Making Bigotry A Thing of The Past

As the dust settles from the underwhelming 2019 awards season, it feels like we’ve reached the peak of a trend that’s been creeping up over the past decade: the sense that bigotry is now a thing of the past. Or, more specifically, if you want to make a mainstream prestige film about bigotry — be it racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or any other form — you need to turn back time, and make a period piece.

Period pieces have always been popular in the film industry, particularly in mainstream Hollywood cinema, and often garner prestige and accolades — seven of the past 10 Academy Awards for Best Picture have gone to films set explicitly in the past.[1] Period films take creative skill and investment, often look aesthetically beautiful, and at their heart lies the idea that period films tell stories that are historically important, and worth repeating in the present. Bigotry and discrimination are popular topics of prestige dramas because we want to celebrate the vitality of the human spirit and our ability to fight injustice — overcoming prejudice and finding pride in one’s identity. It’s fulfillingly feel good, and in a world increasingly tilting towards non-stop horror show, it’s comforting to be able to look back and be told that the world can and will get better. But the constant repetition of stories of past bigotry and its defeat reveal a bigger problem in the film industry, where filmmakers, and the studios and financiers who fund their craft, are more eager to talk about the bigotry and discrimination of the past than confront it as it exists today.

The time-honoured traditions of cinematic storytelling mean films tend to focus on triumph over adversity and, as a result, the period bigotry films usually celebrate individual or systemic victories, and landmark moments of proving unjust systems wrong. Implicitly, this tells the audience that the issue, be is racism, sexism, or any other form of discrimination, is now solved. The audience can leave the cinema with a sense of relief, reassured that the world is better now than it used to be, and that we have essentially overcome the societal problems that the film was about. We have left behind the racism of the 80s, the 60s, the 20s, the 1800s and early colonial eras. Sexism was defeated by the brave women (and some men) who took it on in each wave of feminism, and we now live in a world of gender equality. Homophobia was inevitably solved by those who perpetrated it finding out a family member or close friend was queer all along.

2019’s Best Picture winner Green Book (2018) is one of the most obvious and clumsiest examples of this. But Green Book is just one of many period films about racism and its perpetrators released in recent years — others include the KKK in BlacKkKlansman (2018), the Nazis in Where Hands Touch (2019), discriminatory policing policies in If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), the post-war resurgence of the Klan in Mudbound (2017), the antebellum South in 12 Years A Slave (2013), and 1950s segregation in Fences (2016). “Feminist” films tend to look back on landmark moments in history rather than addressing modern sexism, with films like On The Basis of Sex (2018), Suffragette (2015), and Mary Queen of Scots (2018), and prestige films about women of colour are almost exclusively period pieces like Roma (2018), Hidden Figures (2016), and The Help (2012), focusing on the subservient roles that women of colour have been relegated to throughout history.[2] The Imitation Game (2014), The Danish Girl (2015), and Dallas Buyers Club (2013) have all tried to shine a spotlight on homophobia and transphobia of days gone by, while all being directed by straight cis men, and Stonewall (2015) created a fictional white male protagonist to tell the story of a civil rights riot led largely by trans women of colour like Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.

The trend to tell historical narratives of bigotry is not a new one, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. These films often fill gaps in history left by the “victors”, where the stories of those who weren’t straight white men were erased from popular memory and dominant history. Historical narratives of racism and sexism are increasingly being told by those affected by bigotry, rather than those who benefitted from it — accomplished black filmmakers like Spike Lee, Barry Jenkins, Steve McQueen, Ava Duvernay, and Dee Rees have all found critical acclaim in period films about American’s history of racism. Amma Asante (Belle [2013], A United Kingdom [2016], Where Hands Touch [2019]) has made a career out of period films, focusing on black and biracial protagonists written out of history.  In recent years, it has become a faux pas to hire male directors to tell female stories,[3] with successful female actors leveraging their star power to ensure female directors are getting work on films about women. Margot Robbie, Reese Witherspoon, and Oprah Winfrey have all made the jump to producing, championing indie female directors like Cathy Yan, Andrea Arnold, and the all-female directing team of Queen Sugar. Openly queer directors who have previously been confined to telling straight stories are reclaiming their own narratives, with films like Colette (2018) and Love, Simon (2018). In Australia, Sweet Country (2018), The Sapphires (2013), The Nightingale (2019), and Holding The Man (2015) have all told stories of our unique Australian history of bigotry and discrimination. By allowing traditionally marginalised people the space to tell their own histories, minority filmmakers are able to not only bring attention to past injustices but draw attention to how they affect the world we live in today. In Spike Lee’s words, “American TV and American film has a history of dehumanising people of colour, and women too, and homosexuals, so it’s important that we bring more diversity, so we can tell… maybe not rewrite the wrongs but tell more enlightened version of these stories.”

Green Book is an easy target — directed, written, and produced by white men and mired in controversy, it feels more like a film released in the late 90s than 2018. The film frames racism as a personal flaw that needs to be taken on a journey from ignorance to acceptance, rather than a systemic issue that has morphed and shifted with each new generation it affects. But more specifically, it frames this racism as an old-school, in-your-face racism that modern audiences baulk at — racial epithets are used with wild abandon, black characters are refused access to white dining rooms, hotels and toilets. In an early scene, the film’s hero Tony (Viggo Mortensen) throws two drinking glasses in the trash because black workmen had drunk out of them, refusing to even touch the glasses with his bare hands, while his family members refer to the workmen as “eggplants”. By the end of the film, Tony is welcoming Dr Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali) into his home for Christmas dinner and stopping his brother from using a different slur in reference to Dr Shirley – but even this slur, tootsune,[4] is an outdated Chicago Italian slur that most of the audience would not recognise. The disconnect between contemporary understandings of racism and these outdated attitudes allows the white audience to be reassured that they are better than those who came before them, and to leave the cinema with a sense of superiority in identifying blatant racism, knowing what it is and how it is wrong, and in the case where it is used at a joke, laughing at racism rather than with it.

As Green Book weathered wave after wave of controversy, from the Shirley family’s disavowal of the film to writer Nick Vallelonga’s Islamophobic tweets to Viggo Mortensen’s use of the n-word, each new piece of negative buzz surrounding the film felt like a reminder of the insidious ways racism can manifest today, especially when it is dismissed as an easily solvable personal flaw. Perhaps the most unsettling thing was director Peter Farrelly’s habit of referring back to executive producer Octavia Spencer in response to most of the film’s controversies, framing her approval of these decision as a “pass” for questionable decisions, like naming the film after a book that barely appears in it, or showing Dr Shirley eating fried chicken for the first time. Spencer was brought on board when Farrelly realised there were no black women involved in the production, and according to Farrelly, she “backed me a lot of times when I was questioning whether we were doing the right thing.”[5] Compared to the open and violent racism of the 1960s, this seems like a small complaint — Spencer is a major Hollywood power-broker whose name gave Green Book credibility, and her approval was seen as vital to the film’s success. But when Green Book won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the award went to five white male producers.

While Hollywood and the mainstream film industry continues to focus on past bigotry, it allows film, as an industry and a medium, to deny its own involvement in creating the bigoted attitudes of the past that it now seeks to vilify. The attitudes that film now ridicules and criticises have, throughout history, been reinforced by film itself — bigotry was not a joke, it was the unintended co-star of film since its birth as a medium. Birth Of A Nation (1915) perpetuated fears about black violence, and almost a century later, Crash (2004) told us that those black kids you think are car jackers probably are car jackers. And generations of cinema told us, without saying it directly, that white men were the most important figures in the world, taking up centre stage while women and people of colour were only worthy of existing around them: supporting characters without their own interior lives, and only important when they served white male narratives. These attitudes were writ large on cinema screens across the world, welded into the audience’s subconscious. These were films that, for the most part, did not present themselves as political or carrying a “message”, but to quote Boots Riley, “every movie is a message movie. It’s just that most movies have messages that are in lock step with the status quo.” And mainstream film continues to uphold this status quo, not just through the films it makes, but through its hiring practices, its awards seasons, and how it chooses to omit its part in sustaining the bigoted attitudes it presents itself as being antithetical to.

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman feels so powerful because it calls out the role of film in perpetuating racism. From opening with Gone With The Wind (1939) to Kwame Ture’s Tarzan speech to the Klan watching Birth Of A Nation, Lee draws the link between film history and the history of racism in a way that holds Hollywood accountable. And his decision to end the film with footage from the Charlottesville riots continues this accountability, because Spike Lee is not here to reassure you that racism was cured by one undercover operation in the 70s — instead, the audience is confronted with the influence of the KKK in modern politics, and the way that film can lull you into a false sense of security about dangerous figures in history being ridiculous, when they remain powerful today.  

It’s not just art house and independent period films that attempt to rewrite both the history of discrimination and film’s role in it. In 2017, DC’s Wonder Woman became the first female superhero to get her own big budget superhero film, a WWI epic directed by Patty Jenkins.[6] 2019 saw the release of Captain Marvel, Marvel’s first female hero with her own film, set in the 90s and co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Both DC and Marvel have been criticised for taking so long to release female-led films — particularly Marvel, which pushed back the release of Captain Marvel multiple times and released 20 male-led films before Captain Marvel. But by setting these films in the past, the studios get a chance to hit reset. They are effectively able to rewrite their own history by inserting these female character into the past of their own canon, implying that they were there all along — we just didn’t see them until now. Both Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel battle sexism in their debut films, largely from white male authority figures, who either underestimate them or actively seek to control their strength. Captain Marvel’s villain, Yon-Rogg, is a duplicitous mentor who tells her to control her emotions and forcibly restricts her powers while claiming to act in her best interests — when she rejects the limitations he has placed on her, she can literally do anything.  All this has some interesting metatextual implications when you consider both films massively outperformed box office and studio expectations to become full blown cultural phenomenons, despite being pushed back, delayed and assumed to have smaller audiences and less appeal than other (male) superhero films.

But as much as the industry tries to put sexism in the past in its output, it fails to genuinely grapple with its own past and present misogyny. In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the countless revelations of widespread sexual harassment in the industry, Hollywood’s response was to…give an Oscar to a man who has openly admitted to showing his genitals to an unwilling female co-worker, and to heavily award another film directed by an accused sex offender. Reckoning with modern sexism means reckoning with Hollywood’s place in it, and hiring women who can competently tell those stories. Days before production was due to start on Fair and Balanced, a film about Roger Ailes’ persistent sexual harassment of women working at Fox News and the closest we’ve got so far to a “#MeToo movie”, funding was pulled. The film was to be written and directed by an all male team. Even Wonder Woman was produced in association with RatPac Entertainment, the James Packer and Brett Ratner company now embroiled in the Kevin Tsujihara scandal, with suggestions that Packer and Ratner arranged for an actress to sleep with the Warner Bros Entertainment chief to secure a financing deal.

During a now infamous Green Book Q&A, Viggo Mortensen claimed that “no one says [the n-word] anymore”. Putting aside the irony of Mortenson’s use of the slur to claim the word is out of use, this attitude isn’t just dismissive, it’s inaccurate. The Hate U Give (2018), a modern police brutality centered YA adaptation, hit a snag in post production when footage was released online of 23 year old star Kian Lawley using the same racial slur that Mortenson claims is no longer in use. Director George Tillman Jr. had a choice — the film was almost finished, and Lawley publicly apologised and claimed he had grown and learned since the video was taken. If, as suggested in Green Book, racism is an individual flaw that blooms in ignorance, and one that can be cured through personal journeys and working closely with the people you have mocked and oppressed, then it would be fine to leave the film as it was. But instead, the role was re-cast and significant portions of the film were re-shot, because, in Tillman’s words, “If we don’t make ourselves accountable and we don’t hold other people accountable, how can things change?”

When Hollywood continues to only make and elevate films about bigotry that are set in the past, it doesn’t hold itself accountable. We look at our forebears as complicit and bigoted, which gives us the space to tell ourselves that we are better than they were, that we have moved on as a species, and can overcome our faults. And while cinema focuses on the past, it can ignore its role in fostering the attitudes that it now looks back on with disdain. This then becomes yet another bigoted attitude being passively handed down to us by the film establishment, telling us it used to be worse, that it was worse and we’ve fixed it, so stop asking for change. And maybe, in 50 years, we’ll be watching films set in 2019 filled with Trump jokes and Fortnite references, telling us how this was the era when we finally solved bigotry.

[1] 7.6 if you count the first two thirds of Moonlight.

[2] While Hidden Figures celebrates its black female scientists, they were systemically
underpaid and undervalued.

[3] Although the trend of kickstarting a franchise with a female director before switching
to a male director for all other instalments is still alive and well, the most recent
victim being To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018).

[4] Also variously spelled tutsoon and tootsoon.

[5] ‘Doing the right thing’ is a serendipitous word choice, considering Green Book’s awards
season defeat of BlacKkKlansman.

[6] Jenkins is often erroneously described as the first woman to direct a superhero movie -
that honour falls to Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone, which was released in 2008.

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Tansy Gardam is a writer and TV producer who can and will lecture you for hours about the music from all three How To Train Your Dragon films. For an endless barrage of unwanted opinions, check out @tansyclipboard

Tansy Gardam

Tansy Gardam is a writer and TV producer who can and will lecture you for hours about the music from all three How To Train Your Dragon films. For an endless barrage of unwanted opinions, check out @tansyclipboard.