Camera Lucida: Hollywood’s Racial Double Standard

Against the Current, No. 87, July/August 2000

Arlene Keizer

A DOUBLE STANDARD continues to stalk Hollywood when it comes to race and ethnicity, not to mention critical judgments.

Spike Lee can’t get a break.  His 1999 release “Summer of Sam” was the year’s most underrated film, despite its intense, engaging and somewhat experimental cinematography, complex characters (not usually a strength in Lee’s films), and strong dramatic performances, particularly by John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody and Jennifer Esposito.

The critical response to his film, which included quite a bit of criticism for his supposed stereotyping of Italian Americans, exemplifies the double standard for white-produced and Black-produced films.

While Lee has been slammed for every negative portrayal (e.g.  Jewish club owners in “Malcolm X” or “Mo’ Better Blues”), while films with blatantly racist content made by white directors pass without comment or are given awards.

“Summer of Sam” opens with an introduction by Jimmy Breslin, standing in present-day Times Square, which lends the film a documentary flavor that persists throughout.  The cinematography and pace of the film allow the viewer to almost experience the heat of the summer of 1977.

A soundtrack of songs from the period and original music composed by jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard capture the feel of the era without parodying it, unusual in film or TV representations of the `70s.

As a meditation on senseless violence and its eruption into everyday life, this film makes a real contribution to the national discourse on an issue of (unfortunately) growing relevance.  The portraits of the four main Italian-American characters are so finely drawn and well-acted that it’s hard to see how one could make a charge of stereotyping stick.

Lee represents the Italian American community in diversity and flux; I can’t think of a single white director who has viewed communities of color with such a sympathetic and knowing eye.

License to Stereotype

“The Cider House Rules” is a perfect example of the license still given to white productions to present the most virulent stereotypes, particularly if such films are set in the past. John Irving received an Academy Award for the Best Screenplay Adapted from Previously Published Material for this film, which tells the story of Homer Wells (Tobey Maguire), an orphan raised to assist in childbirth by a pro-choice physician/orphanage director.

The fact that the orphanage children watch “King Kong” over and over again -it’s the only film they own-should have prepared me for the movie’s representation of Blacks; the ape isn’t the only threatening, monstrous Black body on display.

Wells connects with a young couple, Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron) and her boyfriend (who’ve come to the orphanage for an abortion) and travels with them to explore the world outside the only home he’s known.  He decides to pick apples for a while at the orchard owned by Candy’s family, and thus is introduced to the Black migrant workers who arrive each year to harvest the crop.

Blacks are the locus of complete social disorder in this film. In order to render the white orphanage as an alternate vision of home, rather than a representation of the problems plaguing white society, the film must present even greater social disorder from which the orphanage serves as a refuge.  The Black community of apple pickers performs this function.

The first time the viewer encounters the Black migrant workers, two men are showering outside.  Our first view is of one man’s bare backside.  My heart sank to my shoes at that moment.  When a character’s naked derriere is the first thing one sees on screen, can that character recover any dignity or humanity throughout the course of the film?

In this case, the men’s nakedness is a sign not only of disempowerment but of animality.  Initially, Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo), the strict boss of the apple-picking crew, appears to be a dignified, controlled Black man, knowledgeable about his work and intolerant of incompetent, slack, or insubordinate workers.  He protects his daughter, Rose Rose (Erykah Badu) from any hint of sexual interest from the male workers and ejects the one picker who contests his authority.

But Rose’s paternalism is revealed as pathology later in the film; he is carrying on an incestuous relationship with his daughter and has impregnated her.

Homer Wells to the rescue! He’s the only man who confronts Mr. Rose about the immorality of his actions, and he’s able to employ his medical skills, never before used for the purposes of abortion, to relieve Rose Rose’s misery.

As viewers, we’re expected to believe that Mr. Rose holds such sway over the other adult male pickers that not one of them has been willing to take him to task over his abuse of his daughter, or to leave the apple-picking team in search of work under a boss who’s less morally repugnant.  Apparently, it’s still acceptable to represent Blacks in this way.

The white characters are depicted as progressive and tolerant in their racial views, especially for the era; both Homer and Candy call Mr. Rose “Mr.  Rose,” rather than addressing him by his first name, and Homer sleeps in the cider house with the Black workers.

Fantasies of white racial tolerance and Black dysfunctionality projected back into the past are too often the stuff of contemporary films.  (The acclaimed “L. A. Confidential” is yet another example; I could name many more.)

Historical films are often far more concerned with creating a useable and palatable past for some viewers than with establishing an accurate vision of events that took place; with this in mind, it’s important to examine the visions of the past we’re being handed and the utility of those visions in the present.

White Men’s War Memorial

“Saving Private Ryan” is a remarkable example of a historical film constructed to remind us of a past that never was. When I first saw this film, I was struck by the way in which the Jewish soldier was incorporated into the regiment as just another white ethnic.  There appears to be no discrimination against him in the ranks of U.S. soldiers, and all these soldiers seem to deplore anti-Semitism and believe that they’re fighting to end it.

In this revision of history, the reality of U.S. anti-Semitism is elided in order to provide an image of immensely noble fighting men who believe in equality for all at home and abroad.

For example, stories told by Jewish World War II veterans in Studs Terkel’s The Good War sharply contrast with this film’s view of interactions between Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers.  Arno Mayer, the renowned historian of Europe, recounts to Terkel stories about his service in the U.S. military:

For me, it [discriminatory treatment] began at Fort Knox, in Louisville.  I was the only Jew in the outfit.  I experienced a kind of anti-Semitism that I wasn’t prepared for. It reached a point where I had a couple of teeth knocked out.

I prefer to call it anti-Judaism.  It’s a rather more traditional Jew-hatred, imbedded in a certain kind of Christianity with which Jews can live. It doesn’t necessarily take you to the gas chamber.  But at the time, any kind of anti Semitic expression was likely to sit bad [sic] with me .  .  .

At the barracks, we had an orientation hour when the news of the day was read. It was up to me to read that briefing every day. One day, when I had finished, a guy said, “Here’s a poem. Would you read this to us as well?” I read out this poem. I remember the punch line: When we finish with the Germans and the Japs, we’ll come back and kill the Jews and the blacks.

I said, “Hey, I like that poem so much I’ll read it to you again, particularly that last stanza.” After I read it again, I said, “Now look at me. I’m the Jew you’re gonna kill.” A real brawl broke out. Not that they were gonna kill me, but they sure as hell were gonna beat me up. This experience gave me another interpretation of World War Two.

Inclusion of this kind of complexity would have utterly transformed the film, rendering its social politics as realistic as its military re-enactments.

Of course, the drama completely left out of “Private Ryan” is that surrounding Black troops’ participation in the war. The segregation of military units, the attempt to assign only menial labor to Black soldiers, and the racism these soldiers faced upon their return home: These are well-documented historical facts which gave significant impetus to the Civil Rights Movement.

Their total omission from the film reinforces the sense that one of the film’s main ideological goals was to memorialize W.W. II as a war fought to protect and promote white bourgeois society in the United States.  The opening and closing scenes-in which we see the family made possible by the mission to save Private Ryan-place this goal front and center.

The gritty realism of the first battle scene in this film, discussed and praised ad nauseam, distracts one from the aspects of the film that reshape U.S. social history.  In many ways, “Saving Private Ryan” is about the bonding of a white ethnic brotherhood through Black exclusion, combat, and the denigration of women.

The scene in which Private Ryan [Matt Damon] recounts the story of one of his brother’s sexual adventures with a woman so unattractive “she looks like she fell from the ugly tree” and the siblings’ humiliation of her is the way in which the audience is made to understand the enormous love among the three Ryan brothers.  (If that’s what cements fraternal love, I’d prefer to see fraternal conflict!)

Steven Spielberg’s investment in placing Jewish identity unequivocally within this white ethnic brotherhood is a willful importation of present-day ethnic relations back into the past; it does our society no service to enhance our amnesia or simplify our view of World War II in this manner.

Crossing the Lines

“Liberty Heights,” Barry Levinson’s new film, serves in some ways as a corrective to the myopia/wishful thinking of “Private Ryan.” The racial-ethnic lines in 1950s Baltimore are clearly drawn, and most of the drama’s power comes from the danger, excitement and occasional sweetness associated with crossing those lines.

The internal dynamics of a Jewish family and the interactions among Jewish characters, WASPs and African Americans are rendered with a complexity unusual in Hollywood films.  It’s certainly the best film Levinson has produced in years, marred only by its apparent need to balance its portrayal of middle-class Blacks with a grotesque caricature of a Black street hustler and petty criminal.

As someone who has devoted significant energy, both personal and professional, to understanding and transforming racial/ethnic stereotypes, I’m generally dismayed, not only by the exclusion of people of color from major roles in film and television, but by the ways in which they’re represented when they are included.

A New York Times article earlier this year pointed out that a majority of Black actors nominated for film awards were nominated for playing criminals.  Can we truly separate this fact from the `real-life’ growth of the prison-industrial complex?

Furthermore, beyond the politics of Black and white, one would never guess, from watching mainstream film and television, that Latinos make up the largest group of people of color in the nation or that Spanish is second only to English in this country in the frequency with which it’s spoken.

When will our representations catch up with the realities of national life, or is the persistent desire to imagine the national community as white a desire that will long outlive the possibility of its realization?

Arlene R. Keizer is Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies in the Department of English at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.  Her first Camera Lucida column appeared in ATC #84.

ATC 87, July-August 2000