Tuesday, July 2, 2013
Racism in Movies
Posted by Chris Santucci
Obviously, Paula Dean's remarks were horrible. She's apologized and has been punished. I suspect Dean will have 2-3 months of penance before she procures a new network cooking show. She may even retain and restore most -- if not all -- of her giant mechanise empire.
On the other hand, Song of the South will remain buried in Disney's vaults, which reinforces that idea that parents want their entertainment merely to distract and not educate their youth. Films that contain objectionable material may require parental intervention -- some sort of discussion. For some, it's better just to keep these things hidden.
However, I have greater issues with certain films with a "noble" effort to educate on the detriments of ignorance or bigotry. I recall the first time I saw Disney's Remember the Titans in college, which received glowing endorsements from my friends--both white and black. I hated it! It represented everything that was wrong with morality tales. It's resolution felt cheap and unfulfilled.
Films that reflect on racism -- or any other form of bigetry -- do not have to be morality tales. It isn't wrong to suggest that people who are racist are bad or remain beyond redemption. But films that blatantly attempt to hide or brush aside the true injustices sometimes do more of a disservice to history and their cause. It suggests that change can occur simply if we maintain our own resolves without any of the fight; that the end of bigotry requires building blocks and hardship.
While rewatching Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, I was happy to see the racism was not overwritten. So-called abolitionists embraced change, but not equality. Lincoln himself had to compromise the notion of full liberties in order to pass a bill that would inevitably pave the way for more battles to come. Despite Speilberg's obsession with spoon-feeding morality lessons to his audience, he preserves the record. The word "nigger" is not omitted. Lincoln reflects on the challenges that will remain after slavery is abolished. Hearts and minds won't change as fast as the law.
Whenever I tell folks about older films, there are some who fail to see my rationale; any reason why I would be interested. There's a false belief that any film made before our birthdays lack any relevance -- or entertainment merit.
There are films that carry an outdated outlook on people of certain religions, race and gender. Films that once carried a noble message have lost their luster like Best Picture nominees/winners like A Gentleman's Agreement, in which undercover journalist (Gregory Peck) unravels the Anti-Semitism plaguing 1940's America, or Guess Who's Coming To Dinner in which Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey are shocked to discover that their Caucasian daughter is betrothed to an African American (Sidney Poitier) in 1967! Neither of these films carry the same gravity because they literally only see the rights-and-wrongs; the (seriously, no pun intended) blacks-and-whites.
Two of the biggest, most influencial films in cinema directly pertain to the subject of race. D.W. Griffith's silent epic Birth of a Nation remains a milestone in drafting the cinematic language as we know it. It's also a film that celebrates the Ku Klux Klan and villifies African Americans (portrayed by white actors donning black makeup) as vulgar, animalistic, rapists.
The most successful film of all time remains (and will always remain) Gone With the Wind, which shows slaves who embrace their lives of servitude. They remain loyal family members even when the North triumphs and liberates them. There remains uncomfortable scenes, such as when we see slave children standing and fanning their sleeping white damsels.
In a world consumed with PR, I must applaud the folks at Warner Bros and Disney for releasing archived cartoons devoid of censorship. For example, when Disney released their Treasures sets, which featured the classic Donald, Mickey and Goofy shorts, critic Leonard Maltin pre-empted each controversial short with a remark over their historical value and the stereotypical contrivances. When Warner's finally unveiled their infamous "Tom and Jerry" shorts, which featured their belligerent, African-American housekeeper, Whoopi Goldberg made the same cautionary introductions.
I haven't seen Song of the South in over twenty years. Based on my initial impressions, I can only recall the light-hearted song "Zippity Do Da" jollily recited by an African-American man. I exited the theater only recalling the fun and affirming moments. My innocent mind never processed any demeaning impressions. That's for the adults to decide. As an adult, Paula Dean did herself a disservice by not addressing why she uttered the word "nigger". All she's done was repeatedly apologize. Instead, she feels just like another capricious redneck from Remember the Titans.
I learned more from Birth of a Nation.