Color/Blind, Directed by Caroline Mariko Stucky
Color/Blind, the newest film by Swiss-Japanese independent filmmaker Caroline Mariko Stucky, addresses itself to the American viewer as it questions the foundations of American race relations. As the title suggests, Color/Blind explores themes of vision and blindness, race and colourblindness, bringing the viewer into a story of inter-racial friendship, friction, and love.
The film opens with the distinctive use of sound coupled with an absence of imagery, introducing the viewer to one of the film’s primary themes, that of blindness. In eliminating the viewer’s cinematographic vision for the film’s initial moments, writer and director Caroline Mariko Stucky mimicks a perception of reality through sound alone, representing cinematically the ‘blindness’ that will centre the film’s message. The screen transforms from the imitation of complete blindness to a ‘colourblind’ black-and-white view of Harlem accompanied by a delightfully laid-back, almost playful synth pop (original score by Swiss Chris and Kevin Njikam) that generates a cultural aura of decades long past. The camera’s view follows a hooded figure walking away from us on the sidewalk, and as our view fades gradually, almost imperceptibly into colour, the figure emerges from her hood as a young, white woman. This is Tracy (played by Chrissy Oakes), one of the central dramatic figures – and the only main character of the film who is white.
Tracy’s friendship with Lili (played by Lex Scott Davis, who also co-wrote the screenplay) and Malik (Brandon Smalls) brings her in contact with Charlie (Loubens Louis), a young, blind, black man – Malik’s cousin. Tracy and Charlie quickly fall for each other – Charlie enamoured by her subtle, Maya-Angelou-inspired poetry, and Tracy by his thoughtfulness and perceptiveness.
Charlie centres the film thematically and dramatically as his conversations with Tracy turn, in well-written adolescent awkwardness, around the topic of race. When Charlie first introduces himself to Tracy, it becomes clear that he is unaware of Tracy’s whiteness when, in response to Malik’s attempt to introduce Charlie, he counters with: ‘Hey, I can present myself to this brown sugar babe’. The comment sparks amused laughter from Lili and Malik, and visible discomfort from Tracy, who remains silent. Charlie emerges as the film’s protagonist, and his thoughts are the only ones to emerge from the texture of his intimate interactions with Tracy. From a dark screen, we hear his internal dialogue – a veritable love poetry.
Be still. If you are still enough you can feel the energies around you changing, and the effects of a change promoted by a figure, a feeling, or atmosphere. And in that moment, I became still, and experiencing the energy shift between that of adolescent curiosity to maturity settling through my bones, raising the hairs on the back of my neck…
And with his thoughts, too, we glimpse deeper into Charlie’s family history and his conception of Tracy as a romantic partner when he thinks he ‘can sense that she is the ebony queen my dear mother would have approved of’.
These illusions are quickly dissolved when, sitting with Tracy on a public park-bench overlooking the Hudson, Charlie reaches to stroke her hair. ‘Hey, I’ve never felt hair like this before’, he says. Tracy’s shock at his ignorance of her whiteness is believable with Oakes’ accomplished portrayal of subtle emotional shifts in body language, and as deeply as the two have fallen for each other, it seems race has not, until this moment, emerged as an issue worthy of actual conversation. But after some initial shock, Charlie reassures Tracy that it ‘doesn’t matter’, that regardless of her race she is ‘the greatest girl I’ve ever met’. The metaphorical significance of Charlie’s handicap is evident, for it creates an initial relationship dynamic that seems to be entirely free of racial constructions and the barriers that might otherwise have kept the teenagers from getting to know each other in the first place. Charlie’s blindness does not define him, however, and the film’s dialogue makes little of his disability in a way that feels organic, as when Charlie’s father (Felix Hiciano) tells him, quite unsarcastically, to ‘watch your brother’ (played excellently by Damien Townsend), or when Charlie says, sitting on the park-bench overlooking the Hudson, ‘the view is really stunning’ (a comment he later admits was a ‘bad joke’).
The racial dynamics of the adolescent romantic relationship position Charlie’s blindness as distinctly significant with regard to skin colour, race, and the ‘colourblindness’ that accompanies his disability. With this layering of complexity, Stucky creates an interesting artistic opportunity to explore themes of disability and racial oppression, constructed social divisions and the illusory nature of race itself. ‘Imagine if everybody was blind’, says the film’s premise line, ‘appearance or ethnicity wouldn’t be an issue anymore’. Unfortunately, the reality is not so simple, and Color/Blind falls victim to a common error of post-racial American discourse: the conflation of colourblindness with tolerance. As American racial justice educator and writer Debby Irving writes, colourblindness is ‘a classic case of good intentions backfiring’. It has been referred to as ‘the new racism’, an outlook that ‘allows us to deny uncomfortable cultural differences’. Disregard for race, in other words, perpetuates racialised oppression, enforcing American racial hierarchies – if not with words, then with silence.
There is reason to be critical of other elements of the film as well, such as the unusual choice of making the film’s only white character a seeming victim of racialised unfairness, as when Charlie asks her whether she is white, and she retorts: ‘Would that be a problem?’ Indeed, the only examples of prejudice in the film’s dialogue are directed against white people. (In another instance, Charlie’s father complains about ‘these white people and their coffee’.) This is puzzlingly opposite to the realities of American racism, so it is interesting, then, that a film concerned with American race relations would narrate these issues without addressing overall themes of structural violence, narrating instead a story that ignores the reality of racism’s particular violence against people of colour. It seems that anyone, even a young white woman, can be a victim. The takeaway message of Color/Blind might be that we should all be colourblind, but its narrative structure and underlying message do not quite match reality: racism is structural, political, economic, and violent, and so, unfortunately, is colourblindness. The cinematographic imitation of blindness, as well as the casting of a non-blind actor to play a blind character is also highly problematic (and all-too common in film). Color/Blind succeeds in exploring themes of race and disability in an urban, American context, leading the viewer through a creative story with well-written and well-played characters and cinematography that draws the viewer in, asking us to reconsider race and even our own perceptions. Its approach to these questions, however, as well as its ultimate message, merit critique. ■
Runtime: 10 minutes
Find out more
Find more information about this film by visiting its pages in the Internet Movie Database, Facebook, and the director’s page on Vimeo. To learn more about award-winning independent Swiss-Japanese director, cinematographer, screenwriter, and filmmaker Caroline Mariko Stucky, visit her website and her page in the Internet Movie Database. Her films have been selected in international film festivals and have received various accolades, and include such films as The Perfect Bunny, Caïssa, Résurrection, and A Story About Ian.
This critical review was commissioned and sponsored by the filmmaker.
Featured Image: A scene from ‘Color/Blind’. Color/Blind.