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Clash of the Titans: Suspending Disbelief

April 8, 2010

I was in Hong Kong for a couple days this past week, re-upping my visa, hanging out with Hong Kong-ers (mostly Chinese, but also a Chinese-German couple and even a little mixed boy) and eating great food. So, on my last evening before heading back to Shanghai, it only seemed appropriate that I go see "Clash of the Titans." In 3d.

Wait – what?!

Okay – yeah, yeah. Strange choice. But I had fond memories of the original from when I was a kid, and even though I anticipated all sorts of terribleness, I still thought it would be fun. (*1)

And yeah – it was a terrible movie. Absolutely ridiculously awful. But that was kind of the point. The majority of my most enjoyable film-going experiences have been attending bad movies. That’s one of my favorite guilty-pleasure hobbies.

So I’m not going to critique this movie on that level – because I really don’t care that it was an awful joke of a film. I can deal with that. I’m a master of suspending disbelief to enjoy a crappy film. Strange, unexplained holes in the plot? No problem. Ridiculous plot-devices to explain why a whole gaggle of gods can’t protect themselves from thirty men with spears? Okay – whatever. Flying horses? Women with snakes for hair and the ability to turn men into stone? Of course. That’s all what I’m here for – let’s open another bag of smuggled-in snacks and enjoy the show . . .

Except . . . well. Except there’s one aspect of the movie that I just couldn’t get over. One that maybe should be easy for me, considering how common it is these days . . . but . . . I have to admit that I couldn’t buy into . . .

The fact that ancient Greece always seems to be populated by Aryan-to-the-hilt British people. (*2)

I mean – honestly – what’s up with that?! I’m watching these "beautiful maidens" with their blue-ass eyes walk around sleeveless in the Mediterranean sun, and somehow they retain their milky pallor. And how do all these Greek men have blue eyes, too? In a shot of all the Greek gods and goddesses hanging out together, I saw more than one with platinum-blond locks.

I don’t get it. Last I checked, Greek people have darker skin. Darker (and curlier) hair. Darker eyes. I had somebody mistake me for "Greek" once, and I can guarantee you it wasn’t because they mistook my eye color for blue, or my skin-tone for pale white. And the accents? I’ve met a decent number of folks from Greece, seen a couple Greek movies, etc., and I don’t recall any clipped British accents among them.

And it’s not just "Clash of the Titans." It’s "Troy." It’s "300." It’s so many other movies doing the same thing – all these British accents and pale complexions . . .

Mind-boggling. Or, at least it should be mind-boggling.

But, the problem is that – to the "majority" – this is so acceptable that it’s not even worth mentioning.

When the critics tore this movie up (as they almost all did), nobody commented on this particular ridiculousness. In all their clever word-play and bashing of the movie’s faults, nobody called out this oh-so-obvious tradition of white-washing history. (*3) Trying to be cute and cheeky is great, but what about really saying something worth reading about a stupid, bad movie? It’s too easy (and pointless) to point out the movie’s other problems.

But this problem matters. It’s one that we shouldn’t be asked to "suspend our disbelief" for. Because even a stupid movie like this re-creates history. People buy into it. When the "average" USian’s only interaction (virtual or otherwise) with different peoples is through movies like this, they equate it with reality.

Kids get used to thinking of the ancient Greeks (and Romans) as super-white. (*4) They think of them, basically, as British. They never realize the fact that real Greek people now aren’t super-white, and they were even less so in the past. They have no way to know that Greek (and Roman/Italian) people weren’t even "allowed" to be defined as white until relatively recently.

But crap like this allows people to take on the simplified view that these major civilizations were "white" civilizations. That history is based on "white" accomplishments. When, in truth, it would make just as much sense for these movies to be completely cast by Arab peoples, speaking Arabic.

Okay. I apologize – I misspoke there. That’s not true.

Actually, it would make more sense if these movies consisted of an all-Arab cast speaking Arabic.

Because ancient Greek people looked more like Arabic peoples than Aryans. Their language and accent was certainly just as similar to Arabic as to British English (and probably more so). Cultural traditions, beliefs, art, science . . . (*5)

Yet, can you imagine the reactions if somebody dared make a movie like that? If "Troy," for instance, was entirely cast with darker-hued people of Middle Eastern descent? (*6) It would actually make more logical sense than the current situation, but people would be up in arms about it. The majority wouldn’t be telling themselves to stop freaking out because it’s "just a movie." They wouldn’t expect themselves to "suspend disbelief" and just "enjoy the movie."

And I doubt that those oh-so-clever critics would remain silent on the situation (like they have now) if the script was flipped, either. I doubt their cheekiness would be reserved for the CGI or the melodramatic acting, as opposed to the fact that those mighty, revered Greeks were portrayed by non-Greek people.

Of course, that’s all just conjecture because – as far as I know – that kind of movie hasn’t been made by any major production company. Instead, we just have all these movies that push disbelief so far we come back on the other end – with people accepting it as reality.

But, this time, I just couldn’t do it. I wasn’t able to suspend my disbelief. Even though I laughed my ass off and had a great time watching "Van Helsing" (worst movie ever). Even though I watched "In the Name of the King" all the way to the end, and kind of enjoyed Burt Reynolds’ oddly-cast portrayal of a noble king. Even though the original Godzilla’s jiggly rubber suit never kept me from buying in.

In spite of all that – all my training – I couldn’t check myself for "Clash of the Titans." Maybe watching the film in a country where I’ve been constantly surrounded by non-white folks raised my standards a bit. Maybe I would’ve "let it go" more easily if I had seen it back in the States. Who knows?

All I know is that this tendency for Hollywood to portray the people of ancient Greece as Aryans with British accents is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen in film – and I’ve seen an amazing quantity of ridiculous things in film.

So I beg you, potential film-makers, critics, movie-goers – please start mentioning this. Please tear movies up that do stupid things like this. Make it not okay. Call it out. Go ahead and suspend your disbelief for the plot-holes, the fantasy, the CGI, and the poor acting. Enjoy it and laugh when it’s all done terribly. That’s what the movie-going experience is about.

But stop suspending your disbelief for the white-washing of history and theft of darker-skinned accomplishments. Because when that’s done wrong or poorly – it’s not funny.

(*1) Please don’t blame my childhood self for liking the first version . . . I was so young and innocent then . . .

(*2) And I do realize there are some non-Brits in the lot (and some of the "British" accents are more Aussie or Kiwi), but I’m going with the Hollywood vision and intention of all those accents and folks being more or less the same . . . call them "Commonwealth People" . . .

(*3) The myths are, of course, not "history," but the Greek Empire being made up of darker-hued people is.

(*4) And Egyptians, as well (not "super-white" but certainly "not African").

(*5) It’s common knowledge these days that a good deal of Greek and Roman contributions to "civilization" actually originated from more advanced Arabic (and African, and Asian) cultures.

(*6) I would find that cool, of course . . . Any film-makers out there want to accept the challenge?

(*7) And by the way – the 3d was crap, too.

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4 comments

  1. I agree with you mostly, though I’ve met a few Greeks and Italians with light hair and eyes, though that may be a result of all of those Germanic tribes swarming all over Europe in the late Roman era and the middle ages. I had a similar reaction this weekend when the History Channel (which is very hit and miss) did a special called “The Real Jesus” where they did a lot of computer work to make a 3-D depiction of Jesus based on the shroud of Turin (which has lots of controversy surrounding it over the years as to its authenticity) and when they were done they gave him white skin. The Jews of Jesus’ era in his part of the world did not have white Northern European complexions, but that is what they gave him.

    Then they did another special on the Garden of Eden and of course they depicted Adam and Eve and his first wife Lillith as white, and Adam had sandy brownish-blondish hair, Lillith was blonde but Eve (the woman who “caused the fall of man”) did have dark hair (a tiny bit of accuracy), even though again, the Jewish people who wrote that version of the story, and the other religions in the Middle East of that time who wrote similar stories prior to the existence of Judiasm, were not white people! So why in the world would they have envisioned having Adam and Eve (and Lillith) with white skin? But as you said, I’m sure if they showed either Jesus, Lillith, Adam or Eve as darker people, many people would be upset.

    Though to give HC credit they did another special on Jesus and what he might have looked like based on skeletal remains of Jews from the Middle East at his time and they gave him a slightly browner complexion. And I wonder if they got flak for that.

    I sent them an e-mail about the recent Jesus special but I’m not holding my breath for much of a reply, if any, beyond the “thank you for your concerns we are reviewing your comments” auto-reply I already got.


  2. I’m curious as to what point in your life, CVT, you started noticing the white-washing trend? It was so much the norm when I was growing up that I didn’t realize it until very recently. I had no concept at all of things like yellowface until the Racebending group brought it to my attention.

    And now that I am aware of it, I can barely watch any movie without noticing it, or more broadly framing the movie within the context of things like race and privilege. It’s actually spoiled movie-watching for me, for the same reasons you’ve mentioned – my now inability to suspend disbelief.


  3. I really liked your post. I just wanted to add that this white-washing trend is not restricted to the portrayal of ancient Greeks or Romans, it applies to the depiction of ancient Egyptians and Middle-Eastern people as well. I just watched Prince of Persia, and while it was a cute movie, I was upset throughout the entire movie because everyone spoke with a British accent. In ancient Persia! Seriously?

    I feel like Hollywood’s take on every movie set in the ancient civilizations of the Middle-East/Central Asia, cast the people as British with loads of make-up to make themselves look a little darker (at least they get the darker skin part right). Which is funny because the portrayal of modern Arabs/Persians/Egyptians is nothing like that. I’ve also noticed though a new trend of casting Hispanic and Indian (from India) people as Arabs/Egyptians/etc. I guess that’s an improvement. Now all they have to do is get rid of the British accent.


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