Film on Racism Under Fire in Germany

When he played a Turkish guest worker living in Germany 25 years ago, Wallraff gave both a voice and a face to a segment of society that, at the time, was hardly represented in the German media at all. In 2009, as can be seen with the examples of Mo Asumang, Samy Deluxe and many others, black Germans have firmly established a presence in the public eye. But Wallraff pointedly chose not to place his Kwami character in the professional world. "With my Ali character, I wanted to expose discrimination in the world of work," Wallraff says. "But, with Kwami, I purposefully chose a character that could help people primarily see the kind of racist things that happen in everyday life."

A Failure to Make Subtle Differentiations

One of the things that Wallraff makes clear in his film is how the lines between race and class discrimination become blurred. For example, when he goes about as Kwami Ogonno wearing no jacket, carrying only a plastic bag and speaking broken German, he is usually treated like anyone else who is economically marginalized. But when he dresses stylishly and speaks German without an accent when visiting an expensive watch store in Düsseldorf, he is treated with the utmost courtesy.

When he delivered his speech on racism in 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama touched upon this issue of how race and class conflicts often get tangled up together. He spoke about "the resentments of white Americans" who feel threatened by gains made by blacks in American society. He went on to say that "to label (white Americans) as misguided or even racist without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns (also) widens the racial divide and blocks the path to understanding." In the end, he concludes that they would both benefit more by fighting together for more opportunities.

In his film and book, however, Wallraff fails to reach this sort of subtle differentiation. In the film, he particularly complains that, as a black man, he is "always defined exclusively based on the color of his skin." "When you're black," he says in one of the film's few moments of commentary, "people don't focus on or even recognize what really makes you a person."

Still, he also seems to commit this same fault of over-simplification in his film. "In my role, I usually just made do without any personal history," he says. "I was simply just 'the other,' 'the black other.'"

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