The bending of racism in cinema

Jack Knowles notes the different ways racism has been discussed in cinema.

Jack Knowles analyses the film industry’s racist past and how the unique and provocative ways racism is employed in films today.

When cinema first began, films were full of overtly racist tropes. That has now shrunk to subtle racial undertones, but racism still has a presence in films today. This is particularly noticeable in American cinema, since it has been the biggest exporter of films. The American film industry has been made up mostly of white directors, producers, actors, cinematographers, and editors (mostly male too, but that’s another story). When one calls back upon their favourite film stars of golden Hollywood with nostalgia and awe, one thinks of white leads: Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland, Ingrid Bergman, and James Stewart. The thread here is that they’re all white. Now demographically speaking, in America, caucasian is and was the predominant ethnic group. Although, that does not excuse the complete absence of various ethnicities. This is a reflection on the societal values of the period and racial distraction from the society that dictated the film industry for decades.

The racist atmosphere it spurted into American culture is clearly still visible today.” 

Films such as The Jazz Singer, the 1927 musical-drama directed by Alan Crosland, ooze racism. This film remains a landmark in cinema due to it being the first film to feature synchronized sound. The film’s main protagonist Jakie Rabinowitz, played by Al Jolson, performs a show in blackface. Blackface is racist not merely because it is representing another ethnicity, but also because of the connotations it has harboured over the years. It stems originally from blackface minstrel shows which were a popular form of entertainment in the 19th century in the United States. It consisted of white performers using blackface to portray African-Americans, often characterizing them as ‘slapstickly-stupid’, lazy, clownish and carefree. The racist atmosphere it spurted into American culture is still visible today. By using blackface, The Jazz Singer stereotypes African-Americans and pokes at their entire ethnic group as something that is not normal.

Another film that exemplifies racism in cinema is the film The Sheik released in 1921 and directed by George Melford. This film was a box office hit at the time but contains layers of racial discrimination. What is most notable is how the film portrays Arabs as being savage and brutish. In the film, Rudolph Valentino plays Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. The actor is a white man portraying an Arab through costume instead of paint, similar to blackface. The film conveys deeply negative conceptions about Arabs. While these racist films reflect actual and real attitudes people had towards other ethnicities, they also feed into the racist pool; they inform and encourage racial discrimination.

Over the years, conceptions of race have dramatically shifted. An increase in diversity and representation has been stressed and truly manifested. This is crucial in its reflection of society and for informing society. What is occurring now with racism in cinema is something truly unique. Now that overtly racist films are being flung into the abyss, racism now exists in films in a contorted manner. Three films stick out specifically: Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, and Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You. While these films differ in many ways, all have one thing in common; they twist racism to be funny. What these films achieve is they give a perspective on racism that makes it appear so absurdly ridiculous that it’s comical. They make racism seem utterly stupid. There are scenes in BlacKkKlansman when John David Washington’s character Stallworth, a black man, is posing as a member of the Ku Klux Klan over the phone to the Klan’s leader David Duke, played by Topher Grace. When viewing the scene it is comical, but it is comical because there is an understanding of how the racist dimension works in society.

Boot Riley’s psychedelic anti-capitalist film Sorry to Bother You does the same. It inverts the use of racism previously found in film. It contains racism in its world to allow it to display how racial discrimination is still present in society yet, in subtle forms. It pokes and laughs at it too. This is most evident from the ‘white voice’ that black characters put on to be more successful in the workplace and climb the social hierarchy. It is funny for the same reason as BlacKkKlansman. They both show that racism is absurd and that being racist is so ludicrous that it’s funny.

“While these racist films reflect actual and real attitudes people had towards other ethnicities, they also feed into the racist pool; they inform and encourage racial discrimination.” 

Jordan Peele’s Get Out also magnificently achieves this use of racism. The premise is so completely mind-boggling and played with such horrific realism that when you start to think about it, you chuckle. The premise of a white family’s desire to plant their consciousness inside the bodies of black people is a satirical commentary on racism, highlighting the liberal-minded conception of black people. The humour being that these people who consider themselves not racist at all are still racist. Jordan Peele seems to think that it’s kind of amusing and simultaneously horrifying.

In surveying the history of film and seeing how the use of racism has been inverted and eschewed is one that is encouraging of society and the film industry itself. This trend of films bends our perception of racism; while also manages to educate us on the horror of it and absolute insanity of it in the first place.