Last night I went to the movies with a couple of my friends to see the latest film starring Meryl Streep. I don’t actively follow any actors’ careers, but it’s obvious even to me that she’s one of the few grande dames of US cinema: she can take any role and script, however mediocre or beautifully crafted, and embody the character so that we forget we’re watching Meryl Streep.
I had no particular expectations for August: Osage County; I hadn’t seen or read the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play by Tracy Letts, and so didn’t have to fight memories of how a theater director had staged it or my own visions of what it should look like. I enjoyed the film, if one can “enjoy” a work about a family that put the D in dysfunctional and made any small problems in my own family look like a few ants at a picnic. The acting overall was excellent, Streep delivered her usual stellar turn, and the play translated to the screen quite well – those shots of the treeless Oklahoma plains stretching to the steaming horizon did illustrate the distances between characters and the parents’ childhood hardships.
But I have one huge problem with the film: the only non-white role from the play was reduced to just about nothing. I am so very sick and tired of the token person of color in US movies.
In August’s first scene, Bev, Streep’s character’s husband, is hiring Johnna, a young Cheyenne woman, to cook, clean, and help care for the couple. They need a nanny, really – he’s an alcoholic and Violet has cancer and is addicted to a laundry list of prescription drugs. Violet’s racism is part of her nastiness, but I find it nastier that this play and film are simply one more in an endless line of works about white people who get to have complete lives, and their tokens, who get to wait on them. Johnna is a hero – probably the only one in the story – but she has only two real lines of dialogue – the same line repeated, in fact, not even two distinct lines. Otherwise she’s a stoic Indian, the servant everyone treats like a non-entity, and the excuse for Violet to carry on about political correctness (the author has disguised it a bit, but that’s what her “Native American” rant really is).
There’s more, but I don’t want to be the spoiler party-pooper of the month. After all, the film stars Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and other box-office biggies, so lots and lots of white people will want to see it.