In this installment of the Mediapolis Q&A, author and editor Merrill Schleier discusses her latest book, Race and the Suburbs in American Film (SUNY Press, 2021), with three of the book’s contributing authors, Elizabeth Patton, Angel Matos, and Amy Corbin.
Elizabeth Patton: Merrill, Race and the Suburbs in American Film provides a welcome and necessary intervention into our subfield’s oftentimes urban-centric scope and more broadly, on cinematic representations of the politics of race and space. Can you tell us about the origins of this project and why you think this book is necessary at this moment?
Merrill Schleier: I specialize in the relationship of cinema to the built environment. My last book Skyscraper Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2009) dealt predominantly with how urban architectural spaces of labor intersect with constructions of gender. I sought to understand why many skyscraper films featured such tall buildings as analogues to the suburbs, prompting postwar commentator William H. Whyte to refer to the latter as dormitories for the Organization Man.1William Whyte, “The Transients,” Fortune, May 1953, 112. My attention thus shifted to postwar domestic spaces and neighborhoods, which reshaped the topography of the United States and altered its racial demography by purposeful design. Hollywood cinema was quick to respond with the advent of the suburb or suburban film cycle in the late 1940s, which morphed into a genre, one that has not been sufficiently interrogated along racial lines.
This anthology stems from an invitation to contribute to Stefano Baschiera and Miriam de Rosa’s Film and Domestic Space (Edinburgh University Press, 2020). I considered several films which explore the racial politics attendant to model Japanese American families’ efforts to move into segregated suburbs and neighborhoods. Although a few books in the last twenty years deal with suburban films, the racialized semantic and syntactical underpinnings of this genre have not been explored. In addition to examining suburban spatial whiteness, the contributors of Race and the Suburbs in American Film adapt Becky Nicolaides and Andrew Weise’s query – “How did other suburbanites ascribe meaning to their own living spaces?” — to cinema.2Becky Nicolaides and Andrew Weise, The Suburb Reader, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2016), 194. Several contributors to the present anthology analyze suburban films written and directed by people of color, which have been left out of the canon while expanding what we mean by suburban cinema.
American postwar suburbs were purposely constructed as racialized spaces, built far away from the urban core, in part, to keep African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinx citizens, and others from its perimeters, creating a residential caste system. Although the more blatant policies of exclusion have been discontinued, the blueprints for institutional racist practices are still deeply embedded in the suburban fabric. Even so, many suburbs today are increasingly comprised of people of color and ethnic minorities, prompting Wei Li to refer to the latter as ethnoburbs.3Wei Li, Ethnoburb: The New Ethnic Community in Urban America Honolulu (University of Hawai’i Press, 2012). In spite of diverse suburban demographics, people of color and ethnic minorities still suffer disproportionately from loan exploitation, foreclosure, and eviction, especially after the 2008 housing meltdown. During the presidential campaign of 2020, Trump tried to tap into white racial animus by promising white suburban dwellers that he would restore them to a prelapsarian era of exclusivity. In concert with these promises, in Hollywood’s suburban films, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinx suburban dwellers are still largely constructed as outsiders, often pressured to assimilate to white standards, making the study of the anachronistic character of most cinematic suburban films more relevant than ever.
Amy Corbin, Angel Matos, Merrill Schleier, and Elizabeth Patton: How does the film you examined in its use of suburban architecture potentially subvert or transform cinematic constructions of whiteness?
Schleier: Take a Giant Step (Leacock, 1959) employs production-designed Neocolonial architecture in the African American Scotts’ family dwelling and their son’s school, a style that harks back to Jeffersonian America to create what George Lipsitz refers to as a “white spatial imaginary.”4Lipsitz, How Racism Takes Place (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011), 25. The Scotts’ lily-white house with its columnar porch, pediment, and symmetrical façade recalls Greek temple architecture revived in the eighteenth century. On the one hand, the residence may be read as nostalgic, heritage architecture associated with patriotism and property ownership. Yet it also echoes the Levittown-built “little white houses” in America’s postwar suburbs, which taught residents, as Dianne Harris argues, how to perform whiteness spatially and through promotional media.5Dianne Harris, Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013). For the Scotts, the only African Americans in the neighborhood, the Neocolonial evokes plantation architecture and the family’s ideological and physical containment, serving as an afterimage of slavery. The interior accoutrements echo its exterior, with pastoral-designed wallpaper, wingback chairs, and a profile wall portrait of Thomas Jefferson. Both architecture and decor speak to the Scotts’ ardent desire to assimilate to whiteness, but despite their best efforts, they are isolated from their neighbors whose control is exercised through surveillance. Their teenage son Spence is further marginalized by his white friends and baseball teammates because of their parents’ fears of racial mixing or miscegenation, which sociologist Gunnar Myrdal deemed the most egregious violation of the color line for whites.6Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma, vol. 2 (New York: Harper Brothers, 1944), 606. Spence is the only member of his family to challenge the racialized institutions and their material incarnations. At his Neocolonial-designed school, he refutes a history lesson on slavery and is subsequently suspended, in part, for insubordination. Fearing parental reprisals and being oppressed by the surrounding whiteness, he runs away to the city to seek communion with other African Americans. In contrast to his parents who reluctantly accept emplacement in their well-appointed dwelling, Spence ultimately decides to leave the suburbs to attend college, his only hope realizing his racial and gender identities.
Corbin: Both the films I study in the chapter, Towelhead (Alan Ball, 2007) and Amreeka (Cherien Dabis, 2009), feature homes that certify the professional upper-middle class status of each cinematic father’s occupations: Nabeel in Amreeka is a Palestinian-American doctor and Rifat in Towelhead is a Lebanese-American engineer. Just the fact that the men’s occupations are lucrative enough to solely finance a single-family in suburbs tells you how closely these films reproduce very traditional American ideas about the family unit. The family’s home in Amreeka is a Neocolonial two-story home with a furnished basement. Key scenes take place on different levels of the home, representing the access to personal space an upper-middle class family expects when they buy a suburban home. It’s interesting how little we see of the exterior of this home: Muna (the sister of Nabeel’s wife Raghda) and her son Fadi arrive in the United States at night after an exhausting international flight and problems with customs, and their arrival at Nabeel and Raghda’s house conveys a feeling of relief, a true oasis in a hostile environment. Most scenes after that take place exclusively indoors and focus on the family’s internal conflicts or what members experience in school or work settings.
Towelhead features a home more typical of newer southwestern tract development, with ranch-style homes that sprawl horizontally. Relatively few trees and plants signify both the drier environment and methods of construction that clear the land completely. There are more exterior shots than in Amreeka, which put more emphasis on Rifat and his daughter Jasira’s presence in the residential community. The barrenness of the neighborhood expresses how alone they are amongst white neighbors. Several of the neighboring families have ties to the military, which often coincides with political conservatism, and is therefore threatening to immigrants from Arab countries, given recent US-Arab political and military relations.
In both films, the architecture is used to represent the white-dominated society the families are trying to assimilate into, or at least in which they strive to be materially comfortable. But through its more classical-style home, Amreeka signifies that the first nuclear family to immigrate (Muna’s sister, brother-in-law, and their children) has tentatively “made it.” Nabeel is a well-liked doctor; their home is nicely furnished and their children are more culturally American. However, their security is fragile because the events of 9/11 cause the family to be a target of threats and Nabeel to lose many of his patients, threatening the family’s financial security.
Towelhead uses the iconography of the ranch-style home and its Texas setting to transform “flatness” into a visual metaphor for a white-centered social conservativism, aggressive patriotism, and xenophobic attitudes towards others. Inside, Rifat has installed home decor that signals wealth like marble and crystal chandeliers, and the home feels spacious, but with only two of them, it has an emptiness that expresses the lack of closeness between father and daughter. Meaningful cultural practices (food, religion, family rituals) are substituted for superficial displays of culture like flying the American flag and abundant Christmas lights. It’s as if the film is asking: this is the culture that immigrants should aspire to?
Matos: Suburban architecture is a prominent element present in Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon (2018). Right from the introduction, the film uses the backdrop of the large, suburban home to frame protagonist Simon and his nuclear family, and the film reiteratively reifies material and visual elements that are common in postwar American films—elements that bolster normative gender and racial divides and that further imbue the film with a sense of normalcy and homogeneity. On one hand, the film perpetuates a fantasy of normalcy imbued with ideologies of whiteness, in that the film presents the almost fantastical story of a suburban queer teen who achieves success in every facet of his life and who is loved and accepted by everyone. On the other hand, it’s possible to read the film against the grain through a focus on how suburban architecture is framed within the film, and how the film self-consciously ironizes or pressures its presentation of suburban spaces and dynamics. For instance, the film presents images of the suburban home using a home video “filter” that highlights and draws attention to the fact that nostalgia is implemented as a deliberate framing device. The home video filter, in particular, frames the scene in which Simon engages in family-oriented activities with his nuclear, white suburban family, and this framing leads us to understand that the moment we are witnessing is relegated to the past and has little to no relevance in the present.
In other parts of the film, we also observe how suburban imagery is frequently used as a backdrop for characters whose practices and attitudes pressure the normalizing and assimilative effects that are ideologically tied to imaginings of suburban spaces. For instance, I demonstrate how the implementation of a station wagon as a narrative device in the film serves as a metonymic extension of a suburban ethos in the film. Ultimately, by approaching Love, Simon through the lens of suburban architecture, I expose how the film uses suburban space to critique the fantasy of normalcy commonly centered in representations of white teens in queer cinema.
Patton: Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) uses architectural references of surveillance and control to confront and dismantle the cinematic construction of whiteness as normal and innocuous. For example, the film’s prelude features a typical upper-middle-class suburban neighborhood with mature trees and large houses situated far from the street on expansive lawns. The neighborhood seems safe to the typical viewer but for Andre, a young Black man from Brooklyn, the neighborhood is dark and threatening and represents a “spatial metaphor for whiteness itself.”7Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). Peele uses the horror trope of a person walking alone at night to subvert the historical narrative of the suburbs as safe, white spaces outside of the threatening city: in this case, it is the suburban space that is unsafe for a Black man.
In interviews, Peele explained how he was influenced by the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Peele said that “I wanted to represent the fact that what many people may not understand is the fear that a black man has walking in a white suburb at night is real. And I wanted to put the audience in that position so they could see it and feel it.” Trayvon’s murder happened in a gated suburban community—a modern equivalent of a sundown town—in Florida. These gated communities function as “architectures of control,” in other words, they are designed as spaces of racial surveillance and domination. The film further makes this point by referencing earlier spaces of surveillance and control—the plantation. The Armitages, the white family in the film, live in a large lakeside house that features Greek columns, a central entrance, and large picture windows, reminiscent of the antebellum style of architecture in the South during the 19th century.
Schleier: One of the common tropes found in suburban films is the use of Neocolonial-inspired architecture to signify hegemonic whiteness, referencing traditional American values and the nation’s birth, but which is also embedded with the stain of slavery and the plantation. This iconographic marker serves a signifying function for conservative values, but which is often mobilized to serve as a critique of anti-Black racialized spaces. Universal Studios even had a backlot dubbed Colonial Street from which many suburban films and sitcoms were filmed. Elizabeth’s identification of Armitage house in Get Out as a relic of the antebellum period dovetails with Peele’s intention to associate the house with Black oppression and forced labor; indeed, the white Armitages hold two servants mentally and physically captive, and are intent on making Chris Washington their next victim. The specter of slavery and forced emplacement surface at the film’s outset with the abduction of Andre, a Black man simply walking in a white suburb after sundown. Andre’s capture by a band of masked vigilantes occurs in a neighborhood filled with identical little white houses, which reference “whiteness as the living death” in these homogenized suburban spaces, and which obliterate difference, architecturally, spatially, and ideologically.8Richard Dyer, “White,” Screen 29, no. 4 (Autumn 1988): 44-65. The earlier Take a Giant Step adopts the Neocolonial idiom to signify an older, Northeastern white suburb at mid-century despite the proliferation of new Levittown cookie-cutter houses. The historically laden architecture of the Scott’s dwelling thus becomes a marginalizing and carceral space for the African American family who are excluded from social intercourse by their white neighbors. In accord with the abduction of Andre in Get Out, the Scott family is also held captive by various “scales of racism,”9Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2014), 128. which entraps them in their home. Love, Simon likewise features Neocolonial architecture as both a suburban normalizing trope, to signify nostalgic, middle-class whiteness, while indirectly implying its exclusionary underpinnings. As Angel elaborates in his chapter, Love, Simon superimposes material whiteness mainly on his newly gifted Subaru station wagon—a cipher of his white privilege—and as a metonymic extension of suburban architectural space. Thus cinema’s suppression of the nation’s older, racially diverse and working-class suburbs and their plethora of architectural styles in favor of the Neocolonial speaks to the genre’s reproduction of a skewed, anachronistic view of suburban space, or an architectural and spatial cultural lag, while further reinforcing its racialized underpinnings.
Corbin: Merrill’s point about how Neocolonial-style architecture dominates in suburban films even as it is only one of many architectural styles we see in real suburbs, and then how this style asserts whiteness—these two points together to make crystal clear how a dominant culture of whiteness is asserted even when the films aren’t explicitly about race, a subject most suburban films explicitly avoid. I find Take a Giant Step’s narrative to be extremely interesting in its use of a teenage protagonist who rebels by leaving his suburban home—it makes me think of the overlap of house and home. The family is unable to feel at home in a house they own—their classical décor doesn’t reflect their culture nor does it feel comfortable, in the sense of somewhere one can truly relax and be themselves.
Nearly every classic suburban film centered around white characters uses excessively formal furniture to visually signify emotional coldness (Ordinary People, American Beauty). Rebel Without a Cause uses a backdrop of swords mounted on the wall behind the family dinner table to underscore the emotional distance between a father and daughter based on his rigidly patriarchal worldview. These interiors are the opposite of the way Gaston Bachelard describes a home as a metaphorical “hut” or safe space that shelters us, physically and emotionally: “our house is our corner of the world…”10Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 4. If many white-centered suburban films see their characters’ houses as opposite from this sense of comfort, then the plight of racially-othered characters in the suburbs is magnified because the outside neighborhoods are hostile spaces, and their homes do not offer a refuge from that hostility. In Amreeka, for instance, the family gets threatening phone calls and letters after the 9/11 attacks, violating the expected sanctity of their home, while they try to escape the discrimination they face in workplaces and schools. The discrepancy between being in a home but feeling unsafe is obviously taken much further in Get Out, as Elizabeth describes the way that Andre is seemingly “welcomed” into a white family’s home—yet unable to feel anything like comfort due to its plantation-style architecture and its inhabitants’ veneer of hospitality.
Schleier, Corbin, Matos, and Patton: How do certain ages or developmental periods inflect our understanding of suburban spaces in your film? Specifically, please discuss the intersection of race, age, and class in your film, paying particular attention to teens, middle-aged adults, and the elderly and how they mediate the suburbs.
Schleier: Take a Giant Step is one of many mid-century films told from the point of view of its adolescent protagonist, serving as both suburban cycle film (c. 1949-1960) and teen pic. Many suburban cycle films construct teenagers as unable to adapt to the putative conformity of the suburbs, often railing and rebelling against its spaces of containment. Most postwar suburbs were not planned with teenagers in mind and many felt bored, isolated, and surveilled, leading to acts of rebellion, which prompted sociologist Herbert J. Gans who studied Levittowners in the 1960s to refer to a pervasive “juvenile problem.”11Herbert J. Gans, The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), 213-16.
Take a Giant Step explores the experiences of a Black teenager and his family in an all-white suburb even more isolated than his peers. Based on the popular semi-autobiographical play by African American playwright Louis Peterson who co-wrote the film script, the film’s suburban spaces are apprehended by Peterson’s teenage alter ego, Spence Scott, who is in a quest to realize his Black and masculine identities. As he comes of age in relation to his white cohorts, he is no longer fully accepted in their suburban social spaces—private homes, teenage hangouts, and restaurants. In a reverse angle shot, he glances longingly in the window of an ice cream parlor where his white buddies and their girlfriends congregate, from which he is excluded by pervasive northeast de facto segregation practices. Indeed the entire Scott family are simultaneously victims of various spatial scales of racism, allowed in various institutional spaces (e.g., school, places of business) but barred from social spaces by racist ideologies and behaviors.
Despite the fact that Spence’s parents are decidedly middle-class, they must be dual earners to enjoy their material plentitude due to the disparity in wages between whites and Blacks in midcentury America. His middle-aged parents believe that material success and an aspirational ethos will benefit them and advantage their son. But the politics of respectability have not turned out well for their age group who have suffered the indignities and violence of Jim Crow in both the south and the north. In spite of their material comforts, their home acts as a carceral, emotionally deficient space.
Matos: Merrill, your identification of the suburbs as a space of putative conformity for teens speaks to even larger ideological pressures present in teen narratives and teen cinema, especially since these narratives contain a socializing logic that attempts to assimilate teens into the demands and responsibilities of adulthood while leaving behind so-called “childish” behaviors and attitudes—behaviors and attitudes that often pressure, if not dismantle, normative approaches to growth, development, and success. In many ways, the suburbs in teen-oriented films are a material reification of these normalizing and socializing effects. And there’s a lot to be said as to whether suburban space ultimately extends itself over the lives and bodies of these teens, or whether the teen finds themselves having to leave this space in order to identify more livable avenues for existing, being, and thriving. Unsurprisingly, characters who embody marginalized or oppressed positionalities are precisely those who frequently find themselves leaving or being removed from suburban spaces (note that in addition to race, queer and queer-coded characters often experience this dynamic of removal, as we’ve seen with characters such as Plato (Sal Mineo) in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Interestingly enough, suburban spaces were structured in many ways that increased the liminality or marginalization of teen experience within suburban spaces. Scholars such as Kirsi Saarikangas, for instance, have pointed out that while suburban spaces were built to encourage strong relationships between parents and children through the inclusion of playgrounds near the immediate vicinity of the homes, whereas “the sports fields for older children and teenagers were located further away.”12Kirsi Saarikangas, “Sandboxes and heavenly Dwellings: Gender, Agency, and Modernity in Lived Suburban Spaces in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area in the 1950s and 1960s,” The Journal of Architecture, Design and Domestic Space 11, no. 1, (2014): 49.
Corbin: In films that feature immigrant characters, different generations (both in terms of age and the country of their birthplace) respond differently to mainstream American culture. If we take suburban culture as a proxy for ideals about success in American culture, then a suburban-set story is an opportunity for the films to comment on how integration into American society varies based on generations. The teenagers are primarily concerned with fitting into school and peer groups; schools are often important locations in the typical, white-centered suburban family drama or comedy for this reason. In Amreeka, Fadi has to navigate being the new kid at school, but with the added layers of speaking a second language, learning how American schools operate, and being mocked for his “foreign-sounding” name. Fadi follows his cousin Salma in using clothing to convey toughness and learning lessons from Salma’s African American boyfriend in how to survive in a white-dominated school. The American racial binary of Black versus white offers Fadi and Salma two opposing identities, neither of which they fit into. And in both films, African American teenage boys perform a defiant, but also necessary, outsider role that offers the Arab American teenagers a path to follow through their suburban high school.
Their middle-aged parents are focused on employment and how their liminal social status impacts their ability to provide for their children. But they also seek to parent their children in ways that align with their distinct cultural values. In Towelhead, this manifests in Rifat’s harsh enforcement of gender norms, wanting Jasira to be modest and deferential. Exploring her sexuality with an African American classmate, Jasira outrages her father. Meanwhile, she hides the sexual experiences she’s having with their white middle-aged neighbor, so the tragedy is that his strict and occasionally abusive personality, as well as his obsession with proving they are better than their white neighbors, prevents him from protecting his daughter from a sexual predator.
Schleier: Amy’s identification of the suburban cinematic school as a purveyor of hegemonic notions of whiteness and/or conformity is an apt one, and particularly vexing for minority, immigrant, and queer teenage protagonists. Therefore, when we explore suburban cinematic spaces, it is imperative to move beyond addressing domestic dwellings and take stock of neighborhoods, places of labor, and public institutions that support suburban ideologies and practices. Preceding residential space, public schools were among the first sites of civil rights organizations’ efforts to desegregate America, leading to the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, and they are featured as places of racial conflict and/or homophobia in the suburban films discussed above – Take a Giant Step, Towelhead, Amreeka, Love, Simon – and many more in our book Race and the Suburbs in American Film. The racialization of the school’s built environment, its white framing of American history, and the racialized conflicts among students combust in these filmic educational institutions. This is coterminous with America’s previous de jure and continued de facto segregation practices and continued unequal educational system. In the 1960s, for example, my predominantly white suburban high school was the site of white instigated race riots in response to the busing of Black and brown students from an adjacent neighborhood. It is worth noting that America’s suburban public high schools are still largely segregated, and unequal. And educational institutions have become new battlegrounds with conservative attacks on Critical Race Theory as a strategy to preserve white hegemonic discourse, hence white supremacy. In the aforementioned films, minority students are compelled to either adhere to such white standards or struggle to maintain their cultural and racial identities in the midst of tremendous institutional and peer pressures. Spence in Take a Giant Step has no African American cohorts in his school with whom to identify, leading to his multiple efforts to escape his stultifying white environment. More recent films show minority teenagers often having to choose between different racial and ethnic groups in an effort to realize their intersectional identities. Yet the ways white supremacy was and still is an integral part of the educational curriculum and its social relations or how institutional architecture and its concomitant monuments support such systemic racism is rarely addressed.
Matos: Love, Simon is a teen film, and thus unsurprisingly, age is front and center when thinking about queerness, race, and its implementation of suburban spatiality. First and foremost, we must be upfront about the irony of Love, Simon and most teen films, in that they are films that center on teen experience that are nonetheless curated and filtered through adult perspectives, seeing as adults possess control over the teen film’s content, structure, and narrative trajectory—a teen film is thus an adult’s understanding of what teen life looks like, which adds much ideological weight and tension to the film.
In many ways, the film creates a contrast between the traditional values and nostalgia associated with the suburbs and the desire for freedom and growth associated with representations of teen life, and the film actively uses symbols and motifs to mobilize these negotiations. For instance, I pay particular attention to how the cars and vehicles are implemented in this film to highlight the clash between normativity and freedom, especially since vehicles such as Simon’s Subaru station wagon are commonly represented as mobile spaces of sexuality and possibility while at the same time serving as metonymic extensions of suburban space. Given that adolescence itself is a liminal space between the sociocultural domains of childhood and adulthood, and is narratively represented as a time in which teens negotiate the tensions between social demand and personal desire, I find the teen film to be an exciting area of study to examine how suburban spaces operate as sites of generational conflict, and even more so, how teens can potentially resist the assimilative demands of adulthood, which often require teens to leave behind “childish” practices and attitudes. Even more so, critics such as Samantha Colling have established that teen films narratively unfold “through contradictory qualities that define ideas of adolescence,” including independence and belonging, and rebellion and conformity, which makes them particularly interesting sites for examining representations of suburban space, which in and of themselves are known for exploring contradictory elements such as privacy and publicity, among others.13Samantha Colling, The Aesthetic Pleasures of Girl Teen Film, (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2017), 4.
Patton: Angel, based on your apt analysis of the symbolic use of vehicles in Love, Simon, it seems like the film also uses some of the common tropes of the road film that fit into the genre’s celebration of “mobility and the freedom of the open road” as central to American identity.14Mia Bay, Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021). As you described, the right to freedom and growth is associated with films that feature adolescent characters, especially in the suburbs. In this case, Simon’s mobility leads to personal transformation typical of the road genre. I also think it is interesting how the film maps geographies of difference, that is, sexuality, race, and age, by representing how the main characters move within the normative and homogeneous spaces of the suburbs and ultimately to the possibilities and promise of the city. Consequently, the film illustrates not only the tension between “social demand and personal desire” for adolescents that occupy the liminal space between childhood and adulthood, but also the contradictions between the supposedly fixed social boundaries that maintain hegemonic hierarchies typically associated with depictions of the suburbs.
Get Out is not a coming-of-age film, which is typically set in the suburbs. However, the film does address generational divides regarding attitudes toward racial politics. The film’s primary audience includes young adults and teenagers that collectively seem to be more aware and opposed to neoliberal forms of racism. This attitude is juxtaposed with older, supposedly liberal adults, in this case, Rose Armitage’s father (Dean) who proudly proclaims that as a white man he “would have voted for Obama a third time.” Dean’s statement implies that as a liberal white man living in a near all-white wealthy suburb, he is comfortable with his daughter dating a Black man unlike the cinematic caricature of the Southern racist spewing the N-word. Rose’s grandfather also represents a generational bridge between older forms of overt racism practiced during Jim Crow in which people of color were denied access to the suburbs through restrictive housing policies and Dean’s embrace of ideologies of colorblindness that profess to embrace diversity but in actuality, affluent suburbs remain spaces of whiteness both cinematically and in real life.
Matos: Elizabeth, I’m really struck by your observation that Get Out is not a coming-of-age film, yet it still approaches generational tensions and divides in a similar fashion to many youth films and coming of age films staged in the suburbs. Many contemporary suburban coming of age films and youth-oriented films highlight the tensions and contradictions between material desire and the fact that we live in a place and time in which “a generation of people [struggle] to secure livelihoods in the most dismal labor market since The Great Depression.”15Alexander J. Means, “Generational Precarity, Education, and the Crisis of Capitalism: Conventional, Neo-Keynesian, and Marxian Perspectives,” Critical Sociology 43, no. 3 (2017): 341. Many younger people are plainly aware of the illusory nature of the suburbs, and are, for the most part, resistant to neoliberal logics that frame the suburbs as a stepping stone toward success, distinction, and belonging. In reality, the promises and affordances of suburban space become more and more fictional for contemporary youths, especially BIPOC and queer youths. Broadly speaking, today’s generation tends to be more oriented toward matters of equity, intersectionality, environmental activism, and social justice, thus further ideologically marking suburban spaces as antithetical to their ethos given its ties to notions of white supremacy, normativity, and colorblindness. Add to the fact that suburban spaces have been critiqued for their environmental effects and the destruction of inner-city areas through the construction of highways, and it is no wonder why this generational divide has become more palpable in suburban films over the years.
Schleier, Corbin, Matos, and Patton: The suburbs have ideologically and culturally been represented in film and media as a place of assimilation and homogenization, especially when it comes to matters of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and class. To what extent does your film affirm or disrupt this narrative? Which racialized issues are omitted from suburb films that are present in material reality?
Patton: Get Out depicts the cinematic suburbs as spaces of assimilation and homogenization to comment on the history of racial violence and exclusion that contributed to the material reality of the suburbs as predominantly white spaces. This includes the emergence of sundown towns to enforce racial segregation in non-urban places across the country during Jim Crow. In addition to not being able to live in such communities, people of color were not allowed to remain at night or after sundown even though they often worked and shopped during the day in the same town. By the postwar period, suburban developers such as William Levitt did not sell houses to people of color even though they increasingly had the means and desire to purchase a home in the suburbs. With the backing of the FHA, which did not provide mortgages to racially integrated communities, Levitt resisted the diversification of Levittown for business reasons claiming that “[i]f we sell one house to a Negro family…then 90 or 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community.”16Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000 (New York: Vintage, 2004). And, when African Americans managed to move to an all-white suburb during the Jim Crow era, they were often the first Black family in the neighborhood and experienced violence and harassment from some of their neighbors.
Therefore, the spaces where horrific acts are committed against Black people in the film are intentionally depicted as homogenized along racial and class lines. This aspect of the narrative exemplifies the planned exclusion achieved through housing and economic policies, violence, and intimidation that created such spaces in the first place, which is often omitted from suburban films. Peele uses horror to disrupt the problematic narrative about the history of the suburbs in the United States.
Schleier: The rebellious and budding intellectual Spence and his feisty grandmother in Take a Giant Step are the only family members to both recognize and challenge the suburb’s assimilationist and materialist ethos; the latter chides his parents for their television habits while the latter upbraids them for their overwork, conspicuous consumption, and deficient parenting. Spence’s penultimate rejection of whiteness and its concomitant assimilationist expectations occur when he runs away from home after being suspended from school, fleeing to the city’s urban downtown, a working-class Black neighborhood where he seeks communion with other African Americans. Spence’s journey maps the racialization of space in America – “the two warring images of suburban abundance and urban decline” – where racial zoning led to honky tonk bars, burlesque clubs, and pawn shops in Black and brown neighborhoods.17Eric Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 4-6. Frequenting several lowbrow establishments and despite being underage, Spence finds himself in the apartment of the prostitute Violet who tries to fleece him of his meager funds while underscoring their diverse class affiliations. Even though his search for his Black masculinity is temporarily short-circuited, Violet’s possession of a white, blonde-haired doll acts as a cipher of their joint racial trauma. Spence’s trip to the Black inner city thus sets the stage for his subsequent departure from the material and ideological spaces of the white suburbs while emphasizing his placelessness and indeterminate identity at the film’s denouement. Racialized emplacement, as Huston Baker argues, can have the “motility of a policing force” especially when its boundaries are set by, in this case, by a dominating white authority.18Huston Baker, Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of African American Women’s Writings (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 6.
While Spence and his family suffer numerous microaggressions, the racialized violence which haunted the real suburbs in midcentury America is whitewashed out of the film. More typical is the case of the Myers, the first Black family to move into Pennsylvania’s Levittown in 1957, who were subjected to 24-hour day harassment and imminent violence, or that of the renowned scientist Percy Julian whose Chicago house was firebombed. As journalist Carl Rowan reported in Ebony in 1958, there was not a week that went by when a Black family did not experience physical harm, property damage, or loss of employment for seeking to secure equal housing.19Carl Rowan, “Why Negroes Move to White Neighborhoods,” Ebony 13 (August 1958): 17-24
Patton: Merrill, while reading your chapter, I thought about the similarities in depictions of the suburbs as spaces of whiteness in television of the period. TV sitcoms also depicted the suburbs as predominantly white (non-ethic), Christian, middle-class enclaves. Early attempts to break away from this mold were rare and often unsuccessful. For example, after a successful run on the radio, The Goldbergs debuted on CBS in 1949. The show featured a working-class Jewish family living in the Bronx. In 1956, the setting of the show changed to the NYC suburbs. Unfortunately, the show was canceled as viewers didn’t embrace an upwardly mobile Jewish family living in the suburbs even though ethnic whites were moving out of cities during the postwar period.
Also, I was particularly drawn to your assertion regarding Spence’s “placelessness and indeterminate identity” at the ending of Take a Giant Step. Spence’s attempt at mobility in running away from his home in the suburbs is, as you describe, limited. In the film, he seems to occupy a position at the boundary as he is not Black enough or masculine enough in spaces of blackness and adult sexuality but also cannot adopt the privileges of whiteness despite his socioeconomic status via his successful parents and life in the suburbs. As historian Mia Bay argues, the right to freedom has historically been regulated, policed, and limited for African Americans. 20Bay, Traveling Black, 3 For Spence, “racialization is experienced as the multiple ways [his] mobility and immobility [are] coerced through systems of power.”21Genevieve Carpio, Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019), 10. This is also evident in your discussion of the racial violence that the Myers experienced when they moved to an all-white suburb of Philadelphia.
Corbin: In neither film do we see the so-called “ethnic enclave” or ethnoburb, a neighborhood where numerous families from an immigrant culture settle and often create social infrastructures like businesses and religious centers. We’re familiar with these neighborhoods in major cities, but they exist in suburbs too, especially as some urban areas are becoming more expensive to live in, and some inner-ring suburbs become more economically diverse. In white-centered suburban films, the sprawling neighborhoods where people drive everywhere and public spaces are relatively empty, and this is often used to visualize characters’ experiences of loneliness and alienation from the dominant culture. In reality, the degree to which suburban neighborhoods feel empty greatly depends on neighborhood design (how far apart the houses are, if there are sidewalks and front porches, etc.). But the empty suburban neighborhood has become a standard cinematic device to demonstrate white suburban estrangement.
So Towelhead and Amreeka use that motif to do “double duty”: it shows individual characters’ alienation but also signifies the outsider status these immigrant families have. It visualizes the racial or ethnic exclusion and the loneliness of being far from a place where people are like them. As I was writing the chapter, I wondered why, of the few films made about people of color in the suburbs, do we rarely see an “ethnoburb,” or a neighborhood where a certain immigrant culture dominates. I think it’s partially because there are so few of these films, and the makers want to focus on common immigrant experiences of being homesick for the food they love, missing the sound of their native language, and being made to feel “foreign.” But I also suspect that it’s hard to get a film funded that focuses on a functioning immigrant community because that counters the mainstream media portrayal of immigration as a problem. And the melodrama of being “the only one” is seen as more palatable to a predominately white filmgoing public, rather than the more complicated reality of an ethnic enclave that provides material and social support to immigrant families, even as the individuals in those families also deal with discrimination and pressures to assimilate. That kind of cultural nuance is hard to find even in independent films.
Patton: Amy, your guiding question regarding why few films feature people of color in the suburbs or the “ethnoburb” also made me think about early TV sitcoms that featured working-class ethnic whites or characters that stand in as immigrants or “foreign.” I agree with your argument that the “melodrama of being ‘the only one’” is more appealing to mostly white audiences as a possible explanation for the lack of representation of ethnoburb. The “only one” also has a corresponding history in TV history but is often used for comedic effect. I thought of The Munsters (CBS, 1964-1965), which featured a family that lived in a large Victorian single-family home in a fictional suburb of Los Angeles. The father, Herman, is a Frankenstein monster, and Lily, his wife, and Grandpa are vampires. The show was intended to be a parody of typical family sitcoms of the period. They are in fact monsters, outsiders that see themselves as the norm and the middle-class attractive white people they interact with on any given day as abnormal, including Marilyn, their pretty blonde niece. The show was socially relevant and addressed national discourse on racial segregation in schools and neighborhoods as the Munsters, according to Laura Morowitz, “served as a convenient stand in for blacks and ethnic minorities. The attributes of these monsters (de-evolved, primitive, bestial) allowed them to serve as symbolic substitutes for the outsiders attempting to ‘invade’ the idyllic suburbs.” 22Laura Morowitz, “The Monster Within: The Munsters, The Addams Family and the American Family in the 1960s,” Critical Studies in Television 2, no. 1 (2007): 35–90. The Munsters are not aware of their family’s socioeconomic status as they think of themselves as socially upper middle-class. They celebrate the traditions of the old world and the everyday practices of immigrants. Like the families in Towelhead and Amreeka, the Munsters represent a family in transition, representing the ideal American Dream—the immigrant family that moves away from the practices of the “old world” to assimilate into middle-class American culture.
Schleier: Amy, your identification of the dual jeopardy of being both an immigrant and a person of color prompted me to think more deeply about how different minority subjects are represented and the virtual absence of the ethnoburb in suburban cinematic space. In fact, since the 1980s, real suburbs have become the new immigrant gateway communities rather than the urban enclaves of the past.23Susan W. Hardwick, in “Toward A New Immigrant Nation,” in Twenty-First Century Gateways: Immigration Incorporation in Suburban America (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2008), 31-50. The depiction of the Middle Eastern suburban dwellers like Jasira in Towelhead or Fadi in Amreeka who are the victims of Islamophobia (despite both being Christian) is exacerbated by 9/11. This results in the former’s sexual abuse by a white neighbor and the Palestinian family’s downward mobility due to discrimination in the latter. By contrast, Asian American suburban subjects in such films as Better Luck Tomorrow (Linn, 2002) and Children of Invention (Chun, 2009) are constructed as overly achieving, willing to go to any lengths to realize success. As Helen Heran Jun argues in this volume, Ethnic Studies scholars have long recognized that “model minority” discourse that posits Asian Americans’ putative respect for education and their forbearance as the reason for their high rates of achievement in school and in business, ignores United States immigration laws after 1965 that favored educated and skilled immigrants from Asia.24Helen Heran Jun, “Alienated Subjects: Suburban Failure and Aspiration in Asian American Film,” in Race and the Suburbs in American Film, edited by Merrill Schleier (Albany, NY: SUNY Press), 147-8. Such universalizing, model minority stereotypes have been used against calls for social justice and the dismantling of systemic racism, often pitting Asian Americans against Black and brown citizens. Implicit in such narratives is the recent assertion that Asian Americans are better able to assimilate to white and capitalist notions of individual success and instrumentality. We must be cognizant of the discreet politicized, racialized, and racist imagery and texts that inhabit suburban cinematic space and the regimes of power that maintain them. Yet in spite of their differing challenges, diverse suburban cinematic immigrants are still constructed largely as isolated, displaced subjects who clamor to adapt to neoliberal standards and the American Dream rather than as integral members of their established ethnic and racial communities.
Matos: In some ways, Love, Simon reinforces the perspective that the suburbs are a site of assimilation and homogenization, or as David Coon would put it, sites that reinforce “the illusion of homogeneity,” and these ideals are perhaps most embodied by Simon, the protagonist of the film.25David R. Coon, Look Closer: Suburban Narratives and American Values in Film and Television (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013), 105. Simon, a subject born and raised in a suburban space, has a view of the world deeply informed by privilege and the frameworks of homonormativity. He is not only obsessed with the possibility of normalcy, but he frames his queerness as the one element of his life that is out of place, one that prevents him from having a “perfectly normal life.” I see many critical moments within the film itself that directly attempt to shatter this veneer of normality and homogenization, moments in which (queer) characters of color and elements such as automobility push audiences to recognize how the affordances granted by suburban life are applicable to some lives and not others. Even more so, Love, Simon constantly juxtaposes the fantasy of normalcy elevated by suburban spaces with the realities of teens who will not and cannot comply with heteronormative expectations and the snaring tendrils of white supremacy. Through this juxtaposition, we come to realize that the suburbs ultimately fail to fully support a universalizing, homogenizing narrative of queer teen life.
Corbin: I was also struck by Merrill’s description of the teenage Spence in Take a Giant Step as placeless after trying to escape the white suburbs and exploring a working-class black neighborhood. Mobility is often equated with freedom, which is very American (the open road, the western genre). But forced mobility, escaping either physical danger or psychological alienation, leads to a feeling of being out of place and unconnected to community. There’s an interesting connection, then, to Angel’s analysis of Simon’s use of the family car and automobility: the car itself can be a place, a moving “bubble” that shelters those inside it and can be personalized to its owners’ comfort, similar to a home.26John Urry, “Automobility, Car Culture and Weightless Travel: A Discussion Paper,” n.d., https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/resources/sociology-online-papers/papers/urry-automobility.pdf. Amreeka ends with a drive in the family van, in which the entire family, plus the school principal, who is of Polish Jewish origin, drive to a Middle Eastern restaurant, joyously listening to Arabic music, eating cheeseburgers Muna brought from her job at White Castle, and switching between speaking in English and Arabic. This is the film’s happy ending: the collective experience in the van represents the different generations making peace with their hybrid existence and feeling a sense of community that continues in the restaurant.
Seeing multiple “ethnic restaurants” in our real suburbs is a common experience, one that is not often represented in suburban films, which typically feature meals at home or fast-food restaurants to symbolize suburban conformity. The absence of such restaurants in many suburban films is another way in which the cinematic suburbs remain unrealistically and unrelentingly “white.” However, Amreeka (as well as the cult classic Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle) have a little fun with the fast-food cliché, using it as both a symbol of assimilation to the suburban lifestyle but also a place of connection to different suburban inhabitants, including alienated teenagers and eccentric adults. These most generic of American businesses thus become, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, cinematic representations of diversity and cultural hybridity – places everyone goes, regardless of race, class, or age. Oddly, this aspect of these two films may be one of the more authentic representations of the suburbs on screen!
Merrill Schleier Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Art and Architectural History and Cinema Studies at the University of the Pacific, specializing in the relationship of gender and race to cinema and the built environment. She is the author of The Skyscraper in American Art, 1890-1931 (1990) and Skyscraper Cinema: Architecture and Gender in American Film (2009). Her most recent book is Race and the Suburbs in American Film (2021). She has published on surburban cinema in Baschiera and Di Rosa’s Film and Domestic Space (2020) and Matos, Massood and Robertson Wojcik’s Crossroads: Intersections of Space and Identity in Screen Cultures (2021). She has also published articles on such topics as cinematic production design and monuments in film in Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, The Journal of Architecture, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, Film Studies, and The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians.
|William Whyte, “The Transients,” Fortune, May 1953, 112.
|Becky Nicolaides and Andrew Weise, The Suburb Reader, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2016), 194.
|Wei Li, Ethnoburb: The New Ethnic Community in Urban America Honolulu (University of Hawai’i Press, 2012).
|Lipsitz, How Racism Takes Place (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011), 25.
|Dianne Harris, Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
|Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma, vol. 2 (New York: Harper Brothers, 1944), 606.
|Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
|Richard Dyer, “White,” Screen 29, no. 4 (Autumn 1988): 44-65.
|Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2014), 128.
|Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 4.
|Herbert J. Gans, The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), 213-16.
|Kirsi Saarikangas, “Sandboxes and heavenly Dwellings: Gender, Agency, and Modernity in Lived Suburban Spaces in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area in the 1950s and 1960s,” The Journal of Architecture, Design and Domestic Space 11, no. 1, (2014): 49.
|Samantha Colling, The Aesthetic Pleasures of Girl Teen Film, (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2017), 4.
|Mia Bay, Traveling Black: A Story of Race and Resistance (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021).
|Alexander J. Means, “Generational Precarity, Education, and the Crisis of Capitalism: Conventional, Neo-Keynesian, and Marxian Perspectives,” Critical Sociology 43, no. 3 (2017): 341.
|Dolores Hayden, Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000 (New York: Vintage, 2004).
|Eric Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 4-6.
|Huston Baker, Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of African American Women’s Writings (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 6.
|Carl Rowan, “Why Negroes Move to White Neighborhoods,” Ebony 13 (August 1958): 17-24
|Bay, Traveling Black, 3
|Genevieve Carpio, Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019), 10.
|Laura Morowitz, “The Monster Within: The Munsters, The Addams Family and the American Family in the 1960s,” Critical Studies in Television 2, no. 1 (2007): 35–90.
|Susan W. Hardwick, in “Toward A New Immigrant Nation,” in Twenty-First Century Gateways: Immigration Incorporation in Suburban America (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2008), 31-50.
|Helen Heran Jun, “Alienated Subjects: Suburban Failure and Aspiration in Asian American Film,” in Race and the Suburbs in American Film, edited by Merrill Schleier (Albany, NY: SUNY Press), 147-8.
|David R. Coon, Look Closer: Suburban Narratives and American Values in Film and Television (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013), 105.
|John Urry, “Automobility, Car Culture and Weightless Travel: A Discussion Paper,” n.d., https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/resources/sociology-online-papers/papers/urry-automobility.pdf.