william steig drawing

May 12, 2010
Kartina Richardson

Special Series I : Race in Film

Don't look now Tammy, but your slave is showing.

Oh man are we gonna have a ball.

This series looks at representations of people of color (POC) in films that do not explicitly deal with race. This means that although I love Mr. Tibbs, In the Heat of the Night will not be featured. Instead, we will look at images of POC, references to race, racism, and race relations (positive and negative) that pop up in unexpected places. Such un-race related films like Hold That Ghost, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Paisan and even Meet Me in St. Louis.

The movies in this series are primarily ones I grew up watching and have viewed hundreds of times. The majority of them will be from the 1930’s-60s*. My love for film, and these pictures in particular, surpasses every other passion I have in life (with the exclusion of human beings of course). Because (rather than despite) these films are dear to me, these moments of racial ignorance and insensitivity caused uneasiness. This not only interrupted my movie watching experience, but excluded me from the club. The one that loved the movie unquestionably and did not get offended. These moments made me feel that not only was the movie was no longer mine, but it had never been intended for me in the first place. That is a painful feeling.

Those of us that have ever taken offense to a dubious portrayal of POC in a movie will be familiar with a few accusations:

You aren’t “appreciating” the film as a whole.
You are only seeing race.
You are overreacting.
You are being overly-sensitive.
It was a product of the times.
The film’s craftsmanship and technological innovation makes the issue of racism negligible.

This is a familiar attempt at silencing criticism. Comments such as these at once suggest the defender’s superior understanding of the film while hinting at the criticizer’s inability to appreciate its artistic value, or the medium as a whole.

Let’s consider discussions of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Film historians and professors laud the film’s groundbreaking artistic and technological achievements, and rightly so, however they make little mention in comparison, of the social impact the film had. If we’re lucky, we’ll get about five sentences devoted to the film’s racism. If you press this issue, it will be gently suggested that because of the film’s influence on film production that its subject matter (white supremacy) becomes negligible. This is an unbelievable attitude for people that take cinema so seriously to have. They seem to have forgotten the power the cinema holds. Isn’t it a testament to Griffith’s masterful direction, that his film should be so influential (like directly influencing the revival of the Ku Klux Klan)?

As for these moments being excused as a “product of the times”, I point out the many movies from the same eras that do explicitly address race: Imitation of Life, In the Heat of the Night, Pinky, Sargeant Rutledge, The Defiant Ones, Giant, Gentleman’s Agreements to name a few.

SO

I hope these little videos help to limit the sense of isolation we can feel when noticing and pointing out issues of race in films, even the ones we love. AND. I. LOVE. THEM!

*With the lifting of the production code, directors had more interesting ways to amuse the audience than black face tap routines (like having a man and woman sit on the bed at the same time!) Or maybe it was the whole civil rights thing.

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  2. [...] in Film is Mirror’s first special series! Read about it here and stay tuned for [...]

  3. [...] or moment of interest in different films. I also have special series of videos, the first being Race in Film, which looks at portrayals of people of color in films that do not explicitly deal with [...]

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