Posts Tagged ‘racism’

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Dramatic Tone in The Searchers

04/05/2012

John Ford’s The Searchers has gone down in history as one of the most definitive dramatic westerns.  And yet, by today’s standard, parts of it feel remarkably camp and silly.  The heart of the film is rough, dark, and disturbing.  So much so that Ford resorts to broad comic relief in order to offset the depressing effects for his audience.  Movie-going audiences in the 1950’s would simply not have been ready for the thematic darkness that this film offers.

Comic relief has been a traditional means of supporting the audience’s willing projection into the character.  We escape from our world into the west with Mr. John Wayne.  Should that escapism become too disturbing, we will disconnect, and escape back into reality.

In the case of The Searchers, sequences of intense racism and bigotry are played against slapstick.  The comedy is the emotional reverse of the drama.  A modern audience will find that the broad comedy throws them out of the story, but we can tell how intense those darker scenes would have felt to the 50’s audience based on how incredibly broad the comedy is.  After only sixty years of cinema, audiences were simply not accustomed to taking in such subject matter.

For a few decades, the Hays Code was a stark censorship of film that prevented overt portrayals of violence and sexuality.  It protected audience’s sensibilities from cultural “indecencies.”  Thus, in The Searchers, director John Ford had to come up with a way to tell this darker story, subverting the traditional western heroics, without offending this code.  The most obvious way to do this was to soften the blow through comedy.

John Ford plays Ethan, a racist outlaw who seeks to find his kidnapped niece in order to kill her.  Her white purity has been soiled by a forced marriage to Comanche Chief Scar.  His only companion is Martin, a 1/8th Indian boy adopted into the family.  Ethan treats him poorly because of this small racial defect. And yet, he is never framed this way for the audience.  Instead is presented primarily as the vessel for comic relief.

When romantic drama starts to heat up, a bucket of water is poured over Martin’s head.  As the hunt goes on, Martin accidentally marries an Indian woman.  When Ethan returns home after a few years on the hunt, Martin gets into a fight with another comic relief character over the right to marry the village hot chick.  But what people really remember are the moments in between, of harsh racism and bigotry.

John Ford has described The Searchers as a “psychological epic.”  It traverses the landscape of the mind.  As Ethan’s outer journey discovers the darkness of man, so his inner journey uncovers his own darkness for the world to see.  His conflict culminates with him scalping the Comanche war chief, Scar.  From it, he is hardly redeemed.

At the end of the film, Ethan returns home with his niece.  The family opens up to her and welcomes her inside.  But Ethan himself does not enter.  He stands on the porch neither expecting an invitation, nor receiving one.  He would no more welcome himself into that household than he would be welcomed.  Instead, the door closes on him as he turns to face the sunset.  No community will last that is able to abide a bigot.

These tonal shifts represent a tremendous social commentary for the 1950’s.  Audiences were used to western heroes that they could root for.  John Wayne traditionally played the sort of hero that would defend women and children to the death.  This whole examination of racist psychology is a subversion of that heroic ideal.  A subversion that is so grading the normal viewer, that it must be contrasted with slapstick and other cheap laughs.  But a bucket of water on someone’s head is not sufficient to erase the image of John Wayne threatening to kill a young girl.

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Linguistic Propaganda in The Birth of a Nation

02/05/2012

D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is a masterpiece of racist propaganda.  It slowly and meticulously builds its story in such a way that you identify with the most hateful of American citizenry.  The core elements of propagandistic filmmaking are here, and they are groundbreaking.

The film is a brilliant example of linguistic cinema.  At every frame, there is no doubt what emotion is communicated.  Each image precisely distinguishes the heroes from the villains.  The great irony is that the movie’s heroes are history’s villains.  They are painted here as the victims of evil Carpetbaggers and their rising Black Empire.  Oh the poor white minority.

Aside from the overt racism, the film offers a very compelling example of how the edited assembly of shots can produce a given affect.  During one of the films most famous scenes, the Ku Klux Klan rides to the rescue of a family that holed up in a cabin while being attacked by an angry black mob.  The intercutting here is some of the first of its kind, and shows a marvelous understanding of the language of film.

We are shown the cabin in danger.  Our minds immediately empathize and begin to look for ways to help these people.  “Isn’t someone going to save them?” our collective subconscious cries out.  And then we are shown an image of the White Knights, riding on horseback, here to save the day.  From that point on, our imagination tries to fill in the rest of the scene.  Griffith juxtaposes shots of the family in danger with shots the Ku Klux Klan, giving us a deadline.  Now instead of asking, “who will save them?” we ask, “will they get there in time?”

This type of crosscutting is interactive for the audience.  Our imagination tries to complete the scene with the information given.  But as each new shot is laid before us, our imagined outcome changes to incorporate the new piece of information.  This essentially happens with all films everywhere, but was only in its early stages here.

The very principle of editing is based on knowing what the audience is anticipating.  In all story, the audience empathizes with the characters by projecting itself into them.  So if a film has a story (not all films do) then it will give certain pieces of information to the audience to make this projection as seamless as possible.  The sequencing of scenes, then, is all about continually providing the audience with new information.  The audience will live and breathe that information and allow it to transform their emotions during the film’s runtime.

The individual edits within a scene provide smaller pieces of information that the audience receives more subconsciously.  For instance, if a character says or does something offensive, we (the audience) naturally anticipate some character in the scene to represent our objection to the matter.  If no such character appears, the audience will feel devastated.  Thus, the rushing cavalry comes not only to save the poor family in the cabin, but also to save the audience.

This basic linguistic technique of cinema is used to put the audience in a position that is sympathetic to whites, and antagonistic toward blacks.  Griffith’s use of Intertitles that set the scenes in a (supposedly) historically accurate South, frame the audience’s opinion of the characters from the outset.  We have to hate the black people in the film, because that’s what the film tells us to feel.  What makes this an uncomfortable experience for the non-racist member of the audience, is that it fundamentally plunges our mental projection into a situation that we have no desire to be in.  It breaks the immersion that is necessary for empathy.  I do not want to be a racist.  But if I am to enjoy my experience with The Birth of a Nation, then I must, at least for the three-hour duration of the film, take on a racist worldview.

There is one scene in the film where the state congress has been taken over by the rising Black Empire, and they swiftly begin to abuse their power by oppressing the poor white minority.  Here the Black leaders are portrayed as being animal-like.  They rest their bare feet on the tables and eat KFC.  They are not presented with any positive attributes whatsoever.  Thus, Griffith destroys any possibility of the audience respecting the Black leaders.  We make judgments about the characters based on the information that we have been given, and in this case, the information is scathing.

Propaganda cannot work if it is fair and balanced.  In order for a normal non-racist audience to be in a position that we are comfortable with the Ku Klux Klan, there must be some villain that is considered worse than our image of the KKK.  In this movie, that villain is black people.