Special Affects: Social Responsibility In Film

By: Lauren Cooke

When I started college three years ago, I had my heart set on studying both human rights and film production. At the college I attend, this could be either done as a double major (two senior theses) or as a joint major (one senior thesis combining the two programs). With much convincing, I started the path to becoming a joint major my first semester. I love both subjects, film and human rights, and I love seeing how they intersect.

When I was introduced to Marlon Riggs and his work (specifically Tongues Untied) in one of my film history courses, I realized what I needed to do. After reading about how Riggs didn’t feel represented in cinema so he created characters like himself (a black homosexual man) to see himself on screen, I couldn’t help but feel like there should have been something there already for him. I’m a queer white woman so I tend to see myself on screen frequently, not always in the best light but at least I see myself. And while Riggs faced this decades ago, it made me realize that what people see (or don’t see) on the big screen affects them. In Riggs case it sparked him to create what he wanted to see, but this lack of or inaccurate representation has the power to be detrimental.

The moment I tell a fellow filmmaker, whether it be a student or professor, that I am focusing my studies on diversity and accurate representation within film, phrases such as “politically correct”, “censorship” and “policing art” tend to be thrown around.

Sometimes I think the idea that I am a filmmaker too gets lost in this thought process.

I do not see accurate representation or inclusive storytelling as limitations or censorship, I see it as filmmakers’ responsibility to their audience. In human rights, there’s this concept I like to call “social responsibility.” It’s heavily seen in the intersection of photography and human rights, specifically how images can manipulate a subject and an audience. The concept is that the artist has a responsibility to not exploit a subject as well as not manipulate an audience.

This is primarily seen in the case of Luke Piri and how famine is photographed. Worried that these images create a power struggle between the subject and photographer and generalize a worldwide issue, critics from both the photography and human rights worlds have analyzed cases similar and call for better representation practices.

The photography and human rights spheres are so attentive to this concept, so why is the film world not as worried? People watch movies as much as they see photographs, so they are equally (if not more) affected by these images. How often are movies quoted in commencement speeches? Or articles written about how Grey’s Anatomy or Bones or Hidden Figures sparked interest in their corresponding fields?

Movies and television series are looked at for inspiration, voluntary or involuntary, and there is a sense of pride when those effects are positive but the negative effects seem to be ignored or dismissed. A prime example of negative effects is from the first American epic, The Birth of a Nation (1915). Due to the director’s depiction of the Civil War and Klu Klux Klan in The Birth of a Nation there was a noted resurgence in KKK activity and membership. While the director, D.W. Griffith, was out defending his film from protests organized by groups such as the NAACP, the Klu Klux Klan was using The Birth of a Nation as a recruitment tactic. This film tapped into the racism, hatred and intolerance (ironically this is the title of Griffith’s subsequent film inspired by the “censorship” he faced due to The Birth of a Nation) of the time as well as inciting it. That cannot be ignored for the sake of art.

Fortunately, the first time I saw this film was in a film history course focused on Black cinema and taught by a black professor. While some of my other classmates had seen this film prior in other courses and had only discussed the imagery and editing techniques, this professor centered the discussion on the harmful content and its effects. We discussed Woodrow Wilson’s alleged approval of this film, black face, how black actors weren’t allowed to interact with the white actors, bucks, mammies, toms, etc. As a class, we tried to grasp what the director thought he was doing and if he realized that his film would become fuel for intolerance, specifically seen in its use as KKK recruitment.

During the three hours of class time, it seemed like we analyzed every second of that film but even at the end of the semester we were still coming back to it. Throughout that course we were exposed to incredibly inaccurate depictions of slavery and then blackness in America, I couldn’t help but think of Marlon Riggs and how much of this he probably watched while looking to find himself in cinema. All the white faces painted black or actual black actors pushed to the background almost like props must have felt like a dagger to the heart. While this lack of representation caused Riggs to create his own, there are cases where representation has negative effects such as The Birth of a Nation fueling the KKK for generations.

Since my freshmen year, I’ve grown and my ideas & goals have developed. I dropped my film production major (but not my screenwriting dreams) and added on a concentration in experimental humanities instead. I’m here working to help provide a platform for marginalized filmmakers and create better representation on screen. In a little more than a month, I have to officially start my senior thesis and I finally landed on a concrete idea. By next year, I should be able to tell you if the representation of masculinity in the Marvel superhero movies affects identity development in young children. And hopefully this will be another stepping stone to a more socially responsible film industry.

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Lauren Cooke is currently a senior at Bard College studying Digital Humanities. She hopes to create a better place for all with her work in representation. She is also the Light Leaks' first intern!