The Summer of Barbenheimer: Being Worthy of Main Character Energy

Unless you’ve been off planet, or without WiFi, you have likely heard of the Barbenheimer film phenomena. Released on the same weekend, the two wildly different films, have captured audiences this summer.

One for its ability to recreate the childhood playsets of the eponymous doll’s pop-colored pink world into a feminist critique of modern-day womanhood.

The other for how noted Hollywood storyteller, Christopher Nolan, peels back the layers to gaze at the conscience of the man who created the atomic bomb.

Vintage Barbie by RomitaGirl67

The other thing both these films have in common is that they are able to take a historical figure and ask us to view them sympathetically.

That’s right, Barbie, the doll that once promoted impossible beauty standards, now garners our empathy as she fights against them in her effort to live a nuanced life in the real world.

Barbenheimer: About Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer, meanwhile, whose project took over a corner of New Mexico, is plagued by doubt for the power he can create, all the while the US Government clears the land it will need to test the bomb, divesting it of cattle, homes, and people already living there. This is the frustrating thing about Nolan* as a filmmaker – he is among those in Hollywood with the most leeway, and yet he still can’t spare** 10 minutes for an opening scene of a few kids being rushed off the land.

Or when the first shovel goes in to build the labs, we don’t see any of the Latino workers who were tasked with the manual labor – or eventually – handling the radiation. Surely this type of historical accuracy in the background could only strengthen the storytelling and underline the burden shouldered by the ‘father of the atomic bomb’? What about a tiny epilogue showing any of the children, parents, teachers, and people of New Mexico ‘downwind’ or affected by the test days, months, years, and generations later?

I remember when the cast was announced for Nolan’s latest and Tweeting that his cast seemed very one-dimensional.

And someone replying – “Well, white people built the bomb. What do you want?”

We had a little back and forth with my explaining (before knowing the total history) that well, someone else of another race had to have been involved…

Fun With Barbie

While Barbie does a little better than her opening weekend rival, offering a supporting cast with impeccable diversity credentials including Issa Rae and Lizzo, as well as America Ferrera and many others. There is a running tongue-in-cheek poke at masculinity as well via Ken, the ever-present boyfriend without a purpose. But we have seen other versions of this in ironic cameos of Toy Story plots.

I guess what I’m saying is how impressed I am that a doll who left many of us feeling alienated and alone while growing up because we didn’t have the hair, the skin, or the features she touted, is now an international cultural sensation for women everywhere.

Barbie gets depth and feelings and troubles and most of all our sympathy. As a blonde white woman whose journey takes center stage.

Imagine another writer duo with this budget starting the story with another one of the dolls?

Or another writer starting with the story of any of the girls in the school who ended up with cancer from the Trinity tests. Whose fathers might have been among the men digging the ditches, placing the platforms, and clearing the so-called ‘barren’ land?

Many are calling/hoping for the same.

A Barbenheimer Sequel?

So we hope there will be spin-off films; where Malala Barbie gets to tell her story. Even as talks of a sequel swirl… you get the feeling this type of character (or director) doesn’t share the screen easily.

*Nolan also gave no screen time to the thousands of Indian soldiers who were stranded alongside the British in Dunkirk, awaiting evacuation.

**One notable exception to Nolan’s homogenous casting is John David Washington in Tenet.


Connect with Mohana on Facebook and Twitter. Learn more about her work here.

To learn more about life in the Arabian Gulf, check out the Crimes In Arabia series!

Why Naatu Naatu’s Oscar Win Isn’t a Slam Dunk for Diversity

You would think being the first song from an Indian film to win an Oscar would be a sign of a major step forward. Some sort of ethnic glass ceiling shattering at Hollywood’s most glittering evening. But that is actually the opposite of what this year’s performance of the Best Song nominee showcased.

I have to admit – they got me. Put a guy with a black beard on stage in one of the leading roles – just like in the movie – and I assumed it was some up-and-coming South Asian dancer who would all soon hear about. But no. Billy Mustapha and Jason Glover, while clearly super talented, have no roots from the Indian subcontinent.

Why Naatu Naatu's Oscar Win Isn't a Slam Dunk for Diversity by @moha_doha #diversity #theoscars #indian

Because while the steps were well executed and the celebration was around the pivotal scene of a film criticizing the colonial outlook on Indian culture – there was not one person of Indian descent on the stage. Not even when half the scene was played by Indians in India demonstrating to the British the local stamina far outpacing the colonizer in dancing.

Why The Lack Of Diversity?

We could speculate on all the reasons how this came to pass, or why the stars of the film, purportedly wanting the focus to be on the vocalists, were not available to perform the dance themselves. (Was it really because one of them thought there wouldn’t be enough rehearsal time?) Visa complications apparently kept the original choreographer away until the dress rehearsals.

But the award of the choreography to Nappytabs, a dancing duo associated with the So You Think You Can Dance reality TV franchise, left most South Asian Americans in the industry, and otherwise shaking their heads.

If indeed, Ram Charan and NTR Jr. felt they got enough out of the film, and didn’t need the pressure of a rushed performance, the rest of us sure could have used the boost…

Click here to watch the performance on YouTube.

We Still Have Work To Do On Diversity

From years of being told they don’t have enough experience, to now being told that they weren’t being chosen because they weren’t among the dancers Nappytabs knew, it feels like the same old story in Tinseltown: a referral club that shuts out anyone new. And if you can’t get cast as an Indian dancer for an Indian song from an Indian movie at the Oscars… then, what hope is there?

The Oscar performance of Naatu Naatu shows the system-wide disregard for authenticity or recognition of how a moment like this could showcase a song, a film, and indeed, a nation, through its specificity. Imagine not one person on set saying – hang on who’s doing the Indian check? Even if it is as token. Blatant disregard for acknowledgment of the culture from which this song and film stem is a stark example of cultural appropriation. One that further underlines what has been true for a long time – brown people have very few public spaces to occupy – even when creating our own cultural representations.

So, Oscar night was a double slap – first because using non-South Indian dancers, choreographers, and producers undercuts the film’s overall message: stand up to colonialism. Second, it also erases the specificity of Indianness since the film was made in Tollywood – not Bollywood – the Telugu-speaking areas of the south, and the original dance moves are inspired from that folk tradition.

Those of us from the Southern states, my family included, have long felt our cultures play second fiddle to Hindi or Punjabi, Northern languages that tend to dominate the film and music industries.

While the film’s popularity and the song’s win are a watershed moment for Indian cinema as a whole, it also showcases how high the barriers within the American entertainment system remain.


Connect with Mohana on Facebook and Twitter. Learn more about her work here.

To learn more about life in the Arabian Gulf, check out the Crimes In Arabia series!

Wordless Wednesday: The Invisible Army

I had the rare treat of hearing a friend read her work out loud to a new audience earlier this week. She’s someone I’ve known for years and hearing her read published work filled me with such pride.

Maryam touches on many issues related to the status of migrant laborers in Qatar. Her poem “The Invisible Army” brings a human angle to a big picture issue. This piece is part of a large anthology of Arabian Gulf poets, many of whom are accessible in English for the first time.

Enjoy this video, the 28th in my year of 52 short films project for 2013. I’m not likely to make it all the way to my 2012 resolution before January 1st, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have fun trying.


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