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.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The strange case of Elizabeth Brady Cabot Winslow, Part II

You might remember me discussing the strange case of Boston Brahmin genius and model turned tragically mentally ill woman all the way back here. Since then, there have been several new revelations.

What interested me about this unusual internet phenomenon was how specific she got, all of which were details that could be double-checked and examined more closely.

 There's a single brief, glib line in the "Crimes and Malice" section of her lengthy resume/rant, that goes as follows:
C 1974 Seth Baker in New York City in a financially ruinous, devastating, severely damaging theft for me stole a very valuable irreplaceable heirloom from me.
Special thanks to blog reader Mike Justice for bringing the following news article to my attention, from the New York Times,  June 26, 1974:

Unlike the rants of other homeless, not only are her claims based on something, but the reality is typically more interesting the more you examine. For instance, on her site, she didn't mention Seth Baker "took the heirloom from her" by spending the night with her at an upscale hotel. Though she did mention Seth Baker as an "international playboy." Now there's an upscale job I haven't heard about in a while.

In addition, Liz Winslow claimed to have been a model, and recently, the Wilhelmina agency uploaded online their back catalog of model cards. There were even some for a Liz Cabot Winslow, which coincides to the year with when she said she worked as a model for Wilhelmina.

And some of the shots are really glam. All I have to say is...woof! Ah, if only I was an international playboy in 1974...

In addition, a passport collector has in his possession the passport belonging to Ms. Cabot Winslow's father, Colonel Hugh Whitaker Winslow, who was nothing short of an interesting and extraordinary man in his own right. Check it out!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The WNBA really is as bad as everybody says

Though ordinarily my mockery is merciless and without be honest, I feel terrible, and a little guilty too, in laughing at the WNBA.

Why? Because they're underdogs: unappreciated, ignored athletes working for very little money and attention, and it's natural to root for the underdogs to succeed and prove everybody wrong.

It doesn't hurt that the two groups that goof on and snigger at the WNBA are two of the most insufferable kinds of jerks: an unholy coalition of stand-up comedians and male chauvinist types.

It kills me to say it, but those jerks are absolutely and totally right.

Take a look at this clip reel of the 10 best WNBA moments of the year. At first I thought the clips were making fun of the WNBA, but this is actually a real highlight film from the WNBA itself.

If you want to skip to the end, go to #2 and #1.

#2 is the third slam-dunk in WNBA history – the first being in 2002, five years after the league was founded, and the second in 2008. By that logic, the next one will be three years from now. This one I have trouble believing, since most guys that are six feet tall can jump high enough to make a dunk, and most of these gals are six-foot and above. King James dunks more in one game than the WNBA's entire history.

As depressing as that sounds, #1 takes the absolute cake.

The single best play of the year was a depressingly basic reverse-layup any high school team player can do. The over-reliance on the unbelievably rudimentary layup inspires the WNBA's nickname, the LDL League: Lesbians Doing Layups.

The WNBA is such a fertile and obvious target that even the obtuse "mind" of nitwit Family Guy creator Seth McIdiot picked up on it as a subject for parody.

On related news, Gina Carano is getting a movie, finally. She's like the reverse-WNBA. On the one hand she's a really good martial artist and Thai kickboxer; when tested she hit with 650 psi and out of 14 fights, won 12, lost 1 (that one being relatively recently) and another was considered a draw by decision. She's got some glamour, but at least we don't have to be subjected to the indignity of pretending some supermodel like space-cadet Milla Jovovich is an asskicker. Gina's basically what Black Canary would be if Black Canary was a real person. It'd be great to see an action movie with a woman who is actually a very gifted physical athlete.