This series of articles on Marlon Brando has been some of the easiest writing I’ve ever done. The words have just tumbled out. But this third instalment was a difficult piece to write. Finding the energy and inspiration to write amid the horror unfolding in Gaza has not been easy. Writing about an actor and his work, no matter how great, seemed rather indulgent – perhaps even something best kept aside for better days. Political action, including direct confrontation with the reactionaries here at Rhodes University, has seemed a lot more urgent. But at our candlelit vigil in Grahamstown for the 415 children who had been killed in Gaza Friday, 8th August, it was, along with clear and principled statements from our acting Vice-Chancellor Sizwe Mabizela and academic Achille Mbembe, music and poetry, and especially a song performed by the Palestinian scholar Irene Callis, that enabled us to constitute ourselves as a community committed to turning anger and grief into political resolve.

I realised that it is precisely in times of desolation that the call to affirm beauty, arts and acts of bravery is most urgent. I’ve always preferred films and novels to poetry – it’s my husband who never moves far without grabbing a few volumes of poetry on the way out. But the essay in The Con by Rhodes student Nina Butler, which described how the homes of poets have been targeted by the Israeli Defence Force in Gaza, makes it clear enough that the poetic impulse, whether it takes the form of words on a page, images on a screen or a song, is a vital weapon in the resistance to the processes that oppression uses to dehumanise the oppressed.

These times call for courage, and through that courage art that humanises the dehumanised. But outside of Latin America, our political leaders, such as they are, have offered us little but cowardice and complicity. South Africans have taken to the streets in their thousands. All kinds of people and organisations, including the ANC itself, have demanded that our government move from expressions of outrage to real political action in solidarity with the people of Palestine. Yet despite all this, our state refuses to take any meaningful action and has not even expelled the Israeli ambassador or recalled our ambassador to Israel.

Brando is one of the many figures in the pantheon of the departed who would not have been found wanting in a moment like this. He would not, like Rihanna, have backed down and withdraw his solidarity in the face of bullying. He would have stood firm.

In 1968, political and cultural revolt rushed around the world. One of the defining moments of that year was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in Memphis, Tennessee. Immediately after the assassination, cities across the United States erupted into riots. Brando, already on the Hollywood blacklist, did not hide away in his mansion on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. As Martin Sheen, his co-star in Apocalypse Now, recalled: “I’ll never forget the night Reverend King was shot and I turned on the news and Marlon was walking through Harlem with Mayor [John] Lindsay. And there were snipers and there was a lot of unrest and he kept walking and talking through those neighbourhoods with Mayor Lindsay. It was one of the most incredible acts of courage I ever saw, and it meant a lot and did a lot.”

Two days later, Bobby Hutton was shot dead by the police after the Black Panthers launched an attack on a police station in Oakland, California. Brando, along with author James Baldwin, another figure whose artistic genius was matched by his political courage, was asked to offer a eulogy at Hutton’s funeral. Brando stood up and said:

I am not going to stand here and make a speech, because you have been listening to white people for 400 years. They said they were going to do something, but they have not done a thing, as far as I am concerned, in re-enfranchising the black man. It is up to the individual to do something to force the government to give the black man a decent place to live and a decent place to bring his children up in. That could have been my son lying there and I am going to do as much as I can. I am going to start right now to inform white people of what they don’t know. The reverend said the white man can’t cool it because he never dug it, and I am here to try to dig it, because I, as a white man, have a lot to learn and a long way to go. I haven’t been in your space, I haven’t suffered as you have suffered. I am just beginning to learn the nature of that experience and somehow that has to be translated to the white community now. Time’s running out for everybody. That enough! That’s enough talking!

Brando was not swayed by popular rhetoric. He did not accommodate himself to the world as he found it in the interests of his career, or making life easy. By the early 1970s he had a clear understanding of the processes by which racism was normalised via films – processes that the great Palestinian scholar Edward Said went on to dissect in his 1978 book Orientalism. Said’s book, the most important anticolonial text since Frantz Fanon’s last offering in 1961, The Wretched of the Earth, demonstrated how European colonialism had produced a discourse that used a series of interlinked negative stereotypes to legitimate control over colonised subjects. This set of stereotypes, some overt and some more subtle, became embedded within the cultural cannon of Europe, and were used to justify colonialism and, Said argued, the contemporary occupation of Palestine as well as American imperialism in the Middle East. They remain central to the attempts to legitimate the mass murder being perpetrated by the Israeli state in Gaza. There is no justification for this barbarism that is rooted, ultimately, in an attempt to present Palestinians as less than fully human.

Brando did not take the easy path of accepting the legitimacy of the cultural industry that had elevated him to global stardom. He had an acute understanding of how colonial literature, school textbooks and the national discourse in the US – as well as, of course, in Hollywood – normalised a set of racial stereotypes that in turn normalised the ongoing oppression of African and native people in the US. He spoke to this, brilliantly, in an interview on French TV in 1973, after Brando turned down his Oscar to protest the way Native Americans were treated in the US. He showed how the ideology of the US as the land of the free masked a history of white rapaciousness, destruction and enslavement. Brando emphasised the centrality of Hollywood in the reproduction and normalisation of racism. He pointed out that the history of racialised brutality in the US is not acknowledged because:

We don’t like to see ourselves in this way.We like to see ourselves as perhaps John Wayne sees us. And also what we’ve learnt about the Indians has largely been taught to us by Hollywood and motion pictures – they’ve educated us so we naturally think that when the Indians came that the wagons circled and the Indians rode around and subjected themselves to terrible fire and died at the ratio of 65 to 1 … Indians have been tragically misrepresented in our films, in our history books, and in our attitudes, in our reporting.

In a roundtable discussion with close friends Baldwin, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Charlton Heston, Brando observed that the racist practices of the US, including slavery and genocide, had some similarities with Nazism.

The ratio of the relative weight given to Israeli and Palestinian lives today shows how little progress we’ve made in the past 40 years. Brando was not wrong to attribute the dehumanisation of Native Americans to the Hollywood film industry. Birth of the Nation, the 1915 film that inspired the 20th century rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and laid much of the technical foundation for the development of the American film industry during the previous century, is the best known American case of the use of popular film as a deliberate tool to propagandise for racism. In light of recent events, readers may be interested to know that it featured white actors in blackface. Brando pointed out that the racism of Hollywood did not lie only in the past. He showed that Hollywood continued, particularly in the West, to represent Native Americans as savages who could be killed without a moment’s thought or concern. Brando was also a strong critic of the racism that, instead of presenting the white character murdering the raced other at will in heroic terms, presented the white character as saving the uneducated, unwashed masses of the world from themselves.

Brando’s response to this situation was not just political activism. He also committed himself to making different kinds of films. After his first divorce and his father’s squandering of much of his wealth, he found himself in financial trouble. As a result, he had signed a five-film deal with Universal Studios in 1961. But for most of the 1960s he still managed to work in films that mattered politically and illuminated aspects of the human condition not usually of concern to Hollywood. In 1952, after the success of A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan, he portrayed Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in the biographical film Viva Zapata!, also directed by Kazan. John Steinbeck wrote the script.

Brando travelled widely and read voraciously. His political interests were not limited to the US, and he understood, very well, how his country propped up a global system of racism. In 1968 he signed up for the highly politicised film Burn!, which deals with the slave revolutions that swept the Caribbean in the 18th century. It shows how, despite securing freedom, former slaves never won full control of the means of production and so, in various ways, remained subjected to the market that was still controlled by Europe. This film offers an important account of how neocolonialist social relations set up after independence from colonial powers allowed former colonies to continue to be dominated from Europe.

In 1989 Brando took on the role of Ian McKenzie in the film A Dry White Season that was set in apartheid South Africa in the aftermath of the Soweto riots. It is rumoured that he moulded his character on the famous antiapartheid activist Advocate George Bizos. At this point Brando had more or less retired, but once again he stood up when it mattered. He always mustered his full arsenal of talent, intellect and bravery when history came knocking at his door.

When Mbembe spoke at the vigil for Gaza at Rhodes University on Friday night, he said:

The time for moral clarity is now. The world can no longer afford the kind of moral ambiguity it has been practising in regard to the Palestinian question.

Moral clarity is exactly what Brando brought into a usually very compromised business. Brando’s insistence that “it is up to the individual to do something” may seem a little idealistic given that most individuals don’t have his power on the world stage, but we can all do something and we can all learn something. After the vigil at Rhodes, my friend Alex Sutherland wrote on Facebook that:

Being part of an incredible group of colleagues and students organising this vigil to find the human face behind the violence in Gaza has taught me so much about activism, love, and mostly how hate works. Mostly I learnt that I want to be able to face my children when they ask me ‘what did you do?’ and I can say ‘I did something small, but something’.

When art and beauty can lead us to this something, it’s no indulgence in dark times.


Main Pic: Marlon Brando in A Dry White Season

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