While vastly different in their content and genres, Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite show the institutionalization of racial and class inequalities, respectively. Through defining moments in the two films, for example, the lynching scene in The Great Debaters (hereafter referred to as TGD) and the “smell” of the Kim family in Parasite, the systematic racial inequality and constraints of the class system we live in are revealed. In regard to the two films, I will explore how black characters in TGD and those of lower class in Parasite similarly navigate their proximities to whiteness and the elite class, how they resemble each other in their upwards pursuit, as well as how they react to critical and crushing moments of realization of their race and class. Ultimately, I will argue that while both films present characters vigilantly navigating the color line and socio-economic class boundaries, initially hopeful towards their race and class mobility, pivotal moments that uncover their unchanging identities of being black or lower class set the films on diverging paths. With one ending in triumph and victory while the other is more desolate than in the beginning, the respective directors send fundamentally different messages about whether pursuing upward mobility amid structural class and racial inequalities is fruitful or futile.
In both films, the mechanics of structural racism and class inequality are set up as the directors present characters precariously navigating their close proximities to whiteness or to the elite. In TGD, the tension between blacks and whites in the Jim Crow South is best exemplified in the scene in which James Farmer Sr. hits a white sharecropper’s pig with his car. In order to avoid confrontation and protect his family, James is forced to accept the humiliation of complying and paying the white farmers far more than what the dead pig is worth, later even helping them carry it onto a truck. Despite being a professor at Wiley College and part of the academic elite, James nonetheless has to bow down to the crude farmers and “get his hands dirty” just because he is black and they are white. This thus presents race in isolation from other factors of class, revealing the futility of ideas of meritocracy and liberal individualism in a society in which racism is deeply rooted and institutionalized. Contrary to the meritocratic discourse discussed in Brian Chung’s article Started in the Streets, in which professionalism is used as the cultural metric for success and a pathway to good citizenship, James’ success in academia as a professor does not erase the disadvantages that come with his skin color (Chung). With the much larger structural forces at work, he must navigate the color line perilously even as a social elite. In Parasite, a similarly treacherous line is drawn between characters of different socio-economic classes. These boundaries are expressed physically throughout the film with architectural lines and intersections. Through the lens of Ki-Woo who visits the Parks’ lavish mansion for the first time, we see a stark line formed by the intersection of two windows. On one side is the Parks’ long-time housekeeper Moon-Gwong with her hands clasped in front and body slightly arched forward in servitude, on the other is her employer Mrs. Park sitting down and slumped over on the table. The housekeeper’s uptight, alert posture juxtaposed with the house owner’s sluggish, oblivious state displays the blatant difference in class across the artificial line, with the former mindful at all times of their position and the line they cannot cross, while the latter sits comfortably in their higher place, oblivious to those on the other side. In both cases, those of the inferior race or class must bow their heads to their superiors and deliberately navigate their proximities to them with a submission that is learned and normalized.
Even with the rigid and institutionalized systems of racial and class inequality depicted above, characters in both films are initially hopeful in their upwards pursuit against whiteness and the upper class. Nevertheless, allegories and metaphors used foreshadow where their pursuits will ultimately take them, to triumph or back where they started. For the Wiley College debate team and their coach Tolson, with disconcerting news of several white colleges not willing to debate them and his own academic career in jeopardy, Tolson determinedly states that their next goal is to debate Harvard and defeat them. He brings up the allegory of Antaeus, a gigantic wrestler from Greek mythology, noting that what made Antaeus unbeatable was that anytime someone threw him down to the earth, he would come back stronger. In this way, defeat and failure were necessary to his eventual triumph. Related to ideas of failure discussed in lecture and in Jack Halberstam’s prologue The Wild Beyond: With and For the Undercommons, Tolson advocates for a way of being of simultaneously existing within and resisting against the institution, to be “in but not of” (Halberstam). As the first black debate team to compete against established white institutions, rejection and loss were an inevitable part of the journey. But in order to work their way up and defeat Harvard, the team has to withstand these failures and build their own world and legacy that didn’t exist previously. With no record in history of blacks debating whites, as Halberstam writes, they must “…refuse that which was first refused to [them] and in this refusal reshape desire, reorient hope, reimagine possibility” (Halberstam 12). As such, Washington gives his characters a “worldmaking power” to disidentify with a racist world in which blacks were faced with daily humiliations and reimagine one in which they can be paired against the top white institution in the country and come out as winners. A parallel scene in Parasite is when the Kim’s make themselves at home in the Parks’ mansion while they are away, except rather than aspiring to defeat Harvard, they are fantasizing about becoming the rich elite.
As the family sits by the couch drinking, they discuss the prospects of the house becoming theirs and the father, Ki-Taek, even goes further to assert that they already live there. However, the mother, Chung-Sook, responds that if Mr. Park came back this second, Ki-Taek would scatter like cockroaches when the lights are turned on. By comparing her husband to a lowly insect, she contrasts their current false state of superiority with their ultimate powerlessness in the presence of the rightful house owners, foreshadowing the Park family’s arrival minutes later that would force the Kim’s to crawl and indeed hide like cockroaches exposed to light. In doing so, Bong draws attention to the unattainability of their dream to live in the mansion. Unlike the Wiley College Debate team in TGD, the Kim family aspires not to create a world of their own within a capitalist and class-segmented society, but to directly take the place of those on top and gain material possession of what they have. Instead of seeking to make the world anew, they want to become an exclusive and integral part of it. While the former is optimistic by falsifying the institutions that created their disadvantages in the first place, the latter will likely be in vain as it reaffirms the very class hierarchies that have shaped the precarious relationship between the Kim’s and the Park’s.
Race and class tensions are brought to a climax in the pivotal moments of the two films, during which the debate team and the Kim’s are reminded of their unchanging identities as blacks and the lower class respectively, with devastating implications for their dreams of winning the national championship and living in a lavish mansion. In TGD, this is the midnight lynching scene when the team drives past a white mob and sees a black man hanging lifeless from a tree, about to be dropped into the fire. The graphic scene not only depicts to the audience the very real racist practices that occurred in the Jim Crow South, but also brings about fundamental changes in Henry Lowe, one of the team’s star debaters. Following this, Henry goes on a path of self-destruction, coming back drunk and emotional. When James Farmer Jr. asks him what he thought the guy did to cause the lynching, Henry screams that “He didn’t have to do nothing!” (Washington). Here, his fury and frustration express the bleakness of the situation for blacks in their social context. “In Texas they lynch Negroes”, and that was simply a fact that could not be changed regardless of the team’s achievements in debate competitions. James’ response puts this realization bluntly, “So it doesn’t matter how good we are, does it?” (Washington) In other words, individual and small group achievements cannot erase the strongly-rooted structural racism, once again pointing to the failure of liberal individualism in distracting from the underlying structural forces. In the face of brutal reality, the idea of winning nationals became futile and useless. For the Kim’s in Parasite, this brutal realization of their lower-class identity occurs moments after their fantasies of living the high life. Hiding under the table after the Parks have returned, the family overhears Mr. Park venting to his wife about Mr. Kim’s smell. He first describes it as “an old radish”, then compares it to “when you boil a rag”, and later comments that it is the special smell of “people who ride the subway” (Bong). His insulting and contemptuous comments bring the Kim family and especially Ki-Taek back to consciousness regarding their class and the reality that their new respectable roles and attires could not mask this fact – that they are a poor family living in a semi-basement apartment. Just as the black man “didn’t have to do nothing” to cross the invisible color line and bring about his hanging, Ki-Taek didn’t have to do anything and was able to get on Mr. Kim’s nerves. Just by being there, his smell “powers right through the back seat”, crossing the inviolable line between employee and employer (Bong). The way the smell wafts, or rather “leaks” from one space into another resembles the powerful ideas of leakage and mutual implication in Eve Tuck and C. Ree’s article “A Glossary of Haunting”. Instead of the colonized and the colonizer, here the relationship is between the employee and employer. The smell, like leaking, is evidence of the symbiotic and not just one-way relationship that exists between the two as they “leak” into each other’s lives. It acts as a source of persistent unease, indicating what cannot be hidden and only uncovered, which is in this case the Kims’ lower-class traits. And finally, it is a sign of a constant state of ruining, indicating the slow but inevitable deterioration of the Kim family’s façade, crumblingn their hopes of climbing the social ladder (Tuck and Ree).
Nevertheless, despite the comparably desolate conditions described above for the dreams of the Wiley debate team as well as the Kim family, Washington, and Bong end their films in drastically different ways. The Great Debaters ends optimistically with the victory of Wiley College against Harvard, whereas Parasite ends brutally back in the basement, even worse off than where they started. Based on a true story, TGD is meant to be an inspirational and uplifting drama affirming the ideas of disidentification and worldmaking power. In the final debate, James Farmer Jr. gives a powerful argument for civil disobedience, using lynching as an example of how the rule of law falls short in the Jim Crow South. Through his speech, James urges the audience that we have a right, and even a duty to resist the law that advantages some groups over others (Washington). As per Jose Esteban Munoz’s theory of disidentification, TGD “[provides] the spectator the material to resist…and instead disidentify with that world and perform a new one” (Munoz, xi). The victorious moment that follows as the Wiley College debate team wins first place resembles Tuck and Ree’s idea of ceremony, indicating a new world that the team has made for themselves with changing power structures and more dominantly, hope. An analogous but juxtaposing form of ceremony that occurs in Parasite with the climactic birthday party scene ends instead in bloodshed and desolation for both parties. Referring to the ending in which Ki Woo, the son, is back in the semi-basement writing a letter to his father about his plan to buy the mansion one day, Bong calls it a “surefire kill” (Jung). The disparity between his dreams and reality is uncompromisingly shown, and hope is crushed through a cyclical ending similar to the position of haunting – unresolved and never-ending. Like the Japanese horror film Dark Water discussed in Tuck and Ree’s article, Parasite displays the “horrors of walls transgressed, physical structures made permeable and violated of their visual promise of protective boundaries” (Tuck and Ree). Through this, Bong suggests that the line between the rich and the poor is thin and unsteady, yet the cost of transgressing it is paramount and blood-stained.
Bong, Joon-ho, director. Parasite . CJ Entertainment, 2019.
Chung, Brian Su-Jen. “Started in the Streets: Criminalizing Blackness and the Performance of Asian American Entrepreneurship on America’s Best Dance Crew.”
Halberstam, Jack. “The Wild Beyond: With and for the Undercommons.” The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, 2013, pp. 2–14.
Jung, E. Alex. “Bong Joon Ho on Why He Wanted Parasite to End With a ‘Surefire Kill’.” Vulture, Vulture, 14 Jan. 2020, www.vulture.com/2020/01/parasite-ending-explained-by bong-joon-ho.html.
Tuck, Eve, and C. Ree. “A Glossary of Haunting.” 2013. Washington, Denzel, director. The Great Debaters. 2007.