Editorials, Everything Else — April 29, 2014 at 3:00 pm



It has been said that media is a mirror of the culture, but it is also an arbiter of the culture. Much of our perspective on each other, particularly the majority’s perspective on minorities, has to do with the way our media presents those minorities. American films have a long and very uncomfortable history with race, from the blatantly racist overtones of children’s fare like Dumbo, to the deeper and more insidious forms of oppression that include oppression by exclusion. When we discuss structural racism, we are talking about films that represent racism as part and parcel of the structure of the work; the heroes, in fact, do not have a choice but to be racist.

The most obvious and notorious example of structural racism is Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s romantic peon to the antebellum South, and one of the most profoundly racist films ever made. Many who have either not seen or not paid attention to Birth of a Nation still probably know the scene of the Ku Klux Klan riding to save hapless prisoners as the Ride of the Valkyries booms over the soundtrack. The film is based on a novel called The Clansman, literally a valorization of the antebellum South and the rise of the KKK in the aftermath of the Civil War. It is an exercise in structural racism, a film that is impossible to read against the grain. The majority of the slave characters (many of them white actors in blackface) are the villains of the piece, and they cannot be read as aught but villains. As a viewer, there is no way to actually root for the success of the slaves because they are the menacing force. The film forces the viewer over to the side of the KKK, making them valiant heroes against the black menace. The film evinces the belief that the audience will agree with its message; it does not present the opportunity for internal critique within the world of the film, and does not assume that any external critique will be offered. As a film, it literally assumes that the viewer will agree with its excoriation of slaves as dangerous animals, and the valorization of the KKK as defenders of home and hearth.

Because Birth of a Nation is so obviously racist, it is easy to dismiss. Few people watching the film today would see aught but a horrifically skewed vision of the post-Civil War South, and most would condemn the film for its approach. Yet many viewers continue to defend the romanticization of the South and slavery in Gone with the Wind. Gone with the Wind is almost as blatant as Birth of a Nation in its structuring of slavery as a romantic institution (many of the “good” blacks are happy with their lot) and the South as a land that was unfairly invaded and destroyed by the rampaging North. Couched in the tale of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler is a story that valorizes the South and the institution of slavery no less than Birth of a Nation. Gone with the Wind is insidious because its implicit racism and romaniticization exists beneath the surface. It is not on first observation explicit to the plot, instead couching its racist undertones in terms of the romantic tribulations of Scarlett and Rhett. As such, it cannot be as easily condemned as Birth of a Nation, which wears its racism on its sleeve. So Birth of a Nation is viewed as a historical curiosity, an important film that nonetheless repels most viewers, while Gone with the Wind is celebrated for its 75th Anniversary.

Both Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind are, at least in part, victims of their own time periods. But despite strides being made in representing racial minorities, there is still an implicit structural racism at play in contemporary cinema, and then not just in terms of African-Americans. Fantasy films like the Lord of the Rings trilogy draw on implicit racism by failing to represent racial minorities as a part of a fantasy world.Lord of the Rings represents the Anglo-Saxon mainstream – the world of Middle Earth divided along racial lines, with all of the fair-skinned, fair-haired heroes battling the forces of darkness, themselves depicted as dark-skinned and modeled in part on Maori warriors. The only non-white races represented in Lord of the Rings are either villains or those manipulated by villains – including the invaders from the South, themselves typed as vaguely Arabic and Indian. Yes, Lord of the Rings is a fantasy, but it is a white Anglo-Saxon fantasy. It is still structurally racist.

We’ve claimed that we’re in a post-race society, and many of the films that deal with implicit or explicit racism are set in the distant or not-so-distant past. 12 Years a Slave and Lee Daniels’The Butler, for all their excellent dilineation of past American shames, do nothing to bring these concerns into the present. We applaud the appearance of non-white characters in mainstream films, yet these are still few and far between, often relegated to secondary roles in predominantly white films. We still live in a culture where a film like Noah includes no people of color because, according to the screenwriter, it would be “distracting.” We continue to structure even our fantasies along racial lines. We can imagine dragons, dwarves, elves, and magic rings, but there’s no such thing as a dark-skinned Hobbit.

Tags birth of a nationgone with the windracism

1 Comment

  • I want to make a silly reference in what is otherwise a well-written and thought provoking post.

    Whoppie Goldberg made a joke about black hobbits when she hosted the Oscars. She said they were from south-central middle earth.

    Great job on this essay!