The issue of racial stereotyping in cinema has largely been discussed by critics over the course of cinematic history. The negative portrayal of the Native American, for example, is rampant in the early Western film genre. Native Americans are, more often than not, portrayed as vicious savages, hell-bent on senselessly scalping and murdering as many ‘innocent’ (white? ) American settlers as possible. Individuals of a darker skin colour, such as the African American, are also victims of negative stereotyping in early cinema. They are usually portrayed as stupid, aggressive and primitive, as lesser than the ‘white man. Some directors have attempted to revise these inaccurate portrayals of minority groups. For example, Arthur Penn’s cinematic masterpiece entitled Little Big Man (1970) provides the audience with a more accurate depiction of the Native American from the mid-19th century, both visually and historically. Similarly, an effective film which does not patronize individuals of a darker skin color is Mike Leigh’s Secrets &ump; Lies (1996). Hortense, a woman of Anglo-Jamaican descent, is portrayed as more successful, wealthy and intelligent than the Caucasians in the film.
Other directors have also attempted to portray these minority groups more accurately, yet seem to fall short of the achievements of the two movies previously mentioned. For example, John Ford’s The Searchers is Ford’s attempt at rectifying the negative portrayal of the Native American, a portrayal which he is partly responsible for introducing to mainstream cinema during the mid-20th century (Nolley, 73). Despite his efforts, there is still an excessive amount of racial prejudice towards the Native Americans within the film.
Lee Daniels’ Precious is also an attempt to portray a young black female’s ‘rags-to-riches’ story, but the movie’s excessive incorporation of stereotypes makes it difficult for the optimistic message to be conveyed to the audience. In this paper, I will compare and contrast Little Big Man and The Searchers, along with Secrets and Lies and Precious, and argue that, despite their efforts, the movies Precious and The Searchers ultimately fail at portraying minority groups in a more accurate, positive and/or sympathetic way when compared to Little Big Man and Secrets &ump; Lies.
Little Big Man transforms the typical ‘Hollywood Indian’ image into a more accurate portrayal of the Native American. Providing the audience with the untold side of the story of the American West, Penn portrays the Cheyenne within the film as the victims of the Battle of Washita River, which occurred in 1868. The massacre was led by General Custer, lieutenant of the 7th U. S. Cavalry. The film depicts General Custer and his men intruding upon a peaceful Cheyenne encampment and brutally murdering men, women and children.
Earlier cinematic Westerns depict the U. S. Cavalries, along with the Cowboy, as the heroes of the West, who protect the helpless American settlers from vicious ‘Indian’ invasions (Kasdan, Tavernetti 130). By contrast, it is now the Native Americans who are fleeing from the remorselessness of the U. S Cavalry, framing General Custer and the United States government as the villains of the film. This extreme role reversal was never accomplished so well before in cinema.
The motif of the massacre deconstructs the cinematic myth of the West, of how it “was entirely heroic and unsullied, and exposes the historical realities of the nineteenth-century genocide of Native Americans. ” (129). Despite the horrors they must suffer through as targets of the U. S Government, the Cheyenne still remain a strong and vigilant people, as one can see in the character of Old Lodge Skins, a visionary who is a strong leader to both the Cheyenne and Jack Crabb. Many customs and traditions are also demonstrated in detail within the film, an aspect of Native American culture which is rarely seen in earlier Westerns.
All this visually explicit detail allows the audience to sympathize with the Cheyenne, and better understand what it was like being a Native American during the 19th century, not only as victims of the Westward Expansion but also as a culturally rich people. The Searchers is also an attempt to accurately and sympathetically portray the Native American. As previously mentioned, Ford’s earlier cinematic work depicts Native Americans in an unhistorical way, and glorifies “the cowboy-as-epic hero, a character type whose role was to repress the threatening Indians and win the West” (122).
Ford challenges the image of the mythic cowboy in this movie, along with the ‘Hollywood Indian’, both constructed images that he had a part in creating. The movie takes place roughly around the same historical period as Little Big Man, the mid-19th century, also incorporating a climactic battle in one of the final scenes, which is believed to be the Battle of Washita River (Nolley, 75). Similarly to Little Big Man, Ford depicts the Comanche fleeing from the seventh 7th U. S. Cavalry (75). This is one of the very few sympathetic portrayals of the Comanche within the film.
The anti-hero of the story, Ethen Edwards, is depicted as a hateful racist who despises Native Americans (which I could introduce this sentence better). This hatred is fuelled when a local band of Comanche invade the Edwards home while Ethen and his band are out searching for stolen cattle. The Comanche pillage, burn, and kill most of the family members, and abduct some of the women of the household. While one would think a racist anti-hero would aid in portraying the Native Americans as the victims of prejudice, the senseless act previously mentioned makes the audience believe that Ethen’s hate is justified.
Not only that, but the scene also reinforces the stereotypical image of the ‘Hollywood Indian’. This, unfortunately, is the dominant portrayal of the Comanche in The Searchers. More often than not, the Americans are portrayed as more civilized, skilful and intelligent than the Comanche. For example, the Comanche cannot shoot guns as adeptly as Ethen and his gang, who can usually take a Comanche down with one fired shot from their guns. There is also a scene where we see Ethen and his gang of followers being chased after by a band of Comanche.
Ethen and the rest make it past a river on horseback with relative ease, yet the Comanche cannot even get past shore level without falling off of their horses. Not only are the Comanche portrayed as primitive, but they are also demonized within The Searchers as well. The music manipulation reinforces this claim, where when the Comanche enter a scene, “Indian music” begins to play, which is “invariably associated with war, stereotypically invoking a sense of threat and suspense” (82).
Furthermore, one of the most powerful scenes of the film further demonizes the Comanche. When Ethen finds Martha dead in a burnt down shack, a victim of the Comanche invasion, he refuses to show the body to Martin Pawley (and consequently the audience). As Ken Nolley suggests, the fact that this “scene [is] too horrible to be shown is very powerful; in effect, Ford invokes the conscious and unconscious fears of the audience to describe the nature of the Indian threat” (86).
This scene makes the audience fear the Comanche, as they are portrayed as capable of atrocities so horrible that these acts cannot even be displayed to the public eye. In the end, when one compares The Searchers to revisionist Westerns like Little Big Man, Ford’s attempt at depicting a sympathetic view towards the Native Americans is considered pale in comparison. If anything, Ford further reinforces the demonization of the Native Americans by portraying the negative effects that their cinematic acts of barbarism can have on anti-heroes such as Ethen Edwards.
Secrets &ump; Lies is an honest and provocative film, where part of the story is focused on Hortense Cumberbatch, an Anglo-Jamaican woman in search of her identity and biological mother. She is a character that is a “self-aware and sussed person. She’s gone through rigours of sorting herself out, of getting a degree; she understands a lot of things and she’s disciplined in the way she lives… she is a career girl and she’s organised. ” (Leigh, 269-270). Hortense, then, is a woman of color who breaks all negative stereotypes associated with black individuals that have largely been created by the cinematic medium.
Mike Leigh comments that racism is indeed a part of Secrets and Lies, just not a major issue (273). Instead, the film addresses what Leigh claims to be “ordinary racism,” that is, racism that is largely based on common stereotypes (273). For example, when Hortense is greeted by Monica at the door, Monica does not let her in at first, simply because she is “not expecting a smartly dressed black woman to show up” (273). An intelligent and successful Anglo-Jamaican woman is just not a common character in cinema.
Despite the lack of all-out racism in Secrets &ump; Lies, there is still the presence of role reversal, where we see Hortense as more successful, organized and intelligent than most, if not all the Caucasians in the film; Cynthia and her daughter, for example. They seem to be of a lower middle class, with dead end jobs, while Hortense is of the upper class and has a high paying job as an optometrist. Secrets &ump; Lies is a masterpiece in this respect, as it delivers the rawer aspects of life, and portrays individuals in a more realistic way.
Precious provides us with an incredibly different portrayal of a young black woman. The film is a coming of age story about a teenage African-American named Precious Jones. Her portrayal however is defined by the common stereotypes revolving around African-American women, and a people of a darker skin color in general. Precious is obese, illiterate and lives with her mother who is on welfare. She also has two children, both of which are given to her by her biological father.
Her mother, Mary Jones, is also a good example of common stereotypes, as she is hell-bent on staying jobless, against higher education, is on welfare, and is abusive towards Precious. With all these factors against her, Precious ultimately rises above these hardships, learns how to read and to get her children back from her grandmother, and attempts to lead a normal life. Many critics have critically acclaimed the movie for this inspirational tale, while others “see it as a renewal of old, negative stereotypes” (Bernard 155).
Also, some “viewers and commentators have been alarmed, insulted, saddened, or dismayed,” and with good reason (155). While a movie cannot please all members of the audience, Precious’ inspirational achievement is indeed overshadowed by all the negative stereotypes that define her, along with the daily horrors she must face. Being a teen mom of an incestuous rape by her father, along with being obese and illiterate, as well as contracting AIDS at the end of the movie, is a negative image the audience cannot let go of so easily. There is even a derogatory scene where Precious is caught trying to steal chicken from a local restaurant.
In the end, the movie seems less like a success story, and more like a movie about African-American stereotypes. While it is indeed a raw depiction of the life of Precious Jones, when we compare other role reversals and success stories such as that of Hortense’ in Secrets and Lies, it is safe to assume that too many stereotypes can negatively affect the intended message of the film. As demonstrated above, stereotypes in cinema of Native Americans, and people of a darker skin colour (African Americans, Anglo-Jamaicans, etc. ), have been much a part of cinematic history.
While the movies The Searchers and Precious have attempted to portray minority groups in a more accurate, positive or sympathetic way, they ultimately fall short when compared to movies such as Little Big Man and Secrets and Lies, who have masterfully achieved a positive reconstruction of the stereotypical imagery of minority groups found in film. In the end, slightest hint of stereotype can come across very strongly, and ultimately twist the message that the director had intended. They must keep in mind the powerful medium that is cinema.