Thursday, February 23, 2006

Is Brokeback Mountain a 21st Century Uncle Tom's Cabin?

The year is 2105. A freshman film studies student is handed an annotated "recommended viewing" list of classic American films by his teacher. Next to the title "Brokeback Mountain" the description reads "Early 21st century film that raised public awareness of the negative effects of homophobia on society. Many historians credit this movie with igniting the broad fight to abolish all discrimination against gay people."

The student won't see the movie. Not because he carries some anti-gay torch, but because the subject matter is so dated and irrelevent to his life. Sure there are still small pockets of seething bigots who organize backwoods "take back marriage" rallies. But this cultural battle seems so distant, the student is more interested in learning about the actual skirmishes than the events that led to them.

Have you read Uncle Tom's Cabin? To be honest, I only read it once I kept hearing the phrase "Uncle Tom" thrown around to describe anti-gay Senator Rick Santorum's gay aide, Robert Traynam. In the book, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom, an enslaved man, remains ever faithful to his master, and by extension to the system of slavery.

However, the story is about many slaves, all of whom are terrrorized in various ways by a system that turns good people and bad into agents of oppression. The book was read by 300,000 people in its first year, and this number does not include the pirated copies made in the absence of copyright laws. It swept Europe. Abraham Lincoln, upon meeting Stowe is rumored to have remarked, "so this is the little woman who started this big war."

Like Stowe, Brokeback author Annie Proulx never personally experienced exactly the same trials as her characters (though never enslaved, Stowe certainly would have been the victim of systemic racism of the time). And as far as I know, neither has Director Ang Lee. It may be the combination of compassion for and distance from the struggle that allows the story to be told so that both non-gay and gay people identify with it.

Brokeback Mountain provides a point of reference for discussing the destructive pressure of pretending to be someone you are not and the results of cultural and domestic terrorism. The story points to the fact that for a gay person terrorism often comes from within their own family and social systems--it is very common for a gay teenager to be isolated by the family, often to the point of abandonment. U. S. Diplomat Alan Keyes' daughter Maya being kicked out of their home is the most recent high profile example of this.

Without laws to protect them, the families of gay people are subject to the good or bad natured whims of physicians in crisis situations. When it comes to inheritence, all that stands between some families and financial ruin is the will of extended family members.

Slavery and its younger cousin, the Jim Crow South, have no equal in terms of long-term, bewildering evil. The scope of their atrocities is incomprehensibly broad. The question of whether or not Proulx's story will have similar results as Stowe's is not a comparison of slavery and discrimination against gay people. I'm just wondering if Brokeback Mountain will promote dialogue and open eyes the way Uncle Tom's Cabin did.

I will say this, the last time I saw the movie, I was surrounded by straight couples, most looked to be in their 60s and 70s. It was a surprising sight.


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