Friday, November 9, 2012

Just Fill in the Names

I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it A) extremely comforting that we're so close, and B) like Chinese water torture that we're so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection... I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people. 

Ouisa Kittredge in Six Degree of Separation, a play and screenplay written by John Guare




I've blogged a few other times about the Disabilities Studies class I'm teaching this semester at Miami U.  It's titled, "(Dis)Ability Allies:  Making It Work," and basically we've been trying as a class to figure out how authentic, effective, meaningful relationships among people with and without disabilities happen, and once we figure out how they happen -- how we can ensure these alliances provide ways to address social injustices, including decolonizing people who have often been relegated to institutions, both logistical and cultural.  

In trying to come up with unique and fresh texts to talk about along those lines, I remembered a movie that came out almost 20 years ago that is completely about how human relationships can change the course of people's lives irrevocably, and how hard and gut-wrenching that process is.  Six Degrees of Separation, written by John Guare and directed by Fred Schepisi, tells the true story of a homeless, gay, African American man who conned his way into the homes of the upper-classes in New York City during the early 80s by claiming he was the son of Sidney Poitier.  The story centers around that man, named Paul, and one of the people he connected with, Ouisa Kittredge, the wife of an art-dealer with children at Harvard and Groton.  Ouisa, in the film, is played by Stockard Channing, and Paul by Will Smith.  Paul and Ouisa make an alliance despite the fractured, fraudulent way they meet, and through the course of the film that connection pulls Ouisa away from her comfortable life of nights at the opera, upscale fundraisers, and champagne luncheons.  She actually feels a maternal impulse toward Paul, and Paul finds succoring shelter in her presence. 

They make an odd, and oddly poignant couple, and as Ouisa realizes that she may have more in common with Paul than she does her own children, husband and society, she starts to disconnect from that world.  Finally, in a penultimate scene, during a stylish brunch peopled with the cream of the crop of Manhattan culture, Ouisa loses it.  By this time, Paul has been found and arrested and he has disappeared into the prison system.  By this time, as well, Flan, Ouisa's husband, has used the Story of Paul as a way to aggrandize himself and his status; their relationship with Paul is now a piece in the New York Times about how the Kittredges were bamboozled because they were so kind and openhearted and gullible. 

Ouisa wants to correct this narrative.  She has made an authentic alliance with someone so alien to her existence she does not want him to become an anecdote.  At that elegant starchy affair Ouisa tells the crowd that she loves Paul.  It shocks the room.  She ends up stomping off, eventually separating not only from her husband, but from the world they have always occupied together.  Her connection to Paul is both freeing and terrifying, in that it rips away the restraints and manners of charity and replaces it with actual empathy, a state of grace that does not allow for sentimentality.

That alliance between Paul and Ouisa never comes to full fruition in the movie.  In fact, it is thwarted.  But that's not important.  Ouisa's desire to go beyond charity, as the privileged person in the relationship, is what the movie is about, and what possibly will spur her on to make changes in her own, and in other people's lives that have meaningful ramifications.  It takes someone who has power and connections and resources to help people like Paul break out of the colonization that has always kept people like Ouisa and Flan feeling safe and secure.  Ouisa abdicates her power in order to love Paul.  In other words, being an ally to people normally shut out of the conversation (people with disabilities included) is not a touchy-feely exercise.  It is often about sacrifices you never intended to make, but have to in order to stay sane.

Here are the questions I asked the class to answer in order to draft a short paper...

How does the film deal with alliance issues?


• Hostility & rejection leveled at ally by majority: 

• Stigmatized by association with marginalized

• Dismissed by majority for giving up privilege



How does, or does not, the main character:

• Work for justice?

• Work with passion?

• Seek immediate change?

• Work to effect long term change?


How do Class and Race factor into making, and sustaining, alliances in the film?

I'll be reading their papers this weekend and will share some of what they've written here on the blog soon...