What A Powerful Speech From Harry Belafonte Tells Us About The Meaning Of Movies

CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

I’m en route to Los Angeles for the Television Critics Association press tour, from which I’ll be reporting for the next several weeks. But while I’m on the road, I wanted to point you to this terrific speech by Harry Belafonte at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards ceremony. Belafonte was presenting the prize for Best Director to Steve McQueen for his work on 12 Years A Slave, and did so in part by reaching back into his own movie-going memory:

When I was first watching the world of cinema, there was a film that stunned the world, with all its aspects and art form. They did a lot, at that time. The film was done by D.W. Griffith, and it was called The Birth of a Nation, and it talked about America’s story, its identity, and its place in the universe of nations. And that film depicted the struggles of this country with passion and power and great human abuse. Its depiction of black people was carried with great cruelty. And the power of cinema styled this nation, after the release of the film, to riot and to pillage and to burn and to murder black citizens. The power of film.

At the age of five, in 1932, I had the great thrill of going to the cinema. It was a great relief for those of us who were born into poverty, a way we tried to get away from the misery. One of the films they made for us, the first film I saw, was Tarzan of the Apes. [Ed note: The movie is called Tarzan the Ape Man.] In that film, [we] looked to see the human beauty of Johnny Weissmuller swinging through the trees, jump off, and there spring to life, while the rest were depicted as grossly subhuman, who were ignorant, who did not know their way around the elements, living in forests with wild animals. Not until Johnny Weissmuller stepped into a scene did we know who we were, according to cinema.

What’s striking–and I think important–about what Belafonte is getting at here, is his description of seeking out the movies as a balm of poverty, and instead of a welcome respite, receiving an unexpected smack in the face. “I was five when I saw Tarzan of the Apes, and the one thing I never wanted to be, after seeing that film, was an African,” he explains. “I didn’t want to be associated with anybody that could have been depicted as so useless and meaningless.” Rather than going to the movies and getting a Sullivan’s Travels-esque moment of catharsis and escape, the movies gave Belafonte an experience of trauma, instead. Rather than showing him a world that was funnier, and kinder, and better than the one he actually lived in, a fantasy in which someone like five-year-old Belafonte could be a hero that he could carry back with him out that misery, he got a lesson in what his place in the racial hierarchy was instead.

Movies shape our understanding of the world in many ways, but perhaps the most important is what they take for granted. If you live in a world where you feel powerless, and see someone like yourself on screen who has power, and is allowed to use it without interference or unkindness, that can be a remarkably uplifting thing. The contrast between your experience and the world of the movies can be something to aspire to, an inspiration to ask questions about the assumptions you’ve held about yourself and the place that you’ve been granted, or that you’ve accepted for yourself.

But if you live in a world where you have little power or influence, and find yourself in a movie that simply assumes that people like you aren’t just powerless, but that you’re an animal if you’re black, that you’re simultaneously stupid and cunningly destructive if you’re a woman, that you’re greedy beyond your capacity if you’re Jewish, that you’re hopelessly violent if a Muslim, that can have an even more powerful negative effect. If it can be a pleasant surprise to figure out that there might be more to you than you expected, it’s exceptionally nasty to discover that people think you’ve overstepped, or overestimated yourself. It’s a vertiginous realignment of the world around you, like finding out that someone you thought was a friend has been secretly undermining you, but multiplied a million-fold. You can drown in that kind of feeling, in the idea that people around you who you thought were benign are suddenly out to get you, that they have a vested interest in your subordination.

If you’re white, or a man, and particularly both, depictions that shock you like this will be rare. By the time you encounter one, you will likely be lucky enough to have built up the self-confidence and knowledge of your place in society to dismiss the creator as vindictive, their views of the fringe. But if you are a person of color, or a woman, or in the past, a gay person or a non-Christian, an experience like Belafonte’s might have been the beginning of a painful education about your position off-screen, the bright light outside the theater shining not on a hopeful future, but a painful one. Movies like Steve McQueen’s–and Malcolm D. Lee’s, and Ava DuVernay’s, and Kasi Lemmons, and Justin Lin’s–can be a way to fight back.