SCOTT SIMON, Host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, previewing the party plans for the late maestro Leonard Bernstein's 90th birthday. But first, we're experiencing an unsettling cultural moment right now on TV and movie screens. Two popular films in particular are making audiences squirm. Now, "Lakeview Terrace" stars Samuel L. Jackson as a cop who's wary of the interracial couple who has just moved onto his block. "Towelhead," filmed by Alan Ball, follows an Arab-American teenage girl and how her blossoming womanhood affects the males around her, including an African-American classmate and a white, middle-aged neighbor.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "TOWELHEAD")
SUMMER BISHIL: (As Jasira Maroun) When I grow up, I want to be in your magazine.
AARON ECKHART: (As Travis Vuoso) No, you don't. Are you a slut, huh?
BISHIL: (As Jasira Maroun) I don't think so.
ECKHART: (As Travis Vuoso) No, you're not a slut. You're not going to be in those magazines.
SIMON: Aaron Eckhart and Summer Bishil in that clip of what could be a highly uncomfortable moment. We have invited our friend from film, Desson Thomson, to our studio. Desson, thanks for being with us.
DESSON THOMSON: It's always great to be here.
SIMON: Now, people watch slasher flicks, monster movies, they see things that are truly appalling. Why is this squirm factor in a different category?
THOMSON: It's cultural, and it's something that's become more and more prevalent in everyday life. I mean, look at the election we have, an African-American who is very close to the White House. And we have neighbors who come from all around the world. And so the movies are starting to reflect that, and it's really hitting us where we live.
SIMON: I haven't seen "Towelhead" yet, but there are people that are uncomfortable not just about the interracial romance aspect, but certainly uncomfortable with teenage girls and sex on screen.
THOMSON: Yeah, that's been a long staple of the movies since "Lolita." That staple usually involves a middle-aged man and a young girl. And that really makes it creepy because - is it approving of such a thing? Those are the sort of conventions that this movie is just almost gleefully throwing up in front of us.
SIMON: Do filmmakers feel an obligation to present this is as a trauma rather than a fact of life?
THOMSON: I think it has to do with whether it's a studio picture. If it's a studio picture, the studios feel they have to answer to mainstream audiences. But if it's an indie film, such as "Towelhead" where someone has creative control, there's going to be these issues raised.
SIMON: Let me ask you, though, about a mainstream show, and that is the NBC, the American version, if you please, of "The Office," and an episode in which they had folks sitting around for Diversity Day.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "THE OFFICE")
STEVE CARELL: (As Michael Scott) You know what? Here's what we're going to do. Why don't we go around, and everybody, everybody say a race that you are attracted to sexually.
THOMSON: The lead character, Steve Carell, starts off by making a joke trying to imitate Chris Rock's routine about two kinds of black people. And he doesn't understand why that is just completely wrong.
SIMON: Let me ask you carefully about what I've heard some comedians talk about as a double standard. They say, for example, Eddie Murphy can imitate an elderly Jewish man, but - and this is part of what made Robert Downey, Jr.'s portrayal in "Tropic Thunder" so controversial - it is really considered much dicier for a white performer to try and imitate a racial minority now.
THOMSON: I don't like it when Eddie Murphy portrays a Jewish character. That really is a jarring disconnect for me when I see that. And in the case of Robert Downey, he's not just playing a black character, he's playing the idea of someone who thinks he can play a black character.
SIMON: Is being able to deliver a laugh one of the saving graces?
THOMSON: A laugh is not just one kind of laugh. You find yourself laughing and wondering, gosh, why am I laughing? I feel awful. But at the same time, it's a philosophical laugh. The audience is forced into facing themselves and the culture and the taboo things that we don't talk about.
SIMON: Hasn't that always been the case that a few years pass and there are people that are trying to look for a new squirm factor?
THOMSON: Oh, absolutely. And that's certainly the role of comedians, Lenny Bruce on down. Do you remember Archie Bunker, "All in the Family"? It was outrageous that a character who was a white racist would be the charming teddy bear cuddly center of a sitcom.
SIMON: But Carroll O'Connor's portrayal of Archie Bunker changed. Pretty early on, they found that they couldn't make him totally loathsome.
THOMSON: Yeah. You do have to load up the qualities in a person so that he's not just, or she's not just, a cardboard villain, because, frankly, a whole lot of racists in the world have good qualities to them as well. They're not just walking around hating other races. They might be the person that helps old ladies across the street, and then they go and check their Nazi Web site late at night. So it sort of makes the audience look at it in a three-dimensional way and say this is a real problem.
SIMON: Film critic Desson Thomson in our studios. Desson, thanks so much.
THOMSON: Thank you.