Racism has always been an unfortunate part of life. Over the decades, the values of society have progressively changed. We have gained more respect for each other and expect a certain level of political correctness to be upheld. This brings me to classical films. Certain movies of a bygone era and some more recent ones, have started to be critiqued and found offensive. I suggest that it remains important to take ‘uncomfortable’ content with a pinch of salt. The fictional stories thinly laced with truth are just that. They exist to be enjoyed and appreciated, not torn to shreds because they jar with our modern outlook.


The history of American film

In the early part of the 20th century, racism was a frequent and ubiquitous occurrence in American film. A vivid example of this is D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. It is thought to be the most racist film of all time. Among its many themes, the film promoted white supremacy and included the controversial use of ‘blackface’. By 1922, over five million people had seen the film and despite its racist undertones it became the first blockbuster. It was also responsible for propelling the KKK to minor political party status, gaining them millions of members.

In 1927, The Jazz Singer adopted the element of blackface. Talking about the film, Corin Willis said:

‘in contrast to the racial jokes and innuendo brought out in its subsequent persistence in early sound film, blackface imagery in The Jazz Singer is at the core of the film’s central theme, an expressive and artistic exploration of the notion of duplicity and ethnic hybridity within American identity. Of the more than seventy examples of blackface in early sound film 1927–53 that I have viewed (including the nine blackface appearances Jolson subsequently made), The Jazz Singer is unique in that it is the only film where blackface is central to the narrative development and thematic expression’.

The dark side of a Christmas classic

As it’s December, I have already indulged in the ’50s classic White Christmas. It is a fluffy romcom ideal for the festive season. This musical pleasure is rewatched for many reasons; the comedy, the dancing, and of course Bing Crosby’s silky voice. It illustrates the best of Hollywood’s golden years but unfortunately also encapsulates some of its worst tendencies. The title song ‘The Minstrel Days We Miss’ has racist undertones. Irving Berlin wrote it whilst he was in the army. He was influenced by the minstrel shows that he saw and the language they used. The song was later incorporated into White Christmas with an accompanying scene. This title song is still the most popular of all time, even if the film’s backstory is neither merry nor bright.

1980’s generation

Fast-forward to the 1980s, (my favourite era of film). Sixteen Candles is a teenage classic and a prime example of racial stereotyping. It celebrates the triumph of adolescence. But much of its comic relief comes from a foreign exchange student of Asian descent. The character speaks with a forced accent and when saying their name a gong chimes.

This seems to be a running theme in ’80’s films. The Goonies wrote-in a stereotypical ‘nerdy’ Asian boy and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom took this a step further. During the film, Indie and his accomplices find themselves in an impoverished Indian village. The trio find their way to Pankot Palace. There, they are invited to dinner with the Raj and are asked to retrieve a sacred stone. The dinner proves to be a stomach-curling affair, involving dining on living animals and eating out of decapitated heads. Steven Spielberg appears to have caricatured cultural and religious beliefs for comedy.

Can classic films teach us something important?

Classic films are a historical document. They detail times gone by. We should be learning from them instead of using every scene to criticise their assumed backwardness. If you see an exhibit about slavery with the torture equipment behind glass casing, it’s valuable because of what it represents. If we were to melt it down, we would be disrespecting the memory of all those innocent lives that were harmed through it. Past pain should not be erased because we find it unpleasant. The past is the fuel that lights the fire of today.

With this in mind, suggesting that film is merely for entertainment is frustrating. I am a firm believer that its a platform for political activism. This year, following the Black Lives Matter campaign Steve McQueen took this concept on board, producing a collection of films called Small Axe. Each film is based around individual stories of racism. The whole series is available on BBC iPlayer and worth a watch!

Afterthoughts

Race relations have slowly improved. The film industry has undeniably become more inclusive and we are now seeing multi-racial actors in traditionally white roles. Most recently, we saw Dev Patel playing the lead in The Personal History of David Copperfield. Two thoughts occur. Firstly, we need to accept classic films as a moment of history. Secondly, we should use them as a valuable catalogue for learning, even if some of them do leave us with a bad aftertaste.