Racism has been around since day one – and in cinema almost as long. Some racist films, such as Gone With the Wind (1939), are still shown on television, while others, like The Birth of a Nation (1915) are harder to find. The question I want to ask is: Should these flicks be relegated to the museum or classroom … but not the small screen? I say yes. They should still be seen – after all, how would we know what’s offensive if we’re not exposed to it – just not on the telly for context-less “entertainment” purposes. They should be taught in schools, put on exhibit. Everyone should have access to them as educational tools, and everyone should know about them.
The following pictures are five that I feel should be on display as prime examples of cinematic racism. All five feature textbook offensiveness that precludes them from exhibition without proper context on TV, yet are essential to inclusion in the Museum of Injury to Others. This isn’t a comprehensive list; there are plenty others out there that are sure to rub sensible people the wrong way. I feel, however, that these flicks are well known enough to warrant further scrutiny, academic or otherwise. So here they are:
The Birth of a Nation
Important from a narrative standpoint yet gruelling to get through, D.W. Griffith’s frightening epic is the most virulent example of racism in my list. You’ve got “evil” black people – well, white actors done up in ludicrous blackface – running rampant and the vicious Ku Klux Klan coming to the rescue on horses. There are few movies that match the dangerousness of the sentiments in this film, and that’s why it should be seen by everyone and taught in schools.
Gone With the Wind
I’ve never liked this movie, which still finds its way every so often on to TV and has legions of followers, despite its tiresome soapiness. Yet there’s another reason why I abhor it, and that is its treatment of black people and slavery during the American Civil War. They’re depicted as stupid and infantile, as well as unwilling to have a life outside of slavery. A good companion piece to this wretchedly important film would be 12 Years a Slave (2013), which is GwtW’s antithesis. Sure, the latter film is epic, but it’s also reprehensible. Therefore, it’s critical cinema viewing.
A Day at the Races (1937)
This isn’t the Marx Brothers’ best movie, though it does have a number of gems, including the famous “tootsie-frootsie ice cream” sequence. The main problem, however, is a massive, absolutely horrific musical number involving a great number of black performers doing a lot of stereotypical eye-rolling and jumping around. Although the music is lively, the treatment of the individuals is the issue here. It has to be seen to be believed, as well as seen to ensure such depictions don’t happen again.
Gunga Din (1939)
What can I say about this rip-snorter, an adaptation of the famous Rudyard Kipling poem and an account of three India-based English troops – plus one native water carrier (played by non-Indian Sam Jaffe) – in “the good ol’ days” of colonialism. Oh, yeah: The Indians who are fighting against the British are evil Thuggees … about as bad a lot as you can possibly be. You can still see this film every so often on TV, and it is a rollicking classic, though it’s also incredibly offensive. There is, however, one saving grace: The Thuggees’ leader gets a line describing India’s past military might “while Englishmen still dwelt in caves and painted themselves blue.” He’s a villain, though, and the Brits win the battle in the end. Must-see cinema.
I’m no fan of Mel Gibson’s directorial forays, and this movie is no exception. The story of an innocent Central American Indian man on the run from vicious, barbaric Mayan warriors, Apocalypto clumsily paints a picture of the latter culture as debauched and criminal. Yet who rescues everyone in the end? None other than white, Christian, European explorers – years before they made contact with the area. Gibson’s point seems to be that Christianity is the element of good that ultimately will rescue the “ignorant natives,” who need civilising. An absurd, racist perspective, and one that definitely merits viewing.