The recent challenge to white hegemony in Hollywood has been a long time coming. It’s not just Hollywood that is blind to its racism. If the film Paddington Bear is anything to go by, racism and nostalgia for imperialism are alive and well in the British film industry. A film like Calendar Girls is a fine example of quirky British cinema but the cast doesn’t look much like contemporary Britain. On the contrary it looks more, to borrow a polemical point from philosopher Leonard Harris’ scathing indictment of American philosophy departments, like a female version of the Ku Klux Klan.
For most of its history the popular English language film industry has erased the experiences, stories and histories of black people or traded in open racism. The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, is often considered to be a foundational moment in the history of English language film. It’s an orgy of the crudest imaginable racism using extensive blackfacing in which, the black men are presented as a savage threat to white women. The Klan emerges as the real heroes of this story. The use of blackface did not end with this crudely racist film, but was used often throughout the 20th century from Lawrence Olivier as Hamlet, Charlton Heston as Miguel Vargas in Touch of Evil, Ben Kingsley as Gandhi to Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl in a Mighty Heart and seems set to continue with Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson.
Mainstream films about the black experience, featuring black actors, often function to reduce that experience to one-dimensional accounts of slavery and racism. Black people and communities seldom appear as people, people living in a racist world, but, rather, as caricature.
Racism has been a global problem since it became a key ideology legitimating European imperialism, enslavement and colonialism in the fifteenth century. It remains a global problem today and we should not be surprised that this is reflected in the film industry – whether through its blind-spots for ‘silencing’ of the black experience, or the distortion of the caricature.
Films have become a fundamental part of global culture. For some people they have replaced the myths and stories that used to be a central part of community life. The experience of watching films impacts on us in a myriad ways, including emotionally, intellectually and physically. A well-made film, like a well-told story can become part of the fabric of our being. But, just as stories can also be corrosive, so too can films.
A few nights ago I decided to watch Paddington Bear, with my six-year-old son. The story of Paddington Bear was a real favourite of mine as a child and I wanted to share it with my own child. It was the first time that both of us had seen the film. As the film began one of the first things mentioned in the opening scenes was that Paddington had come to London from ‘darkest Peru’. I was flabbergasted. Next, we were told about the wonderful British explorers who came to the jungles of Peru and were so very good and kind. This narrative was certainly lost on my five-year-old self, who was mainly excited by the cute bear. It was lost on my son too and I am sure it is lost on many children, although perhaps not Peruvian children.
But no adult, or older child, could see this 2014 film without recognising that in a few sentences of dialogue, it situates itself in the colonial narrative. A German film that evinced any sort of nostalgia, no matter how oblique, for the Third Reich, would, quite rightly, be condemned from all quarters. But a British film saturated with nostalgia for Empire – the same Empire that inspired Hitler – is received as cute and as appropriate viewing for children.
When Michael Bond, the author of A Bear Called Paddington, first published the book in 1958, he had initially written that Paddington “travelled all the way from darkest Africa”. However after being informed by his publisher that there are no bears in Africa he changed it to “darkest Peru”. In the imperial imagination the world is made up of us and them. Darkest Africa and darkest Peru are much of a muchness. They are both a backdrop for the performance of European virtue, cleverness and civility. Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and indigenous communities in settler societies appear as a cultural terra nullius, a ‘nobody’s land’ that can be populated with whatever the colonisers’ imagination desires.
The transplanting of desire onto the ‘other’, the ‘exotic’, has been, as the great Palestinian intellectual Edward Said argued, central to the colonial project. It has been present in literature, art, poetry, and music. The film industry has often been central to this process. Classic examples include films like King Kong (1933), King Solomon’s Mines, based on a book written in Durban and first produced in (1937), Mogambo (1954) and Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Disney has played a particularly pernicious role in this project with cartoons such as Dumbo, The Jungle Book, Peter Pan, Aladdin and Pocahontas. Tim Burton’s 2010 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, produced by Disney, traces the story of a young woman who is desperate to escape the drudgery of the limited life offered to women. In this adaptation of the story, all of Alice’s desires are transferred onto the faraway colonised lands of the East. At the end of the film, Alice gets her wish and is seen sailing off as an apprentice to Lord Ascot who is looking to establish ‘trade routes’ to China. We all know how those ‘trade routes’ turned out for the Chinese, and how those ‘trade routes’ turned out for most us.
In a way Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Paddington Bear are far more offensive than the early Disney films. I say this for two reasons. Firstly, Walt Disney the producer of those early Disney films, was a racist, sexist, and anti-Semite. He was openly so. So while the racism of his films is not forgivable, it is certainly not surprising that he made racist films. But, presumably, neither the producers, actors or directors involved in Paddington Bear would think of themselves as racist, and neither would Tim Burton, or his casting favourite Johnny Depp. Yet Johnny Depp acted in the deeply racist film, The Lone Ranger. Paddington Bear’s film-makers did not think to adapt the story to omit the racist and colonial stereotypes. Doing so would have not detracted from the story. Many things get adapted to suit the times.
But the reason why contemporary children’s films like Alice in Wonderland and Paddington Bear present such an obviously colonial view of the world is because the actors, producers, writers, and directors of these films do not think they are racist. No doubt the Klan would appall them, since they consider themselves hip and refined. Their blindness to a dominant cultural system that was built on negating the lives, experiences and history of colonised people, and which continues to profit from racism, is because the kind of racism in which they are invested is normal in the circles in which they move. As Frantz Fanon wrote “The racist in a culture with racism is . . . normal.”
Neither England nor America, or the smaller settler societies like Australia and Canada, have ever taken full account of what it means to have built a society on slavery, genocide and ongoing forms of erasure, exclusion, abuse and exploitation. Racism continues to sit at the very heart of how England and its colonial offshoots imagine their place in the world. And the message starts young. As children we start receiving the message that some people matter more than others, that some societies matter more than others. We receive this message at school, from our community, we get it from social norms, from stories and films, even films cast in a progressive mould.
Suffragette is currently showing in South Africa. This film ticks all the boxes required for instant elevation in the liberal imagination. Yet it has sparked a heated debate in various spaces because of its all white cast. The film tells the important story of the suffragette movement in England but, like Iron Jawed Angels, a film about the suffragettes in the United States, it presents a narrative of these struggles that misrepresents them as whites only affairs. In both films one oppressed subject (black women) is silenced in order to tell a story of another relatively oppressed group (white women). Even a very superficial examination of the history of the struggle for women’s suffrage reveals an abundance of black activist like Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell and Sophia Dulpeed Singh. In fact, Ida B. Wells, a hugely impressive journalist, anti-racist activist and feminist, wrote about the marginalisation of blacks within liberal feminist movements as early as 1894. On her visit to Britain, Wells spoke clearly and directly about the prejudices within the various women’s movements in the United States. This not only included silence on the violent oppression of African Americans, but also the outright racism of some American suffragette’s like Frances Willard who was celebrated in the English press as the “Uncrowned Queen of American Democracy.” Willard was the president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which was deeply involved in fighting for the rights for women. During her tenure as president she not only made several racist comments but, also, would not allow any black women in the South to become members of the WCTU.
Suffragette engages with a marginal aspect of our history, a history that had, until works such as Sheila Rowbotham’s Dreamers of New Day: Women Who Invented The Twentieth Century been largely ignored. Rowbotham offers a cosmopolitan view of the women’s movement that is set in a global context.
Her book opens new vistas and emancipatory possibilities and shows what a useful tool feminism is, in the right hands. But while Suffragette director Sarah Gavron knows Rowbotham’s work, the film she directed takes the story of women’s struggle out of the universal and makes it a particular struggle, the struggle of white women. White women may have dominated the suffrage struggle in Britain, but their struggles and their lives did not exist in a vacuum. They were influenced by a variety of other global struggles for liberty and in conversation with women’s movement from around the world. Gavron admits there were two Indian women in the movement – in fact there were more than two. However she says that they could not be included in the story since they were elite women. Obviously Gavron does not view race and colonialism as affecting the status of these women in imperial British society in any way. Since the introduction of the invaluable concept of intersectionality, advanced particularly by black feminism, there is simply no excuse for not thinking about multiple forms of domination simultaneously.
Gavron erases all of this complexity because she wanted the film to reflect “what was historically true at the time”. For her that means that white working class women need to be at the centre of the narrative. However Gavron does not extend her need to affirm historical working class women’s experiences to contemporary working class struggles. This is evident from the casting of Helena Bonham Carter, a very elite women, as one of the key characters of her film. Carter counts rightwing British Prime Minister David Cameron – whose hostility to the working class and the poor in Britain, as well as migrants and refugees, is undeniable – as one of her closest friends.
Gavron’s excuses for making a whites only film are simply not credible. It is more than 120 years since Ida B. Wells made her stinging critique of the problems of racism within the women’s movement and, yet, it seems her critique still retains its punch in 2016, not just in feminist movements, but in society more generally.
The global power of the culture industries in England and America is undeniable. It is vital that this industries’ ongoing investment in racist and colonial ideas be directly challenged. But at the same time we need to invest in our own capacity to tell our own stories.
Image sourced from: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/feminism/2015/10/what-did-suffragette-movement-britain-really-look