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May 31 2018
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Staff

Why A 1993 Academy-Award-Winning Short Film Is Exactly What We Need Right Now

In a cultural climate so fraught with tension and divisiveness, there perhaps has never been more need for artists, and creative works, that continue to push the envelope, expose hypocrisy and lies, a

This is no more true than with issues of race in America right now. Donald Glover’s (aka Childish Gambino) “This Is America” music videoKendrick Lamar’s incident with a white fan using the N-word, and the NFL’s latest attempt to end protests during the anthem are all examples (only weeks, days, and hours old) of the ways race relations have created commentary and meta-commentary from this nation’s leading thinkers, artists and money-holders.

Away from all of this though, and away from the immediate spotlight, sits a “little” short film over twenty years old, directed by a German filmmaker (Pepe Danquart) with as much to say on race in America as anyone right now…

 

Though Schwarzfahrer (or Black Rider) wasn’t forgotten back in the early 1990s, when it won the Oscar for Best Short. At the time it was heralded for its wit and its depth regarding the absurdity of bigotry and racism…and so it should still be heralded now.

The German title itself is a play on words (meaning both “black rider” and “fare-dodger”), which plays a major part in the film’s ironic and satisfying twist ending. Though this ultimately is not the only way the film uses multiple layers of meaning.

Black Rider first takes its time to establish itself in its then-modern day Germany, showing the diverse crowds of people that now populate the city. Yet, even in this vivacious, youthful city, there is peril… The opening montage shows us places that should be uniting people (escalators, streets and buses), but only seem to be dividing or isolating them.

 

This visual motif gets thematic backing when the film’s bus of humanity (it is a bus literally filled with all different ages, stages and races of people) starts to turn fractured and paranoiac at the racist woman’s insistent epithets against the young black man occupying the seat next to her.

As if in the sort of peaceful defiance preached by Rev. Martin Luther King, the young black man chews quietly, never speaks and refuses to betray any sense of wild or uncontrollable emotion.

 

His response to the racism, aligned with the other members of the bus having quite uncomfortable reactions to the woman’s overt and hostile attitudes, lead to a climax which ultimately results in her being removed from the bus and left to face an existential void; according to the film’s visual and thematic logic, to be away from the bus is to be separate, and something other, than humanity.

So when the racist woman utters that phrase too-often used in support of bigotry and manipulation today (“Before long, we won’t know what country we’re living in”) she is unaware of the film’s ultimate irony: she already doesn’t know (and perhaps has never known) what country she is living in.

 

The real Germany she was living in (just as the real 2018 America we are living in) is a flowing, abundant and ever-changing nation full of all ages, races and types of people.

If it takes a 12-minute short film to remind us that diversity and inclusivity are always the true reality of any country striving for peace and justice, then all the better.

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