william steig drawing

July 30, 2010
Kartina Richardson

Race in Film: Festen (The Celebration)

The inclusion of an African American character in Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 film Festen (see previous post) is a curious thing.  First I should make clear that the character is indeed an American man of African descent, not a black Dane, or an African immigrant (an important distinction).

In the middle of Helge’s birthday dinner, sister Helene’s boyfriend Gbatokai (played by Gbatokai Dakinah*) arrives outside in a cab. Surprise! He’s black! Thinking he’s a hotel guest come to rent a room, brother Michael runs out to send him away, and is ridiculously offensive. Poor Michael can’t stop trying to prove his masculinity. He makes a fool of himself once again attempting to defend an institution that will soon be proved a sham and a king that will topple. “Hey Charlie Brown!” he shouts (at least he’s a creative bigot). He continues to flail around throwing racial slurs here and there “We don’t need any jazz players”, until Helene comes out, calls Michael a “Nazi bastard” and escorts her man inside.

The tension between Michael and Gbatokai continues of course, as Michael does everything in his power to cast out the intruder, including prompting a table-wide rendition of a racist Danish childrens’ song.  It makes sense that Michael should have such a strong reaction to Gbatokai’s presence as Helene’s boyfriend, and a black person in general. More than any other, Michael wants to keep things in their proper place. Nothing should be disrupted . This is the only power he has, and the only way he knows to win his father’s respect. Michael is also the kind of man to jump at the opportunity to place someone beneath him. It gives him the elevation he so desperately desires. The lower he places Gbatokai, the higher he rises.

The other night I forced my dear friend Jessie talk to me about Festen and Gbatokai. Jessie’s Mother is Danish of mixed descent (her mother is a white Dane and her father was Ghanaian). Jessie is fluent in Danish and has spent a great deal of time in Denmark where she and her sister receive plenty of stares when out with “mormor”, their tiny white grandmother. At Jessie’s birthday party a few years ago they all sang the “Hurrah, hurrah, hurrah” birthday song and I shouted “Ooo it’s just like in ‘The Celebration!!!'”

Jessie: I think Vinterberg just wanted to make us all as uncomfortable as possible and they knew that this racial element would trump all. The idea of him showing up halfway through, too. It just makes it uncomfortable on so many levels: a stranger, a foreigner, and a “neger,” as they’re called in Danish. It also insinuates another kind of forbidden sex (he and Helene).

Kartina: Is “neger” the danish word for black?

Jessie: No that’s “sorte”

Kartina: what’s the difference between the two?

Jessie: ummm… Look at those black people – “Se negerener,” and “Se de sorte mennesker.” It’s the difference between “Look at the niggers” and “Look at the black people”

Kartina: Ah I get it.

Jessie: Mhm. My grandmother uses neger to describe Michael Jackson.

Kartina: Do black people exist in Denmark?

Jessie: There are plenty of black people. Mostly West Africans and their mulatto children. Just like my mom. And they regard race in terms of culture. To be honest it’s rare that you’ll find a Danish person talking about their “black” friend. They’ll talk about their Senegalese or Ghanaian friend instead. And the Turkish carry a MUCH bigger stigma than black people because the turks are Muslim and conservative and wear head scarves and eat halal and find it really difficult to assimilate to the Danish lifestyle (which Danes hate, of course, because they’re used to being a little isolated island country in the north). No person of color could ever be a “real” Dane.

Even my own grandmother called my mother “half” Danish, which is, if you think about it, absurd. It would be like calling me half American.

Kartina: How did your grandmother meet your grandfather?

Jessie: No fucking clue. Unfortunately. God, I’m being totally useless here.

Kartina: Ugh. Just tell me about your experience there, or any particular ones that were memorable.

Jessie: As long as you put my picture and phone number up, I’m happy.


Jessie: Well my mother always tells me that the Danes always pretended like they could never understand my grandfather, even though he spoke perfect Danish. They just couldn’t fathom a black man mastering their language.

And I remember when I was younger getting really strange looks on the street when my sister and I would walk around with my grandmother, and even stranger looks when it was me, my grandmother, my mom, my dad, my aunt, her husband, and her kids, because we are all different shades of color and I suppose nobody can really understand this wrinkled old super Danish lady could have a black family.

Everyone’s like, “whaaa?”

Kartina: What’s that song Michael sings at dinner? Have u heard it in Denmark before it’s like “I saw a little Sambo” something something…

Jessie: lmfao haaaaahahaha. That’s so Danish and awkward!

Kartina: What is it?

Jessie: I dunno. I’ve never heard that song before. But I remember having a children’s songbook that had a song about “negerland” (nigger land) with pictures of little black stick figures with huge white eyes and crazy hair and bones in their nose. It was terrifying and my mother called into the publishing company and complained.

Kartina: Is is realistic that everyone would totally ignore what Christian says?

Jessie: It’s COMPLETELY realistic that everyone ignores it.

That’s why the movie is so poignant and resonated with so many Danes. My mother LOVES it, because that’s just how it is. Keep up appearances. You Don’t want to embarrass anybody or ruffle any feathers.

Kartina: So then mayyybe Christian is acting in a way that’s very American and so the American understands him? …But then why is he black?

because that’s extra American in some way?

Jessie: That’s a thought. He’s certainly being disruptive and very un-Danish

So according to Danish experts, Christian acted in a very un-Danish fashion prompting his horror stricken fellow Danes to fall back. It would make some sense then that the only person to sympathize with him is an American. But why is he African American? It’s certainly not a coincidence. Vinterberg isn’t a stupidly careless director. He didn’t just throw a black guy in there for the hell of it.

There is always a reason.

Gbatokai sympathizes with Christian’s abuse and his current suffering at the hands of those furiously maintaining “civility.” He is the only person who does not immediately dismiss Christian’s claims. He commiserates with him. And why him? Perhaps Gbotokai’s understanding comes not solely from his Americaness, but his Black Americaness. He is meant to have inherent sympathy with the toll the suppression of anger and blame can take. Hasn’t he just had to endure Michael’s racist attacks? Maybe Vinterberg is suggesting that as an African-American (keeping the unique history of blacks in America in mind: slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, civil rights) he is familiar with being marginalized. He knows the importance of revealing violent truths. How easily people forget or wish to forget their crimes.

* Dakinah is of Danish and Liberian descent and grew up in New York City. He is now apparently a Rock/Dub/Afro-Beat musician.

Race in Film is Mirror’s first special series. Read more here!

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One Comment

  1. Finally caught up with The Celebration (after 12 years, (!), motivated by wanting to read this post only after watching the film. DV classic. What happened to the brave experimentation of DV films from the late ’90s/early 00’s? Dancer in the Dark, Bamboozled, 28 Days Later, Love and Pop, Julien Donkey Boy (another Dogme flick), Streets of Legend and this one, which is probably the greatest of the bunch.

    I thought Gbatokai was well placed in the film, but then, typically, kind of forgotten about as a flesh-and-blood character later on. He doesn’t look after his girlfriend, who’s rushed off somewhere to cry and vomit. He joins the Danish version of a conga line with the people who have proudly sung racist songs right in front of him. I understand that, like Sidney Poitier and the black daughter in Secrets and Lies and the black projectionist in Inglourious Bastards, his reserve reflects his wisdom about the situation, but… that approach always strikes me as a bit lazy and timid.

    As bold and inventive as this movie is, it stops short in letting Gbatokai really live in the moment the way all the other characters do. We get his anger and fellowship with Christian, but those are the only notes he gets to play. It’s a, uh, blind side, that even the great filmmakers and scenarists seem to have when conjuring up black characters.

    Still, I love this flick. It makes me alternately yearn for/want to create an African-American Festen, with USB stick camcorders and a premise that interrogates our own unexamined conservatism and complacency.


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