No, Zulu and Rocky Aren’t Racist; We Are

No, Zulu and Rocky Aren't Racist; We AreReddit has a series called “Today I Learned” (TIL). Frankly Curious articles have ended up in there before, but usually in a good way. Yesterday, someone posted, TIL Rocky and Zulu Are Racist Because the Villains Are Black. Oh, my! You can tell from the title that it’s pathetic. It is in reference to my article a week and a half ago, Zulu and the Racism We Bring to It.

Notice just how the two titles compare. On reddit, it is claimed that Zulu is racist because the villains are black. And on Frankly Curious I talk about the racism we bring to the film. I always wonder about these things. Are those who post such things just terrible readers? Or perhaps am I such a terrible writer, that they just can’t understand what I’m talking about? I tend to think neither. I think such people simply bring their pre-judgments to the article.

I’m a Fan of Zulu and Rocky

I was very clear that I like both movies very much. What’s more, I say that the movies are not racist. Rather, it is our racism that gets in the way of what is objectively on the screen. In fact, I said that as our society becomes less racist, the films will automatically be fixed, because it is not the fault of the film. The title of my article was very accurate: the racism we bring, not the racism in the films.

I can only stand to read so much of such comments, but I didn’t find any that defended me. It is mostly just the same thing over and over: how stupid I was. Of course, they just show themselves to be what they claim for me. For example, I wrote, “A South African filmmaker who wanted to do the same thing would doubtless tell the story of the Battle of Isandlwana (the one right before the events shown in the film).” One of the commenters responded, “Yeah, they did. It was called Zulu Dawn and was made as a prequel to Zulu.”

In this case, maybe it is just a question of read comprehension. I’m well aware of Zulu Dawn. There’s just one problem with it: it was not made by a South African filmmaker. It was based on Cy Endfield book. Endfield was the writer-director of Zulu. And Zulu Dawn was very much a British production. (It’s also not really a war film. There is almost none of the battle in the film.)

The Films Aren’t Racist

But it all goes to show that these people did not understand what I was getting at. I was talking about ethnocentrism and that it was natural for the British to make a movie about the battle that they won, not the battle that they lost. But let me quote the first sentence in that paragraph:

It is because of this that the film isn’t racist.

But the people reading it are so determined to find something to whine about. Oh, the poor white man! Here I am beating up on him — saying that Zulu is a racist film (even though I explicitly said the opposite) because the “bad guys” are black.

It’s About Perspective Not Villains

It’s also that I wasn’t making a case about villains at all. I was talking about whose perspective the films were told from. Stuff like this just makes me want to give up writing. There seems to be no point to it because people are so determined to hear what they want. And now I can be another example of the foolish liberal who wants to make everything about race and says that you can’t have a “bad guy” who’s black without a film being racist.

Of course, reddit it a thick forest of ignorance and stupidity.

Afterword

I run into this all the time in my life. People want to tell me about some outrage, “Can you believe that blah, blah, blah.” But in every case, I go and look into the matter and find that they have a very one-sided version of things. In fact, things are much more complicated. And when you know both sides of the story, the outrage factor tends to go away — except when it comes to the Republican Party doing what they’re always very clear about doing: taking from the poor and weak and giving it to the rich and powerful. But people don’t rush to me to tell me about Trumpcare the way they do things like Barbara Lee not voting for war with Afghanistan.

9 thoughts on “No, Zulu and Rocky Aren’t Racist; We Are

  1. That’s a real bummer, when people misread your work so completely. (And over a commentary on an old movie few people have seen!) Yet in a way, it’s almost a good sign. Even in the age of Trump, where bullies are venerated, nobody wants to be called a racist. We haven’t completely returned to the time where people boasted openly about hating minorities. Well, my boss does, but he’s a bit loco.

    • I appreciate that. But the same, I think the real danger is with these people who think the real problem is that white people aren’t treated well enough.

      • William Greider has had many good phrases, one is this: it would be a shame if America went from adolescence to senility without ever experiencing adulthood. And it does sometimes feel that way. When PC was actually a real thing, 25 years ago, it had some missteps, but it genuinely felt like we were toddling towards something like a beginning to talking about the taboo subject of race. (Other taboos include gender, class war, and military empire, but even opening one would be a start.)

        Now I hear vile comments at work I thought were buried in 1987. Directly attributable to the rise of Trump and his internet troll army. Yet even the worst of them swear on a stack of $100s that they aren’t racist. The arc of history has bent the wrong way of late — it’s still better than when our civil rights heroes started to move it. Cops never get indicted by grand juries; lynchers never faced grand juries. Progress is slow, but it can happen.

  2. My arguments for “Why “Zulu” is fundamentally racist” are laid out at the original post, but the tl:dr version is that “The film is told in such a way as to make the Zulu into the bugs of “Starship Troopers””. There’s NO attempt to humanize the Undi Corps. There’s no equivalent of Private Hook, or Color Sergeant Bourne, or Chard or Bromhead.

    Yes, I “get” that the film is plainly telling the story of the defenders of Rorke’s Drift. But you can’t “tell” that story without emphasizing that those defenders were there because they were invaders, conquerors, and their faceless horde of enemies was – and this is not to make the warlike Zulu Empire into “good guys”, but in this case – protecting their homes and families. It’s effectively remaking “Enemy At The Gates” but making the German sniper the hero.

    Racism is a funny thing. It’s not always in-your-face, them-nigras-is-like-critters obvious. Sometimes its embedded in our assumptions and approaches to everyday life. The fundamental assumption of “Zulu” is that the British are “people” and the Zulus are “the other”. There’s no attempt to humanize the Zulu, no attempt to portray them as people with human motives and thoughts and emotions. They’re just a scary force of nature and as impersonal.

    The INTENT may not have been racist…but the effect is, and it was that effect that helped the British colonize a hell of a lot of the world and produce some pretty brutal savagery. To make the racism on the viewer and absolve the creator is to try and elide that, and that’s kinda dishonest.

    • The fin critic Pauline Kael pointed out that in most westerns, efforts were made to show the Natives as having legitimate grievances; broken treaties, mistreatment at the hands of sadistic cavalry officers, etc. But when a group of people who look different are yelling in a language you don’t know and coming in for the kill, they function essentially as movie monsters.

      It may simply be nigh-on impossible to make a war movie without this effect. Consider Oliver Stone — he’s vehemently anti-imperialist, but in “Platoon” the Vietnamese are essentially movie monsters. Even though the film shows American war atrocities, when the Other Side attacks, they’re scarily inhuman.

      Incidentally I love “Starship Troopers.” There’s a very funny scene featuring some futuristic “Crossfire” where the anchor asks, “some people say we provoked the bugs through over expansion into their territory,” and is immediately shouted down O’Reilly style. It’s a sly movie.

      • I think that most viewers don’t get Verhoeven’s satire, possibly because the actual attitude of the characters in the flick is not all that difference from the ones in Heinlein’s book – which I actually enjoy, as well, with the realization that his politics are written in crayon…

        Oddly, there ARE war flicks that have tried to do this. “The Siege of Firebase Gloria” has a sympathetic NVA officer to balance out the American soldiers who are the main focus of the flick. But you’re right; it’d be very difficult to humanize BOTH sides in a war flick.

        Still, some flicks are worse about this than others, and “Zulu” is one of them. The only other flick that jumps right to mind is “Blackhawk Down”, where the Somalis function effectively as the zombies in “World War Z”.

      • And it’s worth noting that IF you’re only interested in telling the story of, say, the troopers of the 2/24th Infantry, then making the Zulu into scary movie monsters is not exactly inappropriate. To the British infantrymen the Zulu WERE like movie monsters; hordes of spear-armed savages who lived only to kill.

        But…that worked both ways. In a weird way the British and the Zulu were made for each other; both warlike, aggressive, expansionistic/colonial societies with professional armies better than anything most of the competition could field.

        (And, I should add, that to make matters even MORE complicated you had a third group of heavily armed, self-confident, aggressive assholes in the Boers whom the British would end up fighting twice after they so conveniently removed the Zulu…)

        I “get” that there are people who WANT that one-sided tale, who really ARE only interested in the story of the British soldiers and are fine with the Zulu being the faceless enemies that the soldiers themselves saw them. And you can call that a number of names; xenocentric, self-centered, bigoted, prejudiced…but none of those are particularly “good” names, and none of them are particularly worthwhile for any of us NOT invested emotionally in only retelling the hero-story of the British soldiers.

        • Here’s an interesting movie history thing. In “Saving Private Ryan,” after the invasion sequence, several American troops capture a German bunker. The Germans surrender, and are instantly killed. I saw the film in a packed house. A couple of idiots cheered. Far more people gasped. It struck me, in the moment, as a perfect depiction of why war crimes happen; these men have just seen their friends brutally slaughtered, and in the heat of the moment, the enemy are not prisoners of war, they’re a terrifying threat.

          Years later I read an interview with Spielberg where he said this audience reaction was a total surprise. He’d planned for it to be a “hooray for our side!” moment. Spielberg is by all accounts a decent man, so I’m sure there was nothing sinister in his intention. He simply is a master of monster movies, and knows that after being scared, we want to see good guys kill the monster. The problem was that audiences were so overwhelmed by all the bloodshed, they didn’t want to see any more.

          Would audiences have cheered if the surrendering soldiers weren’t European? Not all of them … but I suspect more would have.

          One film I can think of which effectively humanizes the enemy is “Bridge On The River Kwai” — in fact, the Japanese camp commander comes off more sympathetic than most of the English characters. But there were virtually no battle sequences.

          I’m a big Verhoeven fan. His movies miss sometimes, but he’s a great filmmaker. I think he’s often satirizing the genres he’s working in, and you’re right, many people don’t get it. Both “Troopers” and “RoboCop” spawned several cheapie sequels which were made by different people and probably took out all the subtlety.

          I enjoy Heinlein too, and was stunned as a young adult when I came across some of his batty political essays. But that’s something sci-fi writers often fall prey too. They’re so good at creating imaginary worlds which make logical sense, it’s easy for them to imagine crazy political systems that would make sense in our world. Except that they’re crazy!

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