Authenticity is a funny thing, because while it should be about accurate renditions of true and real experiences, it is still entirely subjective. Judging a piece of art as being realistic and authentic should be something that only those who’ve lived the specific life being portrayed get to decide. Watching something like Maria, Full of Grace is a harrowing experience, and not just because it is so tense and well made. We follow this pregnant, Colombian woman, as she takes enormous risks just to earn money for her family, sneaking into the US as a drug mule. It all feels so real, the kind of thing that could only be told by someone who’d lived it and had their family torn about by it.And yet, if, after watching the Maria, Full of Grace on DVD, you turn the director’s commentary on, you may find yourself in shock, as you hear this nebbishy, white voice detail how he knew about these seemingly foreign elements and how he filled in everything else with determined research, not to mention making an entire movie in Spanish, not his native language. There are some people who might be outraged that he dare deign himself able to tell such a personal story about another culture that he isn’t part of (just like only a Jew can tell a Jewish joke, or only black people are allowed to tell black jokes, etc.), but if that culture doesn’t feel exploited and he doesn’t think he’s exploiting them, how can you decide to be offended on someone else’s behalf?
Such an instinct might kick in while watching Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Sugar, a movie about Dominican baseball players trying to make it in the US minor leagues, but if you didn’t know Boden and Fleck were nebbishy and white, would you watch the movie any differently? It shouldn’t and it would be a shame if you let it bother you because Sugar is a quiet, assured, smart, moving and unpredictable movie that has far more insight than you might imagine. As they did with Half Nelson, Boden and Fleck chose the intimate handheld docudrama style, and with the lack of recognizable faces and emotional immediacy, one could easily mistake it for a non-fiction film (Sugar really harkens back to the Italian neo-realist period, with such films as The Bicycle Thief and Open City, which used non-actors with distinctive faces, in realistic situations).
One could also easily mistake Sugar for being solely a baseball film, but it covers far more than that. While it is about the minor leagues and a lot of it takes place in the desolate mid-west, this isn’t Bull Durham, it doesn’t have flashy speeches or platitudes. The dreams of the players in Sugar haven’t been crushed yet and so they promise their family the world, and mean it (the main character, Miguel “Sugar” Santos, says to his girlfriend that after he gets to the US, he’s going to buy a Cadillac and “drive it over the ocean” to pick up her up). And those dreams are what differentiate them from the white players they have to play against. The Dominican players don’t speak English, they haven’t graduated high school (they were drafted by major league teams at the age of 16), and they’ve lived their whole lives for the chance to make it big. They don’t understand rejection and they don’t handle it well, when and if it comes. They don’t understand that the sport is a business and they are expendable, excuses are irrelevant. This immaturity is fascinating to watch, because it tends to dictate the rest of their lives, even after their careers are over, the fears of disappointing their family hover over everything, not to mention the blows to their ego, causing rash and ill-advised decisions.
Certainly the minor league coaches and management aren’t helping by sticking the foreign players in the middle of nowhere, living with a condescending white family (whose house and rules make the whole place feel like a bed and breakfast run by a strict, lonely, old couple), who are supportive as long as the player they have as a boarder performs on the field, and find the differences in culture and language to be amusing, but make no effort to adapt themselves, expecting full assimilation by the end of the season. The routine and machine like repetition of these circumstances are certainly never explained to the players, and so they are destined to fail. This is what distinguishes Sugar from your standard “bright-eyed and in constant awe” immigrant movie, but in an intelligent and surprising move, Boden and Fleck don’t use these circumstances to turn their movie into a heavy-handed indictment of the process. They are simply observing the players, not forcing phony plot twists or sappy melodrama into the mix, letting the film breathe and bravely head into uncharted waters. It shows that when they did their research, they were willing to listen to the stories they were told, instead of imposing their own perceptions of what they thought would be realistic. In other words, they’re a total disgrace to white people everywhere.