No heart is in the wrong place
Anyone well-versed in Wire-dom will want to check out Half Nelson for at least one reason: it prominently features Nathan Corbett, aka Donut. Pay close attention and you’ll also catch Tristan Wilds, better known as Young Michael, flicker across the background. Who knows what role this film played in Simon and Burns’s labyrinthine search for child actors (would link to the City Paper article, but I stopped reading it when I hit something spoiler-like); at very least, it’s a little coincidental that two kids with experience playing at-risk middle schoolers would end up, together, in a season exhaustively devoted to getting those parts right.
On the other hand, part of me felt like I was the victim of a savage joke, one prompted by my cry for reams of varied junkie experience. I don’t like to think that one creative work can invalidate another, but as someone utterly consumed by The Wire this thing seemed paper-thin. We see, unspectacularly, that aimless white upper middle-class literary aspirants might have drug problems, and that these can affect their personal and professional lives. What’s more, we’re reminded that might problematize their idealistic goals of helping those whose lives have been ravaged by the THE GAME. Ultimately, however, their habit can never totally overtake them, since they’ve got hopes, dreams, talents, goals, and support systems too substantive to be brushed aside. Right?
Half Nelson busies itself with this portrait of a man whose social relevance is at best incidental, and whose personal struggles could be easily summed up in a few scenes. Yet on the other side of this movie’s simplistic urban equation are the kids, in particular a girl called Dray. Granted, “non-professional” actress Sharika Epps does her stone-faced job admirably, softening her features at critical moments; ironically, near-extra Wilds has now proven himself a scene-stealer with it on The Wire. But as I’ve learned from this blog’s subject, the “street” side of things holds as much, if not more, richness in it that the rote story of a strung-out failed writer with a teaching gig.
Maybe I’m predisposed to have absolutely no fucking interest in seeing this type alternately indulged and deconstructed; there’s really no excuse, however, for doing a slapdash job with Dray’s experience. There’s a lot of brooding, and the emotional groundwork laid for the familiar overworked mother/absent father/incarcerated brother/bad male influence deluge. Without giving anything away, to me the movie’s grasp on the drug trade, and black culture in general, seemed based on rap radio circa 2001. I’m no expert on running an operation, but Half Nelson banks at least somewhat on some details that, to me, seemed a little ill-informed. There’s also, surprise surprise, precious little effort made to paint slangin’ pseudo-uncle Frank as capable of exerting an emotional pull through anything but blackmail and manipulation.
As my distinguished colleague has observed, there’s no reason that any work of art should reflexively depict the entire political economy of the situation. The Food Network should not necessarily feel bound to show people cleaning up the set, or accomplished chicken pluckers and grape pickers. Nor is it an indictment of something like Scenes from a Marriage that no one working class or of color even appears in the film; there, the focus is on the institution of bourgeois marriage.
In Half Nelson, though, we get a cursory treatment of class and race-laden issues when the narrative is largely preoccupied with the drive to address these concerns. Had the point of the film been simply to mock or question the protgaonist, the plot would not have hinged on the humanity of a poor, black person. That she was the only one who earns this distinction, and that the world she inhabits is scribbled in as an afterthought, seems to me a little bit irresponsible. As we’ve been reminded on here, time is always an issue. Yet it was nearly impossible for me to suffer through Half Nelson without wondering if its makers had the slighest idea of what they were really, truly fucking with. And if so, why on earth they had slanted their priorities the way they did.