I Don’t Buy It: Wes Anderson’s Treatment of Race


Graphic by Rae Shuman
Graphic by Rae Shuman

by Dylan Fahoome

The other day my friend and I were discussing The Grand Budapest Hotel. She told me that her moviegoing experience was disrupted by two older ladies sitting in front of her who chatted throughout the entire film. At the end of the film, they shouted “What a weird movie!” and presumably, did not “get it.”

When I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, I sat behind a crowd of white, well-off 20-somethings who laughed at just the right moments, got all the jokes, and understood what it was about – even if it wasn’t about much at all. This is because the 44-year-old Wes Anderson possesses the psyche of a white, well-off 20-something whose treatment of race, as of late, is a very dangerous thing.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is set in an un-place: it’s not Budapest but it resembles an Eastern European city. The story begins at the hotel’s decline. It’s not the place it once was, explains the film’s narrator Zero Moustafa, played by F. Murray Abraham, to a visiting young writer. In its golden years, it was run by Monsieur Gustave. Zero was just a boy then, and Gustave trained him, groomed him, made him a better human being. The story then jumps back to show the glory years, when Zero was much younger, played by Tony Revolori.

It’s a highly entertaining film, and also delightful. But there are a couple things about this film that I don’t buy.

-The Daily Beast and New York Post heralded “scene-stealing” Zero Moustafa, played by a brown skinned actor (Tony Revolori), occupies the most screen time, but when we first meet Zero and when we last see him, he is white (F. Murray Abraham). The wrapping paper and ribbon on our Brown gift is White. I don’t buy this.

-Upon waking up for work, Brown Zero haphazardly draws a moustache on his face with a pencil. The moustache is terribly drawn, but Zero runs off ready to start the day at the hotel. Anderson seems to think comedy over personal dignity works only in the case of the Brown actor. At the same time, Brown Zero is a fairly matured kid who draws moustaches on his face. White Zero boasts a gargantuan beard. Maybe their head of hair looks the same, but it is still only acceptable, according to Anderson, to let the White man have the beard or any traces of facial hair. If the Brown character were to have a beard, his image would be tarnished. So he draws pencil moustaches instead! (Fantastical aesthetic!) I don’t buy this.

-Brown Zero was “arrested and tortured by the rebel militia after the desert uprising.” Sounds a bit Orientalist, a bit like the premise ofParamount’s 1921 The Sheik or better yet, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Is this irony? The two white bros sitting next to me in the theater seemed to think so, as indicated by their raucous laughter. I don’t buy this.

-Brown Zero falls in love with Agatha (the beautiful Irish Saoirse Ronan), but it’s Anderson who seems to be the one in love with Saoirse Ronan. His camera always seems to be penetrating her luminous, ivory glow, considering just what it is that makes the Gaelic race so perfect. Yet Brown Zero always seems to be feigning the fascination that the camera possesses. However, that’s simply Revolori’s demeanor, In other words, no thought went into who she’d fall in love with, all thought went into her. I don’t buy this.

-As Brown Zero and Agatha’s romance unfolds, one scene depicts the two at a carnival. In one instance, the camera focuses on Agatha, illuminated by the lights of the carnival in the background, which form an angelic aura around her face. In film, we usually see the other party so we know who Agatha is looking at (Brown Zero). Just look at Grease or The Notebook, or Stanley Donen’s Funny Face, a film literally all about Audrey Hepburn’s face. In every song, even the ones that just consist of Fred Astaire praising her face, we see the admirer and the admired equally. Following this carnival shot, and in a lot of Grand Budapest Hotel, we do not. I don’t buy this.

-Gustave loves to talk about Agatha, and the second time he mentions her, he wonders why she is so amazing. Gustave says “Because of her purity.” As though it were a God-given, eternal rite. Meanwhile, Brown Zero stays silent about his own girlfriend. He does,however, have the brainpower to mutter, “Don’t flirt with her.” I don’t buy this.

-Brown Zero has the nimbleness and monkey-like agility to run on rooftops and jump onto a platform in the dead of winter. Monkeys and human beings, despite skin color, are a bit different. I don’t buy this.

-Gustave has an emotional meltdown because of Brown Zero. When Gustave questions Brown Zero’s reasons for being at the hotel, Brown Zero tells him he is here (Euro-land) because of the war. Melancholic music starts to play. The survivor of war doesn’t cry but Gustave tears up, Gustave feels emotion. For him – for himself, too. I don’t buy this.

-Brown Zero’s most visible emotion is reactionary concern after a violent fall. White Zero’s most visible emotion is earth-shattering heartbreak as F. Murray Abraham, half covered in shadows, sheds tears over Agatha. They are the same person, and attend to the same trials. White Zero attends to less. Yet through the entire film, Brown Zero is only granted a basic, rudimentary emotion: reactionary concern. I don’t buy this.

-Brown Zero is an immigrant from the carpet filled, throat-slitting world of the Near East, but has no language, no accent, no remnants of a past life. It’s as though he was born in outer space and gravitated immediately upon birth to WesAndersonLand, for his informal White upbringing. I don’t buy this.

-All of the characters that pass away, stab each other, shoot at each other, poison each other, die of disease, are white. The grandest and greatest elements of life, the most stupendous and terrific and terrible things only privilege white actors. Oh yes, Zero experiences some of these, too, but when he does, he’s white. I don’t buy this.

By setting the film in an un-place, which is, as many will argue, Anderson’s very aesthetic, i.e. what makes him a great director – by excusing his lack of specificity with his unassailable fantastical aesthetic, Anderson ignores social-political meaning.

Artists must draw lines. By which, I mean decide. Decide where you are, decide where you came from, and decide what matters. No human being is born in outer space, we all belong to something.

Wes Anderson chooses not to, and supposedly, this is part of what makes him brilliant: his anachronisms and made-up lands are his trademark. Very well, but The Grand Budapest Hotel takes place in a very Eastern European setting, with very Eastern-European looking actors, in very Eastern European sounding cities, with very Eastern European looking food. Make up a land, fine. A land can be built with a set. Make up peoples? Not possible, when you have realpeople playing your characters.

Is he a master of irony? I don’t think Anderson is that smart. He’s good with colors and music, not so much with theme.

As a performer, I often doubt myself. Even if I am cast or asked to perform in a show, I doubt myself and my abilities, and I often find myself asking, “did they just pick me because I’m the zany, curly haired Palestinian? Is this my sole offering?” When everyone else in the room bears the same relative physical appearance, it starts to look like they were all chosen for their acting and vocal chops and you, for your “uniqueness.” But doubt ends after a certain point, and you start believing in your talents and abilities after all.

I doubt Tony Revolori questioned himself. Wes Anderson asked him to be in his film. The Wes Anderson. Why question it? Why think twice? It would be very easy to blame Revolori in this instance, but the person to blame here is the master himself: Wes Anderson.

I have grown tired of seeing movies in which the Brown, comical characters are in the background. I think Anderson thought he solved the problem with Grand Budapest Hotel. By bringing the Brown, comical character into the foreground, he has done no wrongs. Rather he should be lauded. “Wow! A diverse cast member! Check out how progressive I am!” Perhaps we should remind Anderson that the stone ages of film are long gone, and today, in 2014, Brown Zero is capable of crying over a beloved, of stabbing an enemy to death, of opening and closing a film. Of grief and joy and pain and sorrow.

Wes, you, being a master of cinema and all should know: Brown Zero is capable of so much more.





12 thoughts on “I Don’t Buy It: Wes Anderson’s Treatment of Race

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  1. I have yet to see the movie, but this article seems to be written out of resentment. Perhaps Anderson’s choices were actually conscious decisions, perhaps they were just the subconscious results of a man who grew up in American society. But I just come away from this article thinking that a Palestinian-descended white man is being nit-picky. You found these issues with race because you went looking for them and as a non-Eurowhite person you supposedly identify with this treatment.

  2. I guess it is a fantasy with-reality-traits comedy; young Zero looks absolutely nothing alike old Zero. The character not only aged but morphed into a different person.

  3. Aaron, I am white, and I saw some of these issues too. The whole “magical” change from Brown Zero to White Zero was pretty startling—and very messed up, racist, and Orientalist.

  4. There are many problems with Zero’s portrayal, obviously but the whole White Zero thing… It struck me as extremely odd and I have a theory… What if Zero actually did die in the train car and this White Zero is really Gustave, making up the ending he wants the story to have. There might be a flaw in this but I think it works

  5. First of you numb nuts the Old Zero is played by a Sephardic Jew. Which means he is from the Middle East which is exactly the same as the character. And the young Zero is Guatemalan but fits the role perfect. So they are both “brown”. You have no fucking concept of what people look like. Middle Eastern people range from white to black and mostly in the middle. You are just racist towards white people. He lives in Europe so its perfectly reasonable he falls in love with a European woman. Its a damn movie. Who cares if he was a darker shade than his later years. They both played their roles perfectly. The fact that he was tortured by rebels was only a reference to an older movie which was making fun Orientalism and the way Arabs were perceived in the early 20th century American films. And by the way I am Arab Christian myself. So if a Jewish Arab and a Christian Guatemalan playing the role of a Muslim Arab doesn’t offend me then you are definitely full of shit. I consider people like YOU worst than racists. Because you fuckers look for imaginary shit that only exists in your head and try to convince people just to rile them up and cause more problems while the rest of humanity is slowly trying to move forward from the past.

    1. F. Murray Abraham is not Jewish.

      Actors of fully Jewish background: Logan Lerman, Natalie Portman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mila Kunis, Bar Refaeli, James Wolk, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julian Morris, Adam Brody, Esti Ginzburg, Kat Dennings, Gabriel Macht, Erin Heatherton, Odeya Rush, Anton Yelchin, Paul Rudd, Scott Mechlowicz, Lisa Kudrow, Lizzy Caplan, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Gal Gadot, Debra Messing, Robert Kazinsky, Melanie Laurent, Shiri Appleby, Justin Bartha, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Margarita Levieva, Elizabeth Berkley, Halston Sage, Seth Gabel, Corey Stoll, Mia Kirshner, Alden Ehrenreich, Debra Winger, Eric Balfour, Emory Cohen, Jason Isaacs, Jon Bernthal, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy.

      Andrew Garfield and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are Jewish, too (though I don’t know if both of their parents are).

      Actors with Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dave Franco, James Franco, Scarlett Johansson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Radcliffe, Alison Brie, Eva Green, Joaquin Phoenix, River Phoenix, Emmy Rossum, Ryan Potter, Rashida Jones, Jennifer Connelly, Sofia Black D’Elia, Nora Arnezeder, Goldie Hawn, Ginnifer Goodwin, Amanda Peet, Eric Dane, Jeremy Jordan, Joel Kinnaman, Ben Barnes, Patricia Arquette, Kyra Sedgwick, Dave Annable, and Harrison Ford (whose maternal grandparents were both Jewish, despite those Hanukkah Song lyrics).

      Actors with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, who themselves were either raised as Jews and/or identify as Jews: Ezra Miller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Alexa Davalos, Nat Wolff, Nicola Peltz, James Maslow, Josh Bowman, Winona Ryder, Michael Douglas, Ben Foster, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nikki Reed, Zac Efron, Jonathan Keltz, Paul Newman.

      Oh, and Ansel Elgort’s father is Jewish, though I don’t know how Ansel was raised. Robert Downey, Jr. and Sean Penn were also born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. Armie Hammer and Chris Pine are part Jewish.

      Actors with one Jewish-born parent and one parent who converted to Judaism: Dianna Agron, Sara Paxton (whose father converted, not her mother), Alicia Silverstone, Jamie-Lynn Sigler.

  6. Remember this story is told from Zero’s point of view. Of course Agatha is portrayed as this because she is perfect in his eyes,not because he is white. Like the first commenter said,this article is just nit-picky about details that only he sees and that’s coming from a brown person. You don’t buy it but I do.

  7. I cringe at the depiction of Brown Zero. The quiet invisible brown Asian/middle easterner character who exist to always listen patiently and worship the white people around him. A follower. The audience should already be so comfortable with a brown sidekick whose only existence is to make the white characters shine.

  8. This article is bullshit I’m sorry. F Murray Abraham is Assyrian and therefore not white your lack of knowledge on the subtleties of race is annoying, people are either white black or brown to you… or Asian and that frankly is bullshit. And so what if he was lighter later on , it’s a fact that your skin can get lighter as you get older, my Sicilian great grandmother had lighter skin when she got older. You don’t buy ” white zero” I don’t buy you and I don’t buy this ignorant criticism.

  9. It seems to me like you’re fishing for something to gripe about in this movie. I agree that the casting between young Zero and old Zero could have been done a lot better, but I think you’re nit-picking with most of your other points. You say that Zero doesn’t seem to be emotional compared to the white characters, but remember that the movie we’re watching is supposed to be from a book written by the Author based on the experiences Zero shared with him. It makes sense to me that someone who was an adolescent during the events of the movie, and now much older, might better remember the reactions of others (Gustave, Agatha) better than his own feelings at the time, or at least emphasize them more. Also, you have an issue with the fact that Zero doesn’t seem very emotional when relaying his tragic past. This is common for someone who has been through a traumatic event, and I think the murder of Zero’s family certainly qualifies.

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