Monday, July 29, 2013

Question for the Week of Jul 29 - Aug 4: Indy Film's Racist-ey Overtones

You heard about the accusations of racism and insensitivity for Temple of Doom. What do you think?
So let me first note that I wrote one of my first long-ass posts about the entire trilogy, as well as my first Question entry (a silly one) and a later Question (which is one of my favorites). If you search for "Indy" on this site, you'll see it's come up other times, too.

I learned about the complaints when I was reading up on the series a few years ago. For once, I'll just use the Wiki entry:
The film's depiction of Hindus caused controversy in India, and brought it to the attention of the country's censors, who placed a temporary ban on it.[4] The inaccurate depiction of Goddess Kali as a representative of the underworld and evil met with much criticism as she is instead the Goddess of Energy (Shakti). The depiction of Indian cuisine was also condemned as it has no relation whatsoever with "baby snakes, eyeball soup, beetles and chilled monkey brains." Shashi Tharoor has condemned the film and pointed to numerous offensive and factually inaccurate portrayals.[5] Yvette Rosser has criticized the film for contributing to racist stereotypes of Indians in Western society, writing "[it] seems to have been taken as a valid portrayal of India by many teachers, since a large number of students surveyed complained that teachers referred to the eating of monkey brains."[6]

While this has some basis in fact, I think it was just a dumb, careless mistake. I can't really imagine Steven Spielberg espousing bigotry, much less risking damage to his reputation in that way. I've bagged on Lucas, but even the racism complaints about the Prequels pretty much came off to me as "this old white guy just doesn't put enough thought or perspective into what he's doing."

I know that such an answer is very brief, and maybe comes off as dismissive or facile. I've been subjected to multiple forms of bigotry in my own life - both for ethnicities that I do/don't belong to as well as for having long hair and being called the gay slur - and I simply cannot abide it, whether or not that prejudice actually applies to me or mine.

However, this question does allow me to go off on two major points that have bugged me about the Indiana Jones films, and bigotry does play into it...

First, there is something laughably silly about the idea that people are trying to protect powerful mystical artifacts from falling into the wrong hands. Why is it silly? Because the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail both protect themselves and are unusable!

Think about it: Gods are powerful, right? And they have more "intelligence" and "ability" than mortals, right? So if there's no history of their instruments being usurped, why would anyone worry about their misuse?

The Ark unleashes a team of spirits which can wipe people out like a kid stomping on ants. They will electrocute, melt, explode, and liquefy you. The Jewish god designs his toys with some serious fail-safes. Mazel tov.

Meanwhile, the Grail is protected by 4 solid booby-traps. And if you get past them all and even if you pick the right Cup, you can't take it outside its resting place without collapsing the very ground beneath your feet. The damage is so complete, you couldn't get it out in time. And hell, if it did get outside, maybe that soil would suddenly turn into a sinkhole, too.

Bluntly put, that stupid Templar knight wasted his life protecting something that the Christian god already covered quite neatly. God, How It Should Have Ended recently said the same thing. If you believe in a god, don't second-guess it, buddy!

Yet one of these things is not like the others, and it actually brings us to my second point, the point wherein some bigotry actually does seem to crop up. See, while the Ark and Grail are tamper-proofed, Mola Ram and the Thuggees are actually able to call upon and use the power of the Sankara stones!

I can give Lucas and Spielberg a pass for not thinking Indians would be touchy about (a) making action movies from violent parts of their national history, or (b) having a troop of British Occupation soldiers save the day, wiping out Mola's cult members with the guns they used so often across that land, or (c) showing a banquet which is meant to creep out audiences, but does make the local dinner guests seem quite savage and creepy. I can give them a pass - they're two white guys from the States. As storytellers, they just wanted to make their movie different from the original entry, as well as engaging for the audience. The bugs and snakes and brains are damn distinct, y'know?

But the implication that the Jewish and Christian gods produce incorruptible works, while the Hindu gods leave tools that anyone can use, for any purpose? Tools that can be cruelly-manipulated for the purposes of child slavery and world domination? I'm sure it was an unintended oversight, but guys, that one's a real doozy.


  1. There's a couple of things I'll add here:

    1) Racism was pretty well baked in to the serials that were the inspiration for the Indy series. Those adventures were themselves inspired by early 20th Century fiction that was as a matter of course pro-colonial and dismissive of foreign cultures (you see it in Tarzan, in Tintin, and in countless others). The dinner scene in particular is a play on those sensibilities.

    2) Spielberg and Lucas weren't really making movies for a global audience at that point. Unlike today, where filmmakers tiptoe around any references to China that might be considered negative (because pissing off China's censors might hurt the studio's business in the largest international market) Spielberg probably wasn't considering that people in India would see Temple of Doom and be offended by it.

    1. Oh, I know that this old material was very much a "civilized white man among the savages" vibe to all that stuff. And I agree that the dinner scene hits that same vibe of showing people something exotic and creep-tastic.

      As to the latter point, though, as much as I said that any racism/bigotry is pure careless oversight, that "global audience" statement doesn't defend anything.

      Why? Because whether or not you make movies for a global market, you can't ignore the very specific ethnicity/nationality that you're actually using to make your film. If I film a movie that's set in Paris with Parisian actors, and my movie vilifies everything about the place and its people, I can't just say, "well, I was only thinking about how the movie would be received in the US.

      Sure, it's careless, but it also would've represented a fantastically-stupid mistake on Spielberg's part.

    2. My global market point is just that realizing that people from the culture you're discussing will see your movie (and, even more, thinking of those people as your customers) changes your sensitivities. It's one thing to make an insensitive film about smelly, cowardly French folks if you're just thinking about jokes that will appeal to an American audience, a completely different thing to make that film with those jokes if you're going to have to attend the movie's premiere in Paris, or if you're going to take it to Cannes.

  2. Oh I really think it's super-racist, man. I'm Indian and I could not for the life of me understand what the fuck was going through Spielberg's and Lucas's heads.
    I still like the film because I love Indiana Jones's character, and it was cool seeing Amrish Puri there, but this is by far my least favourite Indiana Jones movie, including Crystal Skull.

    1. I know, I know, I know. DJ is being more forgiving than I am, and even I'm playing softball with Lucas and Spielberg.

      I think it's because I'm sure that it came from a place of stupid thoughtlessness, and not really realizing "it looks like we're portraying a goddess as evil," or "these folks joyously eat still-living animals."

      The amazing thing is that you can even fudge some of that with a line about Pancot Palace having a famously weird cuisine, or by noting that many people have used every religion for evil purposes, and that Kali is in no way comparable to Satan.

      But the part that earns both men a punch to the dick with brass knuckles is seeing the British Soldiers appear at the end to shoot the cultists. Because we all know what a force for good those guys were...


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