Racial Tropes in American Film

Since its invention, film has always been inherently known as one of the most racist mediums in art.  The development of nitrate and cellulose film was never designed with exposure to darker skin tones in mind, and when the medium began to take root in America, Hollywood never bothered to correct this lapse in design.  Rather, some of the first films that would ever be produced by America’s budding film industry, would not only feature large casts of white actors, white directors, and screenplays written by white men, but the appearance of the colored American as a marginalized, mongoloid caricature, reflective of the attitudes of the white majority of that time.

            Still, today, after a Civil Rights movement, and many a public outcry influencing American law in regards to the poor treatment of people of color, or “POC”, in the United States, we still see a battle being waged against Hollywood, as year by year, more American films are produced that are either cast, directed, or written in ways that are debatably just as racist as the days of nitrocellulose.

            With over a century of film history behind us, who is at fault for the racial slurs that still continue today?  The inventors of film are long gone.  Do we blame the film studios, for excluding scripts featuring POC?  The Directors Guild of America, for featuring so little colored faces amongst them?  The screenwriters who put the racist attitudes onto paper?  Or our casting directors, who still haven’t seemed to grasp the concept of an “open casting call”?

            What does this say about all of us?  Is our film industry a reflection of a racist society, or have we been stimulating it all along?

            In the beginning, many “racist” films were purely propaganda.  The target for racism here in America has always changed with the times, generally based upon the largest influx of foreign-born people arriving to the United States, from “Irish Need Not Apply”, to the liberation of African-American slaves, to the Japanese internment camps during WWII, until more recently, with the influx of Latin American immigrants fleeing to find a home within our borders.  When film was just starting to become an industry in the United States, the Jim Crow laws were still in effect.  In tandem with this, D.W. Griffith, a member of the Ku Klux Klan produced the film The Birth of a Nation, a film that – besides being one of the earliest examples of the use of “blackface” and featuring openly racist attitudes – is still taught and shown as part of “cinematic history” today.

            “The film is one of the most effective tools I have for teaching ideological analyses of film, for understanding audience reception, and for considering the ways in which films can ‘tell’ history,” one professor of film history, Paul McEwan explains.  Many teachers of film history also find the film essential as part of such a course due to its significance as one of the first “narrative” silent films to be made here in America.  Though whether this significance carries as much importance as some professors might place upon it could be debatable, considering that there were plenty French films of that time, such as Voyage dans la Lune by Georges Méliès, and other silent narratives besides, being produced without any racist propagandist content.

            Since the making of Birth of a Nation, the American film industry never really stopped framing POC as the “villains” in their movies.  Too often, Hollywood casts people with darker toned skin in the role of the antagonist, in ways that are too starkly obvious a parody of racist thinking.  However, this vilifying of POC in film isn’t always as glaringly obvious as the casting of Arnold Volsloo as Imhotep in The Mummy, or Al Pacino’s portrayal of a Cuban immigrant, practically dripping in cocaine and illegality in Scarface.  One of the most grossly underrated POC villains that were meant to be depicted purely as a racist stereotype in a film, is Mr. Yunioshi, the vile, buck-toothed neighbor of Audrey Hepburn’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

            At the time the caricature may have been accepted and written off as merely colorful comedic slapstick, but many decades of social progression later, it's clearly downright racist,” writes Jen Yamato of Movieline.  Actor Mickey Rooney’s yellowface impersonation of an Asian American caricature also came dangerously close, Yamato explains, to the “uncanny personification of WWII-era anti-Japanese propaganda cartoons” of that time.  Even without the historical justification, it’s just as easy for audience members today to get so wrapped up in Audrey Hepburn’s lovely New York adventures to even notice, let alone makes excuses for, the stereotyped elephant in the room.

            To make matters worse, every dastardly baddie needs a good old-fashioned hero.  It’s Hollywood’s favorite formula.  Films such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a family favorite that will probably be continually watched throughout the decades, not only features villains that are painful misrepresentations of POC and their cultures, but the white protagonist as their “savior”.  Social justice critics would call this “white heroism”, but at its root, it’s really only a continuation of Social Darwinism, at its most docile.  At the height of American imperialism, Social Darwinists believed that it was their privilege to both conquest and colonize foreign peoples; similarly many of these Western thinkers also thought it was their duty to bring “civilization” to foreign cultures, otherwise known as “the white man’s burden”.

            Whether suffering from an old imperialistic notion, or an age old prejudice, films such as 10,000 BC and John Carter continue to follow an archetype of a white male protagonist being thrust into the world of an uncivilized indigenous people, who have existed perfectly for years until a recent crises, which clearly could only mean that this white protagonist is their only hope for salvation.  This kind of story formula might not be as big a deal as it is, if it weren’t for the astoundingly barren amount of POC actors featured in the protagonist roles in such movies.  Too often, such epic films will not even consider looking at POC actors while casting.  Such an instance was just recently made public in the news, when a British actress was turned away from taking a role as a background hobbit, in the newest installment of the Lord of the Rings films.

            “We’re looking for light-skinned people,” one of the casting directors reportedly told Naz Humphreys, under five feet tall, and of Pakistani decent, after she’d been waiting in line for hours.  “I’m not trying to be… whatever.  It’s just the brief.  You’ve got to look like a hobbit.”

            Similarly, social justice critics have noted that when black heroism, or POC protagonists of any nature make an appearance in film, their presence is also notably marked by a background of white normativity.  Dystopian and science fiction films, in particular, that feature POC casts, tend to cast white actors in the role of the rich white majority, the “corrupt government”, or leadership roles, such as the TV series Firefly or the film Children of Men, while you might find the POC actors – though well-represented for a change – taking up the roles of the destitute, not law-abiding protagonists.  It is a common theme that runs throughout such story archetypes, and is too prevalent to just be coincidence.

            “…there is little novelty in the relationship between multiculturalism and dystopian visions,” writes Sean Brayton in his article The Racial Politics of Disaster and Dystopia in I Am Legend.  “Before the ‘Obama era,’ Samuel Huntington's ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis forecasted the impending doom of the American Southwest as a result of ‘Hispanicization.’ Other commentators added similar predictions of ‘national breakdown’ and a ‘new world disorder’ caused by mounting immigration and the inherent ‘perds’ of multiculturalism.”  Although they might appear benign from without, when scrutinized apparently progressive and decent films such as I am Legend or Elysium that feature POC protagonists still carry an air of prejudice – the very fact that their heroism exists in a dystopian world seems to say that their role as defender of earth would not occur unless our societal system, as we know it, had already collapsed.

            “For many on the far Right, multiculturalism is nothing short of a dystopia,” Brayton goes on to explain.  “One in which white public spaces and political offices are ‘taken over’ by people of color.”

            There is another note to black heroism, and POCs in general, as portrayed by American film and media.  If they are not featured as a protagonist dependent upon the existence of a crumbled prejudiced society, they often appear as “the sidekick” or are cast in the role of the classic “Uncle Tom” character type.  “Ever since D.W. Griffith made Birth of a Nation in 1915,” Erich Leon Harris, an African-American screenwriter said in his book African-American Screenwriters Now: Conversations with Hollywood’s Black Pack, “blacks have been represented in American films in one form or another.  Unfortunately, we have had very little creative input into the way our culture has been represented on the screen until recently.”  Hollywood films that are periodically placed in the pre-Civil War era, or post, typically feature mostly white casts, and token black characters of the Uncle Tom type.

            Only recently, a film that broke through this stereotype, 12 Years a Slave, was nominated for Best Picture.  Yet, only a few months before the reportedly groundbreaking film premiered, Warner Bros. made the decision to re-release Gone With The Wind, a film that in 1939 itself won the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Are they looking to generate coattail ticket receipts from the controversy attending Steve McQueen's harrowing and violent epic? Do they think some retirement-home demographic of faded southern belles and elderly white racists will emerge, stooped and wrinkled, to reclaim it one last time?” writes John Patterson from The Guardian, in his article Gone With The Wind Didn’t Give a Damn About Slavery.  Unlike 12 Years a Slave, Gone With the Wind is not a depiction of the evil of slavery.  It’s a glorified, big-budget reproduction of the era that illustrates it as a sample of a “simpler time”.

“Even its major black characters seem staunch in their defense of their own enslavement,” Patterson explains.  “Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen (no relation), two wonderfully gifted performers, are the same stereotypical maids they played in every other movie they made. In real life, McDaniel was a gifted singer and comedian, while McQueen, an atheist whose imperishable daffiness spiced up the clichéd roles she hated playing, simply quit acting.”  Films such as these, along with other movies of that kind like Driving Miss Daisy, frequent casting black actors in the role of the grateful servant.  Although their depiction of these characters – Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in Gone with the Wind and Morgan Freeman as Hoke Colburn in Driving Miss Daisy – aren’t necessarily untrue portrayals, the fact that their prevalence exists primarily, with no or very few alternatives of an unappreciative servant character type, seems to result in practically excusing the cruelty of slavery.  Films such as these manage to get away with this so easily mainly due to our society’s acceptance of such acknowledgements towards slavery, as though they were a progressive step, rather than a small nod towards an event that is, and always has been, tantamount to genocide.

Worse than the false portrayal of the POC character as uncivilized, docile, and mindless, is the simple erasure of their existence in American culture at all.  Hollywood is awash in adaptations of novels, comics, and plays, and yet in most of these films, characters that are canonically POC are played by white actors, or made by white filmmakers.  12 Years of Slave, though critically acclaimed for its harsh social analysis of slavery in America, has been controversially discussed as falling under the category of the “white guilt” genre of film.  “12 Years a Slave shows the real thing,” David Thompson says in What We Expect From a Best Picture, “made by Brits for the most part, horrible, painful, but necessary—at last. It acts on the assumption that slavery is a bigger topic than film-making, so it is not a spectacular, innovative, or ‘dazzling’ picture. It doesn’t believe it needs to be.”  But does its effective use of story structure redeem it from a potentially hypocritical stance on the topic of slavery?

On this same thread, America is also very well known for taking foreign-made movies and making American re-adaptions of them.  This re-making of original movies, even if it’s often just for the sake of producing a film that’s in English, isn’t strictly a bad thing.  But more often than not, movies that were originally produced in other countries, when re-made in English, tend to white-wash the entire cast.  Just look at Japanese horror movies. Famous for cornering the market on horror, films such as The Ring or The Grudge have gained national praise here in America, where, re-made, the casts are solely white.  If they feature POC at all, as in The Grudge, they are once again left with the role of the antagonist.

On a much more PG-rated level, racism still occurs, and it’s had a notable effect on America’s youth.  Disney animations, quite obviously a staple of every person’s childhood, although featuring an array of culturally diverse stories in their back pocket, are also under strict criticism for their blatant white-washing of POC characters.  Movies such as Aladdin, though much loved, are heavily chastised not only for misrepresenting the cultures they claim to be supporting, but casting white voice actors in the POC character roles.  It was only six years ago that Disney finally threw a bone out to the African-American community with the release of The Princess and the Frog, which features Tiana, a young black woman living in New Orleans as the main character.

Originally, writes Richard M. Breaux, when the film was announced, Tiana’s character was called Maddy.  “Maddy was to be a chambermaid, and cultural critics were quick to pounce on the phonetic similarities between―Maddy and―mammy. Maddy’s occupation smacked of the ubiquitous mammy, the happy servant stereotype that dominated film and later television through most of the twentieth century.”  Although many mothers have praised The Princess and the Frog for giving their daughters the chance to see themselves as a princess, it is quite clear that Disney’s intentions for the story were never culturally progressive, but rather capitalistically concentrated.

Disney isn’t the only studio to waste given opportunities for featured POC protagonists.  When Marvel’s sequel to The Avengers was announced, and Iron Man 3’s cast was publicized, there was a public outrage.  Comic book fans were infuriated to find, that after being teased with the news that the Mandarin – a much beloved comic book villain of Chinese decent, with magical powers of sorcery – would not be played by a Chinese actor.  The role was instead given to Ben Kingsley, an English actor of Indian decent.  Worse than this, audience members were later shocked to find that the filmmakers had pulled a bait-and-switch, when it was revealed that Ben Kingsley’s character wasn’t even the Mandarin, just an actor paid by Guy Pearce’s villain role to pretend to be the Mandarin.

But it isn’t just Marvel who falls into these white-washing habits.  One of the most emotionally impacting films of our time, right behind 12 Years a Slave, The Passion of Christ, also falls under criticism for displaying racist content – and it isn’t just because the film’s director, Mel Gibson, went on a three minute anti-Semitic rant that has over three-hundred thousand hits on YouTube.  In his film, Jesus is played by Jim Caviezel, a white American actor, who is accompanied in a cast that – not only is primarily Italian – but portrays a picture of the Jewish people that is grossly exaggerated as villainous.  On a less serious, but still just as important note, American Jews frequently find themselves as the butt of filmmakers’ lazy jokes.  In Mel Brook’s History of the World, Part One, his humor tends to prey on the persecution of the Jews.  “Within Brooks’s broad, farcical humor,” Lester D. Friedman, author of Hollywood’s Image of the Jew says, “he depicts Jews as victims for simply being different from their Christian neighbors.”

            One would think that with so much overwhelming evidence of racial prejudice over Hollywood’s history of filmmaking, the argument for a progressive change in POC representation in film would be solid.  But yet there are still those that argue that the opposite is true – that the “liberal media” has been creating films that racially discriminate against the white majority.  As though only proving Sean Brayton’s and other social commenter’s point, writers such as Steve Deace for CharismaNews try to make a case for reverse racism.  He claims that last year’s film, Elysium,is meant to be a sympathetic allegory for amnesty for illegals and Obamacare. The rich (mostly white) people live on an outer space Valhalla, while the poor (mainly minorities) are forced to remain on Planet Earth.”  It’s an absurd argument.  The fact that the word “reverse” must be used in context with “racism” in order to infer discrimination against whites is the most obvious indication that reverse racism isn’t a major social concern at this time, and so hardly worth discussing.

            There is no refuting the existence of racism in American culture – a simple analysis into its media is all it takes to reveal the layers of racial prejudice that still exist.  And it is worth analyzing – from the big corporations, to the social commenters.  A breakdown of all these things will reveal how these racial tropes in film are built up, because in truth, each element of filmmaking plays a part in portraying a racial stereotype in film.  An analysis of this, in itself, might even delve deeper into what causes racist behaviors and attitudes in the first place, and why those attitudes continue from generation to generation within American society.  The straightforward truth of it is, American films both influence and are mirrors of racism in our society.  And they will continue to be, unless filmmakers and audience members alike take a stance in changing this.

Shai Cotten