The Enslaved Genre: Why Cinema Sticks to its
Root Principles—Inequality and Injustice
“I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice ... .”
—Martin Luther King, Jr., from “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
The recent lauding of Steve Spielberg’s film Lincoln illustrates once more that the widespread vaunting and decrying of the supposed radicalism of high-profile modern cinema is based on erroneous assessments. For like Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) amongst other productions in the Spielberg genre, and other productions by many other high-profile directors, the film’s sham liberalism is sufficient to win it widespread accreditation in Hollywood, but insufficient to challenge establishment myths about history to which cinema has pandered for about a century. Yet the panegyric accorded this latest in a long sequence of disproportionately high-budget cinematic productions is also indicative of far more serious problems and social injustices.
Slavery in film
The first identifiably modern film in which Abraham Lincoln appeared as a heroic figure, and arguably the first identifiably modern film of all, was D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). Although as notoriously racist as the novels of Thomas Dixon on which it is based, Griffith’s film is still cited in laudatory tones as a landmark in the evolution of cinematic techniques. Yet neither the smug self-conscious liberalism of Hollywood’s paragons, nor the fulminating conservatism of its loudest critics’ complaint that Hollywood is “subverting America,” have an interest in recognizing just how small is the distance that well-funded and influential cinematic productions have moved, not only from its founding techniques, but also from its founding indifference to social justice issues.
The Birth of a Nation had the Presidential endorsement of Woodrow Wilson, “it is all so terribly true.” This endorsement is perhaps unsurprising given not only the influence on the film of Wilson’s own writings, but also its representation of one of Wilson’s predecessors as an earnest statesman whose brave work of reconciliation made him a target for partisan criticism from naive radicals such as Thaddeus Stevens, and ultimately the victim of personal tragedy. Although The Birth of a Nation is notorious because of its disgusting representation of African Americans in the post-war South, and its implicit justification of segregation and the Jim Crow laws, neither Griffith’s nor Dixon’s productions actually endorse slavery: Dixon regretted that African slaves had been transported to America at all, thus blaming the victims for the problem.
Through the Civil War white leadership, courage, bloodshed and altruism had rid America of the curse of slavery and freed African Americans. Thanks to the liberalism and altruism of the establishment, injustice had been consigned to the past. Any suggestion that African Americans contributed to their own liberation is downplayed and the real focus is on white individuals in the film and their emotional progress, characters, lives, loves and losses. Slavery having been abolished by white effort, African Americans are the victims of no injustice; indeed the danger lies in a radical white minority’s indulgence of African Americans, and the latter’s destructive jealousy of white males’ fairly gotten acquisitions; wealth, property, life-styles, and the white women depicted as accompanying these acquisitions.
That contemporary film misrepresented African Americans was apparent to many critics of Dixon and Griffith, an awareness which influenced the activism of Paul Robeson among others. Film producers have thus been obliged to respond to this criticism, at least for commercial reasons. Yet such gestures aside, there is little in the narrative of The Birth of a Nation that has been fundamentally queried even in recent high-profile productions feted for their liberalism. Lincoln has also been criticized for downplaying the active contribution of African Americans to the end of slavery. As Kate Masur observes, “it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them. For some 30 years, historians have been demonstrating that slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation.” There is little recognition in the film that pressure for abolition from such sources significantly predated the somewhat tardy Emancipation Proclamation.
Abraham Lincoln does not appear in Glory (1989), except by proxy at the end when a statement from Lincoln appears to endorse the message of film (ostensibly a liberal one concerned with racial reconciliation). Yet the focus of the film is once again a white protagonist in the Civil War, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. In a key scene in the film, Trip, the character played by Denzel Washington, refuses Shaw’s request to carry the regimental colors, instancing the injustice that at the war’s conclusion Shaw and his ilk will go back to a prosperous lifestyle in Massachusetts whereas Trip will return to poverty. At the film’s conclusion, Shaw’s courageous death in leading an assault on Fort Wagner moves Trip to seize the colors (with their striking affinity to the modern U.S. flag) in order to renew the assault. Implicitly, white courage and altruism has vindicated white privilege; the question of which social groups really gained from the Civil War is neatly dodged, and the obstacle to African Americans’ integration in the United States is seen not to be injustice or inequality, but African-American unreasoning jealousy of white wealth. In contrast to white courage in battle, in a film ostensibly concerned with African Americans’ own contribution to their own liberation, the latter contribution is surprisingly underrepresented, almost as much as is Frederick Douglass, who makes an appearance in the film which is fleeting, token, and, tellingly, non-speaking.
A twisted representation of reality common in the American and British mainstream media has succeeded in depicting “anti-American” prejudice (and indulgence for terrorism) as solely left-wing. Ironically, this has not stopped British conservative writers engaging in one-upmanship at American nationalists’ expense regarding the earlier abolition of slavery in territories under British sovereignty. Nonetheless, high-profile and well-funded British cinema is guilty of the same misrepresentations regarding slavery as its American equivalent, wrongly suggesting that the moral of the story of abolition is that a white elite may be entrusted to eliminate racial and social injustices within the existing political dispensation. This for instance is the message of Amazing Grace (2006), a part-British production which emphasizes the roles of William Wilberforce and Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger in the abolition of the slave trade in the British empire. Like Lincoln and The Birth of a Nation, the film echoes establishment myths peddled about history inside and outside of the historical profession.
As in the popular conservative media, the altruism of abolition and other reforms supported by Wilberforce and contemporary elite conservatives is exaggerated, in part owing to a selective chronology. The film makes little mention of the impact on the case for abolition of the empire’s recent loss of lucrative slave-based economies in America. Meanwhile, Wilberforce and Pitt's role in abolition is overrepresented in the film particularly at the expense of popular non-elite pressure within British society for abolition, the effects of slave revolts, and the efforts to raise awareness made by former slave Olaudah Equiano and other African abolitionists in the group Sons of Africa. Without pressure from such sources, the sugar capitalists’ powerful influence upon the authorities may have continued effectively to defend the slave trade. Yet recognition of individuals such as Equiano is bitterly resisted by conservative sources, which have a powerful influence on the mainstream British media. In any case, in a sense, as in the United States after the abolition of slavery, propertied whites’ collusion with the British authorities also continued to be among the most powerful influences. After the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the plantation owners managed to retain slavery itself until 1833, when slaveholders were lavishly compensated at taxpayers’ expense. A system of apprenticeship still remained in operation for another five years, and slavery for some years remained in force in those lands of the British empire under the control of the East India Company. Even then, in contrast to the suggestion of Amazing Grace that Wilberforce and his like widely and altruistically succeeded in making society more humane, within a few years plantation owners used their influence to initiate a system of indentured labor which often differed little from slavery. In many aspects of the history of British empire as of the United States at this time, “the conventional distinction between slavery and capitalism fades into meaninglessness.”
Film on race relations
The established mode of representation of history in high-profile cinema—reaffirmed in the chorus of praise with which Lincoln has met—is to focus the narrative around an already well-known figure. It is noticeable even then that the subjects are select, usually comprising a figure acceptable to the white establishment; it is unlikely that a laudatory biopic on the model of Lincoln would focus on a figure such as Castro, Trotsky, Hugo Chavez, Samora Michel, or Agostinho Neto, or at any rate be well-funded. Lincoln epitomizes the dangers in this mode. As repeated cinematic examples show, to place a figure such as Lincoln, Wilberforce, Pitt, Churchill, Kennedy, or Gandhi at the core of a narrative regarding a fight against discrimination and injustice is not only to trivialize the earlier contribution of more humble pioneers and obscure the almost inevitable tardiness of elite individuals’ commitment, but also to obscure how much inequality is tacitly accepted in vaunting a privileged figure. The current (unequal) political and social systems are posited to be reformable, and existing white elite groups are suggested to be deserving of trust in their ability and willingness to quash any injustices; thus, logically, resistance to continuing layers of privilege (which are usually concentrated in white male hands) can be dismissed as jealousy.
Cinema cognate to civil rights issues exemplifies this point. 12 Angry Men (1957) centers on a murder trial, and famously features a vignette in which the bigoted social (and by implication racial) prejudice in favor of a conviction of a single white juror is easily ostracized and rejected by his fellow jurors, as part of a critically important process of giving the defendant the benefit of doubt. The system appears to be vindicated when the defendant is acquitted. Yet a near-contemporary case linked to the lynching of Emmett Till casts light on the true possibility of justice being dispensed and prejudice defeated in a system featuring juries composed entirely of socially well-established white men and a white-dominated judicial bench. More recently, In the Name of the Father (1993), which like Lincoln stars Daniel Day-Lewis, is pilloried in certain quarters as an IRA propaganda film; yet the selected emphases in the narrative vindicate the possibility of redemptive justice through the existing systems of power in the British state. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) is a highly acclaimed film, spinning an ostensibly uplifting narrative around an interracial friendship. But the film panders to establishment prejudice by depicting the white prisoner Andy Dufresne as the innocent victim of a miscarriage of justice. No more doubt is expressed in the film about the guilt of its African-American characters accused of crimes than is that of African-American victims of lynching in the works of Thomas Dixon. High-profile cinema also suggests that the existing system allows political and economic as well as judicial injustice to be remedied. Mississippi Burning (1988) overstates the role of white sympathizers, rather than African American activists, in rooting out racism and making possible breakthroughs in the civil rights campaigns. Billy Elliot (2000) centers on a young boy who leaves a north of England affected by high unemployment, poverty, and poor industrial relations to live his dream of becoming a successful ballet dancer in London. In spite of its antagonistic representation of the policing of the 1984-5 miners’ strike, the film appears to justify the Conservative governments’ economic policies of the 1980s and 1990s by suggesting anybody could “make it” under their dispensation.
As The Shawshank Redemption and 12 Angry Men demonstrate, even when an effort seems to have been put into incorporating liberal themes of racial reconciliation, ultimately the perspective of a production justifies or accepts inequality. This is often because, as in Glory, the narrative centers on the perspective or journey of a central white (and usually) male character. Thus a white perspective is seen as the only basis on which enlightenment is possible, embodying, in an analysis which as Henry Giroux observes obscures “dominant relations of power and class oppression ... the liberal assumption that as a privileged white man [they] can solve the problems of marginalized and subordinate Others.” The white journey to enlightenment, often punctuated by acts of courage and heroism by a white central character, is central to Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi and Cry Freedom (1987), David Lean's A Passage to India (1984), James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), Apocalypse Now (1979), and a film often depicted as “politically correct” in its representation of Native Americans, Dances with Wolves (1990). Hence none of the films mentioned really radically challenge first-world privilege. Dances with Wolves appears to suggest that in spite of all cross-cultural barriers, an all-seeing colonial gaze offers a vantage point from which everything can be understood; the reassuring nature of this narrative to first-world audiences must partly explain its commercial and critical success. As in Avatar, the heroism and ingenuity of the first-world male is ultimately vaunted, most notably in a scene in which John Dunbar, played by Kevin Costner, is seen to save the Sioux by finding a herd of buffalo. For similar reasons, as well as the ecological destruction involved in its filming, anti-colonial elements of Apocalypse Now have been much exaggerated.Dances With Wolves, 1990
In cases such as Lincoln, narratives are adjusted to exaggerate the potential or actuality of interracial reconciliation, or, in the terms of Martin Luther King, Jr., to celebrate an absence of tension, irrespective of the continuation of injustice. Such a reconciliation is emphasized at the conclusion to David Lean’s A Passage to India far more powerfully than in Forster’s novel. In The Wild Geese (1978) and The Patriot (2000), brief representations of interracial reconciliation are most objectionable, not just because (in the latter case) African-American support for American independence during the war against the British is undoubtedly massively exaggerated, but also because both dodge the question of in whose hands power remains while the supposed reconciliation takes place. As in Lincoln and Glory, few questions are really faced as to who gained from political changes that are celebrated. The result of the war of American independence may in fact have perpetuated slavery in America, although the evolution of elite British attitudes in decades after 1807 make that uncertain.
In Dances with Wolves, as in Avatar and Last of the Mohicans (in both 1992 and 1936 film adaptations), interracial reconciliation is also apparently symbolized by an interracial romance, although significantly in none of these films is anything meriting the descriptor “romance” really interracial. It must be doubted that the recognition afforded to Dances with Wolves represented the Academy breaking new ground in the way that is commonly suggested: since Fenimore Cooper’s day, white writers have been put on the defensive by allegations that they are too sympathetic to Native Americans. Even D.W. Griffith’s film Ramona (1910) highlighted, as its subtitle suggested, the White Man’s Injustice to the Indian, albeit implying the injustice occurred in a previous Spanish-dominated Southwest. In one dimension, Griffith’s work differs little from Dances with Wolves,as well as multiple cinematic repackagings of Goyahkla (or “Geronimo”) as “an American legend,” in avowing the myths that the Native American lifestyle belonged to a romantic past, and that while genocide and cultural destruction is in hindsight regrettable, it is not something with which present cohorts of white authorities and film-watchers need actively engage. Dances with Wolves did nothing to engage with ongoing contemporary issues concerning indigenous peoples’ struggle for rights or suggest that current generations need be concerned about the catastrophic effects on the indigenous peoples of the continent of contemporary U.S. governments’ policies, such as their commitment to NAFTA. Nor did the film engage with the suggestion of a near-contemporary U.S. President (Ronald Reagan) that governments had erred in “humoring” Native Americans, rather as Dixon had suggested white radicals were pampering African Americans too much. It is hard indeed to imagine a high-profile, well-funded film that could really engage at a critical level with U.S. policy in the American West, southern Africa, Latin America, southeast Asia or the middle East, and even such a film would probably be twisted by the industry in production to give a totally different message. It is far more common that films justify U.S. interventions in the outside world. Even against hypothetical extraterrestial or biological foes, the U.S. is accorded a lauded position of leadership in an altruistic defense of humanity.
Some misguided criticisms of film
No conservative could have a serious objection to a prevalent mode of cinema, or the institutions behind it, which ultimately justifies U.S. policy, or existing layers of privilege in Western societies. It is not surprising thus to find that the loud and prevalent familiar conservative objections to high-profile cinema are often posited on trivial grounds, and the supposition that Hollywood is prejudiced against white or elite groups is largely unfounded.
The proposition that “we’re the last country left that won’t scream racism” about its representation in films is in fact supported across the mainstream political spectrum in Britain, and with it the implication that the British are too “good-natured” for their own, and everyone else’s, good. Yet on the contrary, as the profile afforded to critics such as Jonathan Foreman, Andrew Roberts, and Simon Heffer suggests, well-oiled media structures exist which both “scream” and affirm complaints about anti-English and anti-white “racism” and cognate prejudices with very little provocation, not least in regard to high-profile films. That cinema can have performative effects on politics is gleefully welcomed by conservatives when such effects work in their favor. Ronald Reagan’s training and profile as an actor certainly helped his mastery of the techniques of political presentation, and Reagan’s use of references to the Star Wars series of films in campaigning was lauded by conservative commentators as faithfully representing Reagan’s policies as fighting the battle of good against evil. While conservative observers are quick to lambast uncongenial perspectives as propagandist, politically correct, and “racist,” socially conservative films (and particularly British film) or films which negatively stereotype non-white peoples or lower-class groups, are inconsistently depicted as neither propagandist nor prejudiced, but authentic, in their representation both of historical and political reality, and, allegedly, the perspectives of “ordinary” people. Such circular arguments allowed privileged perspectives to dominate the media, ventriloquize the perspectives of ordinary people, and assert simultaneously that they are in some way the victims of oppression.
The Patriot, 2000
Yet notwithstanding Foreman’s criticism, the most serious problem with The Patriot, for instance, is not that it is anti-British, but that because the film focuses on the main character Benjamin Martin and his construction and protection of an idyllic family life, it fights shy of engaging with the historical reality of the period in every important respect—and with the question of who gained from American independence. In spite of the characteristic cosmetic gestures in the film in favor of racial reconciliation, it is clear that in historical reality the result of the war made the fate of Native Americans significantly worse. Indeed, Martin’s past as a barbarous killer in the French and Indian wars is unproblematically reconciled in The Patriot to his glamorized role as a war hero and doting father and husband, and to his contented family life. Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005) is similarly criticized by Foreman for historical errors and anti-British bias in its depiction of the Indian mutiny of 1857, and like In the Name of Father and Michael Collins (1996), for potentially offering solace to terrorist groups. An equally pertinent criticism could however suggest that the same or other films distort reality by exaggerating the distance between guerrilla groups and a surrounding community. Yet more strikingly, Mangal Pandey features a sequence in which a British soldier rescues an indigenous widow from sati or ritual immolation, the two subsequently becoming romantically involved. This scene echoes a very old propagandist myth, powerfully used to justify the British empire before domestic, indigenous and international audiences, wrongly crediting the British with unilaterally suppressing a “custom” of sati that was supposedly prevalent in pre-colonial India in the teeth of indigenous opposition. The vignette, which Foreman wrongly thus describes as comprising a “rare moment of honesty,” is artistically derivative of celebratory fiction produced at the height of imperialism itself, being at least as old as Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1873), as well as sundry other scenes of rescue of damsels in distress in misogynistic cinematic traditions in many cultures—not least in imperialist and racist variants such as The Birth of a Nation.
The rearticulation of blatant self-serving imperialist myth-making does however have the effect of making the film more palatable to an audience which is European (or European-influenced) and of high purchasing power. In a nationalist film (one which Foreman describes as tainted by “moronic Marxism”), this comprises both compelling testimony to the power of imperialist myth over the marketplace, and over the imaginations of descendants of those formerly colonized, and another example of cinematic narratives privileging the perspective of a white male hero on his journey to enlightenment. Indeed, another object of Foreman’s strictures about “politically correct” modern cinema, The Gangs of New York (2002), like Mangal Pandey, Dances with Wolves, Glory, Lincoln, Last of the Mohicans, The Patriot, and Amazing Grace is really objectionable on the ground that it avoids exploring the fact that already empowered Anglicized white elites gained most from social and political changes in the relevant period of history.
Wedded to an unjust economic system: cinema’s real flaws
As Mark Cousins observes, interested critics are wrong-footed in part because Hollywood’s narrative conventions, which press high-profile films to glorify the role of white male heterosexual heroes, more often than not yield a reactionary message. The story follows an individual’s progress, in the process usually privileging the individual at the expense of any real sense of community, often terminating in a celebration of a privileged liberation from restraint which roughly corresponds to what talk-radio critics wrongly describe as “freedom.”
But film in part achieves the artistic objective of imitating society, insofar as it represents society’s flaws in a way that token political gestures cannot conceal. High-profile cinema is marketable because it offers presentable narratives, celebrating the “triumph of the human spirit,” even where a happy ending cannot be celebrated. But uplifting conclusions overrepresent the possibility of contentment rather than ask searching questions as to whether or not justice is possible without a radical challenge to the status quo. Since the possibility of contentment is in reality unequal, to represent this possibility is to privilege certain social groups rather than others, and it is suspicious that these are commonly the same groups which exert disproportionate power in the market for cinematic as well as many other products. It is high-profile cinema’s innate complicity with an unjust economic system, as well as its preferred narrative conventions, which leads it to reflect and support existing inequalities; and illumination of serious problems with the medium is inhibited, precisely because the mass media is oiled by similar sources as the films, and in some cases, identical sources.
The market for both films and popular media is not free, or a matter of choice, but grounded in inequality and constraint. People with time and money to read newspapers, attend cinemas, consume DVDs, etc., are disproportionately well-to-do. Notwithstanding risibly weak complaints about “the liberal media” to the contrary, such media will inevitably in great measure appeal to the prejudices of this privileged constituency, and avow a conservative narrative, irrationally hostile to change, and at best sniffily indifferent about notions of universal rights and of combating poverty. That the purchasing power and wealth on which cinema depends for its audiences is disproportionately white, male, and English-speaking also has substantial influences on the end-product. Hence in part the tendency for films to privilege and appeal to the perspective of the all-seeing comfortably positioned white man, usually accorded heroic attributes and acquitted of guilt.
In contrast, although the common token gestures “representing” ethnic minority groups evoke a totally disproportionate fervor of denunciation, there are still relatively few high-profile black male or female actors, relatively few roles for them, and even the casting of such roles reflects long-standing inequalities. In two very recent films, Goodbye Bafana (2007) and Clint Eastwood’s Invictus (2009), well-known black American actors (rather than African actors) were cast to play Nelson Mandela; there is little evidence of progress here from Richard Attenborough’s casting of Denzel Washington in the role of Steve Biko in the 1980s, or indeed, by extension, of the poor representation of ethnic minority groups in film in Paul Robeson’s era, or even Griffith’s use of the vaudeville tradition of having white actors black up to represent (or more commonly misrepresent and stereotype) African-American characters.
Much the same could be said of women, who are still usually cast only in supporting roles, timidly requiring the protection of a white (and usually American) male. The model of family and relationship vaunted by this narrative is usually a male-led nuclear family. This is highly conventional in first-world terms, but underrepresents networks such as extended families, which are common in many places in the world (among many other possible historical and contemporary family structures). Hence the male protagonist’s actions are commonly presented as simple moral choices; his action in defense of both himself and his family is rarely depicted as involving any conflict with justice, and any such dilemmas are quickly resolved.
In The Patriot, Martin’s initial conviction that as a parent he must remain neutral in the political conflicts of the 1770s is quickly overtaken by events. Similarly in Cry Freedom, the dilemma of Donald Woods (who is played by an American actor) that trying to expose the South African apartheid state’s complicity in Biko’s death might disrupt his family life is quickly resolved by the state’s security force’s dirty tricks. In Amazing Grace, Wilberforce’s political triumph is presented as of a piece with his domestic triumph of fathering a child, while in Reds (1981), the rise and fall of the fortunes for political radicalism form a soundtrack to the on-screen romance of Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton. The presented moral choice is no more complicated than that in Die Hard (1988). It is rare that cinematic productions really focus on the countless decisions humans in real situations must make between justice and a quiet (and politically and socially acquiescent) domestic tranquility. By implication, first-world (and usually American) white men do not have to choose between their assigned role as head of a conventional family and justice, because the society they are defending—its self-evident inequalities notwithstanding—is assumed already to be just.
The Birth of a Nation, 1915
Because male leadership is depicted as the norm, the qualities vaunted tend to be hypermasculine. Male physical violence, physical rather than other forms of courage, defense of the status quo, and male sexual conquest tend to be linked together in simple binary oppositions of “good” against “evil.” Hence the influence and repeated rearticulation of Griffith’s image of the vulnerable damsel in distress menaced by racial others, requiring white male protection. As Clyde Taylor observes: “The imminent violation of a white woman has played so large a role in American cinema compared to others as to seem an American obsession.” It is symptomatic of these considerations that, much as in Dixon’s day, establishment media, including cinema, continue to handle interracial romance with unease and distaste. White women who have romantic relationships with black men, even when acknowledged as “victims,” are still commonly seen as treacherous or “loose.”
Politics or aesthetics? A plea to recognize humanity beyond the heroes
One historian, defending Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner from charges of historical inaccuracy, urges his colleagues to be more “sensitive to the artistic goals of filmmaker and the limitations that those who choose to focus on historical subjects face,” praising the effectiveness of the medium for reconnecting people with history. Yet it is important to question if these “artistic goals” are worthy of the central position they are accorded in the pursuit, and to appraise the type of narratives with which the medium “connects” its audience. As Lincoln, Gandhi,and Amazing Grace each represent, the most critically and commercially acclaimed such films are attuned to the notion that one man—usually high-profile fictional or factual historical protagonists—can “change the world;” that ordinary people, the sum total of millions of humble individuals’ actions, or “vast impersonal forces” (in T.S. Eliot’s phrase, sniffily deployed by Isaiah Berlin) not only can change history, but may be the only way in which history can be changed, is a possibility film can rarely envisage or depict. Thus on account of the conventions of the genre rather than the intentions of practitioners, even cinematic productions inspired by radical political motives ultimately fail to realize their objective and trivialize and misrepresent principles, causes, and historical change.
This point is tellingly demonstrated by consideration of the oeuvre of the British producer Ken Loach. A known radical, Loach’s films, notably Hidden Agenda (1990), are sometimes criticized because of the message that the status quo cannot successfully be fought; to the comforting mainstream message of the triumphant human spirit, dissident radicalism can only respond by celebrating causes doomed to defeat. But this is a minor objection compared to the punctuation of Loach’s films by formulaic narratives. Loach makes the type of gestures to which the medium’s audience are accustomed in terms of developing and eliciting sympathy with his characters, and tries to represent their loves and losses. The real tragedy in films such as Bread and Roses (2000), The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), and Land and Freedom (1995, Loach’s film about the Spanish civil war) is personal, and not the loss of opportunities for radical social and political change.
There is a popular view that cinema should be evaluated for its success in dealing with individuals and their concerns, its characterization and aesthetic qualities. The argument goes that cinema should not be political (or certainly not overtly so) and films that concentrate on making a political statement rather than presenting well-rounded characters are condemned. It is however notable that the condemnation appears to be louder the more radical the political intention appears to be, and that what are ostensibly framed as solely aesthetic criteria can be both highly political and rooted in injustice: when conservative historian and commentator Roy Strong asserted “to own a work of art is a natural expression of a genuine love of beauty which is otherwise inexpressible,” he voiced a deeply partisan affirmation of private ownership, particularly as concentrated in the hands of a wealthy established elite. Nonetheless, the preference for “aesthetic” criteria is endorsed at a number of levels: a popular audience appreciates a good story, and a more critical reception applauds Griffith’s aesthetics and tries to dissever them from his racist political intention and glaring historical inaccuracies. It could be argued that evaluating cinema on these “non-political” criteria is however not particularly realistic: it would surely be erroneous to suggest that films as diverse in political intention as The Birth of a Nation, The Patriot, Mangal Pandey and Land and Freedom are rendered artistically significantly better by their inadequate attempts to shoehorn a representation of the complexity of human relationships and human character within a few hours of celluloid. As Clyde Taylor suggests, in any case, the notion that pioneering cinematic techniques as practiced in The Birth of a Nation can be dissevered from its racism is flawed. Close-up shots, melodrama and other aesthetic techniques are used in the film to propagate the message that America is a white nation, thus humanizing only its white characters and dehumanizing non-white characters, in a pattern which has influenced a number of subsequent films.
But more fundamentally, cinema as an art form cannot transcend underlying social injustices and inequalities. Love and loss, which are supposed to be the main themes of the medium, and which usually dominate its core narratives, require a base of rights respectively to be enjoyed and endured. Human situations exist (and happen to be concentrated among non-white subjects) which lack this base of rights. It may be reassuring to assert that because the human spirit will triumph come what may, the existing dispensation (this “negative peace”) is sufficient to afford an opportunity for access to justice and the acquisition of emotional fulfillment for all. But no saccharin-sweet statement of modern cinema, dripping with an overwrought score on a full-piece orchestra, should distract attention from how powerfully propagated is the wishful thinking (or worse) of those in positions of relative privilege—a category into which popular film-makers and journalists, those who control the purse-strings of each, and their audiences, all disproportionately fall. Self-serving myths prevalent in this constituency—that the privileges that come with being a first-world male are down to greater human qualities rather than just luck and money—are older than cinema itself. Dixon represented “the Negro” as a “creature ... half-child, half-animal, the sport of impulse, whim and conceit, “pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw,” a being who, left to his will, roams at night and sleeps in the day, whose speech knows no word of love, whose passions, once aroused, are as the fury of the tiger—they have set this thing to rule over the Southern [white] people.” Socially and economically marginalized groups must be assumed to lack human qualities and experience through personal inadequacy, because the privileged must be reassured that their condition is a reward for their greater qualities. Hence also in the popular media a disruption to a first-world family is normally represented as a greater tragedy than its equivalent elsewhere; a terrorist incident in the first world receives saturation coverage, whereas genocide and famine in the third world induce mere shruggings of shoulders. If this is a triumph of the human spirit, it is a strange kind of “humanism,” which, because of its link to the basis of modern first-world states, is underwritten by inegalitarianism, panders to the privileged property-holders who form the bastions of that state, and celebrates the violence and extortion by which these privileges were assured.
If art serves any purpose, among the most worthy prime objectives, and arguably the most worthy objective, of any serious art form has to be a political one: to illuminate the injustices in the world. It has to be legitimate to evaluate art as to whether it challenges or perpetuates injustices. The fact that this is so insistently denied, inside and outside of the film industry, is a telling testimony to how large these injustices are, and how overwhelmingly powerful are the interests which are continually served by their maintenance. That certain brands of films will go on being produced on vastly wasteful budgets and heaped with vastly disproportionate praise is only a tiny symptom of this bigger problem.
G.K. Peatling, a contributing editor, worked in universities in Britain, the U.S., and Canada, before resigning his last such job to undertake volunteer work in Angola. He now works part-time with schools in eastern England. A previous article on cinema and history, “On Giving a Dog a Bad Name,” appeared in our summer2012 issue.
 Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” quoted in Godfrey Hodgson, Martin Luther King (London: Querius, 2009). 110.
 See for instance Laura Ingraham, Shut Up & Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN Are Subverting America. Washington: Regnery, 2003.; Ann Coulter, Slander: Liberal Lies about the American Right. New York: Crown, 2002. 204.
 Thomas Cripps, “The Making of The Birth of a Race: the Emerging Politics of Identity in Silent Movies,” in Daniel Bernardi (ed.), The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996. 40. Lewis Jacobs, The Rise of the American film: a Critical History. New York: Teachers College Press, 1974. 175; Susan Kay Gillman, Blood Talk: American Race Melodrama and the Culture of the Occult. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. 76.
 In contrast, Woodrow Wilson’s response to real African American heroism, as was demonstrated during the First World War, was to fear that it might inspire political radicalism: David S. Foglesong, America's Secret War against Bolshevism: U.S. Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1917-1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. 42.
 Robert Lang (ed.), The Birth of a Nation. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1994.
 William A. Pencak, “Paul Robeson and Classical Music,” in Joseph Dorinson and William A. Pencak (ed.), Paul Robeson: Essays On His Life And Legacy. London: McFarland, 2002. 153.
 The powerful propagation of this distorted representation of U.S. history is captured in The Simpsons episode “Much Apu about Nothing” when the examiner of Apu’s citizenship test urges Apu, when he begins to respond to a question about the origins of the Civil War with a long-winded and sophisticated explanation, to “just say slavery.”
 Glory is characteristically based on few sources, the most crucial of which are advanced from Shaw’s perspective.
 J.C.D. Clark, “British America: what if there had been no American Revolution?” in Niall Ferguson (ed.), Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. New York: Basic Books, 1999. 125-74.
 For instance the current British Foreign Secretary William Hague, William Wilberforce: the Life of the Great Anti-slave Trade Campaigner. London: HarperPress, 2007. Hague, William Pitt the Younger. London: HarperCollins, 2004. Steve Turner, Amazing Grace: The Story of America’s Most Beloved Song. New York: Ecco, 2002. Kim Lawes, Paternalism and Politics: the Revival of Paternalism in early Nineteenth-century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000. Hague wrongly credits Britain for being the first country to abolish the slave trade. Denmark abolished the slave trade before Britain in 1803, and revolutionary France had previously briefly abolished slavery itself.
 “The “Betrayal” of Britain’s History,” Daily Telegraph, 19 Sept. 1995: Antoinette M. Burton, At the Heart of the Empire: Indians and the Colonial Encounter in Late-Victorian Britain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. 8-9, 195 n.27. Helen Brocklehurst and Robert Phillips, “You’re History! Media Representation, Nationhood and the National Past,” and Martin Conboy, “Heroes and Demons as Historical Bookmarks in the English Popular Press,” in Helen Brocklehurst and Robert Phillips (ed.), History, Nationhood and the Question of Britain. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 386-98 and 399-409. The BBC’s program 100 Greatest Britons (2002), consciously echoed in the opening and closing ceremonies of 2012 Olympics, gave no acknowledgement to Equiano or almost any ethnic minority figure in British history, in contrast to the recognition given to Winston Churchill and Enoch Powell, a potent symbol of racist anti-immigration movements.
 Walter Johnson, “King Cotton’s Long Shadow,” New York Times. 30 March 2013. Madhavi Kale, Fragments of Empire: Capital, Anti-slavery, and Indian Indentured Labor Migration to the British Caribbean. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. Indentured labor was used in the British empire until the First World War, in locations which included the Caribbean, Fiji, South Africa and Uganda.
 Amazing Grace makes no acknowledgement of the repressiveness of Pitt’s administration in Britain and Ireland.
 The Gathering Storm (2002) overstates the consistency of Churchill’s opposition to appeasement and understates his imperialism and sympathy with Italian fascism.
 JFK (1991) and Executive Action (1973) for instance implicitly overstate Kennedy’s commitment to civil rights.
 Gandhi (1982) makes Gandhi an acceptable non-confrontational figurehead of Indian independence to the white establishment, downplaying the role of more confrontational and militaristic threads in Indian nationalism in the success of the independence campaign, as well as neglecting Gandhi’s earlier active support of imperialism, for instance during the Boer war.
 Richard Kirkland, Identity Parades: Northern Irish Culture and Dissident Subjects.Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2002. 37-40.
 In Dixon’s novel The Clansman (1905), the guilt of Gus, an African American lynched by the Klan after being accused of raping a white woman, is “proven” by a totally unrealistic plot device.
 Henry A. Giroux, “Living Dangerously: Identity Politics and the New Cultural Racism,” in Henry A. Giroux and Peter McLaren (eds.), Between Borders: Pedagogy and the Politics of Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1994. 39, 45.
 The conferral of Academy Award for Best Picture in 1991 on Dances with Wolves in preference to Goodfellas (1990) has also been criticized, although this award, along with many tardy acts of acknowledgement, must also be seen as responses by the film industry to criticism (not least advanced by Sacheen Littlefeather and Marlon Brando at the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony) that it had adversely represented Native Americans and other ethnic minority groups for many years. Such gestures of acknowledgement themselves date back to Griffith’s time; Griffith responded to criticism of The Birth of a Nation by making a film ostensibly condemning prejudice (although not specifically racism), Intolerance (1916).
 Joy Porter, “The North American Indians and the Irish,” Irish Studies Review, xi, no.3 (Dec 2003), 268: Elizabeth Cullingford, Ireland’s Others: Ethnicity and Gender in Irish Literature and Popular Culture (Notre Dame, IN.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 184.
 Epifanio San Juan, Jr., Beyond Postcolonial Theory (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 72-3.
 Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism.London: Virago, 1994. 141-8 notes the colonial prejudices of Forster’s novel, in contrast to misdirected conservative criticism of the novel in David Gilmour, The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj. London: John Murray, 2005. A.N. Wilson, After the Victorians. London: Hutchinson, 2005. 277-8.
 Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600-1850. London: Pimlico, 2003. 235-6.
 26, Catherine Hall, White, Male, and Middle-class: Explorations in Feminism and History. New York: Routledge, 1992. Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830-1867. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. The shift in these attitudes is ironically epitomized by the family of James Stephen, whose role in the abolition of the slave trade is praised in Amazing Grace, but whose grandson (a relation also of Wilberforce), wrote that abolition “practically had the result of ruining the West Indies .... I am certain the whole matter was put upon false grounds, and I feel neither pride in my family connections with the result, nor satisfaction in the result itself”: Cambridge University Library, Add MS 7349/13, f.45-6; James Fitzjames Stephen to Lady Grant Duff, 17 Oct 1883.
 A Sioux character is made to report that Dunbar’s marriage with Stands with a Fist is acceptable because “they are both white.”
 James Fenimore Cooper, “Foreword,” in The Last of the Mohicans, ed. John McWilliams. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
 Chon A. Noriega, “Birth of the Southwest: Social Protest, Tourism and D.W. Griffith’s Ramona,” in Bernardi (ed.),The Birth of Whiteness. 203-26.
 Notably in the 1962 and 1993 films.
 John Ross, Rebellion from the Roots: Indian Uprising in Chiapas. Monroe: Common Courage Press, 1995.
 “Remarks on ‘Humoring’ Indians Bring Protest From Tribal Leaders,” New York Times. 1 June 1988.
 Important examples of how this process works include Fatherland (1994) the award-winning TV film version of which totally distorts Robert Harris’s novel to give a positive representation of a hypothetical U.S. administration, and Fatal Attraction (1987). See Susan Faludi, Backlash: the Undeclared War against American Women. New York: Crown, 1991. 112-39. Kathi Maio, Feminist in the Dark: Reviewing the Movies. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1988. 215-23. Kathi Maio, Popcorn and Sexual Politics: Movie Reviews. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1991.
 Peter Flynn, “Some Mother’s Son: Postcolonial, Postnational ... Posthistorical?” Bright Lights Film Journal, 29 (July 2000).
 Notably in War of the Worlds (1953), again a travesty of H.G. Wells’ original novel, Independence Day (1996), and Legend (2007).
 See the excerpt from the British show QI.
 Simon Heffer, Nor Shall my Sword: The Reinvention of England. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999. 2.
 Peter Kramer, “Ronald Reagan and Star Wars,” History Today, 49, no.3, 1999.
There is also an argument that Dennis Haysbert’s television role as a U.S. President assisted Barack Obama’s campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2008:
“Haysbert Says ‘24’ Role Paved the Way for Presidential Hopeful Barack Obama,” 22 Jan 2008.
 George MacDonald Fraser, The Hollywood History of the World. London: The Harvill Press, 1996, Rev. & updated ed. 144-8. John Ramsden, “Refocusing ‘The People’s War’: British War Films of the 1950s,” Journal of Contemporary History, 33, no. 1, Jan. 1998. 35-63. Jeffrey Richards, Films and British National Identity: from Dickens to Dad’s Army.Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997. 351-66. Jeremy Black, The Politics of James Bond: from Fleming’s Novels to the Big Screen. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001.
 Newspapers, broadcasts, and films of a conservative inclination, like many commercial products, are also often defended on the grounds that their commercial success in a free market allegedly shows that they merely meet a pre-existing demand; people buy and watch them, it is suggested, because they obviously want them, and find them politically congenial. But the frequent aggressive and expensive marketing of such products, backed by the hugely advantageous support of multi-million dollar corporations, shows both that the market for such products is not free, and that their producers themselves lack confidence that they can be sustained by a pre-existing demand, instead aiming to create this demand. In this context, as in many others, it is actually striking how often products privileged by expensive marketing flop, and how often societies and groups who most loudly vaunt the underlying principles actually undertake capitalist projects of wealth-creation with shocking incompetence (although these societies and groups are usually able to pass on the most acute burdens for the ensuing disasters elsewhere). It is also noticeable that Dixon, notably in The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots, claimed to be defending what he miscalled “democracy” and “freedom” just as passionately as do modern conservatives, while in fact defending a profoundly unequal, undemocratic, and repressive status quo.
 Jonathan Foreman, “How Mel Gibson helped to turn us into Nazis,” The Guardian, July 10, 2000. The “anti-Britishness” of The Patriot is more ambiguous than might be perceived at first glance. One of its more interesting features comprises its representation of the use by rebels in the conflict of guerrilla warfare, or tactics which Washington’s modern successors would doubtless label “terrorism” in others: Steve Conway, The War of American Independence, 1775-1783. London: Arnold, 1995. 28-9, 80.
 Notably, Amazing Grace panders to the received prejudices of American film audiences by depicting Banastre Tarleton as the mainstay of opposition to abolition (as is typical barely mentioning the critical contribution made to that opposition by sugar capitalists and plantation owners), Tarleton being the real-life basis for the villain in The Patriot, played by Jason Isaacs. This is a reminder of how nationalist cinema in both Britain and America often appeals to an identical narrow social constituency. To suggest that defeat for the British in the war of independence worsened the fate of Native Americans is to make no claim for the ethical superiority of the former, but merely to support the instinct of many Native peoples at the time that their interests would be better served if the center of white political sovereignty in America were more distant.
 Jonathan Foreman, “The Rising: The Ballad of Mangal Pandey,” Daily Mail. 27 August 2005. This film has also received totally different criticisms from Indian nationalist perspectives. Foreman’s reading of the relevant period of India history is awry in terms of the economic effects and administrative reach of the East India Company in India, and the long-term historical effects of the rising
 Brian Neve, “Cinema, the Ceasefire and ‘the Troubles’,” Irish Studies Review, 20, Autumn 1997. 2-8. Bew, “History it ain’t,” Daily Telegraph. 14 Oct 1996, 20. Ronan Bennett, “Why the IRA gets all the Good Lines,” Observer. 12 Jan 1997. 1. Foreman, “The Rising.”
 David Lloyd, Ireland after History. Notre Dame, IN.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999. 65-76: Richard Kirkland, Identity Parades. 37-42, 46-8. This is most notoriously true of the implication in Michael Collins that Eamon de Valera was involved in Collins’ assassination, an error which conservative opinion in Britain appears to have swallowed: Paul Johnson, “Dawn of a New Age,” Daily Mail. 15 Sept 2001. 18-9,
46. Philippa Levine, The British Empire: Sunrise to Sunset. Pearson, 2007. 72. Judith M. Brown, Modern India: The Origins of an Asian Democracy. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985. 74-5. Lata Mani, “Contesting Traditions: The Debate of Sati in Early Nineteenth-Century Bengal,” in Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (ed.), Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990. 88-126. Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragements: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. 14-34.
 Foreman, “The Rising.”
 Visram, Asians in Britain, 341-2.
 Ania Loomba, Colonialism/Postcolonialism. London: Routledge, 1998. 153. Verne’s novel reconciled this sequence with Victorian prejudice against miscegenation by making the rescued widow Aouda, who later marries Phileas Fogg, a member of a relatively fair-skinned Indian ethnic group, the Parsis, who had received “an absolutely English education, and from her manners and cultivation she would have been thought as European” (Jules Verne, Around the World in Eighty Days. Avonmouth: Parragon, 1993. 64, 61-73). As Loomba observes, Parsi communities in fact did not practice sati.
 G.C. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (ed.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988, 298-308. G.C. Spivak, “Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” Critical Inquiry, 12, 1985. 243-61.
 B.R. Tomlinson, The Economy of Modern India, 1860-1970. Cambridge: CUP, 1993. 99. Andrew Porter (ed.), The Oxford History of the British Empire: the Nineteenth Century. Oxford: OUP, 1999. 322, 342.
 Jonathan Foreman, “Scorsese’s Film Portrays Racist Mass Murderers As Victims,” Daily Telegraph. 15 Jan 2003.
 Iver Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London: Verso, 1991. Daniel J. Walkowitz “‘The Gangs of New York’”: the Mean Streets in History,” History Workshop Journal, 56, no.1, Autumn 2003. 204-209.
 Mark Cousins, “Hollywood is Right,” Prospect, 62, April 2001. 28-32.
 Foreman is the son of film producer Carl Foreman (ironically a victim of the Red Scare of the 1950s) and brother of Amanda Foreman, a popular historian and like her brother a journalistic contributor to right-wing publications, who was entitled to royalties for the film adaptation of one of her books as The Duchess (2008).
 Paul Hollander, “Long Term Cultural Trends and the Problems of Higher Education in the United States,” in Robert Weissberg (ed.), Democracy and the Academy. Huntington, NY: Nova Science Publishers, 2000. 21-40.
 In Cry Freedom. Much the same could be said of Attenborough’s casting of Ben Kingsley, an English actor of part Indian descent, to play the part of Gandhi.
 Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) offers a rare contrasting example.
 Cousins, “Hollywood is Right.”
 Many art forms—often overtly political in intent—have tellingly used the metaphor of vulnerable females to portray nations in order to enlist young men to a sense of duty in protecting the status quo. Indeed, the female gendering of nations is still often found in ordinary speech.
Clyde Taylor, “The Re-birth of the Aesthetic in Cinema,” in Bernardi (ed.), The Birth of Whiteness. 30.
 It is noticeable that the same distaste was and is rarely overtly expressed about the forcible white-on-black sexual encounters which must have been common under slavery.
 Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters: the Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993. 77. Riché Richardson, “The Birth of a Nation‘hood’: Lessons from Thomas Dixon and D. W. Griffith to William Bradford Huie and The Klansman, O. J. Simpson’s First Movie,” Mississippi Quarterly, 56, no.1, Winter 2002/2003. 27-8.
 Kevin Levin, “Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner Are Not Historians,” 25 Nov 2012
 Morton White, From a Philosophical Point of View: Selected Studies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. 52.
 Kirkland, Identity Parades. 40-2. Hidden Agenda is concerned with rumors of a murderous conspiracy to pervert the electoral process implicating the British secret services. Like the near-contemporary Wall Street, it involves a moment in which a lead protagonist is faced with a choice between the moral duty to expose a high-level conspiracy and domestic tranquility, although unlike in Wall Street the choice is made in favor of the latter.
 Land and Freedom, part 1. Other high-profile films with ostensibly radical political commitments, or subjects which might lend themselves to such a commitment, such as Reds, Enemy at the Gates (2001), Battleship Potemkin (1925), and October (1927) similarly contain many of the flaws of more politically mainstream films, concentrating on individual relationships or celebrating male violence.
 For instance Derek Jarman’s The Last of England (1987).
 Roy Strong, “Foreword,” in Patrick Cormack, Heritage in Danger. London: Quartet, 1978. 12.
 Taylor, “The Re-birth of the Aesthetic in Cinema,” in Bernardi (ed.), The Birth of Whiteness. 15-37.
 “Since the dawn of history the Negro has owned the continent of Africa, rich beyond the poet’s fancy, crunching acres of diamonds beneath his bare black feet. Yet he never picked one up from the dust until a White man showed him its light ... He lived as his fathers lived—stole his food, worked his wife, sold his children, ate his brother, content to drink, sing, to dance, and sport as the ape.” Thomas Dixon Jr., The Clansman: an Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. Toronto: Copp Clark, 1905. 292-3.
 Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Poscoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian’ Pasts?” in Ranajit Guha (ed.), A Subaltern Studies Reader, 1986-1995. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. 263-93.