Throughout the Trump campaign, I’ve had endless arguments with other white people over the degree of racism in Trump’s campaign. It seemed completely obvious to me that the phrase “Make America Great Again!” was primarily a direct appeal to white supremacy. But I have encountered responses from others to Trump’s racism that ranged from reluctant acknowledgment to outright dismissiveness. When engaging with other white folks, I have heard Trump-fans and Trump-haters insist that this was all about economic concerns, and that race really had nothing to do with. But the history of capitalism is impossible to disentangle from the history of institutionalized racism, as capital has thrived not only on the exploitation of labor, but more specifically by its predatory and oppressive relationship with people of color. Therefore, in this fourth installment of my Trump-themed film syllabus, I have grouped together a small selection of films that may help us think through American cinema’s representations of race, and discourses of white supremacy.
Race, Civil Rights, and White Supremacy
Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)
As someone who grew up loving Zemeckis’s time-travel masterpiece and adores it to this day, it pains me to use it as an example for Hollywood’s general tendency to privilege whiteness. But I can think of no better illustration of well-intentioned white supremacy than this Reagan-era fantasy of political and cultural conservatism. In just about every way, the small-town America of the 1950s that Marty unintentionally visits is superior to the dirtier, nastier, and much less pleasant Hill Valley of the 1985 “present.” The film’s many pleasures crucially hinge on its representation of an earlier age of plenty, when black people knew their place. (And if you think “Goldie” Wilson’s ascent to mayor is evidence of the film’s progressive attitude, consider also that this entire joke hinges on the notion that there is no such thing as political “progress,” and that Hill Valley has in fact clearly deteriorated over its past decades.) Combining an aggressively sexist attitude with a deeply patronizing approach to people of color, Back to the Future shows how the fantasy of “making America great again” is above all white people’s desire to return to an age of uncontested and “innocent” white supremacy.
Blue Collar (Paul Schrader, 1978)
In 1939, Max Horkheimer famously wrote that “whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about fascism.” While this line does seem eerily appropriate to a prospective Trump presidency, one could make the same connection between capitalism and institutional racism, as the two have been thoroughly intertwined throughout modern history. No film illustrates this more emphatically than Paul Schrader’s directorial debut, in which three Detroit auto workers hatch a plan to rob their employer, only to find themselves under increasing pressure from their union, from the factory owners, and from each other. Blue Collar is most effective when showing how these three men (two black, one white) initially share a natural camaraderie and intuitive solidarity, until economic and political pressures starts pitting them against each other, using race as a tool to break apart workers’ collective power.
Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
Does a more provocative, more complex, and more formally audacious film than Spike Lee’s undisputed masterpiece exist in cinema history? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Do the Right Thing marries classically Aristotelian structure to avant-garde stylization and complex characterization, yielding a filmic negotiation of race as a fluid, dialectical, and thoroughly political concept. Everything that happens in the film is neither self-evident nor pre-determined, but is fully contingent on a complex network of (human and non-human) actors. The ultimately tragic interaction between characters who are fully aware of (and often take advantage of) institutional racism results from the interaction between the members of a diverse and contested community, the media, the police, the neighborhood’s micro-economy, and the weather. But like Blue Collar, it also shows that irrespective of individual proclivities and intentions, when the cards are down, race becomes a determining factor in America’s socio-economic context.
Selma (Ava du Vernay, 2014)
When the great Muhammad Ali passed away earlier this year, Donald Trump tweeted his condolences, calling the lifelong radical, black activist, and world-famous muslim a “truly great champion and a wonderful guy.” One can only wonder what Ali might have said about a Trump presidency that threatens to enforce registration for all muslims, ban immigrants from certain muslim countries, and has received the enthusiastic endorsement of the KKK. But Trump’s tone-deaf response to Ali’s death also illustrates how even the most radical activists can become institutionalized and ossified in the public eye, even to the extent that perceptions by the public are altered and deprived of their political agency. A similar thing is at play with the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., the radical civil rights activist who was mercilessly hounded by the FBI, commonly labeled a “domestic terrorist,” and perceived by a majority of white Americans as a publicity-hungry troublemaker. Du Vernay’s extraordinary film limits its focus to a key moment in King’s career as a civil rights leader, emphasizing the hard, long, and often dangerous work of political activism. It shows once more how white supremacy resides not only in the hateful acts of virulent racists, but equally in the complacency of a white populace that sees challenges to racism as an attack on its own social and moral order, and therefore tends to react defensively.
Space is the Place (John Coney, 1974)
Legendary jazz musician Sun Ra appears in this extraordinary cult film from the “blaxploitation” era as himself: a time-traveling deity from Saturn who has returned to Earth to recruit black people with no wish to remain trapped in a system of exploitation and racial oppression. An imperfect but hypnotic expression of the cultural logic of Afrofuturism, Space is the Place attempts to construct an alternative organization of space and time in which white supremacy and Eurocentrism are no longer taken for granted. Sun Ra’s alternative narrative of “MythScience” foregrounds the historic accomplishments of people of color, and promises a better future for those willing to abandon the artificial constrictions of race within capitalist history.