Filmmakers Look Behind Hollywood’s Lens on Race

As Oscar buzz builds, Greg Varner talks with documentary filmmakers about some of history's best--and worst--representations of people of color.

By Greg Varner Dec 17, 2010

Awards season is upon us; Golden Globe nominations were just announced, and Oscar nominations are coming next. But not even a dozen doctoral dissertations could do justice to the vexed subject of how people of color are represented in Hollywood films. The images projected in American movies have mainly served up the distortion of funhouse mirrors, along with the occasional–and surprising–accurate reflection. The good, the bad, and the downright ugly have affected audiences in such complicated ways that it may be necessary to turn to filmmakers themselves for help in sorting them out–specifically, to documentary moviemakers who are uniquely able to turn their medium’s gaze on itself.

One such artist, Arthur Dong, is the director of "Hollywood Chinese," a delectable and provocative slice of film history that alternates movie clips with comments from actors such as Nancy Kwan, Lisa Lu, and B.D. Wong; from writers such as David Henry Hwang and Amy Tan; and from directors such as Justin Lin and Ang Lee. Their voices and others form a chorus offering a nuanced picture of the Chinese American experience of Hollywood, in front of the camera, behind it, or in the audience. (Readers may also be interested in Jeff Adachi’s "The Slanted Screen," a critical examination of the representation of Asian-American men in film.)

"Sometimes I think of myself as a wolf in sheep’s clothing when I craft my films," Dong says. "What is ‘Hollywood Chinese’ about? Really, it’s about racism, and how race relations work or don’t work in this country. That’s the core message. But I’m also a film lover, and I made it for other film lovers–and that’s the way I put the sheep over the wolf."

Race and racism, of course, have been on the screen since movies began. As shown in the recently produced "Reel Injun," a documentary by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond that’s currently making its way in theaters, inventor Thomas Edison filmed Native American Pueblo ceremonies in the 1890s. Since then, in a medium awash with false representations, truth has sometimes risen to the screen’s surface, however infrequently.

At the same time, historians such as Neal Gabler have suggested the extent to which the urge for racial and ethnic erasure is inscribed in the DNA of Hollywood movies, perhaps especially in the early talkies. In his book "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood," Gabler shows that, although immigrant Jews owned seven of the eight major studios during the 1930s, "something drove the young Hollywood Jews to a ferocious, even pathological, embrace of America" in which Jewish representation all but vanished from the screen in favor of characters who were average (WASP) everymen. This is in part, of course, an economic imperative attributable to the quest for commercial success, but the upshot has been a toxic brew of too few images of minorities in the first place and too much distortion in those images that were manufactured. Under such a regime, images of the "other" function primarily to define, justify, and consolidate majority identity.

Seeing the Gray

Gray areas proliferate. Many representations are negative on one hand and positive on the other. For Arthur Dong and others, the movies in the "Charlie Chan" series fall into this twilight category.

"In the context of the time," Dong says, "to have a main character who’s smarter than a white guy is pretty radical. Chan is a Chinese character respected by everyone around him except for the racists. All his kids are as American as apple pie. But I don’t back off from the fact that Charlie Chan also had negative effects." Chan became a mostly positive stereotype, but all stereotypes are ultimately reductive and hence problematic.

"People who see a certain type of character on screen assume that’s reality," Dong says. "We see that mistake happen time and time again. Audiences do not necessarily have malicious intent, but they’re misinformed. It’s been a problem ever since cinema was invented."

The history of the so-called "blaxploitation" films of the 1970s also demonstrates how a community can be torn by disagreement about the value of certain styles of representation. Isaac Julien’s documentary "Baadasssss Cinema" presents clashing viewpoints on films such as "Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song," "Shaft," and "Superfly." The first of these films, written and directed by Melvin Van Peebles, became the largest-grossing independent film made up to that time. Van Peebles set out to make a film about a black hero who defied the white power structure and lived to tell the tale. Furthermore, he would use a diverse crew, necessitating the risky use of non-union labor, as faithfully depicted by his son Mario in the feature film "Baadasssss!"

In a time when mainstream white cinema was defeatist, the "blaxploitation" films were about winning, and some viewers criticized them for precisely that. Julien’s documentary presents archival footage of Roy Innis of CORE saying, "Once you get through that vicarious thrill of seeing a black man beat up a white man on the screen, you go back and you face the same evil system that you faced before you went there. We should always deal with reality and not fantasy."

More than one commentator counters that the black audience at that time was in desperate need of heroes, however escapist or anti-heroic. "We needed something to make us feel better about ourselves," the actor Samuel L. Jackson tells Julien. "You watched the news; every day, people were being beat down. Things weren’t progressing the way we wanted them to." Film historian Ed Guerrero tells Julien that the blaxploitation films reflect the shift of the larger society from the self-sacrificing "we" of the civil rights era to the consumerist "me" that reached its apotheosis during and after the Reagan era.

Today, many people classify Al Jolson singing "Mammy" in blackface in the 1920s as an insult. The same could be said when Paul Muni and other white actors played Mexicans. Similarly, many would agree that the use of yellowface makeup for white performers playing Asian characters is unacceptable. Charlie Chan was played by various actors, most of them white; the German-born actress Luise Rainer won an Oscar for her portrayal of a Chinese woman in "The Good Earth." As recently as the 1990s, controversy erupted when a white man was cast as an Asian character in the stage musical "Miss Saigon."

A more–or less–obvious gray area is when minority actors play parts from which ethnic or racial identity has been scrubbed, resulting in characters who feel inauthentic, says Nancy De Los Santos, the Chicana co-director (with Susan Racho and the late Alberto Dominguez) of "The Bronze Screen: 100 Years of the Latino Image in Hollywood." Still, as one who says she prefers imperfect representation over invisibility, she admits that in such cases, "The needle would probably still go to the positive rather than the negative."

It can also be insulting, as De Los Santos learned, to suffer through a film in which malign verbal references to a particular racial group are gratuitously sprinkled in the dialogue. She experienced this at a screening of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin."

"I remember being in the theater," she says, "and within the first few minutes the characters are talking about going to Tijuana and watching a woman getting fucked by a horse. And I’m the only Latina in the theater, and immediately I could feel myself getting hot with embarrassment. Was it necessary? I don’t think so. It had nothing to do with the plot. I think they were just looking for something shocking. There’s another scene later in the movie of the female lead talking about her memory of her first sexual experience. I think it was with her family’s Guatemalan gardener. Of all the beautiful Guatemalan gardeners in the world–these poor guys who get up at sunrise to go and cut your grass–why you are putting that image out there, of that poor guy having sex with an underage girl? Did that just pass by everybody else?"

Film as Activism

Sometimes, being provoked by a film in the right way can be a good thing. In "Hollywood Chinese," Ang Lee (the director of "Brokeback Mountain," "The Ice Storm," and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" among other films) tells Arthur Dong that movies should be provocations. Describing himself as "pretty even-keeled," Dong offers qualified agreement.

"If people walk out of the theater with angry thoughts in their mind," Dong argues, "that’s probably not what I want. With all my work, I try to reach a broader audience with issues that may be uncomfortable. I choose not to produce films that preach to the converted. How am I going to talk about racism or homophobia to people who need to hear about them? We’re talking about a film medium that reaches, potentially, millions of people. That’s the power of the medium."

As a boy in San Francisco, Dong remembers, he was first rocked by that power when he saw "Flower Drum Song." He experienced what he calls a "watershed moment" only partly qualified by his later misgivings: "That was the first English-language film I ever saw in the theater, and I saw it in Chinatown, where the film is set, with characters like the people that I knew in my personal life. And of course, Nancy Kwan was forever seared in my mind as a movie icon. And I know that many people in my generation share that feeling, even though there are a lot of problems with that film. It’s a white man’s concoction. But for me, despite misgivings, it’s a film essentially about cultural and generational conflict, and about immigration law and policy."

Allowing for the difficulty, if not the foolishness, of making monolithic statements about an entire group, Dong says there are three other films likely to be named most often if Chinese Americans are asked about their own watershed moments in cinema: "The World of Suzie Wong," "Chan Is Missing," and "The Joy Luck Club."

"Those are the choices that I think would come up most often. And different people from different interest groups, with different feelings about what life is about, would choose different films. I think it’s too hard to generalize, and I think that’s the problem with racism in this country–we always want that easy answer, that one answer, that dehumanizes the diversity of a particular group. There is no single answer, and when we look for it, that’s where we get into trouble."

Nancy De Los Santos singles out 1995’s "Mi Familia" by Gregory Nava as a highlight of Latino representation: "I was the associate producer on that. They wanted to show three generations of a Mexican-American family in a realistic portrayal–not just a positive portrayal. Realistic portrayals mean that Latinos can be the criminals and the heroes and everything in between."

"Hollywood’s fantasy influenced the world–even natives like me," Neil Diamond says in "Reel Injun." Some of the landmark films that portray indigenous people as fully human, he believes, are "Smoke Signals," "Once Were Warriors," and "Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)."

Sometimes performers have transcended weak material in a way that enables at least some audience members to read positive messages between the lines. An example might be Hattie McDaniel’s performance as Mammy in "Gone With the Wind," for which she earned the "Best Supporting Actress" Oscar. Even viewers who reject the character as a stereotype have seen that, as McDaniel plays her, she runs the house with dignity and strength. Many people have found a watershed in "Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song," often said to be the first film in which the black power consciousness of the late 1960s appeared on the screen.

Other times, as in some of the films of Sidney Poitier and some of the Charlie Chan films, even the approved, mainstream vehicles manage to undermine racism in refreshing ways. "Hollywood Chinese" features a clip from "The Mountain Road" in which James Stewart’s character talks about a woman played by Lisa Lu as if she doesn’t speak English–an assumption Dong says he encounters in daily life–and she answers him in fluent English.

"When I meet people," Dong says, "they often ask, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘I’m from San Francisco.’ ‘Oh, I mean where’s your family from?’ When two white people meet, is that the first thing they ask?"

Unfortunately, the majority of Hollywood’s representations of people of color have fostered the false impressions that prompt such questions and assumptions. In "Reel Injun," director Neil Diamond mentions John Ford’s celebrated "Stagecoach," in which the white characters race across the southwestern landscape besieged by hostile "savages" on all sides, as a particularly damaging work. This popular, prize-winning film starring John Wayne, widely considered a classic, has shaped ideas about Native Americans for generations. "Reel Injun" raises the question of what happens when Indian kids recreate movie battles between cowboys and Natives. The Indians lose every time, right?

"I really believe," says Nancy De Los Santos, "that when any young child sees somebody that looks like them doing something that they admire, that’s how they start to get the wheels turning in their brain and in their heart saying, ‘I can do that.’"

What’s true for children, she finds, is true for adults as well. Exposure to positive models is all-important. "Jimmy Smits stated very clearly that seeing Raul Julia on stage made him decide he could be an actor. The same basic thing happened when I got into the business. I always loved television and film, but it wasn’t until I went to the University of Texas and met a Latina who was in charge of television production that I knew I could do it."

While the overall quality of Latino representation has improved, De Los Santos says, "The quantity just isn’t there." The problem will be solved, she predicts, only when more Latino writers get a place at the table.

"I think it’s a challenge for the non-Latino writer to create a three-dimensional Latino character," De Los Santos says. "It’s not impossible, but it’s a challenge. Here in L.A., many Latinos are in the service community. The non-Latino community knows Latina maids and Latino chauffeurs and gardeners. What you know is what you’re going to write about. An actor can always bring something more to a role, but I think it starts with the writing. Usually it turns out that people hire someone they know to do the writing, or any other job. The people who are doing the hiring are not Latino or African American. It’s a very difficult cycle to break. And more authentic images are not going to be created until Latinos and African Americans are at the table."

Opportunities for writers are fewer in the current financial environment, De Los Santos realizes, so her longed-for increase in the quantity of Latino images is unlikely to happen soon. The change in majority consciousness that healthy representation could engender would also affect that representation in turn, in a kind of feedback loop.

"We all have a primal need to see ourselves," De Los Santos says, summing up. "That’s why cavemen put their handprints on the walls in caves, to say, ‘We were here.’ We should all be in the movies."


Finding the Filmmakers’ Work

"The Bronze Screen," "Baadasssss Cinema," and "Baadasssss!" are available on DVD. "Reel Injun" is currently making its way in theaters. 

"Hollywood Chinese" recently became available, separately or in a boxed set entitled "Stories from Chinese America" with two other DVDs showcasing Dong’s work. One of these, the supremely charming "Forbidden City, U.S.A.," features vintage footage from the legendary all-Chinese nightclub in 1940s San Francisco, as well as present-day interviews with the men and women who wowed its patrons. The third disc in the set contains three short films, including the Oscar-nominated "Sewing Woman," based on the life of Dong’s mother, who came to San Francisco as an immigrant; "Lotus," an historical feature set in a Chinese village where a woman is struggling with the decision to have her daughter’s feet bound; and "Living Music for Golden Mountains," a portrait of Dong’s music teacher, a Chinese immigrant in San Francisco who kept in touch with his cultural identity through music. 

Dong’s distinguished body of cinematic activism also includes three landmark films on homophobia, collected in a previously released boxed set, "Stories from the War on Homosexuality": "Coming Out Under Fire," based on Allan Bérubé‘s book about gay and lesbian veterans of World War II; "Licensed to Kill," asking convicted murderers of gay men why they did it; and "Family Fundamentals," focusing on gay and lesbian children disowned by religious parents.