Shame: The Interracial Relationship, The Casting, The Homophobia

By Sexual Correspondent Andrea (AJ) Plaid

I saw Shame a couple of weeks ago with my homie Sarah Jaffe…and, on the real, I wanted to check out the flick because I wanted to see Michael Fassbender’s full frontal nudity. (And, considering how quick the box-office attendant was asking for photo IDs for this NC-17 flick, I guess quite a few under-17 others were trying to see the younger Magneto’s full frontal nudity, too.)

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT after the jump.

Synopsis: Fassbender plays Brandon, a white, handsome, successful office-working something-or-other (the film never states what he does for a living or where he works) living the upscale–and rather white–NYC life.  Brandon also has a sexual addiction, which McQueen frames as Brandon lacking any emotional connections and/or the ability to go about forming healthy ones–even with his own sister–in tandem with a series of sexual behaviors: Brandon inviting and paying female sex workers of various races and ethnicities; constantly masturbating (you first see him jerking off in his shower, and later he’s shown doing it in his office bathroom; and his sister catches him jerking off in a toilet); getting paranoid about the IT department talking about his hard drive, only to have his boss call him into the office about the porn found on it (though the boss blames Brandon’s intern for it, not Brandon); hooking up with a white woman at a bar that his married boss initially tried to pick up; his picking up another white woman at a random bar and, after some consensual fingering, puts his fingers under her white boyfriend’s nose to sniff (which leads to the boyfriend assaulting Brandon); after the assault, Brandon following a racially ambiguous male sex worker into the backroom of a gay bar, where he kisses the sex worker and gets a blowjob; participating in a threesome with two female sex workers, portrayed by white burlesquer DeeDee Luxe and Asian burlesque star Calamity Chang (both links NSFW).

When Brandon attempts to form a healthy romantic connection–after his sister busts him masturbating into the toilet–he throws out his massive porn collection and a couple of sex toys and approaches Marianne (American Violet‘s Nicole Beharie), who works at his office. She is one of the few Black people (let alone people of color) at the firm. They go on a date:

Then Brandon invites Marianne for an afternoon tryst at a hotel. Hepped up on a line of cocaine and the sheer excitement at this opportunity to prove he’s conquered his sexual addiction by himself, Marianne and he engage in some foreplay, only for Brandon not be able to get erect. Ashamed, he sends Marianne away and later has penetrative sex with a sex worker, a white woman, in the same room.

All of this is to give context to this radio interview excerpt between film critic Elvis Mitchell and McQueen. Towards the end of the interview, McQueen says this about casting Beharie as Brandon’s love interest (unfortunately, KCRW doesn’t have a full transcript of the interview):

Elvis Mitchell: I found interesting, too…there are women in the film and the way you sort of develop what the women do from Brandon. They really are fleshly in a way that he is not. I mean, they’re sort of in touch with their bodies in terms of living in the world in a way he is not: both his sister and the woman he courts at the office want to use their bodies for a different thing than he does.

Steve McQueen: …of course, Marianne–she, of course, is played by Nicole Beharie–I like Marianne. She’s sort of willing to try to make something out of something, which may not be a good thing to do. But she wants to take a chance.

EM: She’s also the grown-up in the movie. She represents looking for a future, which neither Brandon or Sissy are capable of doing. They’re both about the immediate. I felt it was interesting to make the one African American woman in the movie, the one person of color, [as] the person looking for a future rather than trying to find a momentary satisfaction. Even [Brandon's] boss is like that–a person who wants to be immediately gratified.

SM: That’s interesting. [Laughs] I mean, other people saying to me when I came to America and I wanted to cast [Beharie]. Because when I came to research the movie, of all the people but for this one guy–I think he was from somewhere in South America–were white who were dealing with sex addiction. I suppose it’s a different kind of situation, I’d imagine, where you’d find one kind of ethnicity. But I found it fascinating.

But when it came to the workplace it was as you see it. It was one Black person. It was like, “Wow, that’s kind of interesting.” And this girl could be Brandon’s girlfriend. But what was interesting was there was all kinds of  objections about this, of saying, “Oh, that wouldn’t happen there. That wouldn’t exist.” I said, “What, I don’t exist?” It was a very odd thing, having these conversations about having a love interest that was a Black woman with Brandon. It was interesting, that. It was fascinating, that.

But then, what also fascinates me is you have a lot of white American filmmakers who never cast a Black person in their movies and they made quite a few movies. How can you avoid that? That’s kind of weird. It’s like walking around with blindfolds on. How can you make movies in this country–and consistently make movies–and not cast Black characters in the main leads? I mean, I made two movies–and they’re art films–and the feature film are 90 percent white and my art films are 90 percent Black. There’s no distinguishing the two; it’s just one thing–it’s not “art” or “film.” That’s how it is.

EM: I waited fifty years for someone to say that.

What Sarah and I chatted about over post-movie brunch is that we really appreciated McQueen’s decision to cast Beharie as Brandon’s love interest. As Mitchell observes, Marianne is an adult, a woman with her own relationship loose ends (she tells Brandon she’s separated, not divorced) and healthy sexual curiosity and appetite (she agrees to the tryst; she eagerly and sensuously kiss Brandon back as they’re hiding behind a patterned glass partition at the office). Brandon knows, regardless of his condition, he has to come correct with Marianne; his frozen face as he watches her through the window of the restaurant of their first date displays his terror. Even in the above clip, Marianne holds her own flirting with Brandon. More importantly, Marianne and Brandon are drawn to each other in the film because they’re interested in each other, not as a Very Special Episode of Interracial Dating in America. Unfortunately, their relationship is a very short one due to Brandon’s addiction — and you never see Marianne again after she leaves the hotel.

Yet, Sarah and I gave gasface to McQueen framing Brandon having sex with another man and a three-way to signify Brandon “hitting rock bottom.” Why, we rhetorically asked, does homosexuality and consensual multiple partners — neither of which are really respected in US society — have to be the film’s shorthand for “sexual depravity”? McQueen could have shown Brandon’s nadir when the boyfriend assaulted him. To show Brandon engaged with the partners as a sign his utter debasement smells of homophobia and anti-polyamory.

Is Shame worth seeing? If the frisson of finally seeing an NC-17 film (“Woohoo! Grown-ass flick!”) making it to your movie theater is worth the price of admission, then … well, maybe. But, like all frissons, it won’t last long. If you want to see an interracial couple that’s a couple and not a Big Social Statement a la Something New, then…well, maybe. The relationship is short-lived. But just to see Michael Fassbender’s penis? You’ll be wildly disappointed because you’re not going to see it for very long at all.

H/t to Shadow and Act

Photo credit: Filmofilia

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  • RLS

    I’m a (black) gay guy, and I disagree.  I saw the fact that he was having sex with a guy not as a sign of sexual depravity at all, but as a sign of his desperation when it was literally the only option left for him.  And THEN he has the 3-way right after.  I did appreciate Beharie’s presence though, because I was thinking as I watched how easily this character could’ve been cast as white and how this director actually made a stand.  I wish more directors were this bold and inclusive.

  • http://www.topratedflatironreviews.com/ Bobi

    How did I know that all of the comments would be about the homosexual comments she made and not at all about the comments she made about the black woman.  Predictable. It speaks a lot to American society even on a site that is supposed to be mainly about race and the racial aspect of the article is completely looked over.

  • Guest

    I don’t think it’s realistic to look at Brandon’s encounter in the gay sex club, or with the two women as homosexual or polyamourous. It’s not even realistic to call Brandon heterosexual. Although he’s a “sex addict” he is not getting any pleasure from these acts so reducing the narrative to hetero, homo, poly is off the mark. I think the point of him having sex with the man and then the women is to show that he has to go farther and farther in his self abuse and he’s not getting better. Cinematically, this is the only way to “show” this. Basically the point of showing this was so that we could see he was getting no pleasure from any of it.

    • Nick

      Why not show Brandon wandering into a straight sex club instead? Why not have him oggled by a sweaty guy jacking off while Brandon has sex with his ugly wife? There are plenty of ways to have represented Brandon’s ‘bottom’ that didn’t need to rely on the shorthand homophobic association of queerness with perversity. ALSO–Why has no one brought up that the threesome he is in is with two women? It’s TWO instances of queer sexuality that are used to show the depths he’s fallen to. Even when we see a very graphic portrayal of two women going down on one another, just because a straight man is in bed with them seems to blind us all to the fact that we are witnessing moments of lesbian desire. Instead, Andrea and the other commenters have all been content to describe that as being a strictly poly phobic scene. Just another example of lesbian invisibility/erasure…

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  • Matt P

    The homosexual sex scene could have been the writers’ attempt at showing Brandon is so addicted to sex that he doesn’t have to be attracted to the person he’s doing it with – that’s fine in itself, I guess.

    But after the recent (still running) anti-Meth ad implying meth will force young men to prostitute themselves to other men, plus prior incidents:  a similar desperation scene in “My Life As a House,” and real men like Ted Haggard painting gay sex as just part of a “rock bottom” experience, it just seems like gay sex is low-hanging fruit to convey “you don’t wanna go there!”

  • Sanoe

    As there’s some disagreement as to the queerphobic or polyphobic nature of these scene, if I read the summery correctly, these are the only times we see queerness or polyamory within the film, correct?

    This is akin to a movie with only one black character… who is a criminal. Or a movie with one poor character… who is stupid and lacks basic hygiene.

    Within the context of the movie, queerness and group-loving are only shown as a product of mental illness. Whether or not it’s the intent of the writers, or even if it ‘makes sense’ within the story, it contributes to the dominant cultural narrative that says straight and monogamous is healthy/normal/right and everything else is not.

    • Anonymous

      Exactly, Sanoe! And thank you for rearticulating what I’ve been trying to say and , to be honest, getting increasing frustrated in the process.:-) 

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=513626440 Laila John

      thankyou, i was struggling to see before, but now i understand 

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=513626440 Laila John

      thankyou, i was struggling to see before, but now i understand 

  • Gillyrosh

    In one review of this film I read the reviewer referred to Brandon’s going to a gay bar as “any port for a storm.” So being gay means you’re “a port” not a person? Dehumanizing much? Blech.

  • Neurochick

    I think the issue with sex addiction is that a person will have sex with anybody, including someone they’re not attracted to.  The only thing the other person has to be is willing.  If you’re bisexual, gay, straight, that’s who you are.  However, if you’re straight and have sex with someone of the same sex, someone you wouldn’t consider having a relationship with, only because that person is there and is willing; then that could be seen as hitting rock bottom.  However I’d consider rock bottom having “dangerous” sex; meaning having unprotected sex with people you don’t know, or having sex with your boss’es wife, in a public place.  Somewhere where you could get either fired, arrested or killed.  

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, like Brandon getting his ass kicked by the boyfriend. If McQueen would have stopped right there, I would’ve fully gotten the point that Brandon hit his bottom, especially since Brandon is so airtight about his life (the just-so coiffed hair, the neat clothing, the overtidy apartment, his lack of emotional connection). His putting his fingers in the boyfriend’s face is, to me, Brandon seriously not giving a damn about the consequences of his addiction. It’s as if he doesn’t care if he survives the assault.

      But no…McQueen went there with the encounter at the bar and the threesome. And that’s where Sarah and I had to give some side-eye.

      • Filmfatalenyc

        that would be under the assumption that Brandon is heterosexual.  Who is to say he isn’t bisexual? 

        • Anonymous

          But how can we know if he’s bisexual rather than “hitting rock bottom when ‘converting’ to bisexuality”?

          To take up Sanoe’s analogy again: There’s only one poor person in the film and they are shown as dirty and stupid. The one poor person was shown like that, but we all know (we assume, giving the other members of the public the benefit of the doubt) there are other poor people who are not dirty or stupid… except they aren’t shown in the movie. Why is this a problem? Why is this portrayal sending the wrong message?

          Well, because a film is in itself a finite universe. A film, like a book or a comic series, is the story itself, and we cannot put the story in direct context with reality (‘it’s ok that all the women in the film are weak, because in the real world it isn’t so’) because reality and “film-story” are different universes.

          So we can recognise patterns that come from the real world and are reproduced in art (or entertainment pieces), but that doesn’t mean these pieces aren’t finite messages in themselves, with their own limited story, background, and rules.

          So if I make a film in which every single woman is portrayed as weak or evil without further explanation, I’m reproducing a certain prejudice that already exists in the real world, and put in context of the world the film is factually wrong (I can make assumptions about the women in it – what if they have such and such background). But that doesn’t exonerate the makers of such a film from the sexist message.

          (This obviously doesn’t apply to documentaries.)

          What I’m trying to say is that a film creates it’s own context for the stories it tells. Such stories need to be put within the context of the film in order to be understood; although the wider context (real world) is relevant too, they are not interchangeable and are both necessary (when separate) to properly understand a film.

          If the main character is shown, contextually, as giving into gay sex (with a sex worker, not even with a partner who is in a position of equality) when “hitting rock bottom”, or when “descending into a spiral”, it sends the wrong message about gay sex, and about bisexuality.

          That’s why making assumptions about the character’s past or personality, assumptions we have not been shown in the film, is problematic. The writers don’t need to be homophobic in their conscious actions! But are reproducing homophobic (and polyphobic) stereotypes and beliefs, without thinking of the message the film sends.

          It’s a fallacy that the only thing that matters is the creator’s/artist’s intent. If they don’t send their message clearly enough so that it can be understood – then they are sending the wrong message. That’s rule number 1 of communication. That’s why in everyday conversation we apologize immediately if we realise that what we MEANT to say came out as something very different, and potentially offensive.

          • Anonymous

            lorobird–much appreciation for the back-up!:-)

      • Matt P

        Maybe they (mistakenly) thought the male-male sex scene would be popular with a gay audience?

        • Anonymous

          Filmfatale and Matt P–I’m going to quote commenting cohort Sanoe, who encapsulates my point perfectly (emphasis mine):

          As there’s some disagreement as to the queerphobic or polyphobic nature of these scene, if I read the summery correctly, these are the only times we see queerness or polyamory within the film, correct? 

          This is akin to a movie with only one black character… who is a criminal. Or a movie with one poor character… who is stupid and lacks basic hygiene. 

          Within the context of the movie, queerness and group-loving are only shown as a product of mental illness. Whether or not it’s the intent of the writers, or even if it ‘makes sense’ within the story, it contributes to the dominant cultural narrative that says straight and monogamous is healthy/normal/right and everything else is not.

          • Matt P

            I didn’t mean to give the impression I was disagreeing with any of your statements. I wholeheartedly do agree. I just think maybe, additionally, the writers assumed a gay audience would be titillated by the thought of male-male sex and look no farther into the context it appears in or what it represents.

            If that were the case, it would be a very problematic presumption of them. But knowing the gay community – which itself has a great deal of internalized anti-gay bias – I think it’s possible that a lot of gay men might even go along and agree that the scene was hot, regardless of the message it sends. It’s likely there were gay people on the film’s crew, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers got some positive feedback from them about it. 

            In any case, I thank you for the point you’re making.

      • NAYA

        Michael and Steve have both said during multiple interviews that the gay sex scene was not about Brandon hitting rock bottom.  If anything, Brandon’s “rock bottom” occurred the following morning when he came home to find his sister in the condition that she was in. I think that THAT was his wake-up call and what ultimately lead to his breakdown at the end of the movie…the first time he showed any real emotion/acknowledgement that he had a problem which over the years manifested itself in the form of an addiction to sex.

        The sex scene with the man in the club was just another part of his sex binge that he had been on that night…an addict getting his fix wherever he could.  Like any other addiction. He couldn’t get into the club across the street (where he’d no doubt be trying to pick up someone to have sex with) so he saw an opportunity to get his fix at the club on the other side of the street. 

        Here, in an interview with Time Out Chicago, Michael Fassbender addresses the issue:

        INTERVIEWER: Boyfriend, actually, and along those lines: The scene where your character enters the gay bathhouse—the way it’s shot and lit and its ominous music seem to signal his complete descent into depravity. How did you read that moment?
        FASSBENDER: It doesn’t become about homosexuality or heterosexuality, it becomes about a fix, and where can I get my fix? People think, Wow, this is his descent into hell, and it’s not the case. I mean, we shot in a real club. That is a real scenario for many addicts that are predominantly heterosexual and they end up with a guy. You put yourself into a scenario that you wouldn’t do in a normal situation because your choice is gone. 

        You can find the whole interview here: 
        http://timeoutchicago.com/arts-culture/film/15034501/michael-fassbender-interview 

  • Belladonna

    While I haven’t seen ‘Shame’ yet, I’ve read some interviews with Fassbender and McQueen, and the interpreted homophobia of Brandon’s tryst in the gay bar came up a few times. I found a link to one of the interviews here:

    http://www.out.com/entertainment/popnography/2011/11/30/michael-fassbender-sex-addicts-will-go-wherever-you-can-get

    Basically, that scene is meant to project Brandon’s desperation since he’s now acting outside of his established sexual patterns (as a heterosexual) to get off. It’s not condemning the men in the gay bar, because that’s their social-sexual space; it’s just another way in which Brandon is using people to get off and move on since that’s what sex addicts tend to do.

    • Anonymous

      Re-read what I wrote, Belladonna. All I said about the men in the bar is that Brandon followed the male prostitute into the bar’s backroom and the man serviced Brandon–and I said that so people would know what Brandon did and where.

      So, the homophobia, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t about the space itself or the people populating that space. As I wrote in this original post:

      Yet, Sarah and I gave gasface to McQueen framing Brandon having sex with another manto signify Brandon “hitting rock bottom.”

      It is the partnering-as-debasement is where I thinkt the homophobia rests.

      Thanks for responding!

  • sticky fingers

    From what you’ve described (I have not seen the movie), that one bit seems more like condemnation of bisexuality, rather than homosexuality, since the main character had by that point been established to be attracted to and having sex with women…

    • Carlos

      but having sex with men is the thing that’s being treated as, like they said, “hitting rock bottom” – not with one woman. Men who have sex with men shouldn’t be ashamed for it. 

      • sticky fingers

        I don’t think anyone down here is making that comment.  But what I was trying to say is that bisexuals have sex with men too, when they want to. I see a lot of mentions of homosexuality, and no mentions of bisexuality, despite the fact that the character is having relationships with both men and women. That just struck me as odd. :P

        • dersk

          I really don’t get it – if the *character* is straight, wouldn’t hitting rock bottom for a sex addict be going to whomever that individual isn’t sexually attracted to? It’s all about that character’s sexuality, not about a writer’s attitudes.

          I think the point is men who are not attracted to men but who have sex with them because their addiction forces them to might be ashamed of that. Sort of like if any of us hooked up with a Republican out of desparation. Or if Dan Savage were so hard up on his current college tour that he had a drunken hookup with Maggie Gallagher.

          • Anonymous

            However, dersk, a writer infused zie’s ideas–including one’s -phobias and -isms–into characters and the situations the writer puts the characters in. And, if you’ve read the R for a while–and, if I’m not mistaken, I’ve been seeing your screenname in the threads for quite a while–you know that we’ve given some “was-that-even-necessary” side-eye when things like racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and others have been used to build a character and/or the situation zie is in.

            In this case–as I said in my original post and throughout this thread–I don’t think Brandon’s three-way or his encounter with the male sex worker–was necessary to demonstrate he reached the nadir of his addiction in light of the fact that same-gender encounters and multiple sexual relationships are not accepted in this society.

          • Neurochick

            I see your point.  But I also think that the definition of hitting rock bottom is that the unacceptable, meaning unacceptable for the character becomes the acceptable but only for that character.  For some, a threesome is fine, but maybe for them something else isn’t okay but they do it anyway.  It’s like drinking.  Say a person drinks only wine; but then they become an alcoholic and before you know it, they’re drinking vodka from a bottle.  It doesn’t mean vodka is bad or evil, just that THAT particular character is doing it and it’s not okay for them.

          • Anonymous

            ::mouth agape::

            Wow, OK. So everyone who’s defending McQueen for this representation of same-gender sexual encounters and mutliple-partner sexual encounters–both of whose practitioners are routinely degraded in this society–are cool with this because, well, it’s addiction, right?

            Well, since is this is a race-and-pop-culture blog, I’ll pose this: what if McQueen decided to frame Brandon’s relationship with Marianne as part of the slide of his sexual addiction, too? What if, instead of Brandon approaching Marianne as the woman he wants to connect with, Brandon seduces Marianne to the hotel and said something like, “I’ve always wanted to fuck a Black girl?” Then he goes with the male sex worker and has the threesome. 

            Now, quite a few know that some people have healthy interracial relationships and, for some, sleeping with someone outside of their race is a repugnant idea because of the self-held view that such a relationship is a form of debasing one’s self. And we know that Black women aren’t held in the highest regard in the US. So, with this new scenario, are the same defenders still willing to say that an interracial sexual encounter is OK for some people but not for Brandon in light of his sexual addiction much in the same way people are willing to say that about the same-gender encounter and the threeway?

        • Anonymous

          Okay, I think I’m seeing where this is going wiffly.  In the process of discussing the same-gender coupling, I placed the situation under the rubric of “homosexuality” and erased the experience bisexual men who have sex with men. For that, I apologize.

          With that said, let me use a more neutral term: men having sex with men because, regardless of sexual self-identity (straight, bi, gay, or so on), some men do have sex with other men. This, sticky fingers, is Brandon did with the male sex worker in the gay bar’s backroom. It is this behavior–along with Brandon’s threesome–that McQueen frames as the “rock bottom” of Brandon’s addiction. 

          However, my point still stands, sticky fingers: it’s fucked up to connect a rather healthy behavior as deviant by connecting men having sex with men as a sign of addiction, especially when there are other options to get that point across. It’s this kind of thinking that helps perpetuate homophobia and biphobia. And that’s why I agree with what Carlos said.

          • sticky fingers

            Heh, there seems to be some confusion. I wasn’t saying that your point didn’t stand. I was just commenting about the lack of mention of bisexuality. >.<

    • Anonymous

      What Carlos said.