Hollywood 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.