Movies in the United States have an enormous impact on how society constructs and deconstructs labels. This media for the masses has a fairly long history and has been around for about 100 years. Eadweard Muybridge was perhaps most influential in the idea of “moving pictures.” It was his scientific work sponsored by Governor Leland Stanford of California to prove that all four hooves of a racehorse were off the ground at some point in a racehorse’s stride. Stanford won his $25,000 bet as a result and Muybridge inspired other inventors of his time to create more moving pictures.
According to inventors.com, Louis Lumiere was one such inventor and in 1895 he created a portable motion picture camera capable of capturing, processing, and projecting motion. The truth though, is that many different inventors of the late 1800′s were developing ways to capture and play motion pictures. What Lumiere did (with the help of his brother) that was most significant, was to present projected “motion pictures” to a paying audience of more than one person. Thus, the use of motion pictures for scientific purposes crossed over into creating a media which would be able to sway the masses by making a strong association between science and what was presented. This potential to use film to portray messages the creator wanted his audience to absorb was taken advantage of early at the turn of the 20th century and is still a tool that is used today to perpetuate age old stereotypes regarding race and gender roles in the United States.
Messages regarding race and white European superiority were represented in short films since nearly the inception of the idea to create moving pictures. Thomas Edison was one of the more prolific movie makers as he created propaganda films in the late 1800′s portraying the sheer savagery of how the more inferior Spaniards treated their conquered peoples as well as their disdain for the white Anglo American. The thing about this was that these ‘documentaries’ were actually filmed on a set and used white actors to portray the various races. The use of white actors to portray various races was a practice that was common and is called whitewashing. The intent of Edison’s films was to convince the American people and the American government that they needed to declare war with Spain and “free” those people from under Spain’s heel. (Gonzales, Juan) The ploy worked and the United States declared war on Spain in 1898, but the people who benefited most were the corporations who bought land for development in the newly “liberated” countries. Edison’s contributions continued by creating the stereotypical negro in his short film Watermelon Eating Contest, which he produced in 1903 starring two young black men having a watermelon eating contest. However, it was not until the creation of D.W. Griffith’s epic motion picture The Birth of a Nation, where the full potential of the use of this media for establishing hateful stereotypes was realized. The Birth of a Nation was based on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman, which centers on the creation of the KKK just shortly after the American Civil War to counter the “threat” of the Negroes’ lust and molestation of white women. The white women were cast as the holy virginal type and as helpless and needing the help of the strong white male to rescue her from the scourge of the free negroes. The site http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/flashpoints/theater/birthofanation_a.html tells how the influence of this 1915 film was so powerful that the Ku Klux Klan experienced a revival as membership reached 4.5 million members by 1920.
Eurocentrism continued as portrayals of “inferior races” (usually as savages and criminals) and “white supremacy” shown in the heroic efforts of the downtrodden white man and the helpless and hapless white woman; continued to proliferate through the major movie studios which were monopolized by a few white men. Griffith had other white hero movies where they defeat the inferior races of savages. In the movie The Battle of Elderbrush Gulch, native American Indians are presented as absolute savages who were murderous of white people except for the helpless white women who they tried to rape. The message is once again very clear; it is the white man’s duty to come and save the helpless white woman and to preserve the true American way of life. Even in movies where the white man gets cozy with a non-white female, there were adjustments to make this more palatable to the masses. For example, most people know the story of Pocahontas and how she helped John Smith and they ended up being together, right? This story is based on some fact, but the movie version is mostly fiction since the reality was/is that Indian tribes do not have any type of royalty statuses. The creation of the Indian Princess was only created to allow the moral intrusion on the mixing of races by white men. Indian “princesses” or squaws were most often portrayed by white women who always happened to be bathing in a stream. This message was very strong and influential in shaping the perceptions of future generations of Americans, both white and non-white.
The use of movies to perpetuate stereotypes of different races and the woman in need of rescue still persists today. Unfortunately the helpless female or the femme fatale is still the standard in most of these movies as well. Today it is even more insidious, since the movies do not show the origins of the labels and instead only serve to perpetuate longstanding stereotypes. This means that people will not question these long standing stereotypes. The Disney movie version of the Pocahontas story does have some truth to it as the settings were correct, but the rest of the movie is a result of a Disney writer wanting to create a more in depth love story like Romeo and Juliet. REFERENCE http://pocahontas.morenus.org/ This may appear to harmless enough, but the truth was that Pocahontas was not an Indian Princess (as I mentioned earlier, there is no such thing) and she was only a girl of 11 years of age. It also perpetuates the myth that the racial mixing was acceptable since Pocahontas was not the average dirty squaw.
Despite the decline in movie goers in the past decade, one can see by looking at the top grossing movies of 2011 according to IMDb; the white man as hero is still the biggest box office draw in the United States. White heroes; especially superheroes, abound in 2011 in movies like Harry Potter, Real Steel, Immortals, Thor, Green Lantern, and the most blatant reiteration of the only true American hero is a white hero; Captain America. Although this may not have been the intent of these movies, they are still based on racial biases/preferences of what a true American hero is. This would not be so bad if there were some or at the very least one non-white hero as a lead role, but it is sad to find that this is not the case.
Despite the declining numbers in moviegoers, movies today still have an enormous influence on our perceptions and expectations of roles regarding race and gender. They will continue to do so as long as there is a desire to be entertained by movies on the big screen. Issues regarding the depiction of race and gender will still be presented, but the significance of the meaning of stereotypes will continue to be downplayed if the origins of them are forgotten.
About.com Inventors http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blmotionpictures.htm
Gonzalez, Juan. 2009. Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. New York: Penguin
Internet Movie Database
Independent Film Road Movies
Sundance Online Film Festival http://www.sundanceonlinefilmfestival.org/history-of-movies.html