Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
 
American racism on the silver screen
By Colin


Since the comments in my previous posts have gotten into the subject of American racism and attitudes towards the rest of the world, I thought I'd tell you about two recent films I've seen that deal with the subject.

The first is Why We Fight by director Eugene Jarecki, a sort of less-shrill Farenheit 911 that digs into the question of what makes America go to war. The tagline, "It is nowhere written that the American empire goes on forever," is provocative if clumsy. Jarecki makes really good use of footage of Dwight Eisenhower's valedictory Presidential address, in which the former General of the Army identified America's growing military-industrial complex (he coined the term) and its increasing influence on foreign policy as a major threat. One of the most powerful moments in the film is the footage of Eisenhower toting up the cost in human terms of each piece of the American arsenal:

The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.


Jarecki's basic point is that when American Imperialism is exercised with as clumsy and arrogant a hand as Bush's neocons have used, it has consequences. Empires fall, he reminds us, and America is no exception to history. Go see this film.

The second is The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Tommy Lee Jones' directorial debut. It's set on the Texas-Mexico border, and is clearly an expression of what Jones thinks of Americans and their attitudes towards their southern neighbors. To put it bluntly, there are some bastard gringos in the film, and they get what's coming to them (and then some) although there is a measure of redemption by the end. I think Jones, who stars as a bilingual white rancher who honestly cares about the Mexicans who work for him (including Melquiades) makes some good points about just how viciously the Border Patrol treats the "wetbacks" who look to America for opportunity and self-improvement. But despite the film's good intentions, there's a subtle form of racism running through it. While the white American characters run the gamut from decent and honest to stupid and hateful, the Mexicans are universally good. Even the coyote Jones meets in the desert smuggling would-be immigrants to the north is friendly, helpful and surprisingly unavaricious. In fact, the Mexicans wind up being drawn with the crayola colors of a well-intentioned but somewhat ignorant, rich (and yes, liberal) American who fails to see that foreigners also have complex and subtle personalities that aren't all goodness and innocence. Don't get me wrong: you should see this film (unless you don't like violence, since it's pretty rough) and you'll enjoy the gorgeous cinematography along with the surprisingly complicated story. But when you do, ask yourself what Jones really thinks about those brown people his patron character treats so well by speaking their language (and taking them whoring).
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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