Film has always served as a platform for delving into crucial but difficult topics like racism. In his new book, a Baylor University English professor explores Hollywood’s good, bad and ugly moments when it comes to race.
Greg Garrett teaches classes in film, creative writing, literature and theology at Baylor. In his latest book, A Long, Long Way: Hollywood's Unfinished Journey from Racism to Reconciliation, he brings his expertise in culture and theology to bear on what has historically been one of the most powerful forces in both reflecting and shaping American culture: Hollywood films.
Garrett looks at how Hollywood has portrayed race and reckoned with racism in everything from the notoriously racist 1915 film The Birth of a Nation to Jordan Peele's 2017 horror film Get Out.
He says he doesn’t think racist films should be shelved, since that would deprive people of a chance to more deeply understand, and thus more effectively combat, racism.
"To push that off the stage and not understand it and not deal with it," Garrett says, "is to minimize the effect that our culture has had and to minimize the chance to understand how deeply those attitudes are ingrained in the American soul."
Listen to the interview or read the transcript below to hear more from Garrett, including whether he thinks white filmmakers can credibly and effectively make films about Black people and their experiences.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Author Greg Garrett: The truth of the matter is that the racial attitudes that are enshrined [in the film The Birth of a Nation] have entered deep into our culture. The marchers in Charlottesville in 2017 are parroting rhetoric that appears in Birth of a Nation. To push that off the stage and not understand it and not deal with it is to minimize the effect that our culture has had and to minimize the chance to understand how deeply those attitudes are ingrained in the American soul.
KUT: I want to ask you about Casablanca. You write in your book about the friendship between Rick and Sam. And in writing about that friendship, you note that it's important not to judge a film made in 1942 by mores and judgments that we would have today. Is that how we should be looking at the portrayal of race and racism in these films — through the lens of their times, and not through the lens of our times today?
Garrett: What I encourage people to do when we think about these films, particularly historical films, is think about them contextually. What are the harmful myths that you need to identify and reject, and what are the positive myths that you need to embrace and celebrate?
Early on in Casablanca, there is a powerful moment for 1940s Hollywood where Humphrey Bogart's character, Rick, is approached by another bar owner who asks him to sell Sam to him. And Rick simply says, and it is so matter of fact, like there is no doubt in his mind that he even needs to talk about this: “I don't buy or sell human beings.” I mean, compare that to 1915 in Birth of a Nation. Compare that to the absence of people of color in films of the 1920s, 1930s and up into the 1940s and 1950s, and that clearly is something to embrace.
So what I wanted to do was to look at how original audiences responded to that. I found that a number of African-American newspapers celebrated Sam's depiction in that film. They said it was the most humane version of an African-American character that had appeared in film.
KUT: Can white filmmakers credibly make authentic films about Black people and their experiences?
Garrett: One of the things that we hope is that artistic inspiration and observation allow great artists to have an understanding of human beings who don't look or live or love exactly like them. And some of these films obviously do a better job of that than others.
When you look at Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, the Sidney Poitier character is depicted as so uni-faceted. He is perfection. And that actually is a kind of racism itself: not to admit flaws and human fallibilities in a character. And so part of what we're asking is, if we look at a character like Sidney Poitier in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, does he feel fully human to us?
Even though we don't really think about people of color as significant mainstream filmmakers until John Singleton and Spike Lee, there is this long history of people of color telling their own stories on screen. It was just typically for other people of color. White people didn't consume those stories.
KUT: You write that Get Out, which is a Jordan Peele film, is one of the most important films made about race in America. Why do you feel that's true about Get Out?
Garrett: Chris is a young African-American photographer, and the story is a retelling of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner because Chris is being brought home to meet the white parents of his white girlfriend and things go dreadfully wrong. What Jordan Peele does is he takes all of the horror tropes that we understand about “slasher” films and about social horror films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and he puts them to use as a way of pushing back against the racism of our culture.
The great gift that Jordan Peele gives every audience, including white audiences, with Get Out is to enter into the consciousness of his main character and understand not just the discomfort but the danger that white society puts people of color in. My life and Chris's life are so radically different; but Jordan Peele offered me the grace of entering into his experience and understanding it in such a way that I can make changes in my own life because of it.
KUT: Your book is titled A Long, Long Way: Hollywood's Unfinished Journey from Racism to Reconciliation. Where does Hollywood go now?
Garrett: My hope — and I talk early on in the book about the “[Oscars] So White” social media campaign — is that we get to the point where we don't have to argue every year at Oscar time about whether people of color have been represented adequately; whether their stories have been represented; whether great filmmakers, whether Ava DuVernay or Spike Lee or anyone, have gotten the recognition that they deserve.
I use a phrase in the book, which is kind of my hope for future Hollywood: “casual multiculturalism.” We see it in some of the blockbuster films — some of the Star Wars films and Marvel franchise films where we have a bunch of people of color, a really multiracial, multicultural cast, and nobody is even really drawing that much attention to it.
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