Monday, September 26, 2011

The misplaced criticisms of minority characters in historical movies

It seems every time historical fiction attempts to show a different era of the past with the occasional minority here or there, a segment of the population labels this as just inappropriately or inaccurately reflecting our modern society, instead of those of the past.

Over 10,000 Mexican-American troops fought in the Civil War, on both the Northern and Southern side. One Latino made it to the rank of Colonel in a CSA Texas cavalry regiment, Col. Santos Benavides - who, incidentally, remained undefeated in battle.

I would love to see a Civil War film that features Mexican and Tejano fighters on both sides particularly in the Western theater, but if a historically accurate movie like that ever came out, it would be denounced as "PC grandstanding" by many historically ignorant critics unaware of the lengthy presence of Latinos in the United States (it seems like many just started noticing Latinos existed here in the 'states in something like 2007 despite being one of the most historically established national groups).

This is my general point: the presence of minorities in historical films is not historical inaccuracy. It was their absence in movies of the past that was inaccurate. Today's movies, for the most part, are getting it right and it's movies in the past that whitewashed and ignored minorities, like old Westerns, which were the less historically correct depictions. Black cowboys and cowpunchers were normal in many places and it was Hollywood that overlooked them for generations.

Recently "The Shakespeare Code" was a Doctor Who episode set in London in the 1590s which featured black extras. Predictably enough, this prompted an outcry. However many black slaves and descendants of slaves were living in London in that era, to the point where Queen Victoria wrote a letter to the mayor of London in 1596 where she expelled slave descended blacks from England, with "there are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are allready here to manie." 

This criticism is a little weirder when applied to adventure and science fiction movies. Captain America's handpicked Howling Commandos struck a lot of people as unrealistic because it had a black guy in the era of the segregated armed forces, and a Japanese-American. In the words of Mike Stoklasa, "shouldn't he be in an internment camp?"

I'm sure the notion a Japanese-American couldn't be a vet in the European theater must come as something of a surprise to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, aka the Buddhaheads, with their gutsy patois motto, "Go For Broke!" You know, the 442nd Combat Regiment, the most highly decorated regiment in the entire history of the armed forces, including 21 Congressional Medals of Honor?

In the circumstances of the movie, the black guy (Gabe Jones) was a prisoner at a POW labor camp. As the Howling Commandos are an eccentric, unconventional team made of people Captain America trusts as opposed to a traditional armed forces unit, not only is this criticism unbelievably petty, but totally unfounded in the internal logic of the movie.

(Also, it's worth pointing out Peggy Carter, Cap's tough girlfriend, was not a Howling Commando and was a more historically accurate intelligence and scientific officer in a noncombat position.)

The expedition in Atlantis: the Lost Empire were specialists collected together by an eccentric, weirdo millionaire who was crackpot enough to look for Atlantis. Is it really that unbelievable the group he selected would break a few social conventions? After all, Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, another group formed together by an awesome, eccentric rich weirdo, featured black boxers and other crazy characters.

Bear in mind I am not saying there are no such things as slip-ups, because sometimes historical fiction, without meaning to, can reflect our own society instead of those of the past. For instance, a friend of mine remembers a few detective stories written in the past few years features a female police officer in the 1920s. Women cops are such a part of our world it seems unbelievable there was a time when there weren't any.

Why do so many people instinctively rebel against portrayals of minorities in historical fiction even when that portrayal has a grounded historical basis? The easy answer is a kind of subtle bigotry, but I don't think that's it at all. Rather, it can be found in the way the history of minority groups is taught, as a story about the fight against poverty and oppression, instead of as a story of achievement.


David said...

You stopped right when it was getting interesting! I totally agree with your last sentence, and I think it's a great disservice done to Americans in general, minority or not, to have public schools teach "history" aimed at political indoctrination, when it would be much more empowering to focus on the achievements made by great men and women of all colors and creeds throughout history.

I loved the Howling Commandoes in the Cap film, and I have to say I'm not that enthused about a sequel if it's set in the present day, without them.

I also remember some cries of "political correctness" when Morgan Freeman showed up in Costner's "Robin Hood" movie, which frankly was way down on my list of complaints about that celluloid atrocity; I was much more dismayed by the transformation of Maid Marian into a super-ninja.

I do have my limits, though: nothing will ever make me accept Will Smith as James West.

Julian Perez said...

Man, did you listen? That's exactly the attitude I'm fighting against - the notion that political correctness and indoctrination has gone so crazy, history is being rewritten inaccurately by Hollywood to PC grandstand.

Because we get our intuitive sense of history from popular culture, the idea of something like black cowboys in the West, for instance, strikes many people as strange and leads many to be critical of modern Westerns with black cowboys.

The Western is an especially good example because most of the really influential ones that form our mind's eye image of what the West was like were made before the 1960s in less enlightened times.

But the reason many modern Westerns have black cowboys is because in the West there were black cowboys - possibly as many as one in three cowpunchers in some places. The modern Western isn't being historically inaccurate. It's Westerns of the past that were inaccurate in that regard - they were truly the ones that were indoctrinating (albeit unintentionally...I hope - anyway, never attribute to malice what might be explained by ignorance).

Though I do agree with you about Will Smith. Sheesh. The worst part is, it was Will Smith as the latest hot commodity playing the same character he always does, shoehorned in a movie he doesn't belong. Rather like Ryan Reynolds as Green Lantern, come to think of it - and Ryan Reynolds's star persona does remind me a lot of Will Smith. I'm not a Wild Wild West fan at all, but I feel sorry for those that are.

As for Prince of Thieves -

I am a huge fan of Errol Flynn (even though he tried to steal the rocket pack and give it to Hitler), but nonetheless I kind of liked Prince of Thieves because...its flaws aside, it attempted to do a new take on the familiar story of Robin Hood, and I can't honestly fault them for that attempt. On a story like Robin Hood everybody knows, little would have been appreciated and make it distinctive - things like the Sheriff having a witch sidekick. For instance, RH: PoT consciously chose to exclude scenes we associate with Robin Hood, like the archery contest with the split arrows and Robin Hood fighting Little John over who gets to cross a bridge first.

It delved a little deeper into Robin Hood's backstory - what happened to make him an outlaw and his past in the Crusades. The Arab sidekick wasn't that farfetched.

My problem with a liberated, amazonian Maid Marian is, the movie didn't commit to the idea. The first scene she can fight Robin Hood to a standstill and beat him. Cool! I've always wanted say, in a future Superman movie, for Lois Lane to show guts and chops and contribute to a solution to a problem - maybe even judo throw a guy.


Marian never uses her fighting skills in the movie again and is even taken prisoner at the end and forced to marry the Sheriff. It's the same as the ending to Flash Gordon, with Ming the Merciless trying to marry Dale Arden.

If Robin Hood could beat the Sheriff of Nottingham in a fight, and Marian beat Robin...wouldn't that mean Marian could beat the Sheriff?

This problem is common enough it has a name: Faux Action Girl.

We're TOLD they're tough women who can take care of business, but...they don't actually WIN any fights, and they get captured at the end. The rule is show, don't tell - and being told they're gutsy fighters but we're SHOWN they lose a lot and never fight is downright deceptive.

David said...

That's kind of where I was going with the Will Smith remark: the flip side of the phenomenon you describe is a movie like "Wild Wild West," where they can insert a 90s hip-hop star with no real effort at making him anything else, and then wave off any complaints as "racism" or with the faux-intellectual claim, "There were plenty of black cowboys." Yes, but that's hardly the oint, and James West is not a cowboy.

Of course I realize WWW is probably not the best property to pick a fight over. After all, the last thing you could ever call that show was "historically accurate." If Robert Conrad could run around in flamenco pants with an early-60s pompadour, fighting evil masterminds with laser beams, robots and geegaws that transport people in and out of oil paintings (!?!), then I guess it's not that big a leap to replace him with the Fresh Prince.

You're right on with Marian; this is a case of "we've thrown a bone to the feminists in the audience, now let's get back to formula." See also every Bond movie of the last 40 years. Although I'd argue that the ability to beat up Kevin Costner wouldn't mark a woman as particularly unique. It would probably be harder to find one that couldn't manage it.

eduardo m. said...

part of the problem with critizing the Howling Commandos is forgetting that Captain America is based on a comic book. The HC exist in the comics. While the lineup in the film doesnt match up the comics lineup excatly, it does share Gabe Jones with Jim Norita as a frequent ally.

Julian Perez said...

Dave –

I wasn't there for the WWW fans' reaction to the movie, but I get the feeling it must have been irritating to have a problem with the casting of pretty-boy Will Smith, and then have it shut down by Western history geeks pointing out there were in fact black cowboys.

This is one of those occasions where the issue is so charged it's literally impossible to win no matter what position you take.

The worst example would be the Mark Waid Legion reboot from a few years ago, where Waid made Karate Kid Asian. Some people found it a little cheesy the one guy with Karate powers is Asian, whereas others found that a guy trained in Tokyo in distinctively Asian martial arts to be a white guy…well, that character concept was offensive. If you made Karate Kid Asian or Caucasian, it would have been offensive either way.

(I find this situation to be relatively rare, though.)

Eddie -

I get your point, but I'm talking about the internal logic of the movie. One of the dangers in comic book movies is taking something from the source material and then not doing anything with it.

In the Josie and the Pussycats movie, the band's manager Alexandra Cabot had no reason to exist, since it was a satire about how evil the music industry is.

What made that kind of awesome is, one character even, point blank asked Alexandra what she was even doing there. Her response?

"Because I'm in the comic book."

Nonetheless, I'd love to see a movie that wholeheartedly accepts comic book superhero logic. For instance, even the otherwise irony-free, accepting Captain America gave an explanation for where Cap's costume came from.

The day is not that far off when in a superhero movie, a guy puts on a costume because he's a superhero now and that's just what superheroes do. I'd love to see that movie…one that accepts costumes as a part of the story and doesn't make a big deal out of them.

Matt Celis said...

It's largely that the public is ignorant and doesn't know history. Same reason liberals "apologize" for Crusaders "invading" Muslim lands; they don't know that the Crusades were to recapture judeochristian lands that were conquered by Muslims.