Spoiler alert: some plot details are revealed below
The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 killed at least 227,898 people. Around a third of these were children. The economy of coastal south-east Asia was devastated, with the loss in some places of two thirds of the boats on which fisherfolk depended. The environment was irreversibly defiled. Since many of the bodies were never found, psychological trauma was compounded by the tradition in many of the areas affected that the dead must always be buried by a family member.
Scope here for drama you might have thought. Yet The Impossible, like Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter before it, concentrates not on the plight of the indigenous victims but on the less harrowing experiences of privileged white visitors. The film’s winsomely western family, headed by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, experience little more than separation anxiety and survivable injury before jetting safely homewards.
This scenario has provoked outrage, not least on this site. The New York Times found the film “less an examination of mass destruction than the tale of a spoiled holiday”. Still, the indicted parties have alibis to hand.
According to Watts, “Fifty per cent of the people that died in Thailand were tourists.” Good try, but perhaps a little disingenuous. Holiday paradise Thailand, with its 5,400 deaths, was actually at the margins of the tragedy. Indonesia alone suffered 130,700 deaths, largely of low-income Acehnese people; the figure for the UK, whence The Impossible’s family appears to hail, is 149.
McGregor has filed a different defence. “Naomi’s character is saved by a Thai man, and taken to safety in a Thai village where the Thai women dress her … In the hospital they’re all Thai nurses and Thai doctors – you see nothing but Thai people saving lives and helping.” Does this make matters worse? Those who are protesting don’t want to see non-whites patronised with background roles as saintly ciphers; they want them to play mainstream parts as three-dimensional protagonists in what is, after all, their story.
As it happens, The Impossible’s director, Juan Antonio Bayona, was inspired by the tale of a real-life family. However, this family was Spanish, not British. So, it seems, even Catalan people like the woman Watts actually plays aren’t considered mainstream enough, even for what is a wholly European film.
Still, few who have spent much time in cinemas will be surprised. Ever since the medium emerged into an era of cheery racism, the movies have appeared to like their heroes to be white. In 1915, The Birth of a Nation celebrated America’s reconstruction after the Civil War with African-Americans played by white actors in blackface, together with a sympathetic attitude to the Ku Klux Klan.
Now, of course, social attitudes have changed, and most of the time film-makers inhabit the vanguard of the progressive class. Yet white saviours continue to pop up in films such as Dances with Wolves, The Blind Side, Avatar and The Help. You can’t imagine an Oscar-winner like The Hurt Locker promoting Iraqi rather than American derring-do. Even children’s animations and, more weirdly, fantasy require Caucasians in their primary roles.
Producers have justified this approach with the claim that audiences won’t tolerate non-white characters or actors in dominant roles. Is this just a cowardly failure on their part to recognise the maturity of contemporary filmgoers? Apparently not. Last year an Indiana University study confronted 68 white college students with a variety of synopses accompanied by casts of varying ethnicity. “The higher the percentage of black actors in the movie, the less interested white participants were in seeing the movie,” said the report. “Importantly, this effect occurred regardless of participants’ racial attitudes or actors’ relative celebrity.”
The success of Will Smith, Morgan Freeman, Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry shouldn’t be exaggerated. A few genuinely mixed-race movies, such as the Fast & Furious franchise, have broken through. Yet in 2010, non-white actors took leading roles in only two of America’s 30 top-grossing films. Studios remain convinced that the audiences of middle America just won’t identify with non-white characters.
So far, so familiar. Yet since that approach was forged, the movie business has been transformed. Once, Hollywood made films for the home market and regarded any overseas earnings as a bonus. That’s no longer the case: big films are now global products earning most of their money outside the US. The prejudices of middle America (whose own makeup is changing fast) are no longer overwhelmingly important, and the suits know it. .
So, studios are falling over themselves to reorient their activities. There’s a scramble to co-produce with the Chinese. A major children’s movie, such as Rio, gets to be set in Brazil. Yet here’s a puzzle. The great wide world at which films such as The Impossible are now aimed is only 17% white. Nonetheless, the predominance of white characters among their protagonists seems hardly to have fallen.
The title of Captain America: The First Avenger was changed in some territories in deference to local sensibilities, but the captain himself was allowed to fight on, along with his equally white super-hero colleagues, British agent James Bond, Twilight’s milky-skinned vampires, the little-Englander Hobbit and the rest.
Those who object to films such as The Impossible sometimes speak as if they suspect a plot by western film-makers to re-colonise the world through cultural imperialism. In fact, in movie circles, it’s money, not ideological ambition, that talks. The plain fact is that much of the world seems to have no objection to the chalky faces of the screen heroes with which it’s presented.
Captain America earned more overseas than it did in the captain’s homeland. Now Les Misérables has opened with impressive figures in Japan, The Hobbit is doing well in Mexico and Brazil, while Skyfall has pulled in m in South Korea. Meanwhile, Bollywood may make more films than Hollywood, but it shows no sign of gaining global traction. China may be pouring money into its film industry, yet it’s doing no better beyond its borders. Instead, both India and China are hiring more and more western actors.
Not until this picture changes do white people look likely to vacate their throne on the silver screen.
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