By Mohammad Mazhari

Cinematic history of America rooted in legacies of racialized violence: researcher

January 21, 2022 - 17:30

TEHRAN – A cinema researcher, who explores racism, class politics, internationalism in world literature, architecture, music, and global cinema, says that American cinema represents a racialized history of the country.

“The cinematic history of America, it must be said, is rooted in particular legacies of racialized violence,” Anthony Ballas tells the Tehran Times.

“I can confirm that violence is central to American cinematic representation in particular ways and through particular genres and styles, and there are a handful of factors that we might look into as to why this has been the case historically, and why it continues to be the case today,” notes Ballas, who teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado at Denver.

Below is the text of an interview with Ballas about the role of discrimination and violence against minorities and what is called “others” in American cinema:

Q: There is a stereotype that American cinema represents violence while its European counterpart represents sex. To what extent can you confirm this? And what are the roots of this phenomenon?

A: Although I have not heard it put in quite these terms, I can certainly say that, yes, the stereotype of American cinematic violence is pretty readily accepted, and perhaps even represents a cliché at this point. American cinema does seem to have a predilection for violence, though I think this is more nuanced than it is a monolithic appraisal of all American cinemas. I can confirm that violence is central to American cinematic representation in particular ways and through particular genres and styles, and there are a handful of factors that we might look into as to why this has been the case historically, and why it continues to be the case today.

The cinematic history of America, it must be said, is rooted in particular legacies of racialized violence. The first full-length, major motion picture, for instance, was D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), which is a white supremacist fantasy that valorized the Ku Klux Klan as cultural heroes while depicting Blacks as inarticulate, violent, lecherous, and rapacious brutes. The film was extraordinarily popular and was famously even endorsed by President Woodrow Wilson, who held a screening of it at the White House. Wilson even commented on the film, saying that "it's like writing history with lightning,” and that his “only regret is that it is all so terribly true." What Wilson perhaps ironically gets right about the truth of the film, however, is the historical truth of the violent white supremacist legacy which itself birthed the film, and its racist, confederate ideology. Some even might say, and I think they’re right, that the inaugural gesture of American cinema was white supremacist and therefore bound to racist violence from the outset.

I recall that while a student in an undergraduate course on film history, a professor instructed us to try and look past the racist iconography of the film, and instead to try and understand what Griffith was doing as a filmmaker, at the purely aesthetic level. There is no such thing as a “purely” aesthetic level. Every form of representation is entangled with the political, social, and ideological. Aesthetic representation is itself historical, and therefore material history is part of the representations that arise historically in cinema and elsewhere. Cinematic representation is historical, and cannot easily be separated from the historical legacies which produce it, which are often violent. This is not to say that there isn’t something universal to be drawn from cinema or representation as such, but there is a way in which history unfolds in artistic creation, which we must pay attention to if we want to unpack these kinds of violent legacies to which I’m referring.

Although it might sound shocking, similar attitudes as that of my former professor should not at all come as a surprise given the pervasive legacy of white disavowal of the brutality of American slavery and indigenous genocide in this country. The current attack on Critical Race Theory in American education, for instance, is an echo, if not a direct branch, of this same attitude.

This attitude is part of a long white supremacist lineage of representing Blacks as brutes, and ideological practice which rooted in the violent enslavement and criminalization of Blacks in America. So-called “mandingo fighting,” for instance, which was depicted in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, refers to the form of entertainment wherein white slave-owners would hold fights and battle royales between their enslaved, typically male, property. This history is continued through the cinematic depiction of Black Americans as animalized or sub-human “creatures,” who labor for free and provide a brutal source of free entertainment for whites. Boots Riley’s film from a few years ago, Sorry to Bother You, for instance, comments on this kind of representation, in a satirical, though trenchant, manner. In the film, there is a population of “horse people” (called ‘equisapiens’ in the film) who have been genetically modified to form a strong and obedient labor force. Certainly, there is a commentary on classed and racialized violence to be drawn from this kind of representation.

Although these examples are abhorrent, it wouldn’t be accurate to simply consider all cinematic representations of violence as universally or inherently negative. Films depicting revolutionary violence, for instance, should be interpreted with the nuance they deserve. I don’t want it to seem that I am chastising all instances of violence on screen as a lump sum. Although I think it is difficult to disentangle the violent legacy of American democracy, slavery, indigenous dispossession, and genocide, from its aesthetic and representational legacies, in many ways, cinematic violence is a way of dealing with the brutal realities of real-world violence; by wrapping them in a fantasmatic shell, by giving a cinematic representation to what might be too traumatic or too unrepresentable to confront directly, on screen violence, we might say, can be a useful ideological tool, even a critical weapon of sorts. We therefore must be careful and understand that not all of American cinema is simply violent, or that violence itself is always to be shunned as negative. Counter-hegemonic depictions might indeed be violent, but this violence is of a different sort, perhaps even belonging to a different ethical order altogether. 

Q: One of the historic woes the U.S. is beset by racism and discrimination against Blacks, Chinese-Americans, and Muslims. How could the mainstream media and cinema inculcate stereotypes against these "others" into the American public?

A: I’m thinking, first of all, of the radical Black filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, the inventor of the Blaxploitation genre, who passed away last year. Van Peebles’s films are radical depictions of what is often called “Black badassery,” namely a kind of blackness that goes up and directly confronts “whitey,” and therefore against the racist ideology of white supremacy in America. However, it must be said, Van Peebles was not a mainstream director, and so his work never really reached mass audiences. This might not be a bad thing, however, as the mainstreaming of radical ideas such as those found in his films runs the risk of diluting their ideological potency.

The question of “how” mainstream media might accomplish this is a difficult one. On the one hand, attempting to popularize radical counter-depictions to combat negative stereotypes can open up the masses to novel ways of witnessing and critiquing the kinds of discrimination that you make reference to, while on the other hand, this kind of mainstreaming inevitably runs the risk of becoming vacuous. I remember a former professor of mine and film scholar, Andy Scahill, insisted on this paradox: when radical counter-hegemonic forms become too mainstream, too widely adopted, they may, in a profound sense, become deflated, and even ineffectual. We must confront this representational paradox when we examine mainstream and popular culture.

However, there have been, and still are, radical aesthetic movements that attempt to produce counter-hegemonic forms of representation from within mainstream cinema, and these are of course worth examining. I know that Black Panther, starring the late Chadwick Boseman, was a big mainstream hit here in America, and probably worldwide. I think what is most intriguing about Black Panther was not only its representation of a black superhero, as important as this was for many, but rather the sympathetic portrayal of the film’s villain, Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan. Killmonger, though the villain, was not simply an “other” in the usual sense that white cinema, as I’ve already discussed, tends to depict racial or ethnic, or even religious otherness. Rather, and perhaps this is due in no small part to the fact that the film was directed by a Black filmmaker, Ryan Coogler, Eric Killmonger is portrayed as a villain for a justifiable reason, which the film links with the legacy of racial and economic violence perpetrated against his community. This sort of depiction is important, I’d say, as it leaves room for identification with the villain in a way that is more thoughtful, more intriguing even than the typical “sympathy for the devil” kinds of representation we’ve grown accustomed to here in America. Erik Killmonger is not really a standard villain. He is really more of a revolutionary figure with an origin story that resonated with audiences.

Some of Coogler’s other films are important for similar reasons. His debut film, Fruitvale Station, followed the narrative of Oscar Grant III (again, played by Michael B. Jordan), who was brutally murdered by a transit police officer in San Fransisco in 2009. Coogler depicts Grant as a sympathetic character, a loving father, trying to get his life together, going through emotional, relationship, and financial troubles. What is interesting in this depiction is that Coogler does not simply lionize Grant, nor vilify him, but rather represents both his successes and hardships alongside one another, offering perhaps one of the more sympathetic, and indeed one might say realistic, characterizations in recent memory. The deftness with which Coogler crafts his character is striking, as it grates up against the standard ideological images which proliferate in America of Black men as criminals, “brutes,” as I’ve already mentioned, and so forth. The film really is special for these reasons and others.

I remember back around 9/11 there were some particularly egregious depictions of Muslims and other various stereotypical “Middle Eastern” villains. Films like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, and Paul Greengrass’s Flight 93, for instance, were feverishly jingoistic cineamtic responses to 9/11, echoing George Bush’s “us versus them” war on terror rhetoric. This “us/them” dichotomy is often found in American genre film, and has been used against all manner of stereotypical representations: Blacks as sexual predators; Chinese characters and nondescript, generic “Asian” characters who are sexually deviant, inarticulate, perpetuating the so-called “yellow peril” mythos; and, of course, depictions of Muslims as “terrorists,” as violent religious extremists, desert-roaming savages, etc. These representations saturate the cinematic landscape of American film and television, and the racist root system of American ideology, of course, can be difficult to disentangle from popular consciousness.

Today there seems to be a renewed push for inclusion in Hollywood and other mainstream outlets. But these campaigns must be examined in tandem with the political and social grounds out of which they arise, and/or arise in response to, and so let’s be sure we understand the violence committed against these groups and the phenomenon of the contemporaneous push to represent them more charitably in cinematic form, and in other mediums. We must be willing to ask why the question of “proper” aesthetic representation arises, again and again, through the protracted, and in the case of American history, unbroken, the legacy of white supremacy? We should perhaps never forget why the struggle for proper representation accompanies the struggle for economic security, the struggle for safety from state violence, the end of mass incarceration, policing, and so forth that affect these communities.

Q: The notion of "other" enjoys a very important position. This “other” is reflected in aliens, zombies, etc. Who is this other? Is it other cultures or political foes who challenge U.S. hegemony? Don't you see a subliminal ideology in the American cinema industry?

A: Very often this “other” emerges in cinema, yes, to represent the fears and anxieties of an external enemy that threatens the existence of America. The “Muslim” threat for instance, or the “communist plot,” and so forth. Much of this is traceable back through to the old “cowboys and Indians” binary of the American western genre, which itself has a long violent and ideological history in the United States. The “other” is normally represented as some “savage” population that provokes or terrorizes the internal consistency of (generally white) civil society, which then must be destroyed to maintain law and order and to reinscribe the protective boundaries of state, security, legality, and moral law (sexual mores, racial norms, and alike). Think the Rambo Franchise in the 1980s fighting against the Vietnamese and the Soviets and so forth. Rambo fights these “others” because they were considered to be an existential threat to American democracy, and so the ideology of these films is pretty apparent.

As I already mentioned, the logic of Blackness in The Birth of a Nation exhibits this kind of ideological “otherness,” but, you’re correct, this “other” is often depicted as an alien, a monster, or a zombie, of some kind. I tend to think that when one takes even a cursory glance at the narrative structure of most mainstream genre films (horror, westerns, science fiction, action films, and others), this logic is presented explicitly, with little to disguise or conceal it. I am almost tempted to say that the ideology of American cinema isn’t subliminal at all, but rather it is offered up to audiences in an explicit, or topical manner, and is therefore generally undisguised. In other words, it doesn’t take much demystification to see what ideological currents and “others” are front and center in American film.

“Black filmmakers have combated, and will continue to combat white supremacist violence via counter-hegemonic, cinematic representations.”However, we might say that the logic is so pervasive and that it saturates the mainstream so thoroughly, that it is, in a way, too big to see, or perhaps so all-consuming that it gives off an appearance as though it were portraying the natural state of things. This is perhaps a good definition of what ideology itself is: a point of saturation which gives the appearance of being “subliminal” as you mention, but is really right on the surface, unburied. By giving off the appearance of being veiled, ideology erects its own disguise: it presents itself as though there is some deeper mystery, some internal dynamic that requires us to sift through and find its truth when really this truth is front and center for all to see.

The films of John Wayne famously depict this explicit kind of “cowboys and Indians,” “us/them” ideology, but there are contemporary films that do so as well, sometimes in surprising ways. Hostiles, for instance, starring Christian Bale, is one western from recent history that I can recall. Though it is a more or less classical western, we get some variation in how the Native “other” is depicted, with a bit more sympathy than perhaps American audiences are used to, but ultimately the “us/them” dichotomy is reproduced in the narrative.

There are a couple of other contemporary westerns which depict otherness from a different direction. I’m thinking here of Tyler Sheridan’s Hell or High Water which comments on the financial crisis of 2008 through its depiction of a pair of bank-robbing, “outlaw” brothers. In this film, systemic economic violence, debt, the 2008 recession and housing crisis, are indicted through a depiction of counter-hegemonic violence, i.e. bank robbing. The viewer roots for the outlaws like we used to root for the “great criminal” in the old gangster films (and there is perhaps a shared legacy between the two that I can’t get into now). Remember Bertolt Brecht’s famous phrase, “what is the robbing of a bank to the founding of a new one?” Well, this film dramatizes this phrase to indict the failure of contemporary American capitalism: “what is the violence of robbing a bank compared to the economic violence of the great recession?” it seems to ask. The violence of the latter affects the population universally, and with much more gravity, than the robbing of a particular bank. We might even say that in films like Hell or High Water, capitalism itself becomes the villainous “other,” which I would certainly call a progressive step forward as far as cinematic representations of otherness are concerned.

I’m glad you brought up zombies, which are particularly interesting for a variety of reasons. The historical roots of this form of representation can actually be traced back to Haitian voodoo and folkloric magic, and so there’s a link between the historical legacy of American imperialism against Haiti and cinematic representation that needs to be examined further. In fact, there was a book published last year, Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games by Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall that deals with the Haitian Revolution and cinema. Although I’ll admit that I have yet to read it (I have read several reviews), the book focuses on the absence of representations of the Haitian Revolution in cinema and elsewhere. This, of course, should not surprise us, given that the importance of the Haitian Revolution has so often been neglected by western, principally American, intellectuals, politicians, scholars, and so on. Aimé Césaire, the Martinican politician, poet, and author once wrote that to study the Haitian Revolution “is to study one of the origins, the sources of Western civilization.” So, the prevalence of zombie films and television in the west draws a direct line from Hollywood to Haiti, and therefore we must acknowledge the fraught international dimension between American imperialism against Haiti and the representation of zombies in popular film and television here in America.

Zombies, somewhat famously, were employed to critique whiteness and American anti-Black violence in the late 1960s, for instance, in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Zombies also often have an ecological dimension, and thus the violence behind contemporary zombie films may be a reflection of the ecological violence that capitalism and fossil fuels have wreaked on the globe, and the production of surplus populations and climate refugees who have been displaced and will continue to be at an exponential rate as long as climate change persists unabated. The ideology of zombie films and television might be such that zombies always represent some other monstrous agency other than ourselves, always pointing to some other entity who we can blame for ecological catastrophe, climate breakdown, and alike.

Contagion narratives, which we typically get in horror or science fiction, are also interesting with regard to zombies and are especially so given the context of the pandemic. Zombies and toxic populations can be made to stand in as epidemiological “others,” carriers of a virus or disease or what have you, which, again, must be destroyed or contained in order for society to “get back to normal.” However, with the acceleration of ecological breakdown and viral contagions in contemporary capitalism, it is hard to say if we’ll ever actually contain these hazards to get back to any semblance of “normalcy.” I think this return to normalcy is as fantastical, if not more so than zombies, vampires, werewolves, and whoever or whatever else might be lurking out there in the shadows.

Q: Do you see any chance or opportunity for critics in U.S. cinema to air their voices? How might it impress U.S. public opinion?

A: This is a difficult question. I think cinema can be a critical tool, especially when audiences are willing to examine it critically and theoretically. This is tough because audiences enjoy films, even when they contain negative racial, sexual, and ethnic representations, or any other such variety. There have been campaigns to reclaim negative stereotypes and repackage them to an almost hyperbolic degree, such as in the irreverent brilliance of the work of John Waters for instance. Sean Baker’s film Tangerine, I think it can be argued, accomplishes something similar, though through slightly different aesthetic means.

The legacy of Black radical cinema is very robust in America. Recently, Nate Parker directed and starred in a film from 2016 called The Birth of a Nation, the title, of course, a direct allusion to D.W. Griffith’s racist “masterpiece.” Parker’s version, although it stands on its own, can be read against the grain of the kind of white racist violence I already spoke about. The film is a historical drama which depicts the Nat Turner rebellion in Southampton, Virginia in 1831, wherein Turner, who was a preacher, and a group of enslaved revolutionaries rise up against their masters. The film is violent, yes, but just as with other forms of counter-hegemonic violence on screen, this film cannot be said to be gratuitous in any regard. The violence of the Turner rebellion was necessary — it was revolutionary violence. It would be hard to argue, thus, that the on-screen representation of this violence was “too violent,” or of the same ethical order of violence that Griffith’s film depicted. I think, instead, the violence of the film is precisely the kind of “critical wave” that you mention, and there are other examples.

Again, cinema — or any other form of art, literature, music, etc. — must be read in tandem with real-world events, whether contemporaneous or historical. The influx of images depicting real-world violence committed against Blacks in this country, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and so many others, demonstrate not only the persistent violent legacy but also the persistence of this violence at it unfolds on screens, and in particular, in the media and online. The world witnessed George Floyd die on camera, and many around the world rose up and protested as a result. For decades, Black filmmakers have combated and will continue to combat white supremacist violence via counter-hegemonic, cinematic representations; aesthetic forms which critique the racist legacy of policing, or mass incarceration, and other racist institutions and practices that are entrenched in American society. These forms, and others, most certainly inform public opinion by turning audiences towards the systemic violence committed against marginalized, typically non-white and lower-class populations.

Q: How do you evaluate the reaction of mainstream media in the U.S. when it comes to mirroring the ideas of critical figures and minorities? In some cases we can see, for example, Blacks can find a good representation in U.S. media. But what about the others? We face Sinophobia, for instance, and Islamophobia is still continuing as well.

A: The media, and not only cinema alone, has certainly perpetuated negative stereotypes of all kinds, including xenophbic portrayals of China, Islamophobia, etc. The U.S. media coverage of COVID-19 over the past couple of years should be examined on this front. First, the disease was immediately considered a Chinese plot of some kind; a lab experiment gone wrong, a secret biochemical war agent that Chinese authorities strategically released on the world, or some other conspiracy theory that it to be dismissed and condemned. Dubbing the virus the “Wuhan flu” or the “China virus,” or the more brashly “kung-flu,” as Trump used to refer — these negative stereotypes are to be expected from U.S. media at this point.

Similar tendencies arose during the onset of Omicron also, blaming South Africans, and banning flights to and from the region. These geopolitical policy maneuvers, and the accompanying ideological images and stereotypes, have a long history in American hegemony and follow a similar logic as I described in terms of the contagion narratives in science fiction and horror. The media, like cinema, can produce stereotypical images and use rhetoric to put contagions and populations in ideological proximity, and even to claim that these populations are themselves to blame. After COVID-19 began to spread globally, it is to be remembered, we saw an influx of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian hate crimes in America.

To be honest, I’m not convinced that “good representation” in the cinema alone can fix these problems; in as much as Blacks in America might be able to achieve certain charitable or sympathetic, or even widely popular representations (like Black Panther), I don’t think anyone other than crackpots like Jordan Peterson or Steven Pinker would argue that life is better for these populations in the modern world, or under the regime of modern capitalism, and I think the same is true for other non-white and religious minorities in America. These populations face not only representational violence but ideological and political violence as well, not to mention the long and continued problem of racist scientific and medical biases that affect these populations.

The crux of the matter is this: can representation alone provide actual, realizable liberatory or emancipatory solutions to these problems? The answer, I’d say, is no. However, can representation as a radical tool, and the arts more generally, be used to raise consciousness as to the political and economic struggles of marginalized populations? Certainly. It can be answered, thus, that stripping negative representations away might dilute the potency of these kinds of real-world problems; Spike Lee’s ironic and satirical depictions of minstrelsy, such as those found in his masterpiece Bamboozled, disgust audiences while also serving as a commentary on racism and racial stereotypes. We must consider not only how to critique violent and negative stereotypes, but perhaps how we might use them as tools for interpretation.

With the hyper-commodified space ushered in by neoliberal capitalism, pretty much anyone can find whatever form of representation might suit them on the market — as long as they have the money to obtain it. The question ought to be not what kinds of representations will liberate us, but how can we put representation as such in service toward emancipatory ends?

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