I just finished watching the film Hector and the Search for Happiness, and while I didn’t hate it, I also am cautious about celebrating it as a fun feel-good movie. It is very much along the lines of a lot of mainstream I-am-traveling-to-find-myself stories I read about in blogs and watch in movies. Now of course, I could have chosen to not watch the film, but again, I liked how it asked the question of what is happiness, and at the same time, I am coming at it from a privileged Westerner’s perspective and am aware that a lot of these travel movies that Hollywood makes tend to center around straight, cis white Westerners and often do not portray people of color in deeper more complex roles. After seeing movies like Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell, for instance, movies in which Asian people are the protagonists in the story and cultural traditions in Asian countries are not seen as some kind of prop, I felt a little uneasy letting it slide that the Chinese characters in Hector and the Search for Happiness are not protagonists and are all minor characters (also, Hector’s girlfriend doesn’t get to travel with him and just stays at home waiting for him until he comes back. Spoiler, she forgives him for his nonsense and gets back with him. This also made me cringe Of course, I know that wasn’t the film’s intent, but I still knew I needed to be careful about painting a rosy picture about this film. Then again, if a Westerner like me goes into another country, I also shouldn’t just go there with a savior mentality there because then I’m merely pitying individuals who live in those countries, and frankly, people need to feel respected, not like they are props for a camera shoot. Then again, I haven’t actually traveled to the countries Hector did, so someone watching this film might have a different perspective. Overall it was okay and also Hollywood films don’t have to necessarily stick to the white male travel narrative. In fact, the film got a little over 30 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and at first, I gave it the benefit of the doubt, and then after finishing it understood why I wasn’t rooting for it much either.
One of the few travel films I think where it challenges the standard Western travel narrative is Salt Fat Acid Heat. First off, the host is a woman of color, Samin Nosrat, and historically most travel documentaries have featured white males who go to these countries and act as if they are “discovering” these foods, when in reality, that’s just a form of colonialism. When she goes to Mexico, for instance, she has a genuine respect for the food as well as the individuals who make that food (many of the women featured on the show are women and people of color) and when she goes to a bee farm in Mexico with a rare species of stingless bees, she doesn’t run away but instead develops this beautiful bond with the bees and the honey they harvest in the community they are in. Not to mention the fact that she also makes the effort to speak the language of the country she is in (which is why I am working on my Spanish so that when I travel to Spain, Mexico, or any other Spanish speaking country, I can fully communicate with the people in the country).