So it's no wonder we can't have an intelligent, thoughtful discussion about whether racism persists in movies. Muddying the waters further is a recent list from Complex.com entitled 'The 50 Most Racist Movies (You Didn't Think Were Racist).' It's a deliberately provocative (and often tongue-in-cheek) list that mixes genuine incidents of bad-faith movie racism with instances of mere lazy and thoughtless stereotyping and even some films that might not be racist at all but simply touch upon inflammatory topics.
Complex doesn't really distinguish among these, knowing that such vagueness is bound to spark arguments and draw Web traffic. Still, the list does perform two useful functions: it classifies the various kinds of racial stereotyping that have been common throughout Hollywood history, and it forces the questions of what really constitutes racist imagery, how far have we come since more overt racism was acceptable in movies and how far do we still have to go.
Selections on a list like this are made to be quibbled with. Note that the qualifier in parenthesis specifies movies "you didn't think were racist." That eliminates obviously racist movies like 'Birth of a Nation,' 'Gone With the Wind' or 'Mandingo' (and should eliminate some others, like 'Song of the South,' which should have been too blatant to land at No. 9). But it also suggests that the listmakers are often seeing racism where there may not be any. Movies like 'Falling Down' (No. 43) and 'White Dog' (No. 42) are clearly anti-racist in intent, but merely to present a violent disenfranchised white guy villain or a dog being deprogrammed of its training to attack black people seems so likely to press people's buttons that Complex calls them racist in effect anyway. On the other hand, an anti-racist movie like 'Soul Man' (No. 3) is so ineptly executed and full of stereotypes (indulging in them even as it aims to debunk them) that its failure also makes it appear racist.
It's also possible for otherwise good movies to be marred by isolated caricatures. 'Sixteen Candles' is a modern classic, but the cringe-worthy Long Duk Dong lands it all the way up at No. 5. Everyone loves 'Breakfast at Tiffany's,' but the movie does contain the irredeemable (and utterly superfluous) yellowface performance by Mickey Rooney as a bucktoothed, l-and-r-mangling Japanese photographer. Complex thinks this makes 'Tiffany's' the most racist movie (you didn't know was racist) on the entire list.
It's easy to pick apart the list's occasionally mystifying selections and flawed reasoning (we'll let the good folks at Movieline do that), but a more constructive way to look at this list is to note the classification system Complex came up with. It divides racist movies into several categories that have deep roots in Hollywood history. One category is movies that contain performances like Rooney's, in which a white actor impersonates a character of another race, usually in an unflattering way. This includes movies like 'Soul Man,' 'Krippendorf's Tribe' (No. 12) and "every Rob Schneider movie" (No. 8). The flip side of this is movies that take admirable non-white characters and make them white. (Most notorious recent offender is '21,' listed at No. 30, whose real-life protagonists were mostly Asian-Americans.)
There are the "White Knight" fantasies, movies where a group of non-white characters is curiously dependent on a white outsider to save them from harm. (Examples Complex cites include 'The Last Samurai' at No. 26, 'Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls' at No. 24 and 'Dangerous Minds' at No. 17.) Conversely, there are the "Heart of Darkness" movies, named for the Joseph Conrad story, in which a white hero immerses himself in a foreign culture only to find savagery and horror, as in 'Black Hawk Down' (No. 27) or 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' (No. 15).
But the most common category, one that includes more than half the movies on the list, is simple stereotyping and caricature, creating racial characters who are no more than a collection of supposedly typical group traits. Movies included here are as varied as 'Major League' (No. 29, with the Voodoo-practicing Cuban ballplayer), 'Bringing Down the House' (No. 28, with the sassy African-American woman who's an earth mother/life coach to the troubled white characters) and 'Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace' (No. 11, with that shuffling minstrel Jar Jar Binks).
Does a movie's presence in one or more of these categories mean the film is racist? Not necessarily; it could just mean the screenwriter or director is being lazy and unimaginative, resorting to easy shorthand instead of bothering to create well-rounded and fully human characters or narratives that transcend cliché. It's important, however, for filmmakers to realize that these kinds of stories and characters have a long history in Hollywood, that audiences with an awareness of film history recognize the tainted past that informs such imagery, and that these are therefore traps that vigilant filmmakers will take care to avoid.
The most prominent recent example is 'Avatar,' which goes unmentioned on Complex's list. Many critics and viewers noted that the story started out as a "Heart of Darkness" tale and became a "White Knight" fantasy, and they saw elements of stereotype and caricature in the way that the Na'vi, the movie's people of color, are portrayed. Does that mean that 'Avatar' is racist? Not necessarily, but James Cameron is guilty of lazy writing, of falling back on tired plots and clichéd character shorthand, of using story elements that have a racist history.
Intent and execution are both important. Why is it wrong for Schneider to play a variety of ethnicities, while it's okay for Alfred Molina or Tony Shalhoub to do so? (Maybe because Schneider specializes in ridiculous caricatures, while Molina and Shalhoub do not.) Is 'Pulp Fiction' (No. 39) racist because Quentin Tarantino uses the n-word several times? I asked 'Pulp' star Samuel L. Jackson about this once, and he said it's okay to use the word in a movie if you know how, and that Tarantino knows how. (Apparently, that means the right way is to use it so incessantly that it becomes absurd and is therefore drained of all meaning, including racist intent.)
A list like the Complex countdown runs the risk of trivializing real racism when it jumbles it with images that are merely foolish and insensitive, and that's a dangerous risk at a time when many moviegoers and filmmakers seem to think that racism has been safely eradicated from both the movies and real life. It hasn't, and no one should be afraid to point that out. To the extent that this list fosters discussion about what is still offensive and why, and offers us tools to analyze racially problematic characters and stories, the provocateurs at Complex may unwittingly be doing us all a favor.