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Critical Debates Race on screen

Free essay example:

Peter Caddick

Race, by Peter Caddick

Introduction

In this analytical essay my focus is representation or the cultural construction of people.  Representations of issues relating to race as we all see, very much concerned with power and meaning, whether in the form of news bulletins, documentaries, advertisements, popular music or forms of drama, i.e. the consumption of media messages.    

Media consumption is part of everyday existence, I will be exploring the issue closely in matters of race.  In terms of the media it has often resulted in sections or subgroups in a society or community being represented as separate.  

White people are not literally or symbolically white, yet they are called white.  What does this mean?  In western media, whites take up the position of ordinariness, not a particular race, just the human race.  While racial representation is central to the organisation of the contemporary world, white people remain a largely unexamined category in contrast to the many studies of images of black and Asian peoples.

Racial imagery is central to the organisation of the modern world.  At what cost regions and countries export their goods, whose voices are listened to at international gatherings, who bombs and who is bombed, who gets what jobs, housing, access to health care and education, what cultural activities are subsidised and sold, in what terms they are validated – these are all largely inextricable from racial Imagery. The myriad minute decisions that constitute the practices of the world are at every point informed by judgements about peoples capacities and worth, judgements based on what they look like, where they come from, how they speak, even what they eat.” Dyer,R. 1997, “White”, London and New York (pg 1)

Recently, Spike Lee and Clint Eastwoodhad a bit of an argument.

While I believe this was mainly the press baiting controversy from two talented directors, it opened up an interesting bit of commentary on the nature of race in film. It seems to have been portrayed as reverse racism.

Spike Lee's latest film, (Miracle at St. Anna, 2008), follows an African-American soldier's story.  Like most true stories, I'm fairly certain it takes liberties with history to make an interesting story, but it's based on something that may have happened.

(Flags of Our Fathers, 2006) and (Letters from Iwo Jima, 2006) has no black extras or actors, despite some evidence that black soldiers were there. Unfortunately, due to the fact that camps were still largely segregated back then, it would be largely inaccurate to place some of these soldiers in the larger scenes.  In fact, they would be relegated to background in combat sequences.  These soldiers served heroically, and would deserve more recognition.  To do so would shift the focus of the narrative to issues of race and segregation.  It is, at its core, a story about soldiers and propaganda. White soldiers and there propaganda.  Since Flags of Our Fathers is about the use of imagery in propaganda, the irony isn't lost.

Yes, Spike Lee does have a point.

But so does Clint Eastwood.

In another example, Michael Bay's (Pearl Harbor, 2001) follows a narrative about fictional white soldiers and a fictional white nurse in a fictional love triangle tied into the story of the American involvement in World War II. Also in the narrative is the story of Doris Miller, the first African American to receive the Navy Cross.  This story seems to have been inserted in, and not an organic part of the story that the film was trying to tell, in a scene where Roosevelt stands to deliver his speech about going to war is atrociously revisionist, especially since American entry into World War II was reluctant, not proactive.

Countering this, in the world of this film there are apparently little, if any, Hawaiians on the island territory of Hawaii.  The children looking up to the sky were white, blond, and blue eyed.

The gunslinger is also a fabrication of propaganda. There are newspaper reports here and there about Chinese men having confrontations involving guns.  In back issues of The San Jose Mercury News, dated around 1890, there was a huge search for a Chinese servant who murdered his boss.  The Chinese Massacre, probably the first L.A. race riot, began, according to some reports, by two Chinese men pulling guns on each other, killing a white policeman in the crossfire.

Of course, because of this, I have been researching films about the involvement and the Chinese experience in the Old West, none exist.  There is no denying that they were there.  

Is it revisionist? Yes.  I never grew up in the Old West.  But I maintain that I need to be a certain race to tell a certain story.

My hope is that no one would read Clint Eastwood’s film as historical.  It's a Western, after all, and it's rare to find one with any real accuracy.

Still, though, I said that Spike had a point.

While it may be impossible for one person to understand another person's experience, I must maintain that the Minority Experience is universal.  For instance (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, 2002) especially in how it was marketed.  It was my "Big Fat Italian...Danish...Jewish...Chinese... Greek Wedding".  It reminded me of how tight-knit minority families react similarly in weddings, partly to preserve their culture, partly because they're close out of necessity.  The premise of the marketing came from that particular surprise that people from all minorities respond similarly enough to relate.

In most Hollywood films and TV shows, minority characters are rarely front and center, and most of the time part of an ensemble.  In this case, they must stand in for whole peoples, and rarely can be seen as fleshed out characters.

The TV show (Ugly Betty) is an excellent exception to this.  A family of Hispanics is the main supporting cast.  A work family of crazy, zany, white people make up the rest of the cast.  The appeal is universal.  Two gay characters “well, one that may or may not be gay, but certainly shows the younger gay experience” also make up the cast - one as a sympathetic nephew, the other as a villain with some sympathy.

"Lost” is a more complex example. While one of my favorite shows, and one of the most diverse shows, it deals with race oddly.  Michael Dawson returned, abandoning his son, and died.  Harold Perrineau had a lot to say about that.  And he does have a point. Out of the three major black characters in the cast - Mr. Eko, Michael, and Walt - we had a drug warlord, and now a murdering father who abandons his child, and a child who longs to know why.  All black stereotypes.  Two of the three of them are dead now.  That being said, it was a more complex story - Michael didn't abandon Walt to begin with, her mother took Walt away and then Michael clinged to his son once he accepted the responsibility.  Walt than took to his grandmothers after learning his father had killed two innocent people.  Here we have two characters that didn't begin as stereotypes, but organically became them.  

A new Korean-American character named Miles has just arrived on the show. He's actively defies a stereotype, playing an impolite, driven, con artist and ghost-talker.

Both Korean National characters are played by Korean-Americans.  They speak mainly in Korean, and use a dialog coach to get there accents right. One speaks in broken English as he learns.  These are interesting characters in and of themselves, but, I can't help but see a stereotype at work there. Still, Daniel Dae Kim became a sex symbol because of this show, the first Asian-American male to do so since Bruce Lee.

African American

Most work on Race & The Media has concentrated on the representation of black men and women.  This has partly been because there is a strong African-American counter-culture, which provides viable alternative role models and demands that they are represented.  In recent years, the success of actors such as Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Laurence Fishburne and Morgan Freeman in a diversity of roles has meant that black characters in movies and on TV are no longer 'stock' types.  Yet these are representations coming from within black culture itself.

Other ethnic groups

Attention is now being paid to the representation of other ethnic groups, notably Asian and Latinos, who represent a much larger proportion of the world’s population than their TV coverage would suggest.  Things are changing - on the one hand the success of John Woo and Ang Lee in Hollywood is pushing the boundaries back for Asian Americans, and the Latin Music Explosion has led too much wider acceptance of Latino performers (Jennifer Lopez is now in the upper echelons for pay for female actors).

White Representation      

Until the 1980s, it was rare to see a white man semi naked in popular fictions.   The white man has been the centre of attention for many centuries of western culture, but there is a problem about the display of his body witch gives an inflection to the general paradox, already bounded with whiteness.  A naked body is a venerable body but cloths are the bearers of prestige, notably of wealth, status and class.  To be without them would lose prestige.

Tarzan, Hercules, Rambo and other white heroes of film are all played by actors with champion and or built physiques.

“Classicism, californianism, barbarianism and crucifixion are specific, strongly white representational traditions.  Equally, many of the formal properties of the built body carry connotations of whiteness: it is ideal, hard, achieved, wealthy and hairless. “.” Dyer,R. 1997, “White”, London and New York (pg 150).

It suggests the vague notions of the Greek gods and the possibility of them developing them self’s here on earth.

“The extreme image of whiteness acts as a distraction.  An image of what whites are like is set up, but can also be held at a distance.  Extreme whiteness is, precisely, extreme.  Whites can thus believe that they are nothing in particular, because the white particularities on offer are so obviously not them”. Dyer,R. 1997, “White”, London and New York (pg 223).

Conclusion

Each of the films and TV programs I have spoke about has an intended purpose, and each is made by a director who operates on a spectrum of indignation, which brings about issues of identity.  Because my essay is about representations of race, one might expect me to concentrate on the representation of the oppressed, of the Jews, of South African black people, of African Americans.  This I have tried to do but it becomes apparent that a key ideological issue is often the way in which the oppressors are represented.  The extent that the narrative offers the viewers a naturalised view of the good and bad German, or the good and bad white South African is important.  Such representations could be seen as a way of absolving others linked with the oppressive group of potential or real blame.

Bibliography

Richard Dyer. 1997, “White”, London and New York.

Robert Ferguson. 1998, “Representing Race”, London, New york Sydney and Auckland.

Websites

http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-2080392_ITM date:09/12/08

http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/imagesafam.html date: 04/12/08

http://www.theory.org.uk/ctr-rol6.htm date: 04/12/08

http://www.scope.nottingham.ac.uk/bookreview.php?id=47&issue=2 date: 04/12/08

http://www.hollerafrica.com/showArticle.php?catId=3&artId=152 date: 05/12/08

http://www.filminfocus.com/blog/a_good_day_to_be_black_?mod=feed date: 05/12/08

References

“White people are not literally or symbolically white, yet they are called white.  What does this mean?  In western media, whites take up the position of ordinariness, not a particular race, just the human race.  While racial representation is central to the organisation of the contemporary world, white people remain a largely unexamined category in contrast to the many studies of images of black and Asian peoples.

Racial imagery is central to the organisation of the modern world.  At what cost regions and countries export their goods, whose voices are listened to at international gatherings, who bombs and who is bombed, who gets what jobs, housing, access to health care and education, what cultural activities are subsidised and sold, in what terms they are validated – these are all largely inextricable from racial Imagery. The myriad minute decisions that constitute the practices of the world are at every point informed by judgements about peoples capacities and worth, judgements based on what they look like, where they come from, how they speak, even what they eat.” Dyer,R. 1997, “White”, London and New York (pg 1)

 “Classicism, californianism, barbarianism and crucifixion are specific, strongly white representational traditions.  Equally, many of the formal properties of the built body carry connotations of whiteness: it is ideal, hard, achieved, wealthy and hairless. “.” Dyer,R. 1997, “White”, London and New York (pg 150).

“The extreme image of whiteness acts as a distraction.  An image of what whites are like is set up, but can also be held at a distance.  Extreme whiteness is, precisely, extreme.  Whites can thus believe that they are nothing in particular, because the white particularities on offer are so obviously not them”. Dyer,R. 1997, “White”, London and New York (pg 223).

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