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Racism at the Movies: The Truth About Historical Accuracy in Hollywood

During the Civil War, a slave named Bass Reeves fought alongside his master in the Confederate Army. Upon hearing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Reeves fled into Oklahoma Territory where he lived with the Cherokee until the 13thAmendment set him free. The Cherokee taught him all the skills he would need to survive in the Wild West.

In 1875, he became a Deputy Marshal of the Oklahoma Territory. This would make him the first black lawman west of the Mississippi. Known as “the Indomitable Marshal,” he was famous for his black hat, white horse, twin .45 Colts, and his cunning detective skills. It has been suggested that Reeves was the inspiration for The Lone Ranger. Either way, the real life figure that I just described lived a life worthy of Hollywood.

Reeves, or indeed Tarantino’s recent fictional character of Django were not the exception to the rule. Thousands of black and Mexican cowboys populated the West. But if you were to watch any Hollywood western, the idea of non-white cowboys sees almost laughably far-fetched. This phenomenon – the incongruity between our vision of history and the facts of history – is the result of a failure in our historical imagination.

If you prefer something fictional, imagine a new film hits theaters worldwide. It’s a Jane-Austen-esque tale of romance set in Britain, during the 18th century, and it stars two British Sri Lankans. You can already hear the criticism, can’t you? The story I just described for you isn’t, wait for it… historically accurate. There weren’t any Sri Lankans living in Britain at that time, right?

One of the subtle ways that racism affects us is that it limits our ability to conceive of a world that is, was, and always will be full of people that look like us. Yes, even in the 16th century, there were Asians in America. People of all races are foundational to this country. We aren’t just inventions of the 21st century. This makes demands for “historical accuracy” look all the more ironic and mean-spirited.

Even fantasy/sci-fi movies are plagued by this same kind of thinking. Well-known Black British actor Idris Elba caused quite a stir when he was cast as an Asgardian in Thor. Hilariously, the same chorus of “historical accuracy” avengers claimed that Norse deities cannot be black. That is to say, a world in which a man wielding a magic hammer that was forged in the heart of a dying sun is fine, but the fact that one of these mythical characters is also black is “unrealistic.”

Asian-Americans have internalized much of this thinking, too. We have inhabited all walks of life in this country since its inception but we erase ourselves from our own history. Even I catch myself falling into this trap – of seeing myself as peripheral, rather than central to the history and culture of America. I could list a bunch of historical events and movements in which Asian-Americans have proved vitally important, but that is just another trap.

Toni Morrison has famously said, “The function, the very serious function, of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

So, if you ever find yourself confronted with racism disguised as historical accuracy, try to remember that your knowledge of your own history won’t matter. You could rattle off a dozen famous Asian-American figures from history but it won’t change their mind. Your accuser doesn’t actually care about the facts. It’s never been about the facts. It’s about power – and their arguments to the contrary are just a distraction.

 

 

Dakota Hadfield attended the University of Michigan and graduated with a degree in film.  He spends most of his time in front of a computer trying to turn words into screenplays.  Being a Korean-American adoptee, Dakota has a unique perspective on what it means to be a child of this house called America and how we cannot understand the present conditions of our existence in this country without examining our past.

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