’m junior in high school, it ain’t like I’m bout to go Harvard anytime soon”, but there’s nothing more. If you are supposed to feel sympathy it’s a very small amount, being that the scene moves quickly and you can feel Hill’s hand as a writer in this and the line lands flat. It feels like a PSA commercial for dysfunctional teens. We as the audience don’t feel for him. Ray even jokes on him saying, “I would never get my car taken away if I had one.”
Fuckshit isn’t allowed any slack. It certainly feels like this is about to happen as the vibe and mood are, and have been created, to make it feel like a confessional heartfelt moment, but it doesn’t happen, and what we end up with is Fuckshit looking like unaware, and lazy, and uncaring, instead of seeing him as someone who is in pain, dealing with a lack of identity.
Fuckshit should have been given a moment or some scenes of how feels about this. He should have been given more time in which we get to know him, instead of how he feels about his parents. He should have had his personal life depicted. A representation, a chance to show a black kid in a non stereotypical depiction does not happen. From the point where Fuckshit slides the younger kids pills, to when he tries to pressure Ray and the others to go to a kickback after a fight at a skate party, he is not understood or given the chance to be understood. He remains a type, for Hill to structure his story and to paint as someone who is self absorbed and a trouble maker.
By having his character be able to act and behave like what Hill depicts as a black person but not let that black person off the hook but let the white person off the hook, Hill is saying and showing us that whites and fellow non blacks can and will and have no problem jumping from behaving like their favorite black person or not engage with blacks because they’re moving onto the next thing, and can go on living their lives and leave black people to deal with their own hardships, unheard and unseen. They will be distant figures to interact with but never deeply engage.
This is the insensitivity Smith and White talk about when they tell stories of not being heard when they tell they’re non black teammates about their pain at hearing them say the n word or being called that name. This is the insensitivity of the many non black self proclaimed allies who post and protest until it’s not the hot thing anymore and move back to posting about what meal they had or the trip they’re going on. Hill gives minute thought to the black experience, and the black experience in skateboarding, unless he is trying to prove a point, or trying to say something about the world through black skateboarders. Similarly like many self proclaimed allies who post things on social media, who try to educate, and take no time to investigate their own relationship to black people. This takes place because of two things: they do not think they are racist and they are mostly concerned with maintaining their own freedom.
The skateboard life is much more dense than what we see in Mid 90’s. The black skateboarding experience and life is more expansive, much more dynamic, and much more of a struggle because kids have to, even now defend skateboarding as something that is black, and that black people do skate. In an article in response to Smith’s video, the author called black skateboarders “culture vultures”. It’s not dissimilar to a white racists saying that black people kneeling or protesting is UnAmerican, or threatens their safety. And much like how black people have to strive to be accepted in skateboarding, similarly, black people have to protest for people to understand that they deserve to be treated like human beings.
If white people and other non black allies can make a conscious effort to protest then they can make a conscious effort to engage with themselves on a deeper and intimate level rather than performing allyship and gauging their freedom off of black people. By not taking taking more responsibility for how you think about black of people, why you want to support, or waiting for a black person to say “I’m hurting”, or, waiting until a black person has to protest, or die violently, makes the goal of achieving equality a feel unattainable.
By not making it your life to change as a person maintains that ,“the problem” and black people still do not effect your life. It changes unawareness to pity and intellectualization and at times blind solidarity. For people like Hill who claim, “to hate racism”, but allow events of unity, personal or public to do the work, or wait for society to tell them how to support black Americans, or for non blacks who suddenly bring attention to black plight when it is trendy, do not help to eliminate inequality, but rather further it.
Equality becomes a trend, and inequality gets pushed into the corner for a little while until people’s, allies or not, undealt with ideas, pathos, anger, hurt, entitlement, and undealt with racism comes breaking back out and we continue to regress to worse treatment.
Skateboarding, like living a life is something one does to escape expectation and control the way you want your life to go. In order for people to keep living a life, people need to focus less on being and looking right, and more on dealing with themselves and those looking to exist freely.
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