Racism in Film.

It is really beginning to seem that way…

This week, we are discussing race and its portrayal in media, in particular, film.

From Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird to Tony Kaye’s American History X, race has been an issue explored in film.  However it is not the films which utilise race as a motif to drive the plot which seem to be the issue, problems are arising when a film neglects to present a certain race and their issues but instead chooses to explore this through different characters of a different race.  Congruently an issue we discussed in class arises when an actor of a particular race is playing a character of another race.

For context of these ideas we will mostly be looking into the 2012 film, The Impossible which follows a British family who are tourists caught in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. David Cox from the guardian depicts the backlash received by the films producers for what ultimately comes down to racism. Although the film in no way utilises race as a motif or even directly deals with it, audiences around the world took offence to the characters being predominately white and thereby not showing the extent of which the disaster damaged the local people.  The New York Times author, A. O. Scott describes the film as;

“less an examination of mass destruction than the tale of a spoiled holiday”.

To some extent, I agree with this statement, the film itself rather trivialises the whole disaster and quite literally ‘white washes’ the story (which can be argued is to generate empathy from white audiences) but I do not believe it is inherently racist.  The film was not created to raise awareness for the disaster, it was created to entertain and generate profit, it the producers/directors decide that having a white cast will best uphold these goals then it is their decision to make. Cox concludes his article highlighting that Chinese and Indian film makers are finding more success in hiring white people for their films rather than using local actors, so perhaps there is certain fondness of Anglo-Saxon actors in foreign films.

Robert Downey Junior’s character in Tropic Thunder is rather difficult to identify, however the simplistic version is that Downey Junior is a white man who put on black face for a role.

Robert Downey Junior as Kirk Lazarus playing the character Sgt. Lincoln Osiris

Questions of racism arise from this character as a white person using black face has cultural ties with undeniable racism in American Culture.  Often being categorised into the idea of ‘black face is black face’ implying that any sense of it is inherently wrong. I believe that this film is not racist. The character does not fit into any of black-face.com ‘s stereotypical black people, infact the character could have been white without loosing much comical effect.

I guess this brings me to my final point (and as to why I included the video at the beginning). In many cases, not all, but many, I feel that race is only an issue if you make it one.

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4 thoughts on “Racism in Film.

  1. An interesting take on the definition of ‘racism’ in the media. Especially liked the use of ‘The Impossible’ as an example, being a film I have seen I do agree that it glorifies both the natural disaster itself and is inauthentic in its unequal race representation. As a Caucasian media consumer I think the film industry in particular would benefit a great deal of respect from casting realistic to race, rather than appealing to the majority white viewership. Great effort on this post.

  2. This is a well researched and thought out blog post. You concentrated on film media as the main form of racism as a entertainment media form, but don’t forget about television in general. With the recent influx in ethnic roles in television shows, do you feel that this change in the media will spill over into movies or remain a isolated change?

  3. Hey Sean,
    I like the way you have approached the issue in this post . Personally I have to agree with the stance that you take toward the creative decisions writers have in who they decide to cast and base the films story around. If you are interested in further reading related to the latter part of your post though I found this interesting debate on whether actors should play roles outside of their race found here:

    http://www.cherwell.org/comment/opinion/2015/01/23/debate-should-actors-play-characters-of-a-different-race

    Views from both sides are shown which challenged my thinking and well worth the read if you have time.

    Nice post!

  4. Hey Sean,

    I like the way you have approached the issue in this post, you have a very clear and professional writing style making it a much more engaging read. Personally I have to agree with the stance that you take toward the creative decisions writers have in who they decide to cast and base the films story around. If you are interested in further reading related to the latter part of your post though I found this interesting debate on whether actors should play roles outside of their race found here:

    http://www.cherwell.org/comment/opinion/2015/01/23/debate-should-actors-play-characters-of-a-different-race

    Views from both sides are shown which challenged my thinking and well worth the read if you have time. One of the points made by one of the writers is that in many cases characters in leading roles are defined by characteristics outside of race, so the background of the actor playing that role shouldn’t matter. In his words, “I am not suggesting by any means that we have a white man play Nelson Mandela in the next biopic of his life, or that we have a black Reagan. There are obviously some cases where it is absolutely imperative to have an actor of the same race as the character, if solely in order to provide an accurate depiction of historical persons. But the relevance and value of characters like Moses, Bond, or Julius Caesar in cinematic depiction does not come from their race, and so there is no imperative that the actor portraying these characters be of any specific race.”

    *Excuse the double post, can’t find a way to delete the initial comment 😉

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