Mugabe and the White African

January 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

If you’re looking for a villain everybody can agree on, it’s hard to do better than Robert Mugabe. Who’s going to defend somebody who’s publicly claimed Hitler as a role model? Who tortures, rapes, and kills his political opponents? Who ignores unfathomable unemployment, inflation and AIDS rates in his country, Zimbabwe, while amassing a personal fortune rumored to be northward of a billion dollars? And who’s put into place a land appropriation program designed to wrest control, often by bloody, violent force, from white landowners and corporations, and place it into the hands of black Zimbabweans? Well . . .

That last policy is the focus of this documentary, which profiles one of the last remaining “white African”-occupied farms, owned by Michael Campbell and his family, as they attempt to hold their own–in the courts and on the “streets”–against Mugabe and his men. The Campbells are portrayed as salt-of-the-earth, god-fearing folks who came by their small, family-run farm honestly and are now unfairly having it stolen from them. Unfortunately, the film not only leaves out background information about the Campbells and Zimbabwe itself that is vital to understanding Mugabe’s policies, it actively tries to push us to align ourselves with the Campbells. By doing so, they not only managed to silence Mugabe–not a huge loss as far as I’m concerned, although the documentary does suffer for it–but also the native Zimbabweans who are caught in the middle of Mugabe and Campbell. We hear almost nothing from the black farm workers Campbell employs, or the guards who he hires to defend his family–and we hear literally nothing from the black Zimbabweans who have been on the receiving end of Mugabe’s land appropriation, or those starving in the streets as unemployment soars over 50 percent. Those perspectives would have been valuable to have, as would have the story of how colonialism played out in Zimbabwe, and how the Campbells benefited from that. But instead, what we get, over and over again, is the insistence that Mugabe’s policies are “racist” because they discriminate based on skin color–and who wants to risk being labeled a racist by questioning that maybe things are more complicated than that?

Here’s the more complicated truth: The Campbells’ farm is not a small, family-run farm, but a veritable 3000-acre plantation employing over 500 workers. Campbell even owned an adjoining hunting safari. Campbell believed that blacks couldn’t run farms on their own, that they needed whites to show them how to do it, and to be in charge. Campbell bought the farm during Ian Smith’s rule in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia–likely on the cheap, since Smith was an unrepentent racist who sought to keep whites in power and land in their hands. In fact, during Smith’s regime, land was still being taken from black owners and “redistributed” to whites like Campbell. Smith’s policies clearly worked, since on the eve of Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, whites–who make up less than one percent of the population in Zimbabwe–owned about half the arable land in the country. It’s extremely frustrating to watch Campbell and his family bemoan the land appropriation and Mugabe’s “racist policies” over and over, when land appropriation and Ian Smith’s racist policies are exactly why they own that farm in the first place.

In fact, Campbell’s historical ignorance is a recurring theme. At one point, he laments the fact that you can be white and American, or white and Australian, but not white and African–why not? Wait–really? The reason you can be white and American, or white and Australian, is because the white settlers in those countries managed to so thoroughly exterminate the native populations that they no longer possessed the numbers to put up a fight over who has the right to call themselves “American” or “Australian.” Surely that’s not what Campbell’s suggesting should have happened in Zimbabwe?

Okay, so Campbell’s a historically naive bigot. Whatever, he’s one character in the film, right? The problem is that he–and his family, who hold similar views–are the only voices we hear. At one point, he questions his workers on their views, in a joking, we’re-all-in-this-together tone, but they simply laugh and nervously eye the camera. Other black Zimbabweans are likewise silent. And the filmmakers only provide the audience with information that confirms Campbell’s views, purposely withholding information about Zimbabwe’s colonial past that might muddy the issue. We’re obviously meant to ignore all that. We’re obviously meant to side with the historically naive bigots, because the only other alternative the filmmakers present is to side with the man who styles himself after Hitler.

And the most frustrating part about all of this is that including that information wouldn’t have done all that much damage to the cause they’re pushing. You’re still up against the guy who wants to be Hitler! All you have to do is take one look at the Campbells after they’ve suffered a brutal attack at the hands of Mugabe’s men–beaten until their brains swell, a hot poker stuffed down the throat of Campbell’s wife–to understand that the way Mugabe is conducting his land appropriation campaign is not okay. Nobody is going to say that this is simple two-wrongs-make-a-right business here. But the filmmakers don’t trust their audience to make that call themselves, God forbid, so they do it for them. The result is a documentary that verges on pushing a pro-colonialist agenda–not exactly what I think they were intending.

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White Folks in the Tropics: a Cinematic Celebration

April 4, 2011 § 2 Comments

I’ve discovered a new mid-century film subgenre! For the time being, let’s call it Jungle Love. (No, not that kind of jungle love. Given that the title of this blog includes the word “sex,” though, I have plenty of kinky Google searches leading to it. Might as well add to it!) This subgenre I’ve discovered combines elements of the romance, adventure, and melodrama genres into one entirely new fusion. Here are the essential elements:

  • Pretty white people. Often, a 25-year-old actress paired with a 50-year-old leading man.
  • An exotic, tropical setting largely populated by brown people. Often a plantation. India or Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) is the most common, but the rest of Asia, Africa, or even the Caribbean can substitute in a pinch. (For some reason South America is vastly underused for this purpose–maybe because the Brits never owned it.)
  • Romantic Complications. Usually this takes the form of a love triangle, but it can also consist of double love triangles (whoa!), love quadrangles, or simply one of those classic I-love-you-I-hate-you, back-and-forth pairings.
  • The interference of nature: generally a natural disaster, a plague, or a wild animal attack. Some ambitious films (I’m looking at you, Rains of Ranchipur) manage to cram in all three. This interference is generally meant to up the emotional stakes for the romantic leads (and maybe even kill off the unchosen party of a love triangle), but to a post-colonial viewer, just highlights the extreme self-centeredness of the protagonists, who keep blathering about their love lives even as thousands of “natives” die off in the background shots.

Bonus points awarded for:

  • Minor royalty.
  • Prostitutes/”good time girls”/”companions” (if we’re in the Hays Code era).
  • Blackface. Or yellowface . . . in most cases, literally orangeface, as the 1950s Hollywood attempt at making white characters look Indian was to spray them with a particularly garish, neon shade of self-tanner.

Need examples? Keep reading.

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The Letter (1940)

August 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Letter begins with a literal bang–or rather, six of them. The opening shot, panning over the dreamy, moonlit grounds of a Malayan rubber plantation, is interrupted by Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) emptying a revolver into Geoffrey Hammond. The plantation workers rush over. Someone runs off to find Davis’s husband and the police. Once they arrive, she reluctantly recounts the whole sordid story for them: Hammond attempted to rape her; she shot only in self-defense. Though her account is pitch-perfect, punctuated by the appropriate stagy sobs and adoring glances at her husband, we know right off the bat that something’s just a little bit . . . off. Her lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) isn’t fully convinced, either. When the officer notes that the corpse was “just riddled with bullets,” you can see the gears beginning to shift in Joyce’s brain. All of this occurs in the film’s first fifteen minutes–and then we’re off and running alongside Joyce as he starts to unravel the web Leslie weaves.

The British colonies, be they Asian, American or African, are some of my favorite film settings. Any story with a colonial setting will work, but especially the Brits–I love the palpable danger you sense as they pull this paper-thin veneer of white linen and garden parties across a culture that’s about to bubble over with heat and oppression. Even the otherwise most run-of-the-mill pictures, the ones that were ignored when they were released, offer plenty for the modern viewer to dissect if they’re placed within a colonial frame. The racial tension and stereotyping of “the natives” are a given. But with a richly drawn movie like The Letter, the white characters give us plenty to analyze, too. Far from home, they’re allowed to act in ways that would never have been allowed in the panopticon of British society. This is especially true for the ladies, any one of whom may be the only white woman for miles, surrounded by plenty of intelligent, ambitious white men making their fortunes on the plantations . . .

And so it plays out in The Letter. Interestingly enough, the two characters who hold the most power are the women: Leslie Crosbie, and Mr. Hammond’s Anglo-Asian widow (played by the very white Gale Sondergaard, naturally). The movie’s men are all pawns, go-betweens, and dupes. The only time men hold even a parody of power is when the all-male jury is allowed to vote on Leslie’s innocence or guilt–but even then, it’s she who manipulated their decision. Not only are women the ones with the power, but in a further twist, it’s Mrs. Hammond–the “Eurasian,” the outsider, the supposed inferior–who holds the upper hand over Leslie. Throughout the movie, all the things that Leslie wants belong to her, and both of them know it. But the audience doesn’t . . . until Leslie goes to see her in the Chinese section of Singapore to acquire the titular letter. The camera lingers on the “exotic” decor, emphasizing that we’ve passed beyond the borders of Leslie’s territory.  It’s Mrs. Hammond and her associates who give the orders here–and in a scene that provides both Joyce and the audience with a visceral aha! moment, Mrs. Hammond drops the letter to the floor and forces Leslie to kneel before her in order to pick it up. Leslie slowly stoops to retrieve it, without comment. Now we see–like the women–who’s been pulling the strings all along.

Of course, none of this is real power: the white men still run the companies, the police headquarters, the law offices. But for a movie that’s so blatantly racist on the surface–Gale Sondergaard in yellowface, Wily Oriental and Dragon Lady stereotypes galore–it’s a fascinating turn.

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