Some Reflections on Race

by popegrutch

I’ve been writing this blog now for about a week, and I’m enjoying watching it grow into something interesting. I have big plans! But there are some things I haven’t yet addressed, which seem important. One of these is what century films tell us about the past in terms of racial history. Especially in American films of the period, one is sometimes brought up short by attitudes and images that would simply not be acceptable in polite society today. Seeing these movies reminds us that there was a time when the words and images we used to describe other people were rather more blunt than they are now.

In one sense, it can be good to be reminded how things have changed. Seeing a white man in blackface actually shocks us today; it didn’t then. It seems to me as if this is more true of race than, for example, gender relations, which often seem quaintly familiar to us in century films (but that’s a subject for a future blog post). We’re less likely to be shocked where less progress has happened. But, it isn’t enough to look down on our ancestors for having such primitive attitudes; part of the point of this blog is to remind us that these movies are a part of our common heritage, and the disturbing truth is that racism is a part of that heritage.

But, it isn’t the intention of this blog to simply ignore that, either. Earlier today I posted a review of Griffith’s “The Avenging Conscience,” which didn’t address the racialized character of “The Italian,” who was added to the story with no precedent from Poe. Every mention of Griffith alludes to his famous 1915 celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, “Birth of a Nation,” which, due to its release date, I get to wait a year before addressing. But we all know it’s there. What do we do with it?

I’m still looking for answers. I’ve found some of the historical reflections on DVDs about standards then and now to be informative, and I’ll try to include that as I write the reviews. It’s all too easy to let something like this become invisible, to let discussions of heritage be simplistic celebrations, devoid of analysis of the harder issues. For now, this post represents a humble attempt to open the discussion. You’re invited to comment, and I’ll see if I can think of more to say as I proceed.