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The Fifth Element (PG-13) – 1997
72% Rotten tomatoes
Directed by Luc Besson, a Frenchman. He also directed Leon: The Professional and wrote on the Transporter and Taken movies. Plus a ton of others. This fella is prolific. And perhaps a prodigy. He wrote an early draft of The Fifth Element as a teenager. By all accounts he was an extremely creative child, and found film as a way to express all aspects of his creativity. This skill may have come from his early years travelling the world with his parents, avid scuba divers. All that aquatic exploration may have shaped his imagination from an early age. His latest venture is the space opera, Valerian, which I’m frankly not too excited about, but I’ll guess we’ll see.
The fifth element referred to in the title is life. It’s a combination of the four classic elementals: earth, water, fire, and air. These elements were designated by, like so many other things, the ancient Greeks. They decided that these elements made up everything in the universe, and these four things were all essential for life. Aristotle, always a rebel, argued for a fifth element, one he called aether, that supposedly composed stars. The elements led scientific thinking for millenias. All four elements were present in everything, but in different proportions. A good example of this is taken from a bunch of ancient Greeks arguing this theory, courtesy of http://www.chm.bris.ac.uk/webprojects2002/tubb/elements.htm:
You take a stick and burn it.
- Since the stick burns, it obviously contains fire.
- A dirty residue is left behind once the stick has burnt, so the stick also contains earth.
- The residue is damp, so water must be present.
- The burning stick gives off smoke, and thus air is in there too.
When the Middle Ages rolled around and people couldn’t box everything into these four properties, alchemical science was founded, which added three more elements to the original Aristotelian four: quicksilver, brimstone, and salt. Alchemy is a real shit show, and never did anyone ever good, but it makes for entertaining reading and script writing.
Back to Aristotle and his dusty cave. The elements were also used to describe the different temperaments of people. This is where Hippocrates got the principle of the humors, the forces of the human body responsible for health and well-being. Balanced humors meant a healthy person; an imbalance resulted in illness or disease.
This all sounds like malarkey, but the Greeks turned out to be kinda sorta right. The modern states of matter are solid, liquid, gas, and plasma, which if you stretch you can say equate to earth, water, air, and fire, respectively. They also thought the nature of change was due to compelling and repelling forces, which is kinda sorta what happens at the atomic level, buutttttt it’s another stretchy one.
Enough about bad yet historically important science. Let’s fast forward to the future science fiction! There’s a lot of futuristic stuff going on in The Fifth Element. We have flying cars, gnarly weapons, a boat load of aliens, suspicious architecture, flashy clothes and weird half masks, and lots of space travel. I have a favorite on that list. Yep. The weapons.
I don’t know if you remember, but when we did Big Trouble in Little China, we discussed some racist characters that often show up in movies. One was the cowardly/incompetent black sidekick, and the example given was Chris Tucker’s character in The Fifth Element.
It’s a pretty pervasive problem in Hollywood. This is no surprise. Straight white men have been dominating the screen since the beginning. As a matter of fact, one of the first films ever, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) is extremely racist. The movie depicts black people as animalistic: violent and hyper-sexual, and it’s overtly sympathetic to the Klan and seems pretty pro slavery. It depicts anti-miscegenation, which also came up in Big Trouble in Little China, not surprisingly, because it’s a predictable result of a racist system. The point is, racism in entertainment is not a new problem. But you would think that 100 years later we would have come to our senses, right? OF COURSE NOT. The #oscarssowhite was in reaction to predominantly black movies not being given consideration for Oscar nominations, as well as men and women of color not receiving acting nominations at nearly the same proportional rate as white actors, especially for the biggest categories. In 2015 and 2016, there were NO people of color nominated in the four biggest Oscars categories. Hopefully this Twitter campaign will have helped to bring awareness to diversity in Hollywood, and the 2017 award for Moonlight, Mahershala Ali, and Viola Davis (who won in the supporting categories) won’t be just an empty placation gesture. According to The Guardian, Halle Berry is still the only non-white woman to have won for Best Actress, and only 7% of the Best Actor winners are men of color.
So what does this have to do with Chris Tucker? Well, he’s an example of how people of color are pigeon-holed into particular roles. The same Guardian article lists the stereotypical roles typically available to people of color. Some of these overlap with the cracked.com list we used in Big Trouble, but there are some new ones here.
- The magical Negro – again, John Coffee in the Green Mile, Whoopi’s character in Ghost, etc.
- Thug – these are either aggressive characters (Boys in the Hood), or they’re the kids with potential that live in a bad environment (Dangerous Minds)
- Superhuman Athlete – Typically found and nurtured by a white guys: Cool Runnings, Jerry Maguire, Creed
- Super rich evil Arab sheikh – always out to nab white women. Or kill them.
- Awkward de-sexualized Asian – Kal Penn in Van Wilder, any movie with nerds
- Mammy – This is a woman who is a servant in a white family’s home, who appears to have to life or ambition of her own except to counsel and nurture these white idiots and their drama: Gone with the Wind, The Help, It’s a Wonderful Life
- Jaded older police office – Like… any movie where Morgan Freeman is a cop. Or Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon.
- Eternal sidekick – “limited usefulness” and whose help is often accidental, this character’s only purpose in the movie is to entertain the audience, often at their own expense, while they move the white lead forward.
- Sassy confidant – basically the black friend in any romantic comedy.
- Terrorist – We all know what this is.
The thing I find most interesting when I’m watching a movie that has a mostly white cast is WHY. Nothing about Leeloo’s character makes it necessary for her to be white. Same with Korbin. Same with many, many, many characters in many movies and TV shows. Why is there such a preference to cast white actors? I think it has something to do with the idea that white movies are for everybody, but if you have a “black” movie, then only black people are going to go pay for a ticket to see it.
So, you would think that in the 2200’s things would change a bit. Well, they have. Cross dressing seems to be totally acceptable, but it’s combined with stereotypically flaming behavior, and this gets Ruby Rhod alllll the … ladies? So it seems that acceptable gender norms for men have expanded. What about the ladies??? Oh. They’re still reduced to sex objects. Cool. Speaking of stereotypes, we have a few here. There are the sexy secretaries, the nagging mother, the diva. Leeloo is the female that breaks the mold, and she is supposedly the perfect woman. But what does that mean? Thigh gap. Gorgeous. Preternaturally intelligent and athletically gifted. Empathetic. Speed reader. Polyglot. Looks good in orange. But…. also treated and depicted as a child, as Sarah Hensel points out. She’s infantilized at every turn. Granted this is complicated, since technically she is kind of a newborn. But she’s also sexualized. It’s a little gross.
Favorite quote: “Bzzzzzzzz. Bzz bzz bzzz.” – Ruby Rhod
What did YOU think of the topics we discussed? We’d love to hear from you!