2017, TV

The Problem with Apu (2017, Michael Melamedoff)

The Problem with Apu is a brief, made-for-TV documentary about how the only major American (east) Indian character on TV for a very long time was a stereotype voiced by a white guy. As a white guy myself, of course I never had any problems with Apu. Fortunately we now live in an age where we are hearing from an ever more diverse group of people and those who have been negatively affected by little or poor representation in media are now telling their stories.

The problem for me with this film is the problem for me with nearly all (or possibly all) first-person documentaries: the radical subjectivity of these types of films rarely works for me. Yes, this is a personal film and it’s partially about Hari’s personal experience, but I’ve never particularly enjoyed the “narration plus clips of interviews” approach. Hari directly addresses what he assumes are the most disbelieving viewers at times, too, which also feels awkward. It’s an approach that I understand why he took but it’s one I’ve never enjoyed. And I find it as ineffective here as in other films like these.

But, despite its style, I found the film eye-opening due to the feelings of various Indian/South Asian American comics and actors, who have had to put up with people being assholes when they were young (and possibly now). The other crucial point, which comes, surprisingly, via Whoopi Goldberg, is that Apu is essentially a minstrel – i.e. it’s brownface, not blackface. It leads you to ask, if blackface is not okay, why is brownface okay. (And it makes me seriously ponder how I could have lovedĀ The Party and not realized how offensive it is.) These are important questions and it’s good to discuss them.

But the nature of this film – made to film an hour of TV – and the lack of participation by all but oneĀ Simpsons staff writer makes the film feel unfinished and incomplete. I would have rather watched a feature-length movie, preferably in a third-person format. Still worth your time, though.


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