At Audiences Everywhere, we like to stay fairly apolitical in our articles. Unless a movie is strictly about politics we keep our opinions to ourselves and refrain from forcing an agenda on anyone. With that said, when I was tasked with writing about Panic Day 2016, the first thing that jumped into my head was a man who spends an awful lot of his time talking about building a wall between America and Mexico, a man who wants to ban people who follow Islam from entering America (and kicking out those already there), and a man who recently advocated the killing of families of terrorists–whether the US military wanted to do it or not. I won’t sully this website with his name, and hopefully when I write about Panic Day 2017, his name will be a footnote and a warning to the world of how close we came to giving a reality TV show host the nuclear codes.
The thing that stuck out for me about he-who-shall-not-be-named is that a lot of his campaign has been based about creating race panic. He prays on the fears of people who have been educated over the years by media and movies that depict certain races in a certain way.
Last year for Panic Day, I wrote about societal panics like drugs, infidelity, and the internet; this year I wanted to talk about how movies create racial panic and “educate” us about which races we can trust and which are shifty. Spoiler: The ones we can trust are white; the ones we can’t are not.
Since the conception of cinema, a variety of races have been depicted on screen as the villain. As society changed or foreign policy shifted, the villain has changed its skin colour or religion, but the subtlety of the depiction has remained pretty consistent.
Lets start with a biggie. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation sets the race panic bar pretty high. This is a movie in which the Ku Klux Klan are the heroes and black men are portrayed as sexually aggressive animals who will kill you and steal away your wife and daughters without a second thought. The movie rewrites history to show white men of the South as being poor, mistreated, and bullied following the Civil War during Reconstruction. The Klan are heroic defenders of truth, justice, and Jesus Christ, and the black characters (some of whom are played by white men in blackface) are primitive creatures who could never hope to integrate with modern society. The movie practically screams at its audience:
PANIC! Run away before the black man eats your babies!
In the ’20s the panic was shifted to the Yellow Peril, the title for a series of movies that is about as offensive as the movies themselves. The Yellow Peril was typified by movies in which the villain would be some sort of mystical Asian figure (doesn’t matter where in Asia as the character would be played by a white guy anyway) who seeks to bewitch his enemies and steal their women. By now you should see a trend forming. The most famous Yellow Peril villain is Fu Manchu, created by the coolly named Irishman, Sax Rohmer. Fu Manchu has been depicted on screen around 20 times by such notable white actors as Christopher Lee, Peter Sellers, Boris Karloff, and Swedish actor Walter Oland, who also played Charlie Chan in 16 movies and, through some Mongolian ancestry, at least looked vaguely Asian. Britain’s animosity to the East and Orientalism made these movies very popular, and the Fu Manchu character became the touchstone for depicting sneaky Chinese people in movies. At this time the East still held a lot of mystery, and England, having the long memory that it has, was probably still pissed about the Opium Wars nearly a hundred years prior. And when faced with something we don’t understand, we tell others to:
PANIC! Asians are magical and want to steal our woman and force us to adopt those long droopy moustaches!
After awhile, the stereotypes changed from villains to not-quite-heroes. Black characters weren’t evil anymore; they were magic, and the magic Negro trope still perseveres in movies and fiction. Asian stereotypes have repositioned Asians as a collection of stereotypes, such as masters of martial arts and mathematics, possessors of ancient wisdom, and, if the character is Japanese, he is stoic and an honour-obsessed businessman. We move away from panic to reposition other races as safe, wise, and cool by fitting them into pre-made boxes. Last year’s Age of Ultron received a lot of praise for having a South Korean actress play a South Korean instead of whatever Asian race they needed. She also didn’t use martial arts and wasn’t a math whiz or a geisha. I challenge you to find an Asian character in film or on TV who manages break those stereotypes. Now these changes don’t necessarily cause panic, but they are dismaying. In order to stop people’s fears of these races, they sand down any sharp edges until the races can fit in their boxes.
As time goes on, I hope we get better. 2015 and 2016’s all-white Oscars were not a huge indication we’re moving in the right direction. Movies like London Has Fallen, which goes to the militant Islam well for its villains, aren’t a great sign that race panic is going away.
Remember though, there is a trick to stopping this panic, thereby changing the game. If you see a trailer for a movie that strictly exists to make your heart race faster at the thought of a person of another race stealing your spouse, or if it has a wise black character who helps Matt Damon win a golf tournament, or an Asian character who is introduced with a gong sound and is shown fighting ninjas, just don’t see the movie. Studios want to make money, and when movies that depict the above rake in huge amounts of money, then the only word I can use to describe my state of mind is:
Featured Image: Seven Arts