I spent the weekend at the Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities (I was presenting). The highlight of the weekend was the screening of the silent film “Mantrap” (1926) starring the magnificent Clara Bow, put on by the Canadian Association for Film Studies. It had an improvised piano score by a fantastic pianist who specialized in scoring silent film. The film is great, a product of its time, but fascinating and very well acted.
What struck me most about the film was how “natural” the racism was. There was plenty of blatant discrimination against people of color throughout the film. Still, the film didn’t try and gloss it over with humor or make the white characters look any less horrible, nor did it justify their racism. It wasn’t “Birth of a nation”, but it had a lot of nasty baggage to it.
It would be fair to say that the (white) protagonists were entirely indifferent to the plight of black and aboriginal people. Implicitly there seems to have been some sort of cultural or social barrier that prevented the characters from speaking up or avoiding being counterproductively racist. I’m not sure if it is pride or notions of superiority or what, but the characters clearly realized that they were screwing up, but couldn’t help themselves.
Example 1: Joe, a trader in the remote canadian town of “mantrap”, attempts to sell silly hats to an aboriginal family in an exaggerated manner, clearly desperate to make a sale. The aboriginal family looks pissed off and stares impassively as he continues making an ass of himself. Half way through the scene you can tell everyone realizes that this is demeaning to everyone involved; joe isn’t making a sale, the aboriginals feel insulted and the hats aren’t going to get any less terrible. Even joe realizes that he’s screwed up, but has no idea how to relate to the aboriginals as human beings, despite his clear dependence on them. The aboriginal family leaves and Joe decides he needs to leave Mantrap to find a wife to help with the business.
(Joe gets married to city girl Alverna, who after a few weeks in the wilderness decides that she is sick of Joe and hits on the first man who wanders by, a rich city divorce lawyer named “Ralph” who is looking for sometime away from the city)
Example 2: In the middle of the night Ralph sees two unarmed natives peering into Joe’s house. Ralph shoots at them and they run away. Joe, hearing the gun shots, comes out and is unconcerned saying that the natives were “probably looking for alcohol” and goes back to sleep. Ralph is feeling like a “real man” after having shot his gun, and declares that he is going to sit out on the stoop and wait “in case they come back”. Both Alverna and Joe make it clear that Ralph is being ridiculous and that there was no need for violence initially and that there is no threat of further violence from the natives. Alverna however uses Joe’s excited state as an opening and tries (unsuccessfully) to seduce him.
Example 3: Ralph and Alverna have run off together and are being helped by a native guide. Neither knows the first thing about how to survive in the wilderness. After Alverna and Ralph finished eating, the native guide tries to eat some of the food that they had prepared. Alverna berates the guide, pointing out that they were almost out of food. The guide is clearly upset and puts all the food back, preferring to go hungry rather than beg for food. You can tell Ralph disagrees with this; from a purely practical standpoint antagonizing the guide is a poor choice. But rather than tell her off, he pushes those thoughts out of mind and tells Alverna that he loves her. The scene lasts a very long time and you can tell his initial anger gives way to his attraction to Alverna. They kiss. The guide sees this and then takes the rest of the food and the canoe and leaves Alverna and Ralph to starve.
(the film goes on, but I don’t want to spoil it!)
In all three cases the title cards and the acting convey a lot of nuance. All the characters recognize that the natives, if not equals, are people that they depend on. Ill treatment is not only needless, but counter productive. They persist being racist not because they are horrible people or see natives as necessarily being malign, but because there are no consequences to treating them badly. Without consequences a very basic human cruelty emerges.
Political correctness is exhausting. I’ve seen completely unnecessary language policing and inference of racist intent read into a completely benign statement. On the other hand, I think there is a value to speaking out when something inappropriate is said or done and having a discussion about what is appropriate or isn’t. The film was a great window into a world when those considerations were absent. I think it showed how far we’ve come and unfortunately how far we’ve yet to go. I doubt life is much better (or less racially charged) in Northern Canada these days.