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In Times Square, the billboard for Roma commands: “FEEL.” “EXPERIENCE.” Don’t think too much, it seems to be saying: remember when you used to feel something, while looking at one of these screens?

With its accomplished cinematography, indigenous heroine and understated dialogue, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is both unusual and approachable enough to have hit a sweet spot of critical and commercial success. Adding to its Oscar appeal: the film’s protagonist, Cleo, is modeled after Cuarón’s own nanny growing up, and the film takes up a sufficiently serious subject—the complicated emotional dynamics at play when domestic laborers become part of the family they’re hired to serve.

But whether or how the film moves you will depend on your response to Yalitza Aparicio’s performance as Cleo. Cuarón has been both criticized and praised for allowing Cleo’s inner life to come through her expressive face, rather than her words. Is this subtle character development, or the repetition of a tired stereotype of the nobly silent domestic? In aiming for the former, was the film doomed to wind up with the latter?

In The New York Review of Books, Alma Guillermoprieto emphasizes that the very act of making Cleo the film’s protagonist is unprecedented in Mexican film. She also praises the specificity of the film’s depiction of Cleo—her appearance, her dialect—while acknowledging that American viewers might need more context to appreciate it. But where Guillermoprieto saw specificity, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody saw a failed “effort to make … characters universal,” which left them “neutral and generic.” He writes that Cleo is a “cipher,” “a bland and blank trope that burnishes the director’s conscience while smothering her consciousness and his own.” This is, for him, “the essential and crucial failure of Roma.”

That both reactions are possible points to something so fundamental about cinema that it’s easy to forget its strangeness: on film, a character’s inner life is an interplay between the face and the camera, revealed in glances, closeups, suggestions. Even a voiceover can feel more distant, often separated in time from the body we see. Does Cleo’s relative silence point to a lack of imaginative effort on Cuarón’s part, a “smothering” of the possibility of this character’s consciousness—or is it a deliberately open space, a reminder that she does have an inner life we are only sometimes privy to?

While American commentators have been focused on Roma, they may have missed a portrayal of a middle-class family and its domestic help that cuts much closer to home—and touches directly on these questions about race, the depiction of characters’ inner lives and the movies. Emma and Max, the first play by the filmmaker Todd Solondz, had a monthlong run at the Flea Theater last October. At its center is the firing of Brittany, the black Barbadian nanny of a New York Jewish family.

When it comes to the revelation of characters’ inner lives, Emma and Max is Roma’s opposite. In Solondz’s play, every character gets the chance to share their life story in a long confessional monologue, providing explanations for their behavior. Brittany’s comes last, and the play’s ending is staged like an alternate universe version of Roma’s. Cuarón’s Cleo saves her employer’s kids from drowning, bringing her closer to the family she serves. In Solondz’s play, on the other hand, Brittany retaliates for being fired by drowning her charges, and ends up in prison.

One babysitter is embraced, and the family is saved; the other is rejected, and the family is destroyed. But the imagery and themes are similar. In both cases, the babysitter seals the children’s fates with an adrenaline-fueled plunge into water. And in the aftermath, both babysitters make confessions about their own miscarriages, invoking taboos about race and motherhood.

Had Solondz made a film, these two would likely have been discussed side by side. But as it happens, the filmmaker’s first play has as much to say about cinematic storytelling and the inner lives of fictional characters as it does about racial dynamics in the domestic sphere.

Emma and Max begins with a scene that could conceivably have worked in a movie. Sitting in their living room, wife Brooke and husband Jay fire Brittany for reasons they fail to articulate. “Sometimes the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit together anymore,” says Jay. They have decided to replace Brittany with Famke, who’s from Holland.

The couple behaves with a combination of cruelty and cluelessness. They first appear to be caricatures of well-meaning white people: people who don’t think of themselves as racists, but whose behavior and language betray them. Brooke is too fragile to do the firing herself—she tries to speak and runs offstage to throw up. Jay pats her leg reassuringly while they fire Brittany, as though they were not themselves in control of the situation. When Brittany asks what she did wrong, Brooke and Jay go on about how smart she is. As they hand Brittany her three months’ severance, Brooke says, “We love you.”

Then Brittany does something unexpected: she opens the envelope and begins to count the cash. Brooke and Jay exchange glances. Slowly, slowly, Brittany counts: she makes the couple wait. Brooke leans forward as if to tell her it’s all there—Brittany shushes her with a hand wave. Counting the cash is the move Brittany can make to reassert herself, given the situation: the couple is forced to acknowledge, in her presence, exactly how much they are willing to pay to get rid of her. It’s both satisfying and funny to watch—at first. Brittany keeps her composure, until something in her breaks: she has a seizure. Brooke and Jay freak out, unsure whether to approach her body as she shakes on the floor. The stage goes dark.

It’s possible to admire this opening in a very basic way: the satirical dialogue is snappy, the tension builds, and it contains the pleasure of listening to a cringeworthy conversation. But Solondz quickly backs into a different format, one that emphasizes the difference between the the screen and the stage: from this point forward, the play consists mainly of monologues, with occasional interruptions. Each character gets an opportunity to explain their behavior in speeches that are half-confessions, half-life stories. And interestingly, given the fact that Solondz is primarily a filmmaker, the monologues contain frequent references to how the characters think their life story might look on film.

At first, Brooke claims she does not feel guilty about firing Brittany. Actually, she does feel guilty—she feels guilty about not feeling guilty. She’s just much happier with Famke. But she’s so exhausted from the firing, doesn’t Jay think they deserve a vacation? Inspired by Brittany’s heritage, they head to Barbados. When, inevitably, Brooke does reveal that deeper layer of guilt, she confesses something about her childhood: when she was young, she also had a black babysitter who was abruptly fired.

“Amaryllis taught me to do the Twist.” She smiles at the memory. “We really got down.” With that, Brooke makes herself fall apart. She remembers what it was like to hear, as a little girl, that her beloved babysitter was “fired.” Not knowing the word’s meaning, she recalls imagining all kinds of suffering and torture. “Fired. Burned at the stake. Lynched. Gassed. Waterboarded. Why?”

Now Brooke’s the one who fired the babysitter. She has, as a parent, recreated a painful situation from her childhood, and she’s suffering the consequences. Brooke’s childhood has been revealed to us at a moment when Brooke, the once-innocent child, is now seen by her adult self as the victim. Amaryllis and the Twist, the memory itself a caricature of “racy” dancing, represent Brooke’s innocence: the word “fired,” and all the terrible things it caused young Brooke to imagine, are its destruction. But what upsets her, really, in this memory, is not what happened to Amaryllis or Brittany; it’s what happened to her. She’s searching for the roots of her own behavior, for the place her good intentions went wrong. Her first instinct is to give Brittany a call, informing her that they’re in Barbados and inviting her to lunch at Le Pain Quotidien when they get back—“my treat!”

A little earlier in the play, Brooke wonders if, in a movie, she’d be considered an “unsympathetic” character. Maybe if the movie of her life were directed by Greta Gerwig, she suggests, people would understand her. Like many lines in the play, this one contains a joke, but something more serious, too. Through Brooke’s monologue, Solondz is not just providing an explanatory backstory for an otherwise unlikeable character; he’s exposing the backstory itself as a formula that narratives use to generate sympathy. In Brooke’s case, everything is so exaggerated: her cruelty, her self-pity, her memories, her delivery. Is this twisted emotional journey what it takes to inspire feeling for a character with whom we don’t mysteriously, automatically, “sympathize”? Brooke herself suggests there might be a surefire route—the right director.

Brittany is less concerned about the director of her life story than she is with the actor who would represent her. Significantly, Brittany never has the chance to speak without another character present and listening: in the play’s final scene, she’s being recorded by a researcher, there to report on women’s prisons. She, too, goes deep into her past, even though the researcher warns that she might end up only “a chapter, or a footnote” in a larger academic tome about the incarceration of women of color.

Brittany focuses not on her recent crime but on her first work experience in the U.S. She worked for a couple: a Greenwich Village intellectual who “looked like a frog,” but who must have had a “beautiful mind” because his wife looked like an actress. “You know, the blonde actress…” she prompts the academic to help her remember the name.

“Reese Witherspoon?”

“No.”

“Gwyneth Paltrow?”

“No.”

“Naomi Watts?”

“No.”

They go on and on until… “Meryl Streep?” “Yes!” “Yes!” The academic is elated when she gets the right answer. “Not Halle Berry?” she ventures. “No!” What has been accomplished in this little game? Yes, it’s funny, that “blonde actress” could be almost anyone, but it’s also very strange to see two actors on a stage play this familiar guessing game. We all have access to this cast of celebrity characters; our imaginations can play with them like dolls.

Not only does Brittany cast Meryl Streep as her former employer in the memory of her life—she also believes that, if Meryl Streep were to star in the biopic based on her life, people would sympathize with her story. And it’s an awful story. Her boss, the one who looked like a frog, rapes her. Afterwards, he goes to the kitchen to get some “diet crackers”; then he goes back to his study. When she gets pregnant he offers to marry her, then sends her money that she rips up. She has a white baby that she loves for a few hours, then it dies. In spite of the baby’s father, Brittany wanted her child to live. Everyone knows whites have the most beautiful babies, she says. When she turns to the subject of Emma and Max, she explains that she did not kill them out of anger, but out of love: she wanted to save her angelic charges from turning into horrible white adults.

In a 2005 Believer interviewSolondz said: “I don’t like victim stories and I don’t write them.” He’s described Dawn Wiener, the middle school outcast from Welcome to the Dollhouse who has become his most iconic character, as “an outcast who is not a walking innocent.” In Emma and Max, Brittany is not a walking innocent either, even though she has been victimized. Yes, she’s guilty of murder. But from a different point of view, she’s guilty of something worse: an infatuation with whiteness, in spite of the cruelty displayed towards her by white people.

Brooke casts Meryl Streep in the story of her life not because she’s a renowned actress, but because she’s the star of Mamma Mia! After she’s fired, Brittany comforts herself by watching that film on her laptop. She trembles in a Mamma Mia! shirt while clutching a subway pole on her way to killing Emma and Max. The twisted love that Brittany has for Emma and Max—the kind of love that leads her to kill them, thinking she’s saving them—is connected to the love Brittany has for whiteness as it appears on the screen. To an ideal Hollywood whiteness of singalongs, the Mediterranean and many possible wonderful fathers.

Jay’s monologue leapfrogs through the many instances in his professional life where he, for some reason or another, sacked a person of color. “Are Excel sheets so complicated?!” he asks towards the beginning, at a moment where it seems he feels his behavior was justified. But by the end of his speech, he’s starting to acknowledge that something about him is off. “If I thought about it, about what I looked like when I was firing people, like I’ve been programmed… God, maybe I have been programmed.”

The question of conditioning extends beyond Jay’s realization about his hiring and firing practices: he begins to wonder why he chose Brooke as his partner. They met on JDate, which was “fast and easy.” They liked the same things—“Judd Apatow movies, Palestinian statehood, W Hotels.” They both wanted “a boy, a girl, a doula.” He confesses that he does not love his wife anymore, before asking the audience: “Is there a secret?”

These touchstones of middle-class, liberal-leaning Jews are listed as though they were categories in a dating algorithm: Jay is wondering whether he’s been programmed to live a certain life. The feeling of unease about sorting according to race, religion and class, and how that affects the way lives are imagined and unfold—this is a legitimate political and philosophical problem, but here one senses it’s being invoked by a man who has no desire to follow his investigation to its conclusion. Jay has opened up, and yet he seems resigned, tired. For this man, real change may never have been possible. Perhaps he will continue to see his pattern of firing minorities as “having been programmed,” rather than as situations where he had agency. Jay’s confession is an anticlimax—a suggestion, not a revelation.

In Emma and Max, we see the characters reach the limits of their self-understanding in attempts to communicate their life stories—they expose themselves, analyze themselves, get as far as they can on their own. Jay seems to realize he’s reached a limit of some kind, but Brittany and Brooke think a movie might complete things, somehow. They hold on to a very specific fantasy: that it might be possible for others to sympathize with their situation. Brooke and Brittany’s fantasy is not about actually making a movie; it’s about getting a specific type of response from an audience, a response these characters associate with the movies. It’s as if they’re retroactively begging Solondz to write a movie about them instead of a play.

Brooke and Brittany’s desire for a cinematic intermediary is both relatable and sad. The movies, they feel, allow for a form of communication that is more powerful, if less explicit, than their confessions. The actor’s likability, the director’s sensibility—they don’t know how to get the desired effect through words alone, but they feel that the perfect movie could do it. They call that effect “sympathy,” or “empathy,” but what they’re really looking for is different—it’s that all-caps FEELING of being overwhelmed by a story and its characters, an unthinking embrace. What’s moving about Emma and Max, if we are moved by it, is the knowledge that we’ll never see these characters in the way they’re so desperate to be seen.

At Roma’s climax, Cleo goes into the water, without knowing how to swim, to save the children she looks after. After this she can claim, in a sense, to have given them life, too. When she comes out, she sobs in the family’s arms: “I didn’t want her.” She’s talking about the baby she miscarried, and she doesn’t have to explain herself further.

From a certain point of view, this is a radical admission for Cleo to make: abortion was never mentioned as a possibility. But from another point of view, the confession is harrowing. She didn’t want her biological child, but she would risk her own life to save her employer’s children. She seems to feel better after having made this confession; they return to the family’s home and she smiles as she tells her friend the cook, “I have so much to tell you.” The film ends before we hear what she has to say.

Because we haven’t been privy to Cleo’s thoughts for most of the film, her confession contributes to a feeling of resolution: a stressful sequence, a reveal, a sigh of relief. It’s a structure—built to move us—that’s so familiar it’s possible to overlook the disturbing questions raised by the confession itself, or to accept how it hints at the protagonist’s complex humanity. But if Roma’s particular combination—its directorial sensibility, its largely silent protagonist, its brutal confession—fails for you, you’re left with a slightly twisted version of a familiar white savior story: a family of European descent that saves its brown babysitter by allowing her to save them.

 

Image credits: The Flea (Emma and Max); Netflix (Roma)

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