Seeing Things: Race, Image, and National Identity in Canadian and American Movies and Television

By Smith, Allan | American Review of Canadian Studies, Autumn 1996 | Go to article overview

Seeing Things: Race, Image, and National Identity in Canadian and American Movies and Television


Smith, Allan, American Review of Canadian Studies


There is, on the face of it, much to warrant post-national theory's claim that European-created forms of racial hierarchy and exclusion are--even in the heart of the western nation-state--being challenged and in some measure overcome. Certainly European-descended majorities in Canada and the United States are changing their view of 'society' and 'nation' in ways which appear little short of revolutionary. Once able to operate in terms of a virtually unqualified sense of the national community as (among other things) racially homogeneous, these majorities had few difficulties in dismissing the racially different as a threat ('the yellow peril'), as willing and contented participants in their own subordination (Tonto) or, in Ralph Ellison's haunting and memorable term, as simply "invisible." (1) Even sympathy with the Enlightenment thrust towards recognition of a common humanity might serve to deny a place to those deemed different and distinct, for the power to specify what was held to constitute the 'essentially' human remained a 'European' possession and functioned to legitimate the presence of the 'different' only insofar as they could demonstrate their commonality with the defining 'same.' (2) With, however, exposure of the Enlightenment idea as functionally ethnocentric, the changing demographic character of Canadian and American societies, an increase in minority assertiveness, and wider dissemination of the tools of image construction and communication, a new, more pluralist and open understanding of the overall framework has emerged: "Increasingly"--Homi K. Bhabha's point applies to the Canadian-American situation as much as it does to the west in general--"there is awareness that 'national' cultures are being produced from the perspective of disenfranchised minorities" (Bhabha 1994, 3). (3)

Contemplation of these developments is not, however, all that enters into the business of coming to grips with what is taking place. There is, in fact, much to suggest that while it may well be true--to quote Bhabha again--that "it is in ... the overlap and displacement of domains of difference ... that the intersubjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, and cultural value are negotiated" (2), the "awareness" of this he wants to note is limited: while European-descended groups may not be as resistant to seeing what is around them as they once were, they still remain some distance from a fully engaged "politics of recognition" (Taylor 1992). Evident in the debate over what is happening in a number of Canadian and American policy areas--immigration, education, language--the impulse to maintain established hierarchies even as (sometimes quite substantial) adjustments to those hierarchies are being made manifests itself with special force in precisely the area of activity where change appears--quite literally--to be most obvious. If, in consequence, one observes in the work of such filmmakers as Charles Burdett (4) or Alanis Obomsawin (Greer 1994) the result of efforts by members of marginalized groups to use the new assertiveness and the more widely available technology to control the way 'their' communities are represented, one also notes in the generally expanded imaging of minorities of which these productions form a part a tendency rather to affirm than contest old ways of seeing.

This is particularly clear in American film and television. (5) The post-World War Two period did, to be sure, witness a marked difference in the way American minorities were depicted. Influenced by a number of factors--Nazi excess, the need to placate allies, relativist anthropology, and the emerging Civil Rights movement--makers of television programs and movies alike sought to move away from entrenched racist conventions and present minorities in what they took to be a new and positive light. While, in consequence, old stereotypes might linger on--Hollywood's 'rehabilitation' of the Japanese saw Marlon Brando cast in the role of the amiable but childlike interpreter in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), Mickey Rooney's Japanese character in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) was even more retrogressively stereotypical, and the televised version of Amos n' Andy endured into the 1960s (6)--increasingly what got affirmed was a different and ostensibly more 'human' view of minorities.

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