I want to make it clear about one thing: I never believe or advocate that anyone should employ film theory and criticism as a tool of film censorship. As a scholar and filmmaker of East Asian descent, I have no trouble with watching a Hollywood film — historical or contemporary — that grossly misrepresents a character of Asian descent. I would feel somewhat uncomfortable in the movie theatre when people laugh at that character or even yell out racialist slurs. I would look closely the way the film image is constructed and how the mis-representation itself may serve as a “performance,” and that the film, by means of performing that mis-representation, may open up a new discourse by renegotiating our affects towards such representation. I may even laugh at the performance uncritically at first, and then examine why, despite my critical distance towards it, my body involuntarily laughs at the other’s construction of my self.
But how far a critical distance have film scholars built for ourselves?
I had an opportunity to watch the film Hand’s Up (Clarence Badger, Paramount, 1926) last night amid a sizeable audience, among which there were top film historians and restorationists. The vast majority of the spectators were either Europeans or North Americans of European descent. In the film, a confederate spy Jack (Raymond Griffith) is captured from a stagecoach by a group of (imaginary) “Native American” warriors. But the chief is perplexed by a pair of dice that Jack carries inside his jacket, which he “mistakes” as a pair of good luck charms. Our resourceful Jack then explains to the chief the art of crap-shooting, wins all the clothes from the chief and becomes the new chief himself. To celebrate Jack’s inauguration, the warriors dance around him, only to be stopped by Jack, who teaches them how to tap-dance — an art form of African-American origin.
From a critical perspective, the scene plays with — or some might even say “camps up” — the idea of racial performance, mutual borrowing, and the unmarked “white man’s” role in the social discourse of cultural “love and theft,” which conveys an art form from one socially-othered group to another. But despite my seeing this scene as one that can generate a potentially rich critical discourse, I was genuinely disturbed not by the image — but by the seemingly uncritical laughter around me. I am sure that many people, like my friend and I, would go home and think about this scene in a critical light — in a way much more sophisticated than I do. Yet, I somehow can’t help but be reminded by that laughter that in the movie theatre, many laughing spectators genuinely believed that the “Native-American spectator(s)” is or are invisible, that all our bodily affects participated voluntarily in the construction of “whiteness” as a comfort zone that puts our critical distance under erasure.