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Instead of Ignoring Racism in Classic Films, Learn From It | Op-Ed

Over the past few weeks, there has been quite a bit of discussion on the value of classic films that contain racism and racist themes. Notably, the LA Times published an article by John Ridley on why Gone With the Wind should be removed from streaming platforms. He argues that a film that glorifies the Confederacy and perpetuates racist depictions of black characters, shouldn’t be featured without pairing it with a disclaimer or without also featuring other films that offer a variety of perspectives.

“At a moment when we are all considering what more we can do to fight bigotry and intolerance, I would ask that all content providers look at their libraries and make a good-faith effort to separate programming that might be lacking in its representation from that which is blatant in its demonization.”

John Ridley, “Op-Ed: Hey, HBO, ‘Gone With the Wind’ romanticizes the horrors of slavery. Take it off your platform for now
  • Classic films provide an important touchstone to the mindset of the majority of their audience (mostly white Americans and Canadians) at the time.
  • They serve as good teaching tools to help understand how prejudice can be embedded within culture while seeming hidden to the oppressor

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The Underlying Question: It is important to note that this debate on the status of race and racism in classic film is not a new one. For the past few years, people have pointed out racist depictions in films such as Gone With the Wind, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Ben-Hur. There is no doubt in my mind that if you asked people of colour at the time, they would have still seen those films as offensive. So why should they still have a place in cultural history?

Use of Brownface in Ben Hur

Understanding the past: It has been said that art reflects life, and film is a perfect example of this. Films that transcend being “simply movies” and become cultural touchstones reflect the attitudes of the era from which they are from.

  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s is an excellent example of this, with Audrey Hepburn being largely remembered for this performance, and even being the inspiration for a rock song a great many years later. Cards on the table, I love this movie.
  • But there is one glaring fault, and that is Rooney, a white man, dressing in yellowface to play Mr. Yunioshi. This performance was, at the time, lauded as being comical but is perhaps better described as disturbing.

Over time, common opinion turned against his performance, but this process took years. This performance is one example of how East Asians in American popular culture are seen as caricatures rather than characters.

Orientalism: This kind of exaggerated depiction of any character from the East is an example of Orientalism.

  • Constructing stereotypes and mythologies in films, literature, and art about people and images from a Western perspective in a way that distorts and simplifies the way people from the East really are.
  • A belief that Western society is superior to any other society.
  • A part of Western ideology since colonization but still dominant in popular culture and beliefs

A Corrupted Reality: A more direct way of understanding perceptions on race can be seen in the way white characters discuss race in movies that are not necessarily about racial conflict. Take Lawrence of Arabia. A film based on the life of a man who was an utter liar.

In Lawrence of Arabia, our hero T.E. Lawrence refers to the Arab tribes as “a little people…a silly people.” He believes that he will save the Arabs from the evil and vile Ottoman Empire. Lawrence takes on the role of a “white saviour”, and sees himself as better than the Arabs.

Though in some ways, the movie subverts the trope, the reality is that the bulk of the movie thematically supports the idea. And it’s easy to see why.

  • At this stage of the Cold War, Britain is still coming to terms with decolonization and also engaged in military efforts across Africa and the Arab world.
  • Lawrence of Arabia can be seen as a condensed way of understanding what was felt by white Englishmen at the time, with many who remembered the “good ol’ days” of the British Empire, not understanding the circumstances they were in.

Film as a Teaching Tool

Not everyone has the time to read history textbooks in order to understand what the mood of a group of people was at any given point in history. Films, whether benign or vile, provide an important window to the past in understanding the opinions of the time.

At worst, they are damning critiques of white society’s values. At best, they are a fun ride with some problematic elements. Either way, they are important to reflect on.

I am not the first one to suggest that film can be used to teach people, but it bears repeating. One of the most common defences of racism in film is that people (usually white) can’t tell that the film is racist. What people of colour, like myself, find offensive, others see as “just a joke” or “reading into it”. But just because a film is not explicitly racist does not mean that the film is not racist.

David Carradine in Kung Fu

Prevailing Stereotypes

We do not have to go as far back as Lawrence of Arabia or Ben-Hur to find examples of this:

  • Through the 70s and 80s, Hong Kong action films became more and more popular in the United States.
  • Eventually, American producers began to emulate the style of these films. And so films and TV shows such as Bloodsport, Kung Fu, Year of the Dragon, and plenty of other B-movies aside, were made.

East Asians were stereotyped very heavily in these productions. Asian men as gangsters and cheats were very common, and almost necessary to the genre. While any single one of these films could be written off as a one-off endeavour, seeing these negative stereotypes, again and again, reinforce those stereotypes in popular culture.

Damaging Depictions

No person of colour likes to see themselves represented on screen as a stereotype. These harmful depictions can be damaging to their audiences, particularly younger audiences. Nancy Wang Yuen from Biola University summarizes this neatly, writing:

“Popular media can have a negative impact on whites’ perceptions of people of color and racial stereotypes in film and television can exacerbate preexisting racist fears.”

Instead of simply ignoring the place in history for these films, we can use them to demonstrate why and how racism can be covert in culture. More broadly, how repeated stereotypical portrayals of a specific group of people can harm them in society.

Additionally, the films themselves provide time capsules of era-accepted attitudes, and discussion around the films can help to develop the narrative around cultural depictions in film. 

Film acts as an accessible teaching tool when textbooks and academia can be too dense.

The Bottom Line: Art imitates life and life imitates art. To write a film out of being a “classic film” is not a simple thing.

To choose to write these films out of history is to remove cultural touchstones that provide a sense of the mood of the times.

These films transcend the medium because they have simply become fixtures in culture and play a large part in the history of filmmaking, the history of Hollywood, and the history of different societies.

Racism was, and is, a key part in film making, and to ignore its legacy is to ignore the prevailing opinions of white America at the time, and to sometimes forget nuance.

These films are great to learn from and to teach the uninformed how oppression can seep its way into pop-culture while hiding its true face.

Whether a truly tone-deaf film such as Gone With the Wind or an otherwise stellar film with racist elements such as Lawrence of Arabia, there is still more to be gained than lost in discussion.