In an age where race is one of the most discussed aspects of modern life (depressingly), it’s worth considering just how the topic is portrayed on film. Discussions on the topic are almost always complex minefields of semiotics and sensitive issues. In film though, race tends to bring out fire brands. Film critics praise scorching progressive barn burners like Blackkklansman, Sorry for Bothering You and Get Out which excoriate their white audiences for “complicity” in modern “white supremacy”, capitalism and patriarchy.
At the same time, these same critics excoriate less provocative films that address the same topics like Green Book and Driving Miss Daisy for “making white people feel good about not being racist”. Naturally this is an anathema to the modern progressive discussion on race driven by intellectuals like Robin DiAngelo or Ibram X Kendi whose work presumes that ALL white people are racist by default and must shackle themselves to progressive anti-racism lifestyles as pennance.
As a moderate who also despises racism, I frequently think about what kinds of movies would actually make the most difference in changing the minds of prejudiced people. Put simply, progressive films about race don’t work. Most progressives don’t agree. They point to incidiary films that purposely make white audiences uncomfortable as being more honest. FilmCritHulk said as much in his piece on Black Panther:
“Perhaps it’s no accident [Hollywood] only seem[s to] green-lit stories that secretly make white people feel better about racism (for example, when white people watch racist movies set in the past, they never identify with the villain, but the do-gooder. So it makes them feel like they’e already transcended something). The point is there’s nothing actually being confronted in the audience these films, just put behind us.”FilmCritHulk Blog, February 17th, 2018
Sadly this is a flawed line of reasoning. For one, it assumes that racism is formed on a rational thought that a person can be reasoned through and guilt tripped out of. Prejudice is a lot more primal and casual than that. Confronting someone on their racism is almost never going to result in a positive reaction because the person themselves will feel attacked as opposed to their ideas. The trick here shouldn’t be too hard to figure out. Anyone whos read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind can tell you just how instinctual people are about political tribes and movies like these stink of the politics of their creators.
Moderates and conservatives who watch these movies are frequently put off by the implicitly progressive assumptions of their premises.
Contrary to popular belief, I actually think conservatives would be a lot more open to considering these issues if the people who advocated for them were more openly and culturally conservative and Pro-American. There is a reason why conservatives absolutely adore black activists like Candace Owens who flout their blackness. Just by attaching cultural signifiers to yourself, you can communicate to hostile tribes that “I am on your side” and sideline their entire psychological defense mechanism that makes them think you’re anti-racism politics are a trojan horse for progressive legislation.
Cultural signifiers short circuit our impulsive brains.
Alternatively, just look at the eye rolling you’ll enduce from some audiences with overtly progressive films that touch on the topic of race. Blackklansman is two thirds of the best 70s cop comedy you’ve seen in decades and one third of the most obscene and obnoxious Ted talk about why President Trump is secretly David Duke’s secret racist apprentice. It even ends on a note that goes miles out of its way to excoriate ALL of America for allowing a fascist, racist to get elected. Progressive film critics will adore it because the film explores the subtle ways that racism doesn’t go away when it’s not taken seriously but the moderate Republican is just going to feel attacked.
Maybe that’s all and good if you’re a progressive who already believes America is a bad place full of racist bigots but Mr. and Mrs. Joe American aren’t going to walk away from their film awoken from their bigotry. They’re gonna be pissed off that Spike Lee accused them of being racist.
Talking down to people only makes them more resistant and bitter. Any true Anti-Racist strategy has to bind all peoples together and make them feel like they’re part of a practical solution.
So what’s the alternative to this? How do you actually speak to issues in a way that will change their outlook on people they look down upon? Put simply, meet them halfway and appeal to the better angels of their nature. If you want to change an actual racist’s opinions about racial minorities, the best you can do is to help expose them to people of the group they’re bigoted against.
This is why there are Black Americans who have made it their job to do outreach to the KKK to help deradicalize members just by being friends with them.
Maybe no film in recent memory does this better than Glory. Now I’m sure a progressive could watch Glory and create a laundry list of problematic complaints about it. It’s a story about a regiment of black soldiers and how their sacrifice in battle ends up earning them the respect of their fellow white soldiers who previously looked down on them. One could say, “Why do these black men have to prove themselves to men who hate them by dying? Why make a movie that lionizes white men for NOT being racist??”
Put simply, a story like Glory works against the very logic of racism. At its core is a story ABOUT the ways men come to recognize the dignity and humanity of their brethren. It short circuits the logic of racism.
For those who haven’t seen Glory, it’s one of the best Civil War movies and documents the true story of the 51st Massachusetts; the first black regiment in the American military. Initially the film follows Colonel Shaw. Shaw is a 23 year old son of Abolitionists who is forced against his will to take on the leadership role of the regiment. Through his experience though, he comes to empathize with the black soldiers under his commander and to resent the racism of his leaders who look down on black soldiers and just want to use them to loot southern towns.
Shaw quickly begins fighting back against these naysayers and by the end of the film, he produces a fully realized regiment capable of fighting the rebel troops. In the films explosive finale, Shaw volunteers the 51st for a suicide mission as the first wave against a heavily fortified confederate position. The soldiers March against the fort with such bravery and dignity that the white soldiers who previously looked down on the black soldiers are emotionally moved to salute and cheer these colored soldiers who march so bravely to their deaths under the American flag.
The symbolism is beautiful. These men prove themselves to men who don’t believe in them and then fully imbibe the dignity and valor of the highest call to duty an American can be asked to perform. You feel proud watching these men walk into confederate slugs and you mourn watching their bodies hit the ground. You forget that these men were ever dismissed by their leaders as “monkeys” and “n****rs”. They’re only good men dying for a good cause.
In the effort to break the cycle of racism, Glory succeeds by dissolving the artificial bonds of race to produce that rarest of human feelings: common dignity. It does so by breaking the one line of thought that allows all racism to exist. It teaches prejudiced men that the people they looked down upon are actual people.
In our modern racial discussions however, the notion of post-racism and post-racial identity is hated and dismissed at the level of the academy. Progressive activists don’t want white people to stop seeing them as black. Intersectional identities in modern life are too complicated and essential to be ignored. By ignoring these realities, activists claim we ultimately erase people and boil away their identities and their right to exist.
I understand the fear but all things beget themselves. Racial fear begets racial fear. Hate begets hate. The more we pretend like certaing groups are the exceptions to history, the more we add to the fire that keeps cycles of hate brewing in our already dissolving nation.
There’s a reason white identitarianism of late has gotten popular in tandem with the rise of mainstream black identitarianism. All things beget themselves. When one group praise’s the importance of racial identity and self preservation, other groups will follow.
The burden of post-racism is one worth fighting for. It’s the most honest and right path in that it correctly states that we’re all humans created equal in the eyes of God. We all deserve dignity and individuality and to not be treated as beings defined by the burden of our skincolor.
Films like Glory remind us that under the banners of dignity, valor, bravery, God and country, race is transitory. It’s a distraction at best. It’s only skin deep. We all have so much to be proud of and we all ought to consider just how much we all have in common. We all want the same things in the end. Men like the 51st Massachusetts died so that white and black Americans alike could be free and we should do a better job honoring their legacy. When we march under the same banner, the bonds of our differences are broken and our common humanity arises.
“With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.”Battle Hymn of the Republic
Sometimes the best way to fight racism is just to prove racists wrong. Show them that they’re wrong for thinking less of other races. Show them that Black Americans are dignified individuals who don’t align with the shallow prejudices that men have against them. Break the one line of thought that preserves racism and the person can do the rest!
Of course, I’m sure that line of thought is an anathema to the progressive mindset that defends rioters like the ones that damaged the 51st Massachusettes memorial statue in Boston during the George Floydd protests…