Can a white person make a movie about African Americans?

“This is a film by white people, for white people,” says one reviewer. Apparently, “a story about black pain is not necessarily Bigelow’s to tell in the first place.” Why not? How far should we take this argument? Was it wrong for Shakespeare, a Brit, to tell a Roman story in Julius Caesar? I’m pretty sure Gustave Flaubert was never a doctor’s wife who had hot adulterous affairs, but that doesn’t make Madame Bovary feel false or “stolen.” Did he culturally appropriate the female experience? From Bob Dylan singing about poor folks’ hardship to any modern novelist who’s invented characters that differ from him or her in terms of race, class, or sexuality, art is peppered with people writing stories that are not their own. That is very often the point of it: It’s the exploration of the human condition itself, by any human, regardless of whether they’ve lived in the specific condition being dramatized.

The new PC racial purity grates against the entire enterprise of art. It is an affront to the universalizing dynamic and human empathy that make art possible and underpin history’s greatest works. It imprisons the imagination, telling people to limit themselves to telling their own stories, to observing their own navels, and to never leap beyond what they know in order to take both themselves and their readers or viewers to new worlds. Worse, it further racializes everyday life. It boxes us off according to color, insisting that whites cannot really understand blacks, and vice versa. What a dispiriting, divisive ideology: a segregation of the imagination.