In this new millennium, and with the first black President of the United States, it’s becoming acceptable to discuss “white people” as a distinct culture, beyond the usual references to colonialism, racism, slavery, and “the Man.” (1)
Pat Buchanan was an outlier, decrying the decline of white civilization in the books The Death of the West and State of Emergency, as well as 2011’s Suicide of a Superpower. Another noted white conservative, Charles Murray, has published Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. It fell to an African-American historian, Nell Irvin Painter, to write The History of White People (2011), but now that the subject is broached, there will be more books.
Elsewhere in pop culture, an anti-bullying PSA includes a white student in its diversity rainbow: “Don’t hate me because I’m white.” In comedy, the differences between races (or ethnicities) has become as much a comedy staple as gender differences; in early 2012, Saturday Night Live imagined a reality series titled “White People Problems.”
The above references are all non-fiction, or at least self-conscious. Less obvious is the effect of ethnic shifts on fictional films and Television. Motion pictures are still relatively expensive to produce, and their financers tentative regarding scripts that openly address such subject matter.
In the U.S., major-network TV shows seem especially far from reality, most taking place in a very white America, often with the token (or two) non-white character, the formula familiar since the 1980s. ABC’s hit sitcom Modern Family is a non-stop celebration of white diversity, and a good example of the now-common tactic of including a Latino (in this case, played by voluptuous Sofia Vergara), South Asian, or mixed-race character rather than an African-American. Meanwhile, (so-called) reality shows have become notorious for trading in base stereotypes of every kind.
Financially, this situation is understandable. In a fragmenting world with dozens of video choices, the major networks must “play to their base” which remains white adults, especially the older adults who see the Internet as information, not entertainment. The major networks can point to the existence of cable and other options whenever they need to defend their apparent bias.
Still, if we look beyond the surface, network shows betray the demographic shifts that seem to be changing the West. With their dreamlike subject matter, fantastic TV series (fantasy, horror, and science fiction) can be revelatory. For example, the last 20 years have seen a number of series that seem to portray a white exile, a kind of third white exodus (following the Jews from Egypt and Europeans to the New World): Star Trek: Voyager, Earth 2, Dinotopia, the Stargate franchise, Battlestar Galactica, Taken, Terra Nova.
Otherwise, recent fantastic series are set in the kind of alternate-present pioneered by The X-Files. Critically and commercially, Lost is the most successful of these. It probably isn’t coincidence that one of its central plot points was recycled by the theatrical blockbuster Inception (2010). (Indeed, Inception could be described as Lost for people who only have 2 and ½ hours.)
Lost and Inception are science-fiction fables, both pivoting on the transport of the corpse of a white patriarch from Australia to Los Angeles. In Lost, Dr. Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) struggles mightily to transport the remains of his estranged father Christian. In Inception, the son is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), who has lost father Maurice, thus inheriting Maurice’s global energy corporation. In both cases, the names imply a savior.
Despite being nearly free of black actors, Inception saves its clearest rationale for a black African, who insists that Fischer’s mega-corp be broken up before its dominance wrecks the world economy. (The recent trial of Aussie Rupert Murdoch added to the resonance.) The protagonists, led by suggestively named Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), are hired to drug Robert, enter his dreams, and plant the idea to break up the company, but Fischer fils must believe it was his idea from the start (i.e., they need an immaculate inception).
There are further similarities: in Inception, Maurice Fischer is a cold father who’s allowed a scoundrel to become his right-hand. In Lost, Jack’s father is a judgmental alcoholic (he’s been keeping secret an Australian daughter, Jack’s half-sister). In both stories, the surviving son must learn to succeed without his father’s ruthlessness, learn that surrender can be a greater victory than worldly power and wealth.
What does this overlap mean? This writer’s unpacking: white supremacy is dying. The current generation of white adults must let it go and supervise a peaceful transition to a better, more just world. Both Jack Shephard and Maurice Fischer let go of their (white) birthright for the good of the multi-racial group, the former for plane crash survivors in limbo, the latter for the population of Earth.
Why Australia? Well, Oz makes a neat signifier of white supremacy and colonialism, at least for those of us who’ve never set foot there. Despite the jocular image held by much of the world (“shrimp-on-the-barbie-mate,” etc.), Australia was one of the last nations to overtly practice white supremacy, with oppressive policies toward aborigines lasting into the 1980s.
Australia has been a relatively popular setting for post-apocalypse movies: On the Beach (1959), The Last Wave (1977), and the Mad Max franchise (The Quiet Earth (1985) is set in New Zealand). Whether we care to admit it or not, part of the reason is that as a remote (if rugged) island with a low population density, Australia would be a natural sanctuary for a future, beleaguered white race in search of a homeland, a white-Christian Israel.
This idea recurs in pop culture:
- In his 1972 satirical song “Political Science,” Randy Newman pleads that the U.S. “drop the big one” because the rest of the world “hates us anyway,” but let’s save Australia for a “giant American theme park.”
- In 1975, Steely Dan described preparing for an apocalyptic “Black Friday”: “I’ll fly down to Musswellbrook” where “they’ll be nothing to do but feed all the kangaroos.”
- In Superman II (1980), super-villain Lex Luthor assists alien villains in the hope that he’ll be given control of Australia.
It’s worth noting that Down Under can also evoke both the past and the future: it still has a frontier, but from an American point of view it’s tomorrow in Australia. (Barack Obama was born at the halfway point, Hawaii.)
There are other, lesser known films that seem to throw Australia’s symbolic weight. In Holy Smoke (1999), Kate Winslet plays an Australian whose family “rescues her” from a supposed cult in India. She’s confined to an Outback hut with an expert deprogrammer (Harvey Keitel), but in this feminist film, it’s the vibrant woman who cures the aging man of his outdated, Western attitudes. Romper Stomper (1992) is a sort of “Australian History X”; at the end, Russell Crowe impotently rages at his skinhead friends at land’s end, while Asian tourists snap photos. Other white reactionaries run out of land at the end of Dirty Harry (1971) and Falling Down (1993).
Hollywood studios still avoid films that treat whites and blacks as equals in both humanity and screen time. In past decades, movies that did so labored to show how “ebony and ivory” could respect, even like each other: The Defiant Ones (1959), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Silver Streak (1976), 48 Hours (1982), Trading Places (1983), and Lethal Weapon (1987). This format climaxed, as it were, with popular stories of interracial love/lust: The Bodyguard (1992), Jungle Fever (1991). (It’s possible this line survives in a subsequent group of family films about bicoloured animals: Dalmations, killer whales, zebras, penguins, panda bears, lemurs.)
In recent years, dramatic movies that foreground race risk being trite: see Saturday Night Live’s withering parody of the action film Unstoppable (2010). This peril has helped to inspire a trend of esoteric, existential Oscar-bait movies: Six Degrees of Separation (1993), Far From Heaven (2002), Babel (2006), Black Snake Moan (2006).
On a more commercial track are movies that sell a conflict that isn’t really about race, as in Black Hawk Down (2001) and Training Day (2001), Changing Lanes (2002), The Last King of Scotland (2006), and many of the films of Quentin Tarantino. As ever, outright ethnic turf-wars are rare at the movies (if attractive to Oscar-voters): the controversial Crash (2005), The Brave One (2007) and No Country for Old Men (2007), Gran Torino (2008), and many of the films of Spike Lee. They’re rare on television, too: The Wire, House of Lies. As these titles indicate, many U.S. films about race involve two of our least-segregated activities, law enforcement and driving.
Fortunately for Hollywood profits, narrative movies can mine the drama of racial tensions without including any prominent non-white characters. This caused controversy in the 1980s, but Mississippi Burning (1988) and Cry Freedom (1987) were just an update of Hollywood’s default formula for race-themed movies, from The Searchers (1956) to The Blind Side (2009). When these films work, we root for modern, sophisticated white characters against twisted (often rural) whites. A complete list would include hundreds of films.
The peak years of the Civil Rights Movement saw a high, hard wave of these films, including The Night of the Hunter (1955), 12 Angry Men (1957), Man of the West (1958), Psycho (1960), Cape Fear (1962) and In Cold Blood (1967). Arguably, the racially charged period of early 1990s (the Clarence Thomas hearings, the Rodney King beating and ensuing L.A. riots, the O.J. Simpson trial) triggered another wave: 1993 gave us Cliffhanger and the start of the John Grisham film franchise (The Firm and The Pelican Brief), then Speed and Waterworld (1994 and 1995, both with Dennis Hopper as villain), Broken Arrow and The Rock (both 1996, both concerning stolen military ordinance), and Pleasantville (1998).
At the same time, with the rise of political correctness, a further tactic was developed for action movies. Since P.C. frames a white hero who seems merely American (let alone British) as an Ugly Imperialist, action heroes often have a Celtic surname, and fight Aryan villains (implied neo-Nazis), as in Dirty Harry (and sequels), Highlander (1986), the Die Hard films, the Tom Clancy-based Jack Ryan franchise, and Braveheart (1995).
The Celtic hero became so inevitable that it was parodied by at least two comedy institutions: The Simpsons gave us McBain, played by a fictionalized Arnold Schwarzenegger ; Saturday Night Live gave us the hapless MacGruber! Despite its cliché status, this formula lives on, as in the recent films of Liam Neeson. Just a decade ago, it seemed that Hollywood’s new action stars would be biracial and pseudonymous: Vin Diesel and The Rock. Instead, aging white actors continue to take the biggest action roles: Nicholas Cage, Matt Damon, Robert Downey, Jr., Viggo Mortensen.
In the early 1960s, Psycho and Cape Fear also prepared audiences for the still-popular subgenre of “rural horror.” Tellingly, most of the 1970s prototypes have recently been remade or sequelised: Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Straw Dogs. Rural horror, in turn, overlaps with another revived strain of horror/science fiction, the viral-plague narrative. Because of their fantastic storylines, viral films can make their villains paler-than-white, and that includes most of our screen vampires and zombies, although an interesting distinction has manifested.
Vampires usually represent decadent aristocrats, and tend to be opposed by another race of (populist) mutants. Usually, it’s werewolves, but it can be reformed vampires such as those in the Blade franchise. Zombies, by definition, can only represent an unthinking mob, and thus stand in for whichever demographic tidal-wave the viewer fears most. Traditionally, all three of these monsters are incurable, which distinguishes them from many other curse-victims of folklore.
It is likely that these cycles (neo-rural horror, neo-vampire/zombie) are coming to an end, as subtext becomes text: in Frontier(s) (2007), the rural cannibals are neo-Nazis; racist-vampires met their match in 2012’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; the splash-quote for Glen Duncan’s new werewolf book Talullah Rising (Washington Post review): “Duncan has driven a stake through vampire supremacy.”
Other examples include Harry Potter’s foe Voldemort; Davy Jones of the Pirates of the Caribbean films; the “Pale Man” of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Darth Vader himself, one of the “blackest” villains ever, turned out to be white and shriveled underneath in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983) (on the other hand, when he turned evil in Revenge of the Sith (2005) he was as white as Hayden Christensen).
These pale villains may not be the “white devils” of 1960s rhetoric, but instead the ghosts of racism past, present, future. Some films make the racial analogy overt with an attempt at coexistence, as in Shaun of the Dead (2004), Survival of the Dead (2009), and Daybreakers (2009). The fantasy context even makes pale villains safe for TV: the implacable Borg of the Star Trek franchise; various creatures from The X-Files; the creepy, bald observers on Fringe.
One fantastic subgenre that has always demanded racial analysis: movies about apes (and evolution), notably the King Kong and Planet of the Apes movies. It may be significant that both franchises failed to reboot with men-in-suits, in 1976 and 2001 respectively. The advent of CGI helped make the material acceptable again, with 2005’s Oscar-nominated King Kong (Peter Jackson) and 2011’s top-grossing Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
In Video Watchdog #152, Michael Barrett defined a dominant meta-genre, “Millennial Unreality,” characterized by shifting realities and blended genres. The “ Millennial Unreality” meta-genre broke wide in 1999 with Eyes Wide Shut, Fight Club, The Matrix and The Sixth Sense; it also includes Minority Report (2002), Stranger than Fiction (2006), and almost anything written by Charlie Kaufman. Barrett argues for the “amnesiac hitman” as the archetypal hero of Millennial Unreality (as in Total Recall (1990/2012), Memento (2000) and the Jason Bourne franchise), a symbol of white (Western) ambivalence over their continued imperial dominance.
Building on Barrett’s essay, notice that major directors (most of them white men) have used “Millennial Unreality” to explore the meaning of life and the potentials of the 21st century: in addition to Lost and Inception, this cycle includes 1990s outliers Pulp Fiction (1994), Contact (1997), Dark City (1998), The Truman Show (1998), and most of the films of Terence Malick.
Malick’s The New World (2005) led a portentous rush: The Fall, The Fountain, Lady in the Water, Marie Antoinette and Southland Tales (all 2006) and Youth without Youth (2007), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)and Synecdoche, New York (2008). Note the recurring tropes of exploration and exile, dreams and madness, flashbacks and time-travel, resurrections and redemption.
Although these films draw on magic realism and other aspects of postmodernism, they are mostly hopeful, their message ecclesiastical. If they are quest plots, the questers often desire to lose or avoid something. As for the trippy, dreamy quality, perhaps it’s a recurring nightmare (of racism and exploitation) that must be resolved, so that the world can wake up, and grow up.
In more commercial form, the above story elements turn up in a number of globe-trotting, filthy-rich franchises: Mission: Impossible, The Matrix, Men in Black, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Twilight. The form is also recognizable in dramas (Cast Away (2000), Big Fish (2003), The Descendants (2011)), animation (the Ice Age and Madagascar films, Up (2009)), and chick flicks (The Holiday (2006), Eat Pray Love (2010)).
Aside from people of colour, there may be something else that’s missing from these metaphorical race films: a way forward for the white people watching. There have always been American movies about a white identity crisis, from the “forgotten man” of the 1930s, and then film noir. In the 1950s, we met lost souls such as the Rebel without a Cause (1955), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and The Organization Man (that last echoes in cable-TV’s critical hit Mad Men).
The 1970s gave us movies about women “finding themselves,” but post-feminism, it’s more likely than ever to be a white man who’s struggling to transcend being a stick figure, to be more than the “generic” of the human species: Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Deer Hunter (1978), Zelig (1983), Falling Down (1993), Regarding Henry (1991), Fight Club (1999), WALL-E (2008), The Social Network (2010). These movies appear in all genres, from the consumerist horror of Silence of the Lambs (1991)and American Psycho (2000), to the endless inventory of dumb-white-guy comedies, from Animal House (1978) to Knocked Up (2007). The white-angst subgenre also includes the life-work of David Lynch, Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson, and Neil Labute.
There are some obvious personas for people cut off from their (deep) cultural roots, such as the holdout or throwback, as portrayed in the above-mentioned horror films. Another likely role: the martyr. In American Beauty (1999), Kevin Spacey’s character contracts to a state of peaceful, working-class humility, and is then violently sacrificed; so is Clint Eastwood’s racist-old-man at the end of Gran Torino. These two movies also fit the category of reverse-assimilation.
The reverse-assimilation film has a long history: 1990’s Dances with Wolves was a re-working of a 1957 Samuel Fuller provocation, Run of the Arrow. More recent examples of reverse-assimilation include Wolf (1994), Lone Star (1996), Seven Years in Tibet (1997), The Last Samurai (2003), Traitor (2008), and three from 2009: Avatar, District 9, and Inglourious Basterds.
Most of these films were well-received, and may provide some cine-therapy in shedding our racial resentments and stereotypes. More recently, the dominant persona may be the rogue. In these films, we’re offered white people who are bad-to-the-bone, without necessarily being racist. We’ve had Bad Santa (2003), a Bad Lieutenant sequel, Bad Teacher (2011), and perhaps most significantly, the basic-cable sensation Breaking Bad. This unprecedented series follows a middle-aged chemistry teacher (Bryan Cranston) who reacts to his cancer diagnosis by starting a methamphetamine empire. The protagonist and his young employee have the descriptive last names White and Pinkman.
It may be that all of these badass white folks are a sort of reverse echo of the “perfect negroes” that Sidney Poitier was charged with playing. Certainly, this film trend shows that even for white Americans, it isn’t so easy being bad any more, witness the Sisyphean labours of The Sopranos. While high-profile film and television still fail to give fair time to non-white filmmakers and non-white characters, they are embracing the fact that in a world ruled by the global elite, ethnicity (like language and religion) is declining in significance, as class becomes both essential and invisible.
- This article examines recent English-language films that reflect racial tensions, especially tensions between white Americans and African-Americans. Thus, author disclosure: I‘m a white, middle-aged American. Since my subject is broad, I may have overlooked some important films, but this is intended as an overview of under-explored ground.