By Austin S. Harris
In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, one of the year’s most acclaimed films, Sam Rockwell plays a moronic racist cop who is known to have tortured a Black suspect. He has rightfully received critical acclaim for the role, and will likely be nominated for an Oscar for the performance. While the film is a commentary on police brutality and the lives of the working class white Americans who overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump, McDonagh gives very little agency to the marginalized people he is accusing his white characters of mistreating. In addition, Sam Rockwell’s character has a transformation, and by the end of the film, the audience is meant to root for him. I couldn’t get behind him. I enjoyed the film’s tone, humor, and performances, but I did feel left out of the discussion.
This is a problem that people of color, especially Black women and queers, frequently have to face when it comes to consuming classic cinema.
I graduated from Tisch School of the Arts with a major in Film & Television Production, and while I was at Tisch, I watched classics like Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and Taxi Driver countless times.
We consumed movies with latent sexism, racism, and any other sort of hatred you can think of. We watch these films for their cinematic merit and yes, these films do have cinematic merit, but it’s painful to know that the art doesn’t like me.
Rear Window is my favorite Hitchcock film. I could argue that Grace Kelly’s Lisa is one of Hitchcock’s most feminist woman characters in that she is daring enough to dig for a body and break into Thornhill’s apartment while Jimmy Stewart’s Jeffries is immobile in a wheelchair. There’s a scene in the film where Jeffries’s nurse, Stella, makes a phone call, and the voice that answers, a maid, is that of a stereotypical Black mammy. It’s the sort of voice that belongs to the disembodied legs in old Tom & Jerry cartoons.
IMDb doesn’t have a credit for the voice, but it seems clear that the person on the line isn’t actually Black, and might not even be a woman, but they’re certainly putting on the voice. It’s not an important part of the film at all, but it’s ugly, especially when you consider the fact that this is one of few “appearances” of Black people in Hitchcock films. The fact that he approved that voice is endlessly disappointing.
My struggle is that while I admire Hitchcock for his cinematic genius, I’m forced to look past his racism, and especially his sexism, while I watch his films.
Taxi Driver is another of my favorite films. There is a scene in the film where Travis picks up a passenger played by the director of the film, Martin Scorsese. Martin has him park outside of an apartment building where his wife is cheating on him with, by the character’s own words, a “nigger.” In the film, it is also implied that Travis himself is racist. While Travis isn’t meant to be a “good person,” he is the person that we’re meant to root for, and it’s especially difficult as a Black viewer to stand behind him.
The fact that classic cinema is rooted in latent racism is due in no small part to the time of its emergence.
Film first became popular in the United States at the turn of the century, at a time when the country was under the rule and culture of Jim Crow. The first major blockbuster was The Birth of a Nation, a film that not only glorifies the KKK, but is also credited with fueling the second rise of the organization. The film even created the concept of burning crosses before the actual KKK ever did.
Strict anti-miscegenation laws kept interracial couples from being portrayed on screen, so Anna May Wong, the only major Asian starlet from the early days of cinema, was kept from playing any romantic roles due to the lack of Asian male stars. Behind the camera, the situation was even worse. A white woman wasn’t nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director until 1977 (Italian director Lina Wertmüller, Pasqualino Sette Bellezze), a Black person until 1991 (John Singleton, for the classic Boyz in the Hood). No Black non-men have never been nominated for the laudation.
Despite their anti-Black underpinnings, I would not suggest that films like these never be screened. There is much to learn from (and possibly enjoy) in films that have problematic aspects. But we should not shy away from learning from those problematic elements as well. We could have a thought-provoking discussion about why Martin Scorsese felt the need to say “nigger” in his Taxi Driver cameo, while making sure the role of the pimp in the film was not played by a Black person, for fear it would be too stereotypical.
Further, the continued push to have equitable representation in creative direction and expression is one that ensures anti-Blackness does not find its way on our screens. Moonlight was so beautiful because it was written and directed by people who grew up in similar circumstances to its characters, and thus we were delighted to witness a groundbreaking, emotionally-stirring exceptional work that added to the canon of Black queer thought and expression.
Cinema is about escaping one’s own life and entering another, and that will only get more daring and more adventurous when more Black people and people of color are allowed to shepard that journey.
“The Forgotten Story of Classic Hollywood’s First Asian-American Star“– Anne Helen Petersen, BuzzFeed (September 30, 2014)
“The Black Activist Who Fought Against D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” ‘ – Richard Brody, The New Yorker (February 6, 2017)
“Historical art or racist propaganda? How should Hollywood handle problematic classics like ‘Gone with the Wind’?” – Tre’vell Anderson, LA Times (September 5, 2017)
Austin S. Harris is a writer, performer, and filmmaker based in New York City. He has a BFA in Film & Television Production from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he made several award-winning short films. Austin recently won the Lorraine Hansberry/Ralph Ellison Award from the NYU Center for Multicultural Education and Programs, an award that recognizes a student who has worked to promote the diverse representation of people of color in the arts, entertainment and media.