review: “beatriz at dinner”

I couldn’t help thinking about “Get Out” while I was watching “Beatriz at Dinner.” Both are slightly fantastical movies about the insidious violence of rich, white people’s racism, filled with microaggressions and dream sequences. While “Get Out” is a full-blown horror movie, though, “Beatriz at Dinner” is something different. It could be categorized as a cringe comedy; the overwhelming feelings I had while watching it were stress and anxiety. However, while most cringe comedies skewer a few characters for obliviously violating social norms, this one targets not only individual characters but entire systems of violence.  It also critiques a particular segment of likely viewers: wealthy or upper-middle class liberals. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call this a cringe dramedy, given the solemn underlying tone of the film.

The film, directed by Michael Arteta and written by Mike White, is about a woman, Beatriz (Salma Hayek), who emigrated to California from Mexico as a child and who is now a healer, dealing in massage, sound therapy, reiki, and more.  She is a deeply compassionate person; we see this before we know her occupation, when we first meet her as she is awakened by her distressed goat who is bleating loudly from a pen in her bedroom. She climbs into the small pen and holds the goat close to her body, making soothing noises. She is also spiritual: she has both Buddha and the Virgin Mary in her car, and she starts her day by meditating on loved ones she has lost. The rest of her day is spent tending to other people’s pain at a clinic for people with cancer.

Eventually, she makes her way to very gated community for a private appointment in the home of Cathy, the mother of one of her patients who now employs Beatriz for her massages. Cathy’s house is predictably ostentatious, while Cathy herself, played by Connie Britton, is predictably white, beautiful, self-centered, and liberal only so far as it will make people like her. Beatriz goes to leave after the massage, but her car has broken down. Cathy, being a generous hostess, offers to have her stay for dinner. Unfortunately for everyone, this dinner is a business affair for Cathy’s husband, who builds hotels. He reluctantly agrees to allow Beatriz to attend the dinner.

What follows is an ordinary event that is extraordinarily stressful. John Lithgow plays Doug Strutt, a Tr*mp-like villain– amoral, selfish, and a fabulously wealthy hotel owner– with whom Beatriz clashes over dinner and drinks. There are many stomach-churning moments of discomfort: when Doug mistakes Beatriz for “the help” before meeting her (his bumbling justification for this mistake is almost worse than his initial offense), the visual of Beatriz (a short, curvy brown woman) standing next to the rest of the female guests (who are all tall, tan but definitely white, glamorous, and mostly blond), when Beatriz tells the party she was born in Mexico, and Doug asks her if she came to the United States legally before being shushed by his (third) wife.

Most of the film occupies the space where violated social norms and unjust power dynamics meet. Not only does Doug violate social norms, but he does so from a position of power, rather than one of ridiculousness. We don’t want to laugh at Doug so much as we want to strangle him (well, at least I did). And as much as the other (white, wealthy) characters are made uncomfortable by some of his comments, it’s not because they disagree with the violence he perpetuates. It’s because they agree with it, and they know how bad it sounds when it’s actually articulated.

The brilliance of “Beatriz at Dinner” is the multifaceted discomfort it can and should evoke in someone like me: economically and socially privileged but politically left of center. Beatriz’s experiences in the movie made my heart ache for her. It is easy, as a young, non-white woman, to imagine being condescended to by John Lithgow or any older, rich, white man. It should be easy for anyone to imagine just how angering and upsetting it would be to be constantly ignored, interrupted, mocked, and patronized.

But for some, including myself, it is also easy to feel frustrated with Beatriz for not playing along with the unwritten rules that exist in that space. For those of us who know how to “behave,” how to negotiate wealthy, white spaces, it is hard not to have at least a moment of blaming Beatriz for her own struggles, of feeling like, “Beatriz, just be quiet, you’re making it worse!” The movie forces one to feel something complex, rather than straightforward sympathy or empathy with Beatriz. It makes someone with privilege and social capital (such as moi) look their own fucked up expectations of women of color and of people from different cultural and economic backgrounds right in their ugly face. To feel irritation at Beatriz, even whilst also feeling disgust and anger at Doug Strutt and the rest of the racist and classist dinner party, reveals something sinister about me that is usually more comfortable to ignore.

In his review, Roger Ebert says, “Arteta and White are aware enough to tap into the discomfort of those who are appalled by our country’s sudden turn of events and the self-satisfaction of others who find themselves with greater license to exploit their worst impulses than ever before.” I would say they do even more than that. Through the feelings the movie provokes in highly-educated, upper/middle class audience members themselves, they show that those who are appalled by our country’s “sudden” turn of events and those who have even greater license to exploit their worst impulses can be the same people.  As much as “Beatriz at Dinner” critiques the Doug Strutts of the world, it also delivers a much-needed dose of reality to those of us who would pooh-pooh the racism of D. Trump and his supporters but who are reluctant to examine our own bigotry.

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