Repost. Originally written for the Bridging Communities blog.
Human rights advocacy org AWAAZ, a group I personally follow, takes a critical lens to Newsweek‘s controversial headline “Muslim Rage.” I also appreciated a surprisingly empathetic op ed piece in the NYTimes that attempts to describe the spiritual underpinnings of protesters’ responses to the abhorrent anti-Muslim video the “Innocence of Muslims.” Criticisms galore abound elsewhere, including analysis of the free speech issue. Coverage of the ensuing protest among Muslim people worldwide has become more nuanced and less reactionary. I want to take a quick look at how, in my opinion, this noxious film is another inglorious contribution to the long history of film-making that espouses racist ideology through mockery, and how the Newsweek title misappropriates race-based language in its title.
Regarding the video and its cinematic lineage, let’s take a look at “blackface,” the historical cultural phenomenon in the American theater/film tradition of white actors performing as “Negros”, or black actors also performing in blackface (so as to portray the dramatic art professionally in a manner demanded by white audiences). The performances usually mocking blacks as childlike adults, ignoramuses, uneducated country people either obedient or disobedient to whites, harlots or nannies among women and leering sexual predators among men. In this case, “innocence of Muslims” portrays a similar “Muslim-face,” as it is evident (from my sour viewing) that no Muslims were actually harmed in the making of the video, since most actors are white (with the exception of one strangely portrayed black female; apparently some of these actors did even knew what they were involved in.)
Blackface was a feature of the early American film classic, The Birth of a Nation, 1915 by DW Griffin (considered by most students of film to be the masterpiece of the Silent Film Era). The Birth of a Nation brought to life the story of The Clansman (a novel and homage to the group Klu Klux Klan, which terrorized nascent black communities throughout the South). The Birth of a Nation depicts classic stereotypical images of white Americans saving their women and government from the evils of presumably conniving, “freed” slaves-on-the-loose during Reconstruction Era, at that time in American History.
Reconstruction was also a time in which many Americans in the South were plainly fearful of any political and economic power being accrued by Blacks in small communities throughout the south. The film found a comfortable place in the hearts of white traditionalists. This film was the highest best selling film in America until Gone with the Wind (another ode to the Antebellum South). It was also highly contested, banned in some places, and provoked protests, and even “riots” in Boston and Philadelphia. And this was pre-internet. It was also a film that was lauded by prominent white American elite, including President Woodrow Wilson, for its historical “accuracy”. Accuracy is clearly in the eye of the beholder.
It’s obvious that the current contentious prankster film Innocence is void of any creatively or historically redeeming value, except as a reminder that pop culture has long been an outlet for the vagaries of racism and bigotry in America. Indeed, mainstream films are rife with subtle (and thus more insidiously subconscious) cues of stereotypes that are rooted in historical inaccuracies and depictions of communities feared by mainstream America. We can only be thankful that this vitriolic, inane film is not a money-making blockbuster. In America, that’s a small feat of evolution.
I also want to comment on Newsweek’s misguided use of the term “Muslim Rage”. It strikes a familiar tone, in part because of its parallelism to Black Rage, a prominent 1968 book by Grier and Cobbs, two African American psychologists, that analyzes the anger among Black men in light of race riots that ensued after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The term “Rage,” as relates to an ethnic group then also has a long history in the American psyche–at once as an attempt at naming an organic response to racism, and also as an “orange alert” that triggers fear in the consciousness of white America.
The irony is that while the Newsweek title symbolized a sense of alarm in much of America, I have a hunch that the same language might signal sympathy among African Americans, or at least a slight reflection on the historic parallels. Again, pop culture speaks: hip hop artists (of the more political bent) Lauryn Hill and Nas are teaming up for a concert tour titled “Life is Good/Black Rage,” referring to Ms. Hill’s new single “Black Rage,” which Vibe describes as a song about “the derivative effects of racial inequity and abuse that will be released this fall.”
Thankfully, as Nas and Hill’s titles show in their ironic juxtaposition, even justifiable rage can be constructively channeled and transformed through pop culture just as well as rage can be provoked by pop culture.