Racism in Film
Throughout the history of film in the United States, the depiction of race has only changed slightly. Although, the display of various races in film is pertinent to the specific time period in which the film was made, films have, for the most part, always portrayed white superiority over other races. People of color have traditionally been presented in a negative way (if presented at all) that helps to maintain the status quo where whites are at the top of the social hierarchy. A few common methods are used to elicit the issues and depiction of race, in the films, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Glory, and Bamboozled.
According to Stephanie Larson, the three common methods that are used in film to depict racial minorities in a negative light are exclusion and selective exclusion, stereotypes, and system-supportive themes (15). The entertainment industry, as a whole, uses these methods to reinforce subordination. The principle of exclusion is based on the idea that, “television and films without racial diversity promote an inaccurate picture of American society” (15). In short, exclusion in film means that people of color are completely absent. Although, exclusion of racial minorities in film is not an overt form of racism, exclusion is harmful because it keeps the focus away from minorities, and away from their cultural practices and issues. Exclusion is also harmful because it “deprives minority viewers of role models and ignores the contributions of people of color” (16). Selective exclusion occurs through the constraining and misrepresentation of racial minorities in film (16). This prevents people from seeing differences between cultures and causes them to form generalizations of entire groups of people based on their appearance. Another method that reinforces the subordination of racial minorities is stereotypes, which suggests that certain characteristics are universal in all members of a particular racial group (16). Racial stereotypes are used to make decisions about people that possess certain racial attributes and they can be extremely damaging to races. Stereotypes are used to maintain white superiority over all races through the idea that over the course of history, people of color have been seen as inherently inferior. The last method used in films to reinforce subordination of racial minorities is system-supportive themes, which are formulas that dominate Hollywood films. These themes are not intended to harm the racial minorities but they indirectly do so by promoting the status quo. They “celebrate whiteness and deny and obscure white privilege and the systems that maintain it” (18). A common system supportive theme is that whites are noble leaders and that minorities want to follow and serve them. The white is basically seen as a messianic character that rescues, protects, and leads those of racial minorities. Each of these methods is expressed in the three films of this study in order to reinforce subordination of racial minority groups.
The first movie of the study, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), is about a man named R.P. McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson, who is transferred from jail to a mental institution after pretending to be insane. It is not long after McMurphy is admitted to the asylum that he notices the patients are terrified of the head nurse, Nurse Ratched. Over the course of the entire film, McMurphy and Nurse Ratched constantly come in conflict as McMurphy tries to change things in the asylum, while Nurse Ratched attempts to control her patients in every way. These two characters embody system-supportive themes common in Hollywood films. Not only is McMurphy the protagonist in this film, but also he is the great leader who tries to free the other patients from the tyrannical Nurse Ratched. He brings happiness to patients and lightens up the mood in the asylum, thus he is the noble leader that the patients of the ward look up to and follow. Nurse Ratched...
Cited: Larson, Stephanie. 2006. Media & Minorities: The Politics of Race in News and Entertainment. Lanham, MA: Roman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. DVD. Directed by Milos Forman. 1975; Salem, OR: Fantasy Films, 1975.
Glory. DVD. Directed by Edward Zwick. 1989; Los Angeles, CA: Tristar Pictures, 1989.
Bamboozled. DVD. Directed by Spike Lee. 2000; New York City, NY: New Line Cinema, 2000.
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