THE BIG SHORT & RACED MASCULINITY
I watched both films back to back, and left the theater more resolved about helping people have compassion for men. Yes, especially Black men, but men nevertheless. Both films were quite telling on some of the experiences of wealthy, elite white men and highly educated African elite. In other words, neither film dealt with African American men directly, but did deal with issues that directly affected them.
The first was The Big Short (2015), a film seemingly about a few intelligent White men who anticipate the oncoming real estate market crash and seek to profit from it. In other words, the film is about a small group of middle-aged white men who figure out that the ratings agencies, banks, and the federal government are unaware and too greedy to address the coming crash of the real estate market due to the sub-prime mortgage crises of 2007. Or rather, it’s about the ‘exploiters of exploiters,’ those who made money off of the crash, exploiting the institutions that had been exploiting everyday America, and then made a film about it 7 years later.
Wrought with star power, this films seeks to explain the fiscal crisis of the real estate debacle that caused the mass recession of 2007 and uses purposefully condescending tactics to both help you understand it and critique why you already don’t. Celebrities playing themselves in the film stand next to professional analysts we should know just as well (and I’ll admit, I didn’t) as the celebrities explain such things as mortgage bonds, credit-default swaps (like insurance on bonds), tranches, CDOs (Collaterized Debt Obligations), CDOs-squared, synthetic CDOs, stock-market investment, corporatized avarice, ratings agency corruption, and federal government complicity. Fantastic. Interestingly enough, the film also gives you a glimpse into the rarefied space of White men and finance, a space that holds little in common with spaces where women and people of color reside. In fact, it brilliantly illustrated where these groups actually fit in the hierarchy of real wealth acquisition. Highly educated white men with elite backgrounds at the top, lower class white men with mediocre backgrounds at the upper middle (thinking about the men who sold sub-prime loans to immigrant families), white women below them (as in the real estate sales person and the strippers who owned five houses), and then the poor tattooed Latino gentleman who paid rent to an owner who bought the house in his dog’s name, pocketed the rent and let the loan fail at this family’s expense (this happened to me by the way).
This hierarchy of participation is telling, as the upper elite I mentioned made money in the millions (and leveraged it in the billions to make their clients millions). They were the “heroes” of the story. Shaking their heads and lamenting how these poor people are wrecking the financial system trying to attain something they seemingly don’t understand they can’t afford. What actually occurred is that a particular set of Wall Street trades, and through the creation and purchasing of hundreds of millions of credit default swaps to gamble against the dependability of the housing market, they sought to short the stock. Instead of helping people, the film problematizes the poor as being the reason for the crash (which is somewhat true as long as you ignore the fact that banks decided to sell real estate to those who couldn’t afford them, and historically never could), but rather than critique a system that exploits the poor, it highlights it all as a game and ignored that those most impacted are the poor, and that they were seduced in order to be explored for banks to profit.
Meanwhile, the middle-rung folk, the upper middle-class White men and women who make a six-figure income range exploiting the poor they know are getting into trouble. In essence, some of these men “shorted the market” and “bet” against the unflappable housing market by using credit default swaps that payout at 10-1 or 20-1 odds against bonds that are 65% AAA credit ratings (that were up to 95% low grade rating). The rarefied air with which these elite White men breathe is fascinating to most of us…and we watch such movies because it’s fantastical to most of us. Just the fact that they have millions of dollars and still work jobs defies the way most Americans imagine a millionaire life–also see films such as Wall Street (1987) and Wall Street: The Money Never Sleeps (2010).
Reflecting on this film from a Black masculinist standpoint is an exercise in abstraction because there were very few a black folk in the film, but Black folk were undoubtedly effected by the real estate industry collapse, financial market crash, and recession. For Black men, buying a home and providing for a family has been a social expectation since the beginning of Reconstruction. More accurately, home-buying didn’t become a demonstration of Black masculinity until World War II, where the buying of real estate and nuclear familial stability became the format for middle-class status.
Unlike many of the men portrayed in The Big Short, Black men have often been systematically excluded from such high level occupations. Hedge funds, brokerage companies, stock market investment, and the real estate industry are reserved for high level white male elites, often educated at Ivy League schools. Black communal exclusion takes place through education, terminological comfortability, and obfuscating practices designed to hide the inner workings (such as credit default swaps, CDOs, and derivatives), contacts, and resources. In fact, the oft-used excuse that it’s natural that capitalism has a “boom and bust” (and its adverse effect on the poor and people of color) is another means of shoring up the boundaries of social exclusion.
However, on top of the explosive practice of lumping thousands (if not millions) of home loans into packages that are then leveraged by banks, there’s still a question of the corruption of the value of the American dollar. Looking at fractional reserve practices, the exorbitant debt-manufacturing practice of compounding interest, and federal reserve money-production (the US owes The Federal Reserve, an internationally-based, private institution for the production of our reserve notes), derivatives, and other speculative banking practices, the global economy is in definite trouble. And outmoded models of Black masculinity predicated on ideas of one’s worth being tied to what they own and how much money they have are problematic, especially when it pressures individuals to compete with systems that systemically exclude Black men and privilege others with degrees of access. More so, as per this film, white men (symbolically speaking) were angry at the greed of a market they’ve benefited from, and now that others are playing the game, they’re disgusted. The truth is that the game has always been corrupt. Essentially, capitalism depends on greed.
What we should remember is that the practices mentioned above are the culmination of about 500 years of capitalism. More specifically, the exclusion of Black folk from cutting edge, rugged capitalism since Reconstruction is not an accident. Its strategic and calculated. In fact, it is imperative that those who participate in such banking insider-spaces be part of the nomenclature of high-level finance. In other words, the mysterious nature of the financial industry and its internal processes only stays functioning at the behest of those involved…at their ability to keep such practices secretive and obscure so that we continue to feel they’re necessary for the smooth functioning of our financial industry.
The only voice of conscience in the film is a character played by Brad Pitt. A former bank insider who quits and goes to raise chemical free crop goods. Although he helps some of the people involved profit from this crisis, he himself takes no pleasure in it. At one point he states, “Every 1% unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die” (and by the way, this group is overwhelmingly male)…males who committed suicide when they could no longer provide for their families.
The connecting fiber between both films is capitalism. Or mores so, the exclusionary and oppressive practices inherent in capitalism that manufacture poverty to insulate a small population with gross amounts of wealth. The difficulty with Black masculinity however is that despite that Black men have not been perceived as men, neither socially or economically, they are still held to the same performance and achievement standards as White men by society and most notably, by their women. This has left little room for the realities of Black male life, or the humane perspective needed for Black men to participate in society as equals.