Allow me to start this article by stating that race is a very personal thing. It’s not fair for anyone to exploit a race or attempt to label another person based on their ethnic background or the colour of their skin. Each film on this list had the intention of providing a positive, entertaining narrative, but stumbled over their execution by being racially insensitive to some degree. We’re covering ‘unintentionally’ racist moments because we need hollywood to become more cognisant about what they are indirectly implying in film and I really can’t stomach movies that are intentional in their racial imaging (American History X has always been a hard watch for me).
Please keep in mind that these are just my perspectives and I don’t expect you to agree with all of them or conform to my beliefs. I’ll try to be as sensitive as possible with my opinions, but I would appreciate if no one construes this as an attack on any company or director.
10. The Thing With Two Heads and Idiotic Concepts
Most cinematic concepts during the 1970s were pretty strange. In a decade where audiences were finally returning to theatres, filmmakers were starting to run out of ideas. One of the more unique concepts to see the light of day was The Thing With Two Heads.
Those who have seen The Thing With Two Heads will likely know it as being pretty tame. In essence it is a lighthearted story of two individuals with different personalities learning to co-exist. The problem is that they initially play up the race angle and completely drop it in favor of chase scenes and crime drama. At no point does either head lean to accept the other person in spite of racial differences; they just decide that they have other things to do and simply put up with each other. If your characters don’t learn anything thing beneficial from this particular situation, you’re movie isn’t insightful - it’s exploitative.
9. The Jazz Singer and Blackface Makeup
Unlike most films that feature the use of blackface makeup, The Jazz Singer holds blackface as being central to its plot. To that end, my problem with this film isn’t with the use of blackface per se (although I think blackface is pretty terrible).
Our protagonist has extensive experience performing in blackface, but is also an immigrant Jew. His work with blackface and emphasized fake southern accent obscure his Jewish heritage. By focusing on his success as a fake black man, this film actually avoids honestly dealing with the tension between American assimilation and Jewish identity. The public accepts our protagonist not because of who he is, but because he is willing to play the part of the talented white in black armor. It’s racially insensitive to the Jewish population and an unfair portrayal of the times.
8. Pocahontas and the Sanitization of American History
What’s more American than sanitizing your history to something that is hardly recognizable? Outright denying centuries of genocide and oppression.
Supposedly based on American ‘history’, John Smith’s accounts as we know them probably didn’t happen. For one thing, Smith failed to mention Pocahontas until many, many years after he supposedly met her. Also, Smith wasn’t the golden-haired adonis we see on film; he was a short, portly, brunette and Pocahontas happened to be twelve at the time (eww).
The bigger problem with this film is that it attempts to represent a time period of racial tension and falls flat on its face by misrepresenting its own cultural context. Radcliff serves to teach us that, concerning the strife between the natives and the whites, none of it came from opposing belief systems, systematic genocide, or ethnocentric legislation - all racial tension derives from one ass hole attempting to take gold from the natives. Thanks Disney.
7. Spike Lee’s Filmography and Self-Defeating Racism
I’m not angling this argument towards any specific film of in Spike Lee’s filmography, nor am I outright calling Spike Lee a racist (because I don’t honestly think he is), but there are problems to the way he frames his films - racial problems.
Being a man both proud of his culture and upset with the oppression it faces, Lee’s main focus is to educate the populace on the real scenarios that intelligent members of his community have to deal with on a regular basis. In many respects, this is a noble goal. Problems arise with how he frames antagonists.
Italians, Mexicans, and Caucasians are his usual bad-guy fodder and by damned if he doesn’t make them seem like the scum of the human race. In Lee’s world, every black man is intelligent and well-spoken and all other races are composed of bigoted, cartoonish villains with no redemption. That isn’t how you preach racial tolerance - that’s how you fan the flames of racial tension.
6. Armageddon and Racist/Xenophobic Undertones
Michael Bay has yet to make a film that has no racial insensitivities. Does that make him a racist? I dunno, but I do know that Armageddon is chock full of implied racism, xenophobia, and a complete disregard for non-American human life.
In the film, there appears to be an odd staple that America is the only country in the world physically capable of doing anything, ever. As if the other nations would simply f*ck it up if they tried (and that’s not where the ethnocentrism ends either). When a meteor strike hits some unnamed asian country, the film reacts as if this was a warning sign instead of a global tragedy; as in, “Oh my god, imagine the tragedy if this had happened to America!” When the bigger meteor hits Paris the cast on the ground aren’t so much upset with the deaths of millions of innocent people as they are that they might not have as much time as they originally thought.
Poor Michael Clarke Duncan is completely wasted in this film; one of the best contemporary actors is treated as nothing more than a black token. He never lifts a tool, steers a ship, or adds anything to the plot. Why? Why is he the only member of a team of hardcore drillers that has to stand in the background? Sadly, they did the same thing to Peter Stormare’s character, who spends the film’s runtime as a drunk, stereotypical Russian with no aptitude towards the English language.
When our heroes do succeed, we are treated to a shot of blond, blue-eyed American children celebrating in cornfields with the knowledge that they have been saved and everything is alright. Because the destruction of the rest of the world is irrelevant. Well done Michael Bay.
5. Song of the South and Reconstructionist Revisioning
Song of the South is offensive because it perpetuates the stereotype that black people are boring. It also presents an “idealized image of a former master-slave relationship that distorts the facts” (The NAACP’s words, not mine). Disney knows this too as they currently have a ban on its release and likely consider the film to be an embarrassment.
This film features a naive white child who runs away from his family only to find a mentor in a former slave who likes to sing. On the surface nothing about this premise is inherently insensitive, just a warm-hearted salute to the stories of Walt’s childhood, but unfortunately it hasn’t aged gracefully.
The film implies that African-Americans stuck in the deep south during the reconstruction era were a cheerful bunch who liked nothing more than fishing, continuing to live on plantations, spinning tall tales, and looking after other people’s children. It also perpetuates the myth that singing slaves signified happy slaves - an annoying misconception already nailed by the leader of the abolitionist movement, Frederick Douglass, way back in the 1800s.
Was Song of the South considered to be a triumph in its time? Yes, otherwise it wouldn’t have won an Oscar for best song, been hailed widely for its use of live-action & animation, and unapologetically cast a black actor in the lead role during a time when African-Americans still had to sit at the back of the theatre. That said, it tries so hard to make the abolitionist era seem friendly between the races that it’s hard to not see it as being at least a little insensitive.
4. Driving Miss Daisy and Dominance
The goal of Driving Miss Daisy was to show that with time, even the most closed-minded human being can recognize that all people aren’t terribly different at their core. Unfortunately, that’s not a good message.
Nevermind the fact that Daisy is a foul-mouthed, saggy b*tch that’s full of more crap than a septic tank or that Hoke is a blank slate character that oh-so-perfectly fits into the “Magical Negro” film stereotype, it’s the fact that this piece of crap managed to win an Oscar for Best Picture despite being centred around a stubborn bigot and completely misrepresenting the times.
The story is set in the Jim Crow South (in Georgia of all places) and there is not one mention of the oppression going on. Hoke seems completely unfazed at pretty much all turns by the system built to oppress him. This represents not only a problem with the plot of the movie, but also the movie’s use of its medium. Films are how stories are told and histories remembered. To leave out the fact that people just like Hoke boycotted, protested, marched, fought, and died for basic human rights isn’t fair of the times.
3. Crash and Good Intentions
Allow me to be blunt and say that this is the worst movie to ever win Best Picture from the Academy Awards (for this you can thank the homophobic old fogies at the Academy who wouldn’t vote for Brokeback Mountain). Paul Haggis wrote this shlock after getting his car stolen one night and deciding that he wanted to paint the perpetrators in a sympathetic light.
Enter: Ludacris’ character Anthony.
Anthony is over-sensitive about how black people are perceived in the world and has inane explanations for everything to make it seem as though black people are constantly being targeted. He complains that the windows on buses exists to humiliate the black people who have to ride them and that his community deserves to be more scared of other races with the trigger-happy LAPD and sea of over-caffeinated white people running around. The irony? Everything he talks about, how blacks are targeted unfairly and have reputations for being criminals, he does. He car-jacks two white people, pulls a gun on them, and completely fulfills the negative stereotype (that he hates) while still expecting sympathy.
That is the problem with Crash. Haggis attempts shed light on how destructive everyday prejudices can be, but instead writes all characters as stereotypes being covertly racist. Crash’s characters aren’t realistic or well rounded - they’re just bad people.
2. The Passion of the Christ and Antisemitism
Far be it from me to suggest that Mel Gibson is a racist (he’s already shown his true colours on that one), but the way other religions are portrayed in this Jesusploitation flick is pretty disgusting.
While few of the actors were actually Jewish, the more evil the character, the more Semitic looking and darker skinned the actor. Jesus on the other hand, divorced of any Semitic characteristics, could have been plucked off the streets of Scandinavia. To make matters more intolerant, Herod and his court were stereotypically gay cross-dressers who wore makeup and were more concerned with debauchery than with the functioning of the Empire or administration of justice.
This begs the question, how the hell does anyone tell this story without fueling centuries of hate? To say, “The Romans killed Jesus”, though true to story, does not produce such an emotional reaction as, “The Jews killed Jesus.” This is the pathology of racism and Mel Gibson really doesn’t seem to mind playing it up. In fact, he goes as far as the film medium will allow in terms of portraying an entire race of people as disgusting, murderous, pigs. It’s a scary thing when a small mind has $25 million and the free range to manipulate a sacred text.
1. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Skids and Mudflap
I’m still scratching my head over this one. It’s hard to believe a mainstream director would be so willing to portray characters like in such a light, but Michael Bay did it. Skids and Mudflap are not just black robots, they are offensively stereotypically black robots…intended to be laughed at, not with.
Skids not only has old-school Raekwon bucked teeth, but one of them is actually gold. When Shia LaBoeuf asks if the twins can read ancient glyphs, they nervously reply that they “don’t do much reading” (a disgusting stereotype). In the twin’s car forms they are pimped-out, flashy compact street racing cars. They both spew hip-hop slag despite coming from the same caucasian voice that played Spongebob. Finally, “Skids” and “Mudflap” sound a little too much like “skid-marks” and “mud people” (yes I know this terminology is terrible, but I’m trying to prove a point).
Skids and Mudflap may not be able to read Michael Bay, but I on the other hand have become pretty adept at reading between the lines. In the future, please attempt to be funny without involving offensive racial stereotypes.