Friday, August 28, 2009

Changing Social Equations : Witnessed through the prism of movies

I've always felt that motion pictures are much more representative of a society's collective impulses than any other art form. It is possible for a novelist or a painter to construct an alternative universe of his own and create works of art that can exist in isolation in any era independent of the social milieu that surrounds them. The art of cinema is fundamentally different. Being a mass medium, movies must be able to relate to the impulses of the audience if they have to succeed. Most movies are products of the times in which they are made, unlike a lot of great books. Frank Capra's films are products of the thirties Depression Era. Woody Allen's pictures on the other hand are influenced by the counterculture of the sixties and seventies. Either of them couldn't have succeeded in the other person's era.

Literature is quite different in this respect. It is a lot easier to associate the attribute of 'timelessness' with books than it is with movies. Take for instance the fictional world of the incomparable PG Wodehouse. He created a universe inhabited by absentminded earls, erudite butlers and wealthy nincompoops which hardly had any basis in reality. The books of Wodehouse found a niche market which exists even today, though the 'Edwardian' utopia found in his books is not to be found anywhere on earth.

Which is why I feel that studying the history of motion pictures can provide a great deal of insight into how the society has evolved over the decades. Having watched countless Hollywood classics over the past year or so, I was drawn towards how the treatment of coloured people on the big screen has changed so dramatically in the course of movie history.

The earlist movie I've seen is DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation released in 1915, a three hour period saga of how two white families cope with the consequences of the American Civil War. The movie was notorious even then for its blatant depiction of blacks in a negative light and its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. What's more interesting to me is that Griffith employed white actors with faces painted black to play Negroes in the film! And yes. This movie was a major worldwide blockbuster the year it was released. It couldn't have been made in 2009!

Things got a little better in the 30s and 40s, with black character actors like Rex Ingram and Hattie McDaniel getting meaty roles in A-films. Yet, their characters were invariably maids or butlers. It was still quite unthinkable for a mainstream Hollywood film to accept a black leading man or a leading woman. I find Alexander Korda's delightful 1940 Arabian fantasy - The Thief of Bagdad most significant in this respect. It is one of the earlist films that I know of to feature a coloured boy in the leading role. The actor was a teenage son of a mahout in Mysore who was transported to England to play in several British adventure films, the best of which is The Thief of Bagdad.

However, it was still anathema to both movie-goers and movie makers to have a coloured actor as the romantic male lead. The emergence of Sidney Poitier in the sixties was to change that. Remember, we are in the sixties now. The decade of Martin Luther King & Malcolm X, the Beatles & The Vietnam War. The audiences could finally digest the prospect of Poitier, a Bahaman negro, dating and *gasp* marrying a white girl in the family drama Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. The movie may seem too cutesy and sentimental to modern audiences. But it must have made powerful viewing in 1967, amidst all the cultural upheavals of that decade. The success of Poitier in the sixties seems so timely and inevitable. Poitier couldn't have become a star in the thirties. He may have ended up specializing in butler roles instead. He wouldn't have been such a big deal in the nineties either. His stardom had a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time with the right complexion.

Which brings me to a movie that I happened to see recently. The Taking of Pelham123 starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta, two ageing actors lending some star power to an otherwise forgettable movie. Having been weaned on movies from Hollywood's Golden Age (1930-1960), I was extremely surprised that none of the characters drew attention to the fact that Washington is black in the course of the film. Not even a single oblique reference! It was almost as though the colour of his skin was totally immaterial to everyone around him. This would have been unthinkable in a Poitier movie! No wonder America is ready for a black President.

The critic David Thomson wrote that the "history of American movies is the history of America in the time of the movies". Very true. I couldn't agree more.

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