FILM/TV AND RACE
“False Symmetries in Far From Heaven and Elsewhere,” in Susan Wolf and Christopher Grau (eds.), Understanding Love Through Philosophy, Film, and Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2014): 37-59
A common trope in many Hollywood films dealing with race is a symmetry between white and black with respect to some aspect of racism—both blacks and whites are shown to be prejudiced, or discriminatory, or using stereotypes of the other. Generally, this symmetry is false or misleading. In Far From Heaven, a critically-acclaimed and fascinating 2002 film set in the 1950’s and dealing with race, gender, and sexual orientation, an upper middle class white housewife begins a romantically-charged friendship with her black gardener. Her social set disapproves of this relationship, and the film nicely portrays the racism of these well-bred and privileged Northerners. But it also depicts the black community similarly disapproving of the relationship, and ultimately running the gardener and his 11-year-old daughter out of town by throwing stones through his window. The black character ruminates on the equal bigotry of black and white, as if this were an important truth illustrated in the film. I show how this portrayed symmetry—both blacks and whites are bigoted and both viciously oppose a black-white romance—is entirely false to the period in which the film is set. I more briefly consider several other prominent Hollywood films that involve false symmetries, and a German one, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, inspired by the same film that inspired Far From Heaven, that avoids it.
“A Crash Course in Personal Racism,” Ward Jones and Samantha Vice (eds.), Ethics at the Cinema (Oxford University Press, 2011): 191-212
The 2005 film Crash deals powerfully with personal racism. Its wide array of story lines raise issues of personal stereotyping, prejudice, racial humiliation, wielding of racial power, and racial and ethnic misconnection. It is also sensitive to the complexity of racist motivations. Crash generally avoids false symmetries about race typical of popular thinking and Hollywood film; it recognizes that white people hold racial power and that this matters morally. Yet by including so many different forms and modes of personal racism, involving so many different racial and ethnic groups, Crash can create the false impression that they are all of equivalent moral seriousness; nor is institutional racism seriously engaged in the film.
“’B5—it got all the dinks’: Schools and Education on The Wire,” darkmatter: in the ruins of imperial culture (: Special Issue: The Wire Files), April 29, 2011
Although all seasons of The Wire deal with society’s institutions, and how their perverse logic generates social oppression, the widely-admired fourth season—focused on schools—complexifies this framework. The powerful story of four poor, urban, black middle schoolers is also a critique of various contemporary corporate “school reform” efforts—the overfocus on standardized testing, the devaluing of the day-to-day professional efforts of ordinary caring teachers, the neglect of poverty and family dysfunction’s impact on students’ ability to succeed in school, the blind eye to the defunding of schools. I also favorably compare The Wire’s portrayal of the imperfect white teacher, Prez, with the unreal and borderline racist “white savior” trope found in Hollywood films such as Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers.
"Race, Community, and Moral Education: Kohlberg and Spielberg as Moral Educators," Journal of Moral Education, vol. 28, #2, 1999:125-143
Literature on moral education has contributed surprisingly little to our understanding of issues of race and education. The creation of inter-racial communities in schools is a particularly vital antiracist educational goal, one for which public support in the United States has weakened since the 1970s. As contexts for antiracist moral education, such communities should involve racially plural groups of students learning about, and engaging in, common aims, some of which must be distinctly antiracist: an explicit concern to institute racially just norms within the community (re ̄ ecting, yet going beyond, Kohlberg’s own communitarian justice focus in his Just Community schools) and to foster social justice in society generally; and an appreciation of distinct cultural and racial identities within a community. Popular culture has an important role to play in providing salient cultural imagery of inter-racial co-operation and antiracist activity. In this regard, several films of Stephen Spielberg (Amistad, Saving Private Ryan), a film-maker who takes his responsibilities as moral educator seriously, are promising yet ultimately disappointing.