Accidental identity politics on screen

Two of my favorite things over this past month were, like much of the population, Argo and Homeland.

What these two excellent examples of cinema share is a common antagonist: Muslims in the Middle East.  As Pouya Alimagham of the Huffington Post writes, Argo “presents a country of more than 35 million in 1979 exclusively through the lens of terrorism and hostage-taking, public executions, [and] bearded men shouting so hysterically that spit flies out of their mouths.”

It’s hard not to walk out of Argo believing that Iranians are a bad people, that Iran and anyone from Iran is the enemy.  Aside from a sympathetic housekeeper, the Iranians in Argo are a violent, malevolent people.  You can excuse your sudden bout of racism as a testament to the movie’s entertainment quality, the antagonists are the antagonists.  You are smart enough to understand that Iranian’s aren’t inherently bad people.

But what if you aren’t an educated, racially-aware sensible human being and instead you think “Argo” the next time you meet a Persian person?  What then?  To what extent are filmmakers responsible for protecting the reputation of a nationality?  Argo has made $148,062,309 so far.  There are a lot of hateful people out there.

Homeland faces a similar problem even though the creators may have purposely drawn our attention to it. In season 2, Saul explains that the CIA should look into the “darker”  people Sgt. Brody has come in contact with. Saul Berenson, the moral compass of the show is as good with racial profiling as he is with his mourners kaddish.  Homeland is undoubtedly smarter and more realistic with its depictions, which is probably why it’s okay for President Obama to call Homeland his favorite show.

The great fear of course, is that these sources of entertainment that use real countries in realistic situations will be taken too literally. We like these shows because they allow us to use our previous knowledge to fill in the gaps, which sometimes motivates the plot.   I suspect Inglorious Basterds is different for German people — to me it was pornographic.

Which brings me to Red Dawn.  I haven’t seen the film and don’t plan on it.  The re-make this time has China as our enemy, for reason’s I don’t care to look up.  Here’s the inevitable disgustingly racist reaction from Americans who actually paid money to see this movie.

So what are we supposed to do? How do filmmakers make war movies without accidentally making propaganda for the lowest common denominators of our society?

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About Andy Verderosa

Andy is a writer and copywriter in New York. Follow him at @andyverderosa.
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