Saturday, October 14, 2006

Film and Race




Feature films,
can if they are of any substa
nce, reflect the compelling issues of a particular society and historical period. The relationship between race and prejudice is one of the more important and sensitive issues that confront modern society.

In a modern age of Globalization with different racial groups now sharing more intimate relationships, tensions inevitably arise and it is often difficult to confront these questions as honestly in life as it is in art.

Three films shed light on the incendiary question of race and prejudice in varied settings and times: To Kill a Mocking bird , Australian Rules and Crash. These films depict respectively a move from the crude forms of racism early in the century to to the more recent but still polarized prejudice of a small community to the complex state of affairs of race in a large racially, cosmopolitan modern city .

To Kill a Mocking Bird
was the 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name. Set in the Jim Crow South of Maycomb, Alaba
ma during the depression the film is in many ways a stark look at the harsh nature of prejudice against black people in South. The story is narrated through the perspective of the infant daughter of an idealistic lawyer.

The elemental nature of prejudice is underscored by the films double edged subtext. On the one hand there is the nostalgic story of children who are fascinated and frightened by stories and sightings of,Boo the freakish son of a misanthropic neighbor. On the other hand is the father, well cast in Gregory Peck,playing Atticus who against the tremendous public censure agrees to defend a black man, Tom Robinson from the charge of rape of a white woman, the most highly charged of crimes in the South. The outcome of the film is tragic to the modern sensibility. Atticus fails in his defense of Tom Robinson who is charged with rape despite showing irrefutably that the charges were false. Robinson is killed and Ewell the bigot and killer also dies in what is an attempt at redemption, killed by Boo the much misunderstood neighbor.

For its time it was a brave film but to the modern audience the sacrifice of the innocent Tom Robinson's life leaves the abstraction of the message of prejudice a little hollow; but it does underscore dehumanization of black people at that time and place in America's history.

Australian Rules moves ahead 70 years and
to a different continent, to Prospect Bay, a coastal town of Australia. Based on the tragic real events outlined in Phillip Gwynnes's novel Deadly, Unna? the story unfolds in two acts.

The first act is a sweet story of a friendship between a white Australian youth, Blacky and, Dumby Red, his athletically gifted aboriginal friend and teammate on the local rugby team. There is an element of romance thrown in good measure as Blacky is deeply fond of Dumby Red's sister Clarence. In this first part of the story the narrative chooses not to dwell on the entrenched racism of the small insular community but rather lightly highlights the friendship between the boys and establishes the tremendous talent of Dumby Red who is the engine of the team and its championship hopes.

The second act descends into tragedy. A new coach belittles the cooperative, strategic guile of the aboriginal players tactics and pushes for a more graceless direct approach to the support. In spite of the changes, Dumby Red still carries the team to victory but later he is denied the award of best player which he undoubtedly deserves. His frustration and retaliation result in his death at the hands of the coach. There are parallels with the previous film. The young black man is senselessly killed and made a martyr. In this film, however, there is a personal level to the story that did not exist in To Kill A Mocking Bird. Blacky shows that relations can and should exist between the respective communities at every level, from the professional to the personal and even to the romantic level.

Crash the Oscar award winning film for best picture in 2005 shows an ensemble cast demonstrating the infinitely complicated nature of race and prejudice in a highly racially diversified fast paced modern Los Angeles. Criticized by some for its overly interconnected plot where all the lead characters seem to play an intricate role in the lives of the other at some level, it can be better appreciated as a metaphor for the multiplicity of meanings and mo
tivations of race and prejudice in the modern world.

The film seems to take a particular joy in deflating stock perceptions of heroism and villainy. The lecherous and brutal bad cop is show
n to save the same woman he earlier mistreated while the good cop who goes to lengths to highlight the prejudice of his partner is shown to dissemble the evidence of his accidental killing of a young black man. The young thug who holds up another black man casually orders his friend to kill him when he resists when only earlier he claimed he would never harm someone of his own race. The film makes a call for understanding of another's perspective.

This film completes the arc up to the present time of the nature of race and prejudice. The nature of race and prejudice is highly complex reflection of the historical evolution of society . The crude dehumanization of To kill A Mocking bird is a mirror to the brutality of the Jim Crow South in the 1930's. The bitter insular racism of small coastal Port Arthur offers some progress but at the same time showing the brutality of small town thinking toward a economically marginalized and relatively powerless racial minority. Finally,The highly charged relationship between race and prejudice is wonderfully highlighted in Crash where individual characters motivations are constantly changing and in conflict and where understanding and empathy are essential to co-existance.

References
Alleva, Richard. "Skin Deep: 'Crash' & 'Kingdom of Heaven'." Commonweal 3 June 2005: 26+. Questia. 16 May 2006 . Charles, Nickie, and Helen Hintjens, eds. Gender, Ethnicity, and Political Ideologies. London: Routledge, 1998. Questia. 16 May 2006 . Palmer, Dave, and Garry Gillard. "Indigenous Youth and Ambivalence in Some Australian Films." Journal of Australian Studies (2004): 75+. Questia. 16 May 2006 . Willis, Sharon. High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997. Questia. 16 May 2006 .

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