I am a documentary film director. Subjects of my films have included love, sex, 9/11, indigenous fisheries, hurricanes, refugees, HIV/AIDS orphans, and visualization of God. I am best known for the Real People, Real Life, Real Sex series of documentaries that simultaneously explore the vital role of sexual pleasure in committed relationships and the problematic place of explicit sexuality in cinema. This is my "Safe" blog.

Saying No to Nigger Work.

Posted: November 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

“The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” – Muhammad Ali, three-time world heavy-weight boxing champion

I recently found myself in a conversation with a young fellow, just out of school, working for a New York PR firm.

Until last Tuesday, he had been working for the Paladino campaign; and whatever his personal politics were, I had to ask him what it was like trying to manage press relations for such a train-wreck of an enterprise.

As it happens, his own politics were pretty far away from Mr. Paladino’s, so the various gaffs and mishaps were not only professionally challenging to this young fellow, it was also profoundly personally embarrassing for him to be in the position of trying to put the best face on it for the press. He told me about being in meetings where he literally sat on his hands and bit his tongue, lest he say something professionally inappropriate.

After listening to this lad’s squirm-making, cringe-inducing, but hilarious stories, I shared one of my own, from when I was about his age.

When I was in my mid-20s, I lived in Eugene, Oregon. By luck I managed to hook up with fellow not too many years older than me, but already well down the “being a grown-up path.” He was married, had two children, a mortgage, and had already established himself is the go-to guy for commercial photography in the South end of the Williamette Valley and beyond. He had talent, drive, ambition, a generous and likable personality, and was a natural teacher. I had to good fortune to be his assistant.

One day we were on a shoot for a new, but potentially big and steady client; an RV manufacturer.

We were shooting interiors, so it was a small set; just me, my boss David, and the in-house art-director for the client. We were shooting the galley, and the pantry door was open, with shelves lined with various kitchen goods to show off the well organized, easily accessible storage.

As David and I fussed with the lights, he asked the art-director if he could “make the boxes and cans in the pantry look beautiful” — shorthand for taking a moment to arrange them in an artful juxtaposition of shape and color.

“Oh sure. Make me do the nigger work,” replied the art-director in a jocular, clueless and collegial tone.

I cringed, and in a frozen moment debated whether or not I would say anything. And then I did.

“Jim, I’m not comfortable with that kind of language.”

Another frozen moment.

“Oh, okay. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it,” came Jim’s response, tinged with equal measures of embarrassment and annoyance.

The shoot continued without incident, and we did more work for that client. Jim never said anything like that again, or at least not within ear-shot of me. David never said anything to me about it all.*

I finished telling the young PR guy my story and finished with this:

In the 20 years since that happened I’ve concluded that I was entirely out of line. As the assistant I was on the set as an organ of the photographer and it was not my place to speak up.

Moreover, in comparison to to David, I had very little at stake. It was his place to decide when, if and how he wanted to manage his relationship with this client and its art director, with his business and family’s livelihood hanging in the balance. It was presumptuous in the extreme for me to usurp his position, to put tens of thousands of dollars in the balance, all for the sake of my convictions.

Yet at the same time, we only find out what our convictions are when our convictions are tested. If I had chosen not to speak up, I think I would still be ashamed of not saying anything even to this day. I don’t regret speaking up, yet at the same time, I’m horrified that I did. If I contemplate advising the young me, I would ask him to take a moment to think beyond himself; but if he still chose to speak up, I cannot find fault with that. 20 years later, I can’t say if I did the right thing or the wrong thing, or what I’d do if I had it to do all over again. I only know what I did.

Let me close this post by saying I do not offer any of the above as an example of courage. Yes, I like to think of myself as a courageous person, but more than once my courage has failed me in moments of far greater importance than whether or not to let a thoughtless N-bomb pass.

*Strictly speaking this is not so. I’ve stayed in touch with David, but now when we talk it’s as friends and colleagues. I recently reminded him of that episode in the galley of the RV, but he could scarcely recall it. So it turns out that in that moment, maybe I had more at stake than he did.


One Comment on “Saying No to Nigger Work.”

  1. 1 Remittance Girl said at 1:25 am on November 11th, 2010:

    I appreciate the complexity of the situation you described. I guess you could have held your tongue and spoken to him later. But I did something similar when I was young and it cost me a job. I don’t regret it. It taught me that you don’t get to hold your principles for free. It costs.

    Almost 30 years later, I was offered a job with Jane’s Defense Weekly. The money was astronomical, but I turned it down. It was easy to walk away – I knew it would cost me, but I had learned that this was the way of the world.

    Many people expect that it will be easy and comfortable to hold on to their principles. When it turns out to be painful, they’re shocked. I appreciate the opportunity I had to learn that early.


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