Afterbirth of a Nation: Residual Effects of Racist Themes in American Popular Cinema

by Jeriah Hildwine

We’ve come a long way since D.W. Griffith’s infamously racist 1915 depiction of the Civil War and Reconstruction in “Birth of a Nation,” but depictions of African Americans in Hollywood have not entirely escaped the shadow of the more overt racism of the past.  Several recent popular films provide clear evidence of some of the more careless handling of the issue of race in film, as well as some more nuanced and intelligent ways to handle the issue.

This article will discuss the plots of Shark Night, Planet of the Apes, and Creature, all action/horror films released in 2011.  If you have not yet seen them, be aware that it may contain spoilers.  (And, in this writer’s opinion, you should watch Creature before reading on, but skip the other two, unless you’re a strong devotee of the genre.)

In Shark Night, the character of Malik (Sinqua Walls) makes his debut as a college athlete confronting his tutor with his grades.  Malik appears to conform to the widely-held racist stereotype of African American men as angry, violent, and aggressive (as well as being athletically, but not academically, inclined).  Malik then reveals his grade to be a good one, and the anger to have been all an act.  The tutor and the athlete are in fact good friends.  The joke was well-written, playing to our culture’s widespread stereotypes and then calling us on them, and Sinqua Walls delivers it well.  It left me with a good, solid feeling of “you got me!”

Unfortunately, neither Malik nor the film fare so well thereafter.  Some rough locals who ultimately prove to be the film’s villains (besides the sharks, I mean) play to another of our stereotypes, of rural Southerners as ignorant racists, but this time the stereotype is fulfilled rather than subverted.  The yokels harass both Malik and his Latina girlfriend Maya with racist epithets and stereotypes.  The trick here is an old one:  make your villains racists not to add depth or nuance to their motivations as characters, but simply to render them even more one-dimensionally despicable, so that the audience is all the more eager to see them meet their come-uppance at the end of the film.  Hannibal Lecter never would have been allowed to survive the end of Silence of the Lambs if he’d been a racist.  Mickey and Mallory Knox got away with a touch of racism in Natural Born Killers (“Go eat some more fry bread, Cochise”) but it was kept in keeping with their characters, not used to turn them into caricatures.

Malik falls victim to a familiar and racist cinema trope:  having the only African American character in an action or horror film become the first casualty.  Malik is waterskiing behind a speedboat when he is hit by a shark, and the quest to get him to medical attention before he dies becomes the device that moves the plot forward.  Malik is laid up in bed, doing his best not to bleed out, but meanwhile, his girlfriend Maya (the other non-white character in the film) is killed outright.  Malik is understandably upset, and decides that he’s going to wade out into the lake to kill the shark that killed his girlfriend.
When Malik appears on the beach to confront the shark, he is inexplicably armed with…wait for it…a spear.  Not some improvised steak knife on a broom handle affair, but a professional-looking socketed spearhead on a respectable shaft.  In fact, it looks a great deal like the Cold Steel Assegai.  Now where did he get that?  Who keeps a spear in their cabin on the lake?  I’ve got a few around the house, but I’m probably something of an exception.  It’s implausibly convenient, and it also plays to the image of African Americans as being not so far removed from spear-carrying tribal warriors or pastoralists.  The “spearchucker” image has itself been mocked in at least one recent zombie horror film, Day of the Dead (2008) in which a (white) character, Bud Crain compliments an African-American character on his improvised melee weapon.  “Sweet spear.”  To which the black guy, Salazar, replies, “You see a black man with a sharp stick and it's supposed to be a spear?”

Allegories of race relations have been an integral part of the Planet of the Apes film franchise from the beginning.  The film, shot in the 1960s, echoed the era’s rising consciousness about race relations in its depictions both of the apes’ treatment of humans, and within ape society itself.  ”Race-related class distinction was also in evidence in the first film, as it presented an ape society where the paler orangutans held the high-ranking positions of power, while the darker-skinned gorillas did the more menial tasks in ape society, which included the fighting of its wars.“  The sequel Conquest of the Planet of the Apes shows a human society in which apes, used as slave labor, rise in revolt against their masters.  Despite the uncomfortable comparison of apes with human slaves, the parallels to the civil rights movement are undeniable.

In this year’s reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, however, the issue isn’t handled quite so delicately.  For the most part, the issue is ignored.  The apes in Rise are not the intelligent slaves from Conquest, but are clearly ordinary animals, and their conditions speak less to slavery and human trafficking (which is still going on, by the way) and more to animal rights.  There is a prominent black character, but his role (of a greedy corporate executive) is a stereotypically white one, and the casting could easily have been colorblind.

A problem of prejudice reveals itself in the most recent film not in its portrayal of human characters, but in its portrayal of the apes.  As in the earlier films, the film’s single gorilla is portrayed as much more aggressive and violent than the chimpanzee characters.  In reality, chimpanzees can be quite violent, both in the wild and in captivity.  (A 1998 observation of killer chimpanzees in Uganda has fueled the debate over the origins of human warfare.)  On the other hand, gorillas are generally peaceful, despite longstanding myths about them being violent.  (These myths were finally disproven by Dian Fossey (portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in the film Gorillas in the Mist.)  The perpetuation of the myth of the violent gorilla is a carry-over from the first Apes film, in which gorillas are a dim and aggressive warrior caste in service of the ruling chimps and orangutans.  (To be fair to the original author and filmmakers, Fossey was only beginning her research on gorillas at the time Planet of the Apes was written and filmed, and her findings would not become widely known for some time.)  In a perverse punctuation to Fossey’s defense of the gorillas’ peaceful nature, she was killed in 1985, her skull split open with a machete by a far more violent species of primate.  That species was her own.

It would be easy to dismiss the unfair portrayal of gorillas as dumb and violent as mere movie sensationalism, a tradition dating back at least as far as King Kong, and having nothing to do with human racism.  However, the gorilla in Rise is named Buck, an unfortunate choice considering that this was the former term used in the antebellum South for a male slave.  The term was used after Reconstruction as “Black Buck,” a term used to refer to black men who, according to the whites using the term, “absolutely refused to bend to the law of white authority and were irredeemably violent, rude, and lecherous…usually muscular or tall…who defies white will and is largely destructive to American society.”  This stereotype is typified by the character of Gus in Birth of a Nation, who attempts to chase down and rape a white woman.

Considering the legacy of the previous Apes films, the use of the name Buck for the gorilla in Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a bold decision.  It could have been used meaningfully, for example, to imply racism on the part of the gorilla’s owners (who named him), or to call attention to the fact that both the sterotypes of gorillas, and those of black men, as dumb, violent brutes, are unfair, obsolete myths.  All it would have taken was a character saying, “That’s a fucked up name,” or something like that.  Instead, it just read as careless.

Both Shark Night and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes deal (or don’t deal) with issues of race in ways that are negligent, irresponsible, and ill-considered.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Movies not specifically dealing with race, meant for a general audience, and intended as lowbrow popular entertainment, can nevertheless be responsible in their representations of minority characters.  Released in 1968, the same year in which the original Planet of the Apes functioned in part as an allegory of race relations, another movie featured a black protagonist in a mainstream heroic role, serving as a leader of a group of white people in a survival situation.  This was the original Night of the Living Dead, in which the character of Ben was played by African American actor Duane Jones.  “The character of Ben was originally supposed to be a crude but resourceful truck driver, with no specification to race. After Duane Jones, in real-life a self-serious, erudite academic, auditioned for the part, director and co-writer George A. Romero re-wrote the part to fit his performance.”

In hindsight, it is easy to read all sorts of social commentary into the film:  set in 1968, having an African American man hole up in a house with a white woman, and in fact acting as a de facto leader of a group of white survivors (when at the same time, in the real world, an economic draft was sending thousands of young men of color to be ordered to their deaths, by white leaders, in Vietnam) was very much ahead of its time.  The ending, in which a posse of ignorant rural whites on a mission to exterminate the ghouls, shoot Ben in the head, unaware or unconcerned that he was in fact alive and uninfected, can be seen as an indictment of the lynching of blacks for imagined crimes (for example, the Emmit Till case).  In reality, however, the directors merely chose the best actor for the part.

Fred Andrews’ 2011 film Creature, no relation to the 1985 Alien ripoff, is a similar example of a movie in which an African American actor excels at a role which contains no racial specifics.  Mehcad Brooks plays Niles, an ex-Navy SEAL who ends up imperiled along with his friends by a mutant killer.  Despite run-ins with a group of inbred locals (the stereotype of rural whites as violent and incestuous is unfortunately perpetuated here), race simply doesn’t come up.  There is a friendly rivalry between the Marine and the SEAL, and a more serious conflict between xenophobic rural residents and the drive-through tourist kids, but race isn’t brought into the equation.

Mehcad Brooks is entirely believable in his role; during the film I thought he looked a bit young to be a SEAL, but in fact Brooks was born in 1980, making him about 30 years old at the time of filming, and the average age in a SEAL platoon is 28, so he’s actually just about right.  (Real SEALs don’t have Hollywood makeup artists making them look beautiful, though.)  Casting Brooks to play the role of Niles not only paired an excellent actor with a role for which he was well-suited, it also called attention to a problem, not with the film, but with the real world.

While African Americans and other minorities are in fact over-represented in the armed forces as a whole (34%), relative to their proportion of the population (28.5%), they are seriously under-represented in special operations units such as the Navy SEALs (only 11% minorities.)  The US Navy is working on the problem, however, and is actively seeking minority candidates for the SEALs.  By choosing not to shy away from minority actors in roles like this one, filmmakers can not only benefit themselves by getting the best actor for the role, they can also help to highlight the opportunities available to young black men in prestigious real-life occupations, whether in the military or in other fields.

Jeriah Hildwine was born in San Diego, CA, in 1979.  He received his BA in Studio Art and History from Humboldt State University in 2002, and his MFA in Painting from the Hoffberger School of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2007.  He is a painter, with an exhibition scheduled for February 2012 at Linda Warren Gallery; he also writes art criticism for Art Pulse, Art Talk Chicago, Bad at Sports and Chicago Art Magazine.  Jeriah lives and works in Chicago, Illinois, with his wife Stephanie Burke.

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  • Jeriah - In your sixth full paragraph you (seem to) rely upon a two-part division between orangutans (fair) and gorillas (dark) within the fictional society constructed by Franklin J. Schaffner in his 1968 film adaptation of Pierre Boulle's 1963 novel "La Planète des singes."

    How do you account for the third "race"-- the "race" of chimpanzees--who are not fair-skinned but are invested with scholarly prowess, serving as their society's scientists? Was it not the case that while the gorillas did exercise force, the orangutans relied upon fraud in order to maintain their own power?

    To the extent that virtue is available within the film's characters, it seems not present in either the gorillas or the orangutans. And the humans, for their part, are revealed to have caused their own destruction; at best they're tragic. It is, I would argue, the chimpanzees, especially as played by Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter, who are (portrayed as) heroic.

    If the (1968) film is one of a number of "Allegories of race relations," then who do you reckon its chimpanzees to be?

  • In reply to paulgermanos:

    Paul: Thanks for a great question. I have included my reply into a follow-up article which is scheduled to post first thing Monday morning. Thanks again!

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