Black America out of sight, out of mind

Two dramas recently showing in Australian cinemas, 99 Homes and Time Out of Mind, vividly chronicle life in post-GFC America. Each, in its own way, is an essay on the decline of the American dream as it pertains to one of its core tenets: home ownership. In the first film, the foreclosure crisis is exposed through the lens of a single family from Orlando, Florida, evicted from their modest bungalow by amoral real estate broker Rick Carver (played with scenery-chewing ferociousness by Michael Shannon). In the second – a surprising vehicle for Richard Gere – the homeless George bounces from one transient, unsafe situation to another until an application for benefits and partial reconciliation with estranged daughter Maggie (Jena Malone) hint at a reversal of fortune.

Both films received a warm critical reception, and not undeservedly so. Though aesthetically dissimilar – 99 Homes, in keeping with director Ramin Bahrani’s oeuvre, is a classically arranged neo-realist melodrama, while Time Out of Mind’s Oren Moverman eschews plot in favour of a lean, meandering, cinéma-vérité style – they share a laudable sense of old-fashioned craftsmanship shot through with anger directed at a political and economic system that remains, nearly a decade since the subprime mortgage crisis erupted, shockingly venal.

But where, I found myself wondering after the credits had rolled, was Black America in all this? The protagonists of both films are white, and – except for George’s notable friendship with Dixon (Ben Vereen) in Time Out of Mind – interact hardly or not at all with people of colour. As if to emphasise this invisibility, 99 Homes, though set in Orlando where the population is 57 per cent white, was filmed in New Orleans, more than 60 per cent of the residents of which are black, Hispanic or Latino. To make these observations is not merely to lament, once more, the American film industry’s well-documented ethnic and cultural homogeneity; it is to draw attention to the plain truth that the economic hardship and social deprivations wrought by the global financial crisis have had a disproportionate effect on people of colour.

The facts are these: during the 2007–09 period, at the peak of the US recession and around the time the events of 99 Homes presumably take place, Black and Latino people were, according to studies by the Centre for Responsible Lending and the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB), more than 70 per cent likelier to lose their homes than white borrowers, regardless of their level of income. According to NAREB, since the recession began African Americans have lost over half of their wealth due to steep falls in home ownership and employment rates. A 2012 report by the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, meanwhile, found that:

… black Americans are greatly overrepresented in U.S. homelessness and poverty statistics when compared to whites. In 2010, one out of every 141 black family members stayed in a homeless shelter, a rate seven times higher when compared with persons in white families (one in 990).

The report stated that in New York, the setting for Time Out of Mind, black families in shelter were overrepresented by more than 30 percentage points.

The reality is that by virtually every imaginable social and economic indicator, people of colour are worse off than their white counterparts: if you’re a Black American, you are markedly more likely to stay poor if born poor, to be raised in a single-parent family, to attend a low-percentile school, to go to prison. According to the United States Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey, 27 per cent of all African Americans live in poverty as against 11 per cent of the total population. The more you immerse yourself in statistics of this nature, the more the American film industry’s casual elision of the realities of Black America make its ‘realist’ output look as fanciful as its sausage factory of superhero films.

It’s not as though the interrelated problems of Black poverty and housing inaccessibility don’t have long histories. The Fair Housing Act, enacted as part of the 1968 Civil Rights Act by President Lyndon B Johnson just a few days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, was intended to prevent sellers and landlords from discriminating on the basis of colour, religion, gender, or nationality – a practice that had been endemic since the abolition of slavery. But housing discrimination, expressed especially in geographic concentrations of wealth and poverty that have actually deepened since the introduction of the Fair Housing Act, has never really gone away. In fact, as Laura Gottesdiener, author of A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home, has argued, in some respects this discrimination has become increasingly commonplace and ever more aggressive since 2007:

The banks exploited a larger historical trajectory of discrimination in lending and in housing that has existed since the beginning of this country. The banks intentionally went into communities that had been redlined, which meant that the Federal Housing Administration had made it a policy to not lend and not to guarantee any loans in minority neighborhoods all throughout most of the 20th century that didn’t supposedly end until well into the 1960s. And they exploited that historical reality and pushed the worst of the worst loans in these communities that everyone knew were unpayable debts.

This is a reality that even the banking industry itself can no longer credibly deny: a Wells Fargo mortgage broker, according to Gottesdiener in a piece for TomDispatch, admitted in a sworn affidavit that the company not only determinedly targeted people of colour, but also offered cash incentives – bounties in all but name – to loan officers for marketing subprime loans in Black neighbourhoods.

‘The plunder of black life’, wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me, ‘was drilled into this country from its infancy’. He goes on to describe, with the flowing, excoriating lyricism that marks all of his work, the anger of an old African-American man – surrounded by ‘emblems of honourable life’ – as he curses and yells at the cold officials who have come to throw him and his wife out of their house. ‘I’d admired them’, Coates says of such families,

but I knew the whole time I was encountering merely the survivors, ones who’d endured the banks and their stone-faced contempt, the realtors and their fake sympathy – ‘I’m sorry, that house just sold yesterday’ – the realtors who steered them back towards ghetto blocks or blocks earmarked to be ghettos soon, the lenders who found this captive class and tried to strip them of everything they had. In those homes I saw the best of us but behind each of them I knew that there were so many millions gone.

It is, then, an unbroken history of discrimination and dispossession that American cinema erases when it peoples its liberal-minded dramas of homelessness and financial predation almost exclusively with white faces.

There’s a scene in Time Out of Mind when George and his Black friend, fellow homeless person Dixon, stumble across a hipster food co-op, the benevolent owner of which gives them a free meal. In a corner of the co-op sits an upright piano, rarely played and out of tune. Dixon claims to have been a jazz man from way back, a peer of Bill Evans, but, sitting in front of the piano, freezes as his hands hover over the keys. Has he forgotten how to play? Did he ever know, or was it just a tall tale? We never find out, but later in the film George returns alone to the co-op and finds himself on the piano stool. Though tentative at first, he picks out a loping, desolate blues. It’s another small passing over, another quiet act of appropriation.

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Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

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