American Cinema’s White Supremacy Problem

“I’ve always wondered how anyone who’s not a white man could look at the history of American cinema and see anything they can relate to.”

That’s the thought that drove me to make this video essay. The fact that there is a huge problem in American cinema with diversity is becoming an increasingly hot topic. But I wanted to look at the problem from the perspective of American cinema’s history, rather than where it’s at now.

When I tried to discover why there were so few non-white men in leading roles throughout American cinema’s history, I couldn’t see any alternative reason except that the way American cinema makes villains out of whole groups of people. It’s been done with Germans, black American, Native Americans and most recently arabs, but no matter who the villain is the hero is always the same, or else stands for the same values.

I always hated villains in films, or rather I always hated the idea of “the villain”. I especially remember being a kid watching Aladdin and just not understanding Jafar at all, why he was so evil, what he was trying to achieve. It made no sense to me. And it wasn’t until years later when I started to discover cinema from other countries beyond the US that I started to realise the hero/villain/damsel-in-distress structure for films was not so widely used to tell stories outside the US.

Why did American cinema need this trope, that goes all the way back to The Birth of a Nation? And how had it affected us over the years as it became more commonplace and also more subtle in the way it demonised other ethnicities. The fact that it still happens today is what’s shocking, but I didn’t want to address it in a film that has already been as criticised as American Sniper. It seemed it made more sense to examine a film like Argo, the winner of the Best Picture Oscar in 2013.

Here was a classic example of a racist narrative, and yet the supposedly liberal Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave it a resounding vote of support. I don’t think the Academy are necessarily card carrying racists, but I think the fact that they so willingly rewarded a film with such troubling racial politics begins to explain just how homogeneous American cinema still is.