Hacks Want 'White Privilege' To Take Wing in Netflix 'Bird Box' - But It's Not There

P. Gardner Goldsmith | January 1, 2019
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TheRoot.com commentator Michael Harriot has a way of infusing his racially charged pieces with a lot of humor, satire, and glib turns of phrase, so it’s easy to enjoy his writing and finish with a neutral feeling of, “well, that one was intense, but he did it with a smile.”

Unfortunately, on December 27, Mr. Harriot lampooned the creation of a man I know, and did a disservice to the hard work he put into writing a stunningly brilliant novel, entitled, “Bird Box”.

See, not only was the book “Bird Box” released to wide acclaim in 2015, its author, a great guy named Josh Malerman, was able to see his creative efforts turned into a breakthrough Netflix film, which was just released – again, to great acclaim.

With Netflix itself stating that over one-third (45 million, plus) of its global subscriber base watched the film adaptation starring Sandra Bullock in the first week of release, “Bird Box” is huge, and it’s going to get bigger. It’s starting to inspire memes, and it’s getting people talking, speculating about what the monster is -- the monster that, if one looks at it, will make a person lose his or her mind.

And one can’t begrudge people speculating about that monster. It’s fun to come up with ideas about subtexts and metaphors, and the net is a huge place, designed to allow all kinds of free speech -- one hopes.

But Mr. Harriot’s lighthearted sarcasm about “Bird Box” – that it’s really about how white people don’t want to see their own “White Supremacy” – takes away the fun of speculation by being unjustifiably harsh and toweringly “one-size-fits-all” prejudiced -- and it appears at a time when anyone can actually look up what the monster is about, because Josh has told people.

In case you’re not familiar with the film or novel (which I hope you will rectify ASAP, because they’re both awesome; please read the novel first!), the set-up is this:

A single mom is raising two kids in some kind of whacked-out, near-future apocalypse, a dystopian world in which no one can look outside, because some…thing is out there, and if anyone sees it, he or she will go mad, and I mean mad in a really, really scary, dangerous-to-others way.

In the film, Bullock, who risked some of her own capital as an Executive Producer, plays that mom, named Malorie, and stars alongside John Malkovich, Trevante Rhodes, Sarah Paulsen, and a cast so filled with talent one could offer a novella in their praise. Heck, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross did the soundtrack!

But since the monster is invisible, and a lot of folks, like Harriot, didn’t look up an interview with Josh, the practice of movie-speculation has gotten slightly out of hand.

Says Harriot:

(W)hen I started watching Bird Box, I was pulling for the invisible monster because I immediately recognized that the movie was a parable about white America’s willingness to ignore white supremacy. 


Sure, one could delve into a long missive about where accusations about “White Supremacy” in America miss the mark and where they might possibly fit, but, in this case, to see a commentator broad-brush the creative output of someone I know and admire inspires a simple, gut-deep response of that one syllable.

And Harriot continues to wax myopic:

The movie stars Sandra Bullock who plays a character called “White Privilege.” Miss Privilege is very sad because she has lived a very hard life. She grew up on a beautiful horse farm with her sister in California, which is just like living in the projects except that she hated her father. She really doesn’t say why she hates her father, but white people always hate one of their parents for some bulls**t reason like missing their third-grade Christmas play or making them clean their room.

Which just offers us Harriot's own racial stereotypes and anger.

It’s one thing to be a standup comic and offer an overwrought caricature of a certain “type” of personality trait in order to hit a payoff that might resonate with the audience. Sometimes that works. And, heck, nowadays, people are so sensitive to racialism (not racism) that old comedies like “Chico and the Man” wouldn’t survive. They’d be picked apart by the Social Justice Warrior vultures before they hit the altar of entertainment sacrifice.

So one doesn’t want to be over-sensitive in noting that Harriot seems intentionally oversensitive. The trouble is that a lot of people working in pop media appear far too willing to find racial imbalance in everything, to broad-brush and racially stereotype even as they decry racism – all to push a political agenda for certain kinds of policies.

So is Harriot’s swipe at “Bird Box” witty, or is it tiresome, unfair, and large-scale ineffectual to help race relations…?

Soon, the white people realize they can become immune to racism by ignoring it. They figure out that if you just don’t look at racism, it won’t make you feel bad. So they quickly decide they would never acknowledge the existence of racism, which would prevent them from being attacked.

Personally, I think it’s unfair, even if it’s said with a mild sense of jest, because, really, the larger point is quite serious. Harriot is pointing a finger, at Bullock, at Malkovich, at Netflix (which recently signed a big deal with the Obamas to develop content and hired former Obama staffer Susan Rice) and at Josh.

And if Harriot had been writing in jest, he could have bothered to look up the video interview with Josh, and acknowledged it. He could have written that, well, heck, Josh Malerman, the dude who spent day after day writing this novel, said that the idea for the monster came to him when he was thirteen.

There was a teacher who mentioned that a man would go mad, lose his mind, if he were to attempt to fathom infinity. …So, I went home that night, frightened at the idea… and I went and talked to my mom about it. Like, if I tried to imagine where space ends, am I gonna lose my mind? ...So at some point, I started to think of infinity, or something the human mind can’t assimilate, as a monster. And what if that idea was actually personified? So, on your front porch, infinity is on the porch swing, outside, swinging…

That’s about the most “cosmic” any cosmic horror tale could be, and it’s brilliant, utilizing the key for horror – that it’s scarier to not see the monster than to see it – to perfect effect.

Yet Harriot has to read into it in such a politicized way he takes the fun out of speculation. Heck, Dani Di Placido, of Forbes did a similar thing by speculating that the film is really about a mom being afraid to parent.

But couldn’t these guys have taken the time to add what Josh said the story actually is about? Just take a second to mention, “Well, hey, the man who created the tale told us, but I’d like to imagine it’s about this…”

That would make all this politically or socially charged “Deconstructionism” a bit more palatable.

Lots of folks enjoy imagining subtexts, or reading things into stories, but can't one enjoy a story and what the author intended, even as he speculates about admittedly imaginary hidden meanings? Can't one be fair to the author, rather than focused on making a tale conform to his or her political or sociological agenda?