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Filmmakers Look Behind Hollywood’s Lens on Race

A group of activist filmmakers combat racism and make change inside and outside Tinseltown.

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Film as Activism

Sometimes, being provoked by a film in the right way can be a good thing. In Hollywood Chinese, Ang Lee (the director of Brokeback Mountain, The Ice Storm, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon among other films) tells Arthur Dong that movies should be provocations. Describing himself as “pretty even-keeled,” Dong offers qualified agreement.

“If people walk out of the theater with angry thoughts in their mind,” Dong argues, “that’s probably not what I want. With all my work, I try to reach a broader audience with issues that may be uncomfortable. I choose not to produce films that preach to the converted. How am I going to talk about racism or homophobia to people who need to hear about them? We’re talking about a film medium that reaches, potentially, millions of people. That’s the power of the medium.”

As a boy in San Francisco, Dong remembers, he was first rocked by that power when he saw Flower Drum Song. He experienced what he calls a “watershed moment” only partly qualified by his later misgivings: “That was the first English-language film I ever saw in the theater, and I saw it in Chinatown, where the film is set, with characters like the people that I knew in my personal life. And of course, Nancy Kwan was forever seared in my mind as a movie icon. And I know that many people in my generation share that feeling, even though there are a lot of problems with that film. It’s a white man’s concoction. But for me, despite misgivings, it’s a film essentially about cultural and generational conflict, and about immigration law and policy.”

Allowing for the difficulty, if not the foolishness, of making monolithic statements about an entire group, Dong says there are three other films likely to be named most often if Chinese Americans are asked about their own watershed moments in cinema: The World of Suzie Wong,Chan Is Missing, and The Joy Luck Club.

“Those are the choices that I think would come up most often. And different people from different interest groups, with different feelings about what life is about, would choose different films. I think it’s too hard to generalize, and I think that’s the problem with racism in this country—we always want that easy answer, that one answer, that dehumanizes the diversity of a particular group. There is no single answer, and when we look for it, that’s where we get into trouble.”

Nancy De Los Santos singles out 1995’s Mi Familia by Gregory Nava as a highlight of Latino representation: “I was the associate producer on that. They wanted to show three generations of a Mexican-American family in a realistic portrayal—not just a positive portrayal. Realistic portrayals mean that Latinos can be the criminals and the heroes and everything in between.”

“Hollywood’s fantasy influenced the world—even natives like me,” Neil Diamond says in Reel Injun. Some of the landmark films that portray indigenous people as fully human, he believes, are Smoke Signals, Once Were Warriors, and Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner).

Sometimes performers have transcended weak material in a way that enables at least some audience members to read positive messages between the lines. An example might be Hattie McDaniel’s performance as Mammy in Gone With the Wind, for which she earned the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Even viewers who reject the character as a stereotype have seen that, as McDaniel plays her, she runs the house with dignity and strength. Many people have found a watershed in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, often said to be the first film in which the black power consciousness of the late 1960s appeared on the screen.

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