I can vividly recall my strong negative reaction to Joseph Conrad’s highly acclaimed novel Heart of Darkness. Its racism appalled me as I wrote in a blog post ten years ago.
I remember the first time I read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, hailed by critics as a masterpiece. I was appalled at the blatantly racist portrayals of Africans and could barely get through the book. Many years later, I re-read it. The shock and anger that the original reading had aroused in me had worn off and I could see and appreciate Conrad’s skill with words in creating the deepening sense of foreboding as Marlow goes deeper into the jungle in search of Kurtz.
Ironically, Chinua Achebe gave a talk criticizing the book and saying that Conrad’s novel, whatever its other merits, perpetuated African stereotypes. The talk attracted a lot of attention and Conrad’s many admirers leapt to his defense, saying that Conrad was a product of his times and merely reflecting the views then current and that his book was actually a critique of the evils of colonialism.
Maybe so, but the racism was still there and still bothered me even on the second reading.
I had a similar reaction to the 1956 John Ford western The Searchers that stars John Wayne. I had heard about how this was a great western, perhaps even the greatest western, but thought it shockingly racist and misogynistic and was mystified that so many famous film directors and critics spoke of it as a masterpiece and how they repeatedly watched it. (The fact that I have always disliked Wayne, someone I consider to be a right-wing macho poseur, increased my distaste for the film whereas Wayne’s admirers seemed to think his presence somehow made the film more likable.)
In this segment from the radio program Studio 360 Arun Venugopal thoughtfully discusses the film and its problematic racism and why so many people seem willing to overlook it and call it a classic.
“The Searchers” showcased John Wayne, turning his archetypal strength and stoicism into viciousness as a returned soldier hell-bent on revenge against the Comanche who killed his family in a raid. The plot invokes the centuries-old captivity narrative in the figure of his niece, played by Natalie Wood, who has been assimilated in the tribe; Wayne’s character considers killing her rather than allow her to live “corrupted.”
Race hatred this blatant had rarely been seen on film. However, in a society still steeped in segregation, critics and viewers barely noted the film’s overtones of racial violence when it was first released.
Today, many film critics call “The Searchers” awkward and unwatchable. Yet a generation of American directors has taken cues from Ford’s cinematography and stark psychological portraiture, including Steven Spielberg, Michael Cimino and Martin Scorcese, who called Wayne’s character “John Ford’s Ahab,” and claims to re-watch “The Searchers” up to twice a year. The figure of an honorable man demented by violence and revenge took its place as a new type of American anti-hero.
It may well be that the technical skills that Conrad displays in his book and Ford in his film are considerable. But does that compensate for the racism of each? To my mind, no. Defenders may argue that each work is not racist in itself but merely depict the racism of the eras it portrays. The problem is that the nonwhite people in both works and women in the film have little or no agency and the stories are told entirely from the perspective of the white male protagonists and thus automatically confers on them the sympathy of the audience that tends to identify with the main protagonists, even if they are deeply flawed.
Rebecca Solnit points out how the way that stories are framed influences whom we feel empathy for. She starts by pointing out how Donald Trump repeatedly stresses the danger felt by Americans by the presence of refuges, a trope endlessly repeated by his acolytes.
So many of our problems are storytelling problems. So often those who do have voices use them to limit who else is heard and to shout down others who speak. Our job is always to listen harder, to listen to who is excluded, to imagine what happens if you shift the center of the story.
I grew up on cowboy movies in which Native Americans defending themselves in their homelands were portrayed as invaders galloping into the frame of the camera. The camera stayed with the actual invaders, the white people in covered wagons, and by making them the fixed center of the movies made them the victims instead of the perpetrators; the stable presence, not the disruptors.
When the feminist hurricane called #MeToo swept the US and then to some extent the world, something complex and mysterious changed so that stories that had been disbelieved, rejected, silenced, trivialized, could be heard for the first time in ways that mattered. Some of the stories were, at first, about the most powerful men in media and entertainment; then their women victims; then, eventually, California farmworker women and janitors and restaurant workers.
Yet too often the journalism and conversations focused on how all this affected men. We had so many stories about how men didn’t feel as comfortable and confident at work, but I don’t recall a single story about how women felt more comfortable and confident that their bosses and co-workers wouldn’t harass or assault them. You see this kind of framework over and over: for example, the problem of homelessness gets framed as how it annoys those with houses rather than traumatizes those without.
Whenever a story of social conflict breaks, the first question to ask is: whose story is it? Who’s been put at the center? Who does the narrator tell us matters? Whose rights and needs do they dismiss? And what happens if you move the center?
And that is the problem with the book and the film. They are framed with the oppressors at the center, with the other characters being mere foils who have to react to them.