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Hollywood white savior strikes again

ThorwebHollywood is racist. It always has been, but what is racism? Let’s define some terms. Prejudice is the thought, discrimination is the action and racism is the system. There are systems all throughout society that benefit one race over another. In this system, white people are far more privileged than people of color.

Since people of color don’t benefit from systemic oppression, they cannot be racist. They can be prejudice or discriminatory, but not racist. And where does white privilege rear its ugly head often? In the movies.

Let’s talk about “Thor: The Dark World.” In the first 15 minutes, a group of white warriors, Fandral, Volstagg and Sif, are struggling to repel a dark-skinned army of marauders on Vanaheim. Defeat seems imminent until, in a beam of light, the blond haired, blue-eyed Thor shoots to the surface of the planet. Quickly, he dispatches the enemy’s strongest fighter and the orc-ish savages bow down to him in surrender. The image of the dark-skinned procession bowing down to a white superior is eerily reminiscent the Antebellum South’s pro-slavery poetry.

“Vainly the gentle wish, the gen’rous strive/To save the helpless wanderers that survive” George Grayson wrote in his 1856 poem, “The Hireling and the Slave.” The quoted passage talks about Native Americans. After this battle sequence, an Asian man thanks Thor for saving his homeland. This is the only time he shows up. The point of his character was to raise the white protagonist up. The same goes for the marauders on Vanaheim. Every person of color in Thor serves a white master. Even the all-seeing, all-hearing Asgardian sentry Heimdall (Idris Elba, “Prometheus”), serves the king of Asgard, Odin (Anthony Hopkins, “Hitchcock”). Heimdall fails to defend the kingdom from the dark elves and the whole nation is nearly decimated because of it.

At one point, the dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston, “Amelia”) shoves a force called the Aether inside of his loyal lieutenant Algrim’s (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, “Bullet to the Head”) body. This force essentially strips Algrim of his agency and transforms him into the bestial Kurse, in essence, the black Kurse is now a slave to the white Malekith. These tropes have been present in Hollywood and the American mythos for decades. Even a film like “12 Years a Slave” had to include a benevolent white character. Why can’t we have one mainstream movie not specifically dealing with race that has a protagonist of color? Why can’t that protagonist have some measure of agency?

I’ve felt the stings of my own racism. I shed no tears in watching a brutal video of a witch burning in rural Africa, but I almost immediately broke down in tears upon seeing a white woman recount her experience in the twin towers on 9/11.

As the film executives see it, white audiences won’t connect with a protagonist of color, unless that protagonist is a slave, a revolutionary fighter, some extraordinary historical figure. No one like, say, Will Ferrell in “Stranger than Fiction.”

Andrew J. Weaver, a telecommunications professor at Indiana University, conducted two studies that tested 79 white undergraduate students attitudes about race in movies. His results from the second group test are were resonant, “The higher the percentage of black actors in the movie, the less interested white participants were in seeing the movie.” The movie was a romantic comedy. It’s important to note that more frequent movie viewers exhibited stronger racial biases than light movie viewers.

“Thor: The Dark World” is a popcorn movie. It’s not bad, but it is racist. It’s fine to watch these movies, but also try to seek the lesser-known films with protagonists of color — movies like “The Last Dragon” starring Taimak or “Sankofa” starring Oyafunmike Ogunlano. This white savior ideology so pervasive in the world needs to stop, and maybe a decent place to start is in the movie theater.

 

Written by Jacob Holley-Kline

3 Comments

  • Hello, I’d like to comment on this article, in the sense that I completely disagree with the statement that Thor: TDW is a racist movie. First off, I’m a black female, so I want you to know that’s the perspective I’m writing from. I’m also a huge Thor fan, this is probably one of my favorite movies of the year. So, here’s where I believe your article is flawed. First of all, Overall, isn’t it convenient to claim a movie about NORSE gods is racist? Second, on your first point of the battle on Vanaheim, I’d like to point out that the marauders of this realm have horns, rock-like skin, and are, as you say, orc-ish. There is not a resemblance in them to any skin color I have ever seen. Are you comparing dark skinned people to orcs? Seems like that’s a bit more racist than Thor defeating the orcs themselves. Also, I’d like to point out how you don’t mention the female warrior Sif and her skills being shown here. Apparently that’s not important. Next point, the “Asian man” who thanks Thor is actually Hogun, one of Thor’s close friends and a might warrior of Asgard. You obviously haven’t seen the first movie. He chooses to stay here to help his homeland now that the marauders have been defeated. Or course he thanks his friend. Way to not mention that. Next point, your claim of Heimdall bowing down a white king,and then failing to protect the realm. First of all, Heimdall is all-seeing and pretty much all-knowing. He actually has more power than Thor or Odin. They often ask for his advice, as Thor does in the beginning when he asks about Jane Foster. OR, let’s talk about Thor consulting with him to create a plan of attack on the Dark Elves. He doesn’t give orders to Heimdall, he says they need to create a plan, they are WORKING TOGETHER. Please explain to me when and how Heimdall is treated like a slave? When is he given orders from Thor and treated like he is lower? If anything Thor treats him as a friend and actually exalts him. Alright, next point, the scene between Malekith and Algrim. They have had this plan in place for centuries, CENTURIES! You don’t mention how in this scene there is real emotion between them, they are also friends, and Algrim explains how he is willing to become the Kursed for the sake of his people. There is a sense of sadness from both him and Malekith, as their friendship as they know it is about to change forever, but in their eyes it is for the greater good. Again, please explain to me where Algrim was treated as lesser? Only because Malekith didn’t make himself the Kursed? Well, what do you expect, he wants the power of the Aether. In no way did he bestow the duty upon Algrim in a forceful way, Algrim volunteered.
    If you want to talk about racism in movies, you should probably use things like white Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra. HELLO? Or the movie White chicks. Is that not racism being used for comedy? How about every Madea movie ever made? Tyler Perry, a black man, using negative stereotypes against people of his own color to make money because other people, black and white, think those stereotypes are hilarious. There’s something wrong there.
    Also, you mention white audiences not identifying with a protagonist of color. Have you not seen ANY Will Smith movie? Hugely successful with all audiences.

    Though your article may have some truths to it, there are definitely racist ideologies in Hollywood as in all parts of society unfortunately, but it is working both ways. Also, you chose the wrong movie to call racist. I’ve seen it many times, and if you want to break it down more, please be my guest.

    • Jacob Holley-Kline on

      Hi Katie, thank you very much for your comments. I accept them wholeheartedly. To answer some of your questions and respond to your criticism, I’d first like to answer this: Is it convenient to claim a movie about Norse gods is racist? No, there’s nothing convenient about it. Hollywood on the whole is racist and Thor: The Dark World is one of the more recent examples.

      With that being said, I’d like to speak to the battle on Vanaheim.

      In society, as you probably know, black is encoded and bad and white is encoded as good. This has a long history in the fantasy genre and was informed by the racism of writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and, more recently, George R. R. Martin. The marauders on Vanaheim are dark skinned. Sure, they have, as you say, “rock-like skin and horns” but this image is steeped in hundreds of years of American history. See this link for a political propaganda poster: http://www.freestaterevolution.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/racist_democrat_poster.jpg and this screencap from Lord of the Rings: http://static1.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20130226015606/lotr/images/b/b7/295332_421581947923217_1235487333_n.jpg

      The dark-skin is no accident. It’s purposeful and meant to add contrast to the white protagonists. Since white people are more readily identified as “good” in the media and black people are more readily identified as “bad” the filmmakers decided to make the marauders dark-skinned. Also, the marauders in the scene have little to no dialogue, the only thing that sets them is their skin and armor. Their skin is dark because the protagonist is ridiculously white, a decision informed by being raised in a racist system. As for the female warrior Sif, this piece is about racism in Hollywood and not sexism. I’m talking about the treatment of PoC in Thor: The Dark World, not women or WoC.

      Not long after I wrote the article, I watched the first movie again where Hogun had a bigger part and I concede that it was short-sighted of me to not remember this and call him just the “Asian man,” it was distasteful. But his role in the movie is clearly defined: he raises Thor up and makes him more heroic, provides ethos for the audience to latch onto. That was the one thing he did in the movie.

      In the movie, and I’m not talking about comics or the comic book universe here, Heimdall works below Odin and Thor, just because someone is subordinate to someone else doesn’t mean they can’t collaborate. They do, you’re right. If you’ll look in my story again, I never said Heimdall was treated as a slave, because he isn’t. In the hierarchy of the film, he is a less important character than Odin and Thor based on how he protects Asgard, a pursuit in which he fails, and the amount of screen time he has.

      You’re correct in saying I don’t mention how Malekith and Algrim are friends. Sure, there was emotion in the scene, but that doesn’t change the facts. I’m sure you’ll remember Malekith’s face and his skin color, here’s a reminder:http://cdn.fansided.com/wp-content/blogs.dir/229/files/2013/10/Christopher-Eccleston-Malekith.jpg

      and here’s Algrim: http://wac.450f.edgecastcdn.net/80450F/screencrush.com/files/2013/10/thor-2-algrim-adewale-photo.jpg and here’s Kurse: http://static2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20131018141631/marvelmovies/images/0/0a/Kurse.jpg

      Again, notice the dark skin and bestial look. This is wildly different from the comic’s depiction: http://cdn.hitfix.com/photos/2661284/Kurse_and_Thor_article_story_main.jpg

      Algrim volunteered, sure, but that doesn’t change the fact that, when Malekith put the Aether inside of him, he was stripped of his agency. To be a slave means to lose your agency and identity. I never said Malekith did it against Algrim’s will, though that was the implication in what I wrote, it wasn’t what I mean. From then on, Algrim serves Malekith’s purpose.

      As for talking about racism in other movies, I talked about this movie. It was the one I saw most recently that reeked of racism, and so I wrote about it. Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra is another story. So is Christian Bale playing Moses and Aaron Paul playing Joshua, or Jim Caviezel playing Jesus. White Chicks is not racist. It lampoons white culture, the dominant majority in America. America is a white supremacist nation as you probably know. PoC cannot be racist. They can be prejudice or discriminatory, but not racist, as it said in the opening paragraph of my article. I think Tyler Perry is a poor representation of black filmmakers, but he’s not racist. There’re plenty of other black filmmakers whose work hasn’t been featured on as large a scale as Kenneth Branagh’s. Directors like Oscar Micheaux, Melvin Van Peebles, Kasi Lemmons and Dee Rees.

      And for every Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman movie I can name three movies with white leads made throughout all of history. One exception to the culture of white supremacy doesn’t negate the supremacy. What about I Am Legend? There’s World War Z, Thor: The Dark World and Dallas Buyers Club. What about Flight? There’s Out of the Furnace, American Hustle and I, Frankenstein. What about Last Vegas? There’s Her, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Lone Survivor. 12 Years a Slave did just come out. But then there’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. More often, Hollywood executives want to stay safe and assume that audiences more readily connect with white protagonists than PoC ones and, as these studies show: http://www.psmag.com/navigation/books-and-culture/why-whites-avoid-movies-with-black-actors-30890/
      http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/do-white-people-watch-black-movies/2011/07/07/gIQA5xa73H_story.html

      They’re right.

      I believe wholeheartedly that Thor: The Dark World is racist and it speaks to the pervasive white supremacist paradigm in Hollywood. Whether all of this was done intentionally is up for debate and I really don’t know. What is clear is that the decisions on how to feature dark-skinned and PoC individuals were based on systemic racism and the filmmakers exposure to such.

      I stand by all the comments I didn’t concede to you and appreciate all further feedback. Thank you, Katie.

      -Jacob

      • Jacob Holley-Kline on

        I’d like to add some caveats to my saying, “Tyler Perry is a poor representation of black filmmakers.” My girlfriend, Gabi, explained to me that Tyler Perry makes movies based on his experience with his family and friends, the every day goings-on in his view of black culture.

        Though some of his movies like “Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor” have a damaging message about sex and sexuality, other movies of his are about his family and friends more so than black culture at large. Black bodies on-screen are inherently a political message nowadays, so people will take a Tyler Perry movie as representative of black culture on the whole, which it’s not.

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