Race has always had a complicated relationship with Hollywood, from Sidney Poitier famously stating, “They call me Mister Tibbs!” to #OscarsSoWhite to that kiss on Star Trek between William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols. While the film industry has occasionally taken the progressive lead on important social issues, such as race equality, it has just as often screwed that up, presenting racial stereotypes for the sake of a joke or a scare or an overused cliché.
And it’s not just the ‘crappy’ movies that do this. Sure, we’ll always have The Love Guru, White Chicks, Soul Man, and basically every one of Rob Schneider‘s flicks, but some of Hollywood’s greatest films have also had their share of racist moments. Some can be blamed on ignorance or the culture of the time, but others are downright malicious.
I could probably fill this entire list up with Disney movies, but I’ve limited myself to four to make room for other classics, ranging from action-adventures to teen dramas to a whole bunch of films that didn’t seem to understand that slavery was a bad thing.
Fortunately, 2016 is looking a little better for racial equality in Hollywood. Nate Parker stole the title The Birth of a Nation from D.W. Griffith’s ultra-racist, pro-KKK silent film and applied it to his Civil War-era drama about Nat Turner, a slave turned revolutionary, who led a rebellion against his oppressors. But to remind us all why such movies are needed, here are fifteen racist moments in classic films.
15. Fantasia (1940)
Fantasia consists of eight animated stories set to classical music and has become increasingly acclaimed over the years. The third segment, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, even inspired a live-action version of the same name in 2010 starring Nicholas Cage and Jay Baruchel.
Set to the Pastoral Symphony by Beethoven, the sixth segment depicts creatures from classical mythology, including cupids, centaurs, and fauns, gathering for a festival in honor of the god of wine. Your typical cartoon setting. During the procession scenes, a black centaurette can clearly be seen polishing the hooves of two white centaurettes, reflecting the worst racist stereotypes of the film’s era.
14. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Audrey Hepburn‘s portrayal of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s came at the height of her career. Based loosely on Truman Capote’s novella of the same name, the movie garnered Hepburn her fourth Academy Award nomination and cemented her place in history as a fashion icon.
While Hepburn’s famous “little black dress” has stood the test of time, Mr. Yunioshi, played by comedy legend Mickey Rooney, has not. Meant to be an over-the-top supporting character, all Rooney’s performance did was perpetuate outrageous stereotypes of Japanese-Americans. And as if the angry, buck-toothed Yunioshi wasn’t offensive enough, he was made all that much worse by having a white actor in yellowface play the role.
At the time of Breakfast at Tiffany’s release, audiences and critics didn’t seem to be bothered by Rooney’s performance, but the movie has come under plenty of fire in recent years. In 2008 a screening of the film had to be canceled after protests led by the Asian American Media Watch.
13. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
Whether or not Episode I of the Star Wars franchise should be on this list is questionable. Not because its racism is debatable. Not at all. More because not everyone would agree with calling the most reviled of George Lucas’ creations a “classic film.”
The Phantom Menace is full of problems, not the least of which is its prevalent racial stereotypes, primarily found in the slew of supporting, muppet-esque, CGI characters.
For example, Jar Jar Binks’ biggest fault might just be that he’s annoying as hell, but that doesn’t detract from the problematic Caribbean caricature he embodies. Even though both George Lucas and Ahmed Best, the actor who played Jar Jar, have denied any racial connection to the character, several critics have noted his similarities to Rastafarian stereotypes and blackface minstrels.
And when it comes to Watto, the junk dealer who owns Anakin and his mother, it’s like someone forgot to tell Lucas and his team that anti-Semitism isn’t okay. The hook-nosed, gravelly, greedy slave owner played on so many negative Jewish stereotypes that some reviewers even saw parallels between Watto and the pro-Nazi propaganda films released by the Hitler regime around the time of the Holocaust.
12. You Only Live Twice (1967)
Ah yes, everyone’s favorite playboy spy. In Sean Connery‘s fifth outing as James Bond, however, it isn’t his misogyny or cavalier violence that raised eyebrows, but the film’s insensitive handling of race throughout the story.
You Only Live Twice finds 007 hunting down the infamous SPECTRE organization in Japan, which, of course, lands him in the sights of not one, but two, exotic Japanese women. And while Bond’s typically sleazy exchanges with these characters is only amplified by their racial undertones, they’re far from the worst part.
As part of a scheme to avoid SPECTRE assassins, Bond marries undercover agent Kissy Suzuki in a traditional Japanese ceremony. And of course, in order to do that, Bond is forced to undergo a laughable yellowface transformation in order to pass himself off as a Japanese man. It’s hard to tell what’s worse about the whole fiasco: the blatant racism or the really crappy disguise.
11. The Jazz Singer (1927)
The Jazz Singer is easily one of the most important and influential films in the history of cinema, being the first feature-length to incorporate synchronized sound into its production. The advent of live dialogue sequences ushered in the age of “talkies” and effectively ended the silent film era.
It’s unfortunate, therefore, that such a significant movie spends so much of its time focused on a character in blackface. Jack Robin, the titular jazz singer, almost exclusively performs his songs in makeup that darkens his skin and exaggerates the size of his lips– features meant to imitate the stereotypical African-American look.
At the time, blackface was common in cinema, and in recent years some scholars and historians have argued that The Jazz Singer‘s use of it is relatively innocent, as it parallels Jack Robin’s plight as a man of Jewish heritage.
10. Indiana Jones And The Temple of Doom (1984)
The second installment of the Spielberg-helmed franchise is by far the most violent of the four films and ended up being the catalyst for the invention of the PG-13 rating from the MPAA.
But it isn’t the dark themes or bloody action that make modern audiences cringe. That honor goes to the overwhelmingly negative depiction of Indian people, religion, and culture. One of the famous gross-out sequences of the movie, centres around Indian food consisting of monkey brains and baby snakes. The problem is that neither of these dishes exist in Indian cuisine.
And it doesn’t stop there. The film also butchered Hinduism, inaccurately displaying the goddess Kali as an evil entity, and injecting elements of ancient Aztec and Hawaiian religion into it. In fact, the Indian government felt the content was so offensive that it refused to let the production film in the country, and even put a temporary ban on the movie when it was released.
9. Dumbo (1941)
You might have to dig a little deeper to find the racism in this Disney animated classic. Dumbo follows the adventures of a young elephant who is mocked for his giant ears, which eventually enable him to fly. Somewhere along the way, Dumbo runs into a group of crows who help him learn how to fly. While the crows certainly adhere to some African-American stereotypes, they are intelligent, sympathetic, and promote self-confidence in the main character. Nothing about their portrayal is particularly negative.
However, once you learn that the lead crow was voiced by a white actor, it becomes less innocent. It’s not as overtly racist as the instances of blackface that show up in other films on this list, but it’s still problematic. To make matters worse, the script names the character Jim Crow after the brutally prejudicial law that made segregation legal until it was repealed in 1965. Something about that doesn’t feel right, does it?
8. Black Hawk Down (2001)
Director Ridley Scott’s gritty war drama, based on the real-life Battle of Mogadishu, is considered by many to be a modern war classic. It was nominated for four Oscars, winning two, and famed sniper Chris Kyle claimed that Black Hawk Down is shown to all special force recruits before they begin “Hell Week” during training.
Almost immediately upon its release, however, the movie was condemned by the Somali Justice Advocacy Centre and called flat-out racist by several movie critics. Black Hawk Down‘s flaw was that it depicted every single Somali in the film as an enemy without character or humanity, reducing the conflict to a battle between white Americans and an evil African enemy.
Not only that, but not a single Somali was actually involved in the production, either in front of the camera or behind it. In fact, none of the actors portraying Somalis look like Somalis or speak the language of the Somalis, which tarnishes the movie’s air of authenticity and reinforces the racist idea that all black Africans are essentially interchangeable.
7. The Littlest Rebel (1935)
What’s this? Racist Shirley Temple? Say it ain’t so! Well, unfortunately it is so.
Set during the American Civil War, The Littlest Rebel features Temple as the daughter of a southern plantation owner, who has to find a way to convince Abraham Lincoln not to execute her father for treason.
While some may not agree with the film’s protagonists being Confederate sympathizers, or the way it portrays the Union army as villainous thugs, those are minor issues compared to its treatment of slaves. They aren’t subjected to torture or abuse; rather, they are depicted as nervous cowards, content with their subservient lifestyle, and terrified of their potential freedom. The only purpose of this characterization is to undergird the racist notion that African-Americans are naturally suited for a life of servitude and actually prefer it over equality.
6. Gone With The Wind (1939)
The Littlest Rebel is far from the only film to depict slaves in this manner. Gone With the Wind, arguably the most popular film since the advent of moving pictures, carries on the tradition of glorifying slavery, even going so far as to mock northern characters who expected to see its horrors in the South, but are unable to find any.
At the time of its release, the major scandal around Gone With the Wind was its use of a swear word in Clark Gable’s famous line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Despite the focus on its profanity, the film still managed to attract protests over its handling of race, specifically concerning its unapologetic illustration of slavery as a happy institution.
In theory, the film could have been worse. The novel it is based on spews out N-words like a Quentin Tarantino flick and spends a little too much time focusing on the Ku Klux Klan. Fortunately, producer David O. Selznick had the good sense not to include those elements.
5. Sixteen Candles (1984)
John Hughes’ directorial debut set the template for the kind of movie he’d become known for: eighties teen comedies about upper-middle class kids dealing with the sorts of problems upper-middle class kids deal with. Starring frequent collaborators Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall, Sixteen Candles tells the story of Samantha, a high-school sophomore, on her sixteenth birthday.
It also contains one thing Hughes was lucky enough not to become known for: a horribly racist depiction of an Asian exchange student. Named Long Duk Dong and speaking in comically stilted English, he was frequently the butt of the movie’s cruelest jokes.
Hughes, unlike some of the other directors on this list, was smart enough not to add to the offense by throwing some white guy in yellowface for the role, and instead cast Gedde Watanabe, an American actor of Japanese descent. Nonetheless, “the Donger” provided an arsenal of Hollywood-sanctioned racial abuse for douchebag teenagers to heap upon their Asian classmates for years to come after the film’s release.
4. Song Of The South (1947)
Song of the South has a number of claims-to-fame: it was the first Disney movie to incorporate live action segments, it’s the inspiration for Disney World’s Splash Mountain ride, and it’s considered so racist that it was never made available on home video in North America.
Like many films of the 1930s and 1940s, including the aforementioned Gone With the Wind, Song of the South’s biggest fault is that it portrays the racial segregation of the Civil War era as some sort of twisted paradise.
Maybe it wouldn’t be quite so reprehensible if it wasn’t presented as part of a morality tale for children. But for some reason, dispensing racism in between cutesy animations and life lessons makes it even more uncomfortable to watch. And it kind of ruins Splash Mountain too.
3. Avatar (2009)
The most recent movie on this list has been hailed as one of the greatest pieces of technological innovation in cinematic history. It pioneered modern 3D films and expanded the possibilities of motion capture and CGI beyond anything ever seen prior.
It also suffers from the ‘white savior’ narrative, a sadly common storytelling device in Western film. The Last Samurai, Dances With Wolves, Lawrence of Arabia, and dozens of other films have played into this trope, which sees a white person rescuing a group of conspicuously non-white people from whatever trouble they’re in.
In James Cameron’s over-hyped, sci-fi adventure, Sam Worthington plays Sully, a former Marine who befriends the Na’vi, the humanoid natives of a planet recently discovered by mankind. Of course, since the low-tech Na’vi are outmatched in battle by their superior colonizers, good ol’ Sully is forced to lead them to victory. It doesn’t even really matter that the Na’vi are giant blue aliens; the real-world parallels are obvious.
2. Peter Pan (1953)
Yet another entry from Disney.
Based on J.M. Barrie’s beloved play, Peter Pan romps through Neverland with pirates, mermaids, fairies, and man-eating alligators. Children can sing along to tunes such as “You Can Fly!” and “A Pirate’s Life” and… “What Made the Red Man Red?”…
Maybe a musical number that makes fun of a certain racial group’s skin color isn’t the best thing to be teaching our kids. While the vast majority of Peter Pan is fun and innocent, its treatment of Native Americans, which includes some of the main characters hunting them like animals, is extremely disturbing.
1. The Birth Of A Nation (1915)
The Birth of a Nation has often been called the most influential movie in film history. D.W. Griffith’s two hour epic silent film broke new ground in the art form, pioneering narrative concepts and camera techniques that helped turn filmmaking into a serious medium.
It has just one little problem: it happens to be a propaganda piece for the Ku Klux Klan based on a novel titled The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan by Thomas F. Dixon, Jr.. There isn’t one lone moment or particular aspect of The Birth of a Nation that happens to be racist; the entire movie is drenched in the KKK’s philosophy, and is only rivalled in its racism by Nazi propaganda films such as The Eternal Jew and Triumph of the Will. In fact, The Birth of a Nation is credited with instigating a revival in the KKK and the white supremacist group reportedly used it as a recruitment tool for decades after its release.
The film just doesn’t get any more racist than that.
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