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March 3, 2006

Understanding the Other in 2005’s movies

This Oscars season, I think it’s worth noting a significant attempt to pay attention to the portrayal of the Other culture—the African, the Arab, and the Native American. In Hollywood history, it has been popular to portray such cultures as unrecognizable and even villainous. American movies have also commonly used the Other culture as a setting in which the white American hero prospers. Just think of Josh Hartnett in Black Hawk Down or Brendan Fraser in The Mummy.

Collectively, those films have the ultimate effect of ignoring the lives of those “in the background.” 2004’s Hotel Rwanda and 2005’s The Constant Gardener mark the beginning of a turnaround in this tradition. Both films put their emotional emphases on the lives of the African people. Oscar night will feature a number of films with political repercussions, including The Constant Gardener; Brokeback Mountain; and Good Night, and Good Luck. In addition, Syriana, Munich, and King Kong all help to counter damaging cinematic tendencies as old as film itself.

Until Syriana and Munich, Arabs were depicted very poorly in American films. After 9/11, there have been some attempts to recognize Arab or Persian characters; however, they have often fallen short of realism (The House of Sand and Fog). One prime example of a damaging portrayal of an Iranian can be found, surprisingly, in Crash. Crash shows Farhad (Shaun Toub), a recent Iranian immigrant, as a man who reaches his breaking point when he confronts Daniel (Michael Peña), a locksmith who failed to put locks on Farhad’s store door, with a gun at Daniel’s suburban home. Some may justify Farhad’s actions as realistic, because he built up a lot of anger when he was called an “Arab,” as opposed to a “Persian,” and his store was destroyed.

My response would be that I don’t know anybody of any race who, even having experienced Farhad’s traumas, would approach his locksmith’s house with a gun. Yet to filmmaker Paul Haggis, this seems realistic. Why is it alright to assume that Farhad will be overcome with uncontrollable and violent anger? Must Hollywood films still endow Arabs and Persians with such simplistic, unelaborated features?

Filmmakers Stephen Gaghan and Steven Spielberg have surprisingly constructed very human, interesting, and touching portrayals of Arabs in Syriana and Munich, respectively. These films tread in dangerously controversial territory. They do a great job of never simplifying issues but rather further complicating them. In Munich, writers Tony Kushner and Eric Roth omit any expected themes of heroism or simplistic victimization. Instead, they construct the story around the assumption that every character involved is truly human and has honest, justifiable motivations.

Switching spectra, we can look at King Kong as a culturally conscious film that is highly critical of blatant “white dominance.” It is very easy to overlook Kong’s grand comments on anti-colonialism; however, Peter Jackson’s Kong was not just for entertainment value. The film, which makes direct references to Heart of Darkness, revolves around the self-centered Carl Denham (Jack Black) and his ambition to embark upon the dark seas to document, “with moving pictures,” the savage world.

When he arrives, the images of the dark people, their animalistic movements, and their sexual capture and sacrifice of “the white woman” (Naomi Watts) all form a world of fear and misunderstanding to the white man. Though Jackson’s portrayal of the islanders may be construed as racist, it is more appropriate to think of it as self-conscious and self-critical. The giant dark gorilla is the heart of the story, and the failure to understand him becomes the film’s chief agony and dilemma.

The film sides dramatically with this creature of the unknown and tries to give him face. Kong is, after all, a heartbreaking character. In the chaos of New York City, the desperate creature tries to express himself in the only way he knows how—he swats away the fighter planes as if they were bats. There is a great trauma in the misunderstanding of this beautiful, mysterious creature, the Other. His tragic fall from the Empire State Building—the prime symbol of the white man’s arrogance—symbolizes the inability for such a creature to survive amid this Western arrogance, ignorance, and intolerance.

Hollywood has often been an institution that enjoys simplicity. Interestingly, Steven Spielberg is the prime offender of this Hollywood characteristic, endowing the most obvious Orientalist images to Raiders of the Lost Ark.

In 2005, with Munich, we see a different approach to the Other, a different approach to villainy. Here is a film about cultural complexity and irresoluteness. Yes, this year, I’m happy to say I will watch the Oscars knowing that—through the glossy Kodak Theater, past Joan Rivers, through the fancy gowns and artificial advertisements—there is a group of filmmakers who delve deeper than meets the eye.