15. Race

The films this week, the last week for seniors, center around the social construction of race. We look at how films are implicit and explicit in this construction, starting with D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, seen by many as a reaction to the accusations of racism leveled against him after his film Birth of a Nation glorified the Ku Klux Klan. We follow this depiction of Asians by white actors in Hollywood through Shanghai Express, whose ensemble cast, exoticizing plot, and utilization of both the yellow menace and ornamental oriental tropes make it particularly notable. We complete this trail with The Last Samurai, which employs the white savior trope with Tom Cruise helping to preserve ancient samurai honor and ways in the face of modernity.

The remaining two films treat with the African American experience. Bamboozled reveals the history of blackface by positing a blackface minstrel variety show set in the modern era. Get Out examines the often duplicitous relationship between upper middle class whites and blacks.

If you are a senior, make certain to finish your work (visual essay, notes, presentation, and final project).

6 thoughts on “15. Race

  1. The Last Samurai helped me better understand the white savior trope. This trope where the hero that comes in to save everyone is a strong white man lead actor appears far more often than I expected. I mean take like every super hero move (with a few exceptions) for example. They didn’t have a black lead until 2018 and still haven’t had a female lead movie released. The idea that in war movies they make the strong soldier who gets the job done a recognizable white male is boring to me. Nowadays this is making people go out of their way to intentionally make the lead not a white man. You can see it in Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and upcoming films like Shang Chi where we get our asian lead. It is very easy to see in the MCU and films like the Last Samurai. Other than that it was an ok movie.

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    1. I like your analysis of the Marvel movie leads. It is very nice to see a change even if it seems a bit forced.

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    2. I didn’t watch this, but I did the The Great Wall (2016) with Matt Damon, and it was definitely strange to have a white character be the lead in an otherwise very Chinese movie. I think, in that regard, they’re similar. While some companies are now putting out more diverse movies becuase they’re more commercially viable and they believe they’ll make more profit, it’s still good that more racial diversity is present.

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  2. Get Out Spoilers!!!

    Get out’s use of race was fascinating. It flipped classic horror movie tropes on its head. The film’s protagonist is a black man who has been captured by a white, plantation owning, family who wants his brain to sell it to white people so they can be more black. First of all, oftentimes in horror films, the black man is the first one to die. In this film, he (and his best friend) is the only one who doesn’t. One of the weirdest aspects of the film is how all of the white people wanted to be more black. They say its to be cooler, stronger, and just all-around better. It is as if they wanted to keep their white privilege, but be cool like their own stereotype of black people. And finally the most horrifying moment in the whole film, when the cop car pulls up to the scene Chris standing over a dead body and his dying ex-girlfriend. Luckily all ends well for Chris but it really puts you in their position of helplessness. There was nothing you could do. He was, for sure, going to get taken to prison unless a miracle happened which it did. But if it hadn’t he would be toast. This film is about the horrors of being black and I really saw things from a new perspective after watching it.

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  3. I didn’t watch a film from this list (besides Get Out, but I’m doing my presentation on that so it seems like cheating) but I am currently in the middle of watching the Indian film “Kal Ho Naa Ho” so I’ll write about that.

    (Spoilers for Kal Ho Naa Ho)

    This film isn’t very heavily focused on race (at least, compared to some others on this list) but it is an element that comes up at various places. Early in the film, we learn that Naina’s mother is incapable of cooking Indian-style food (as well as Naina). As well, they run a cafe called Cafe New York, serving American food. The cafe is very unsuccessful and in danger of closing soon. About halfway in, in order to save the cafe and help the family, Aman comes up with the idea to turn the restaurant into an Indian restaurant, comparing it to the Chinese restaurant next door which makes food from their homeland. They learn how to make Indian food, put up Indian decor, take down the American flag on the window for an Indian one, and rename it Cafe New Delhi. The group is composed of different groups from within India, but they all come together to preserve the traditions of their homeland, which the film takes a positve attitude towards by having the cafe immediately become a huge success. As well, initially the grandmother dislikes Rohit for being Gujarati and tries to find Naina suitors of prefered ethnic groups, but in the end Naina and Rohit marry without objection. The film overall sends a message of racial unity for Indians.

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    1. Kal Ho Naa Ho! That was one of my favorite films in High School. I actually own a copy! Have you noticed the hilarious satire they do of Lagaan throughout? Specifically in the main song.

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