Race in the 21st Century: The Film Series
October 24- 26, 2003
In selecting films for the series, we did not attempt to represent every oppressed group or examine all of the racial and ethnic conflicts that rip asunder families, communities, countries, and continents. That these groups and conflicts are too numerous to recognize individually is a sad testimony to the current state of race relations in the United States and around the world. Instead, we have chosen films that, to our mind, transcend the specificities of the stories they tell. They help us understand the mechanisms of racial oppression of all groups, they teach about the dangers of all ethnic stereotyping, they explain the power of popular imagery to shape the racial consciousness of entire communities, and they reveal that the race categories we have long accepted as reflections of deep-rooted biological differences are, in fact, socially constructed. While we recognize that many more issues remain to be addressed and that our five presentations are but a prologue to a larger conversation about race that the campus community will have this year, we hope these films will prompt us to reflect on the probing questions they ask.
The films are shown in Drenan Auditorium, Parker Hall.
Friday, October 24 –7 p.m.
Race: The Power of an Illusion
Episode 2: "The Story We Tell"
"The Story We Tell," Episode 2 in the PBS trilogy Race: The Power of an Illusion, argues that the idea of race, which we often assume to have roots in human biology and therefore an ahistorical permanence, actually originates in the European conquest of the Americas. Moreover, the concept of race that we know today did not solidify until the middle of the 19th century, when it was used to justify the presence of slavery in a state that claimed to be founded on the principles of freedom and equality of all people. The film views race as a story created to justify social inequalities by making them appear to be natural effects of racial differences.
The Birth of a Nation (excerpts)
The release of David Wark Griffith's The Birth of a Nation in 1915 unleashed a storm of racist fury that resonates to this day. Set in the post-Civil War era, the film portrays the recently emancipated slaves as violent, feeble-minded, lazy savages and justifies the creation of the Ku Klux Klan as a necessary response to the threat they pose to the white race. Combining brilliant storytelling with gross distortion of historical fact, The Birth of a Nation, based on Thomas Dixon Jr.'s novel The Clansman, exemplifies film's power to create history in the interest of the dominant group.
Saturday, October 25–2 p.m.
This 1949 film produced by Louis de Rochemont, the legendary two-time Academy Award-winning producer and New Hampshirite, tells the true story of Dr. Albert Johnston. After moving to Keene, Dr. Johnston and his wife, Thyra, both light-skinned African Americans, had to pass for white if Dr. Johnston was to succeed in practicing medicine. The physician's secret was revealed during World War II, when he applied for a commission in the United States Navy and was rejected for service on the basis of race. The film traces the story of the Johnston family and the effects this disclosure had on them and the Keene community.
Lost Boundaries will be shown with Home to Keene: The Lost Boundaries Reunion, the Emmy-nominated documentary about the 40th anniversary screening of the film. The anniversary event, which took place in Keene in 1989, was attended by the Johnston family, the film's cast and crew, and more than 1,000 other people.
Saturday, October 25–7 p.m.
The Life and Times of Sara Baartman
The events portrayed in The Life and Times of Sara Baartman take place in Europe in the era when today's concept of race was still in the making. It shows how the life - and body - of one woman was put to work in the service of creating race. The documentary narrates the story of a Khoi Khoi woman who in 1810 was brought from South Africa to London, where she became known as "The Hottentot Venus." After being displayed as a freak all over Britain, Baartman was taken to France and turned into an object of scientific and medical investigation into the nature of black female sexuality. When she died at the age of 26, her body was dissected by the scientist Georges Cuvier, who saw her as little more than an ape. Fixated on Baartman's body and sexual anatomy, British popular culture and French science transformed her into a symbol of racial inferiority, fueling the ideology of white supremacy.
Focusing on the lives of Maria Estante and Sharon Kim, the documentary Western Eyes examines the pressure on young women of Asian descent to conform to the Western ideal of beauty. Although brought to Canada at a very early age, the young women do not feel quite at home in their adopted homeland. Attributing their discomfort to their appearance, they believe that their self-image and the image they project are affected by the way they look. In an attempt to overcome this sense of alienation, the two women decide to undergo cosmetic surgery to alter the shape of their eyes and make them look more "Western." The film raises questions about how pop culture and mass media, by fixating on Western standards of beauty, affect the emotional development of young people belonging to minority groups.
Sunday, October 26–2 p.m.
In Whose Honor?
As it tells the story of Charlene Teters, a Spokane woman who single-handedly began the struggle against the University of Illinois's use of an American Indian mascot, In Whose Honor? tackles ethnic stereotypes and race representation in sports and the sports industry. It critiques the practice of using elements of American Indian culture in sports entertainment, including team names and mascots, and shows that although the practice is masqueraded as a tribute to Native Americans, it demeans them and their cultural heritage. This documentary reveals the power of such popular imagery to desensitize entire communities, making them unable to see that the mascots they choose disparage the very traditions and peoples they profess to honor.
Ethnic Notions: Black People in White Minds
Through a careful examination of various cultural artifacts, from feature films to advertisements to nursery rhymes, Marlon Riggs explores the role of popular culture in shaping racist attitudes. As it surveys American history from the 1820s on, this documentary compiles a gallery of disturbing stereotypes that molded the perception of African Americans by white society until the recent past. The film demonstrates that although these stereotypes changed throughout the years, their social function did not. These degrading representations, whose echoes still reverberate in the public mind, have fed the anti-black sentiment and helped justify racist oppression.
Race: The Power of an Illusion Episode 1: "The Difference between Us"
This episode of the PBS series Race: The Power of an Illusion demonstrates that race is a biological myth. Although we have become accustomed to separating people into races based on facial features and body characteristics and to seeing these distinctions as manifestations of deep biological differences, modern science has revealed that race has no foundation in human biology. Racial distinctions do not penetrate beyond our appearance; race is literally skin deep. Such was the finding of a multiracial group of students who sequenced and compared their DNA, expecting to see the closest genetic correspondences between members of their own race. They were surprised to discover they were wrong. With the help of prominent scientists who explain the nature and implications of these discoveries, "The Difference between Us" subverts many myths about race and its biological origins.
Race: The Power of an Illusion Episode 3: "The House We Live In" (excerpts)
These excerpts from Episode 3 of Race: The Power of an Illusion reveal the socially constructed character of race. If the courts decide who is white and what constitutes whiteness, how can people see racial divisions as biologically determined? Tracing a series of court decisions that provided conflicting definitions of whiteness within a decade of each other, the excerpts make clear that, far from reflecting biological differences between people, race is a product of social institutions that use it to guard the interests of privileged groups.