Movies about racism have gone from showing the act of racism and evolving slowly toward attempting to show what causes those racist feelings. Probably the epitome of the latter in a lone individual is “American History X”, as well as “The Believer.” Both of those starred Edward Norton and Ryan Gosling, respectively, in performances that not many actors are willing to take on. Only “12 Years a Slave” this last year dare take on racism from our past in the most brutal way it’s ever been depicted.
But what about the current racist who’s still living in our complacent culture? With the Donald Sterling debacle demonstrating that racism is still out there in powerful places, do we still really know what the origins of those feelings are? With some films from the past attempting to do that, did we really learn anything, or is there still more find out on how the world can be skewered from some points of view?
The Idea of “Birth of a Nation” Influencing a Generation
We still hear the theories of how D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” might have set a pattern in how white people felt about African-Americans for an entire generation. While those living in the 1910’s were still direct descendants of those who owned slave 60 years earlier, there was probably already continuing misconceptions about African-Americans and their acceptance into society. However, it might have been on a better road to repair had it not been the extreme influence of movies developing at the time. Seeing African-Americans acting like monsters in “Birth of a Nation” didn’t help matters and set a perception that was depicted in films for the next 50 years.
Was the film really to blame for a lot of personal opinions about black people throughout the 20th century? Many people who’ve had grandparents who spoke with racist overtones no doubt heard about the films they saw that showed African-Americans as buffoons rather than intelligent people ready for leadership roles.
Nobody can watch a movie from the 1930s, or ’40s with African-Americans and not cringe at the way they were told to act. With occasional exceptions (like 1943 musical “Cabin in the Sky”), you can see how powerful pop culture was then in perhaps shaping the prior generation who likely passed on their views to their children who still live.
What’s happened in more recent years, though, to bring such a muddled view of other races being inferior? Can a film take on the influences of what’s happened since other creeds and colors have made inroads into states of power?
Psychological Views of Racism
In the film “The Believer”, we saw a Jewish man who turned into a Neo-Nazi as the result of misconceptions about his own race. Much of this was from perceptions formed through personal volition and self-hatred. It seemed to give a good starting point in showing the possible true origins of racism as a sense of hatred of self or reflecting on other races much like Freud’s classic reflective personalities.
Based on Donald Sterling’s interviews, his references to being jealous of someone else and possibly Magic Johnson seems to give more a sense of envy behind his alleged racism. Is the modern view of racism today more about being jealous of a particular ethnicity getting better jobs and roles than someone else? When Barack Obama became President, you could hear plenty of arguments that more racist comments flared back up than there had been in previous years.
Depicting this idea in a film would certainly be controversial, yet insightful into the new view of racism that goes far beyond pop culture or generational ties to those with biased views of a race. We’d have a chance to see why racists think equality is still unbalanced while also showing some insights into which races might be still underrepresented. If most racism is mostly about ethnic envy, perhaps we’ll soon improve the road to ethnic equality in influential places that still isn’t completely equal.