White Supremacist Cinema: The Gentlemen (Guy Ritchie, UK/USA, 2019)

American cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Uncategorized

Perhaps the biggest problem with racism in the UK is the UK’s belief that it does not have one.

The ‘it’ from the previous sentence should be defined as pertaining most specifically to the UK’s white population, perhaps especially those white citizens who identify solely as British nationals.

And yet, when we watch a film like The Gentlemen, it seems clear that racism is alive and well in the UK, including in British cinema (which is not to say that cinema as a whole might be a tool built upon racism).

Or, at least, The Gentlemen would wish to suggest that its white, male and Anglo-American values are ‘cinematic,’ while other, diverse forms of expression belong to smaller, ‘inferior’ screens.

We’ll get to the treatment of race in The Gentlemen shortly. First, however, we should get to grips with what I mean when I include the phrase ‘white supremacy’ in the title of this post.

For, in order to understand how white supremacy works, it is important to understand what it is, and because The Gentlemen is not especially subtle in its white supremacy, it functions as a good tool for us to think about how and why white supremacy is at work in the film.

So, as perhaps needs to be said every time one engages with the issue of race in the UK, white supremacy, as well as racism more generally, are not uniquely defined by hood-wearing white people lynching non-white people.

Rather, white supremacy is, simply enough, the belief that whites and whiteness are of greater value than non-whites and non-whiteness, perhaps especially blackness, but for certain in The Gentlemen, more valuable than yellowness.

The immediate defence mechanism that a white supremacist will put into play is the idea that I just betrayed my own racism by using ‘racist’ terms like black and yellow, as well as perhaps white.

To be clear, ‘yellow’ especially is a term that is loaded with a racist history, not least because it has historically been and continues to be a term applied by whites (and others) to various Asian peoples in precisely a derogatory fashion: the ‘yellow peril,’ for example, has long expressed the fear of whites that the Chinese (or others) will ‘take over’ the white world – a fear that is overtly at work in The Gentlemen.

All the same, while Asian people rarely and perhaps only ever with some sense of irony define themselves as ‘yellow’ (unlike Blacks, who do define themselves proactively as black, even though what ‘black’ really is or means has never been accurately or exactly defined – except perhaps by whites), I use the term(s) here to get us to think about how white supremacy works from the inside.

By this, what I mean to say is that white supremacy sees whites and whiteness as being superior to all other colours. In order to do this, it has to cast those other, non-white people into those other colour categories (black, yellow, brown) in order specifically to highlight that they are not white.

Having made this conceptual distinction, which allows the white to value himself above the non-white, the white takes the ‘supreme’ position from among the different colour categories. It is not that there are different colours, so much as a hierarchy of colours, with white at the top. Hence white supremacy.

Thereafter follow myriad ways in which whites and whiteness receive preferential treatment, get more opportunities and so on and so forth, all because they are white, while those non-whites (yellow, black, brown and so on) get inferior treatment, fewer opportunities and so on and so forth.

The point that I wish to make at the outset, then, is that you don’t need to be an overt racist to be a white supremacist or, at the very least, to benefit from a white supremacist system, or to thrive within a society that is white supremacist.

Nor, I might add, do you need to be white to thrive in a white supremacist society. You can be non-white and thrive; and you can be white and not thrive.

But if you are white, then the chances are significantly increased that you will thrive, or at least be more comfortable than if you were not white; and if you are non-white, then you will have significantly greater barriers before you to both comfort and, better yet, thriving.

And so if you benefit from such a system or thrive within such a society because of your whiteness, and if you do not do anything to change the advantages that you have, by, for example, refusing to share that advantegeous position, then, simply put, you are a white supremacist out of complicity, if not out of explicit action.

(That said, how we might separate explicit action from ‘mere’ complicity when we are considering the entire fabric of a life seems quite difficult to me; ‘doing nothing,’ or allowing disadvantages to continue for others simply because this gives you greater advantages, is an explicit action, just as not helping your neighbour is an explicit action… whether or not you run the risk of seeming like a chump to other advantaged people, who will think that you are betraying them because you see, understand and try to do something about the disadvantages presented to some – with the same advantaged people perhaps also thinking you stupid for not taking the same advantages as they do, even though you have those advantages before you. In short, the easy option – allowing things to stand as they are – negates the difference between complicity and explicit action; taking the harder option is always harder, and part of why it is harder is because others will make your life harder for taking that option – calling you names, making you feel bad about yourself and so on.)

Anyway, one of the next defence mechanisms that a typical white supremacist would throw out in order to deny racism, be that their own racism or that of the system from which they benefit, would be an appeal to history.

That is, and as per the notion described above of complicity/allowing things to stand as they are, a white supremacist (be they explicitly racist or simply happy quietly to benefit from white supremacy), would say that the UK is historically ‘white’ and that blacks and other non-whites of course are welcome here, but that they have to come and work their way ‘up the ladder’ and that of course this cannot happen overnight and so on and so forth.

However, while the appeal of such a view is perhaps inevitable to an unthinking white supremacist and to an overt racist alike, it is also false and an act of white supremacist thinking in and of itself.

Its falseness would probably take too long to deal with here in full. But put bluntly, the view is false because the idea that the UK is ‘historically’ white elides in this case race with nationalism – using race to define what is ‘British’ as that which is ‘white.’

But if ‘British’ and ‘white’ are now supposed to be synonymous, then we quickly get into hot water, as many comedians have pointed out – including perhaps most memorably Stewart Lee – since what ‘British’ is has no clear or exact meaning. We are a nation historically made of up Angles, French, Vikings, Norsemen, Celts, the Welsh, the Cornish, Germans, Greeks and more. (Many more!)

To suggest that Britishness and whiteness are historically synonymous is false, then, not because these other nations (Angles, French, Vikings, etc) are non-white (although more on this detail in a short moment), but because if ‘British’ is a single identity that in fact springs from a wide range of different identities, then there is no reason to suggest that ‘British’ is a single identity that has to have a specific skin colour.

What is more, the idea that the UK is historically white is also false and in and of itself white supremacist because if those non-white people who supposedly are ‘now’ British were indeed ‘British,’ then they would simply be British – and there would be no need to tell them that they were somehow ‘not British enough’ because of their skin colour.

That is, when history is used as an appeal to justify ongoing imbalances along racial lines within the UK, it places those non-white people in the category of ‘not quite British’ or ‘not British enough’ – as if having British nationality and/or permission to live and work in the UK were not the end of it.

To be treated as ‘not quite British’ means that history is being used as an excuse to preserve white Britishness in its supreme position, with that supremacy now based upon whiteness (i.e. it is white supremacy), since it is the non-whiteness of the other that renders them ‘not quite British.’

(Nationality can also be used instead of race to classify someone as ‘not quite British.’ For example, one might be Irish or Polish in origin, and this non-British origin is now used as a reason to define the other as ‘not quite British.’ In other words, white supremacy can also work alongside a sense of nationalist supremacy. It is not for no reason, though, that the Irish and the Polish have historically sometimes been referred to as the ‘blacks of Europe.’ That is, nationalist supremacy and white supremacy often go hand in hand, and even though the skin of many Irish people is ‘white,’ and indistinguishable from the skin of many British people, the Irish have not always been considered ‘fully white,’ just as they have not always been considered ‘fully British’ – whatever that means. As a result, ‘whiteness’ is a set of values not always wholly linked to skin colour alone.)

(Furthermore, the appeal to history also is inherently conservative in that it assumes that the past is more correct than the present and the future – a perspective that contradicts the notion of ‘progress,’ which can be equally problematic, and which claims that the present is more correct than the past – and that the future will be more correct yet than the present. In other words, such a view suggests that historical whiteness overrules present diversity and future non-whiteness. Given that history has favoured whites, such a conservative view of the world is thus to my mind itself a culturally ‘white supremacist’ view.)

‘But,’ our white supremacist might contend in their next line of defence, ‘if we don’t look out, then we’ll be overrun by foreigners’ – which is the ‘yellow peril’ line of argument at work in its clearest fashion (although the peril need not always be yellow; it can also be black and/or Polish and so on).

What this line of defence suggests again is that the now-British person is again not quite British enough, and that rather than Britain changing in its complexion in order to match its citizens, it is citizens who must change in their complexion in order to match the nationality.

Again, if we are all only really ‘now-British,’ in that everyone is non-British if you go back far enough, then it is both senseless and racist to say that the newer ‘now-British’ are ‘not quite British’ or ‘not really British’ because of their skin colour (or former nationality). That is, none of us is ‘really British’ when we look hard enough at it, with Britishness – as well as whiteness – simply being imaginary constructs.

The contention comes in again: how can you say race is an imaginary construct when I can see that a black person has a different colour of skin to a white person? I am not ‘imagining’ that difference at all…

In some senses, this white supremacist defence is not wrong; many people defined as black do indeed have darker skin pigmentation than many people defined as white.

However, it is how these differences are meaningful that is an act of the imagination.

For, if I am six foot tall, I am definitely taller than someone who is five foot six. And while some tall people do think that they are superior to shorter people, we nonetheless do not at present exclude people from a group (except perhaps for ‘those who can enjoy certain theme park rides’) as a result of their height. No, theme park rides aside, that would be completely arbitrary and meaningless.

And yet, while we do not (in principle) offer different opportunities to people who are taller than to people who are shorter, white supremacist societies, including the UK, do offer different opportunities to people because of their skin colour.

If we lived in a world where, say, people with size 8 shoes and below were discriminated against, while people with size 9 shoes and above enjoyed the majority of the opportunities and spoils, then we’d not look at skin colour but at shoe size in order to differentiate between people. In such a world, someone with darker skin would still have darker skin, and we would still be able to recognise as much, just as in our current world we can still tell if someone is short and/or has a smaller shoe size. But as we are cool with grouping up with people of different heights and/or shoe sizes in our world, so would we be cool in that other world of grouping up with people of different skin colours – just as long as they had the right shoe size or were the right height!

Since on the whole we are cool with grouping up with people of different shoe sizes, it seems weird that some people are not cool with grouping up with people of different skin colours.

With this example, then, I hope to have suggested that while there are indeed different skin colours (indeed, there are so many different skin colours that there are perhaps no two people with exactly the same skin colour, just as there are perhaps no two people with exactly the same shape and size of feet), what is an act of the imagination is how skin colour determines so much meaning and value in our world.

In the world where we discriminate by height and shoe size, skin colour would still be real, but it would determine so much less. In our world, height and shoe size are still real, but for some reason they determine relatively little (but definitely not nothing) in how much we esteem and value people, while skin colour determines a lot. That it is one and not the other is because of how we imagine people to be and how we imagine people to have or to accrue value.

That is, for some reason the contemporary world sets a lot of importance by skin colour, while it doesn’t supposedly set that much importance by height or shoe size – even though these differences are all real. Why it is skin colour that is so important a marker of difference is an act of imagination; we imagine that this one marker of difference is somehow so much more important than any other (although skin colour is by no means the only important marker of difference, with even height and shoe size sometimes being important enough a marker of difference to make that difference meaningful).


This is a long and roundabout diatribe that has not yet dealt much with The Gentlemen, but which I write at the outset of what is potentially a new series of occasional blogs about how white supremacism creeps into and is at work in contemporary cinema because it is important to demonstrate how the films in question engage with and suggest how whiteness is indeed attributed greater value in the western world, if not globally, and especially in the UK as per Guy Ritchie’s film.

With this in mind, we can turn to various moments in the film that demonstrate its white supremacist values, before then suggesting why it is important to point out the film’s white supremacy, even as it risks spoiling the ‘fun’ of this piece of what would like otherwise to be ‘harmless entertainment.’

Relatively early on in the film a mixed group of youths enter into the otherwise all-white and traditional space of a chippy. The group, which is marked by having non-white members among their number, approach the counter and start putting in orders without paying attention to the other clients – and while speaking in the vernacular of British urban youths.

However, what the youths do not know is that at the counter also awaiting his chips is Coach (Colin Farrell), an Irish boxing/fight coach who just wants peacefully to get his chips without being insulted by these ‘obnoxious’ youths.

What follows is a scene in which Coach beats up a couple of the youths before they recognise who he is and defer to him. As he does this, he also delivers a basic lesson in manners, all the while meeting the nodding approval of the chippy staff, who thus suggest that they have had enough of these young people, too.

The scene plays out as a fantasy of violence enacted against young, mixed groups – whose threat to the otherwise white clientele and workers at the chippy is signalled by the mixed, that is, partially non-white, nature of this particular group.

In other words, The Gentlemen here encourages us as viewers to enjoy seeing violence enacted against these young, urban kids – especially because they are lower class and non-white/mixed.

That this takes place in a chippy is significant: what more of a ‘British’ location could you get then a chippy, given that we are internationally famous for our fish’n’chips? Furthermore, given that a chippy is a ‘working class’ establishment, we can now understand that the youths are not unwelcome there because of their class – because, the chippy owners and the other chippy clients are all ‘working class.’ No – the reason that they are not welcome is because some of them are not white.

That the youths defer to Coach as they get beaten up suggests not only the imposition of a white supremacy over the course of the scene (re-establishing that whites are in charge after their supremacy has been threatened), but also that the youths themselves endorse and support this white supremacy.

That is, The Gentlemen does not just stage whites beating non-whites; it also has the non-whites basically tell the whites that they were correct to do so, since their white ways are better than the non-white ways of the youths – an important lesson that the non-whites learn over the course of this otherwise innocuous-seeming scene.

Having established Coach in his position of white supremacy – a position so supreme that even non-whites recognise his authority – the film then involves a scene in which two boxers at Coach’s gym have an argument. Indeed, one boxer calls Ernie (Bugzy Malone) a ‘black cunt,’ to which Ernie objects by suggesting that this is racist.

Coach interrupts Ernie and explains that it is not racist because Ernie is both black and a cunt, and therefore calling Ernie a black cunt is by definition not racist. Ernie agrees with Coach and goes about his business.

In other words, in this scene we have Coach delegitimise Ernie’s feeling that the other boxer has been racist (which is not to mention misogynist in his use of the term ‘cunt’). But more than simply telling Ernie he is wrong, Coach also gets to give Ernie a lesson in how to call someone a ‘black cunt’ is not racist – with the implication being to call someone a ‘black cunt’ is right. Furthermore, not only does Coach tell Ernie he’s wrong, before ‘proving’ to him why he’s wrong, but the script to The Gentlemen also has Ernie accepting Coach’s argument and basically agreeing with him.

It is important that this ‘lesson’ follows Coach having schooled the youths in the chippy. For now that his authority has been established in the former scene, it is in this second scene simply reaffirmed and not questioned. And this allows for the filmmakers to achieve a deeply problematic triple whammy: to sneak overt racism into this scene, to have that racism explained as non-racism, and for that racism then to be accepted as non-racism by the person to whom this racist slur was directed.

For those unwilling to accept this triple whammy, and who might rather posit that Ernie is indeed black, so it is not wrong to call him black, I should reply: Ernie is not called black, but specifically a black cunt. That is, blackness is here elided with cuntness in such a way that it is made to apply to an entire race, thereby making the discourse racist.

Furthermore, while the c-word does get bandied about in The Gentlemen with some frequency, it is never used in association with, say, white or whiteness. While Fletcher (Hugh Grant) and Ray (Charlie Hunnam) might call each other cunts, neither calls the other a ‘white cunt,’ for example.

Perhaps they don’t have to call each other a ‘white cunt’ because each of them is white; for Ray to call Fletcher a ‘white cunt’ (or vice versa) would be redundant and so it is simpler for them just to call each other a cunt.

However, Ernie must be specified as a black cunt. According to the logic of The Gentlemen, then, race apparently has nothing to do with cuntitude except when you are black, at which point in time it is always worth reminding the cunt in question that they are specifically a black cunt.

The upshot of this is that whiteness becomes invisible (whiteness is not even worth mentioning or specifying), while blackness must always be marked – because blackness is a mark – whether or not cuntness, deeply misogynistic as it is, is also a mark.

That blackness is a mark suggests that all deviations from whiteness are abnormal and need to be defined, most often negatively (Ernie is not a cunt, but a black cunt). The need to mark deviations from whiteness is part and parcel of white supremacy – with the filmmakers here going so far as to mark this marking also as correct, and not just by the white characters, but by the affected black character himself.

That Coach is Irish could conceivably mean that we have a ‘metaphorical black’ talking to a ‘genuine’ Black (the Irish as the ‘blacks of Europe’) about race; that is, these are ‘brothers’ talking. But really The Gentlemen seems here as in the chippy scene to want to use Coach’s Irishness to cover over what is otherwise overt white supremacy.

As is typical of much white supremacist cinema, The Gentlemen does not give much screen time to non-white characters. If you look at the poster for the film, you will see that the main cast is white with the exception of Henry Golding (who plays Dry Eye); while there are non-white characters, then, these generally are cast in subservient and secondary roles.

Furthermore, the only non-white character who does have a leading part and who appears on the poster, namely Dry Eye, is of course the film’s antagonist, or villain – an uppity young Asian man who threatens to take over the business of the whites who otherwise monopolise the marijuana business within the UK.

Now, Dry Eye is not just uppity towards the white overlords. No, The Gentlemen takes care to make sure that Dry Eye is also irreverent towards his Asian boss, Lord George (Tom Wu).

However, while this might with some gerrymandering mean that Dry Eye is just a ‘bad egg,’ and that actually there are some ‘good’ Asians, like Lord George, in the film… in fact the film also makes sure to show that Lord George is also a bad egg.

This in particular takes place through a scene in which weed kingpin Mickey Pierson (Matthew McConnaughey) goes to Lord George’s base and poisons him. Not only does he poison Lord George’s tea such that the latter vomits and soils himself – a humiliation in which Mickey seems to take some pleasure – but he also offers Lord George a lecture on vices.

For, at the start of the scene, Lord George explains that gambling on horses is his only vice. Cue Mickey explaining that Lord George, as someone who deals in cocaine and heroin, has many vices, even if he does not take those drugs himself (and this is not to mention the other rackets with which he is involved). This vileness Mickey compares to his own weed dealing, which in his own eyes is simply an innocent and not life-destroying drug, even as Mickey has knowingly slaughtered his rivals (notably black!) in order to be the biggest weed dealer in the UK and perhaps further afield.

This attribution to the Asian other of evil – which applies to Dry Eye, but especially here to Lord George – is not only another scene of the white telling the non-white about their place within the white world order, but it also involves a curious erasure of history. For, as has regularly been noted, it is the UK who supplied and got countless Asians, specifically Chinese people, addicted to opium during the so-called Opium Wars – and all in the name of Empire. And yet, here it is the ‘evil’ Chinaman (with his pompous faux British name!) who is guilty of doing the same…

Again, then, whiteness reigns supreme in the world of The Gentlemen.

The Gentlemen involves a sequence in which Ray goes with his colleagues, including Bunny (Chidi Ajufo), on to a housing estate in order to extract the daughter of a lord, Laura (Eliot Pauline Sumner). This they do, but not without mistakenly throwing a Russian heir out of a window and to his death.

The body is then filmed by a further group of youths, from whom Ray and his colleagues must take their phones in order to ensure that the mission is not recorded and placed on social media.

This then prompts a sequence just like the one in the chippy: white Ray confronts the mixed/non-white youths and then out-toughs them with a machine gun. While Bunny is indeed on Ray’s ‘side’ during this confrontation, as per the sequence in the chippy, the council estate sequence situates the viewer in such a way as to take pleasure in seeing these youths as humiliated, first by marking them as a threat (especially by keeping Ray’s machine gun hidden not just from the youths, but also from us as viewers), then by marking them as defeated.

Again, then, white supremacy creeps in.

And yet, just as Bunny works for Ray, so does urban youth culture work for the film, since the inclusion of celebrity performers like Bugzy Malone is surely done in a bid to boost the appeal of The Gentlemen beyond a white audience.

And what this means is that black/urban music features on the soundtrack to the film also in a bid to sell it – and in order to increase its coolness.

Toni Morrison has written about how white media regularly use encounters with blacks, especially black music, in order to signal a transition (a character suddenly is galvanised to do something tough by listening to hip hop, for example) – and it is clear in the history of cinema more generally that black music is regularly used to signify ‘action’ and ‘excitement’ in films that otherwise have unmarked white characters taking up the vast majority of the screen time.

This exploitation is also at work here in The Gentlemen, then, where all that is non-white is derided and yet used profitably by whiteness, including the humiliation of non-whites for the pleasure of white audiences. (There is even a series of jokes at the expense of a character called Phuc, played by Jason Wong.)

And yet, for all of its use of blackness to increase its caché and chances of making a profit, The Gentlemen also has the temerity to deride black culture.

This it does relatively subtly towards the beginning of the film. For, Fletcher explains to Ray that he has written a film script about the whole plot in which he finds himself involved – for Fletcher is an investigative journalist who has been following the exploits of Mickey Pierson now for some time… and he is with Ray, as Mickey’s sidekick, to extort some money from him so as not to have Mickey’s business exposed in the tabloid press (represented here by Eddie Marsan playing newspaper editor Big Dave).

As Fletcher explains to Ray, his script is cinematic, and he outlines what ‘cinematic’ is and means by comparing it to television or even something that one might watch on a small screen on the internet. As if to confirm Fletcher’s argument that cinema is ‘superior’ to these other media, the makers of The Gentlemen consciously change the dimensions of the screen in order to convey how the bigger/more ‘cinematic’ an image is, the more powerful it is.

That is, cinema is upheld in The Gentlemen as the supreme audiovisual format.

But more than this, cinema is also upheld as white when it transpires that Coach’s non-white protégés, including Ernie and others, have not only stolen some of Mickey’s weed from one of his plantations (a problematic term that I use provocatively by choice), but that they have also recorded their exploits and uploaded them to social media.

In other words, non-whiteness is here implicitly associated with the small screen, which in turn is defined as an inferior medium not just by Fletcher, but also by the film itself, since the film consciously changes the dimensions of the screen in order to demonstrate Fletcher’s point, i.e. to demonstrate that Fletcher is correct.

It is for this reason, then, that the makers of The Gentlemen elide whiteness with cinema as a whole, with whiteness being supreme, especially in this ‘supreme’ medium. Non-whites are associated with inferior media, which in turn confirms their ‘inferior’ societal status.

And yet, for all of their supposed aesthetic ‘inferiority,’ The Gentlemen is very happy to replicate the aesthetics of social media for the purposes of telling its story, including by showing in full one of the music videos created by Ernie/Bugzy Malone in the closing credits.

White supremacy, then, relies on the non-white for its own power, and yet denies this reliance even as it overtly uses non-whiteness to its own advantage.

Of course, a white supremacist might just finally contend two things. Firstly, that someone has to be the bad guy, and so why not the Asian other/Dry Eye? To which one might respond that no one has to be the bad guy at all, especially if we understand that anyone who does ‘bad’ things generally does them for reasons beyond simply being ‘evil’ – even if The Gentlemen cannot be bothered to take the time to show the reasons behind, say, Dry Eye’s greed (meaning that he is simply allowed to be or to become a ‘bad’ Asian).

(I might suggest that cinema as a whole does not generally bother to spend time investigating or exploring complexities of character, a wider issue that is related both to conventions of storytelling, and to the kinds of films we watch, how long they run, where they play and so on. That is, films generally cannot be bothered to explore complexity because it would require slower, less ‘interesting’ and more thoughtful films. This would in turn mean that cinema would run the risk of not making as much money; and so, capitalism as a whole is in part responsible for the lack of thoughtful movies, meaning that cinema is a race to the bottom in terms of indulging unthoughtfulness. How and why thought and thinking are so unappealing in our attention-driven and capitalist society is an issue that will have to await another discussion.)

Secondly, a white supremacist might contend that The Gentlemen need not be bothered to show such complexities because it is, after all, ‘just a movie,’ just ‘a bit of fun,’ or just entertainment – as the film consciously suggests by choosing The Jam’s ‘That’s Entertainment’ as the song that plays over the start of the final credits.

But, as Richard Dyer has also suggested, that which is put forward as ‘only entertainment’ is often far from being such.

Or, put differently, we don’t have many pro-KKK films (although we should worry about their existence and the popularity that any such films enjoy). And yet, we do have issues of white supremacy and racism in our society. And white supremacy persists in our societies not only because of overt racism, but also because of white supremacy is fed to us in ‘mere entertainments’ such as The Gentlemen.

I might push further and suggest that not only is there white supremacy in our society, but that we live in a white supremacist society as a whole; that is, our society is built upon white supremacy, among other things (including classism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other issues – and all of which are present in The Gentlemen, too). Since our society is built upon white supremacy, we cannot change white supremacy without changing society.

I might also suggest that cinema as a whole is white supremacist and that we cannot change white supremacy in cinema without fundamentally changing cinema.

The reason to write a blog (series) such as this, then, is to suggest that we should indeed be looking to change cinema – by encouraging producers, editors, writers, directors, cinematographers, actors, all crew and cast, and even all cinema goers, as well as critics and so on – to be attuned to how white supremacy is at work in the medium, and especially in films like this one.

If we don’t put in such work – if we don’t kill some of the ‘joy’ that people take in white supremacy – then white supremacy will continue. And it is time to put an end to such white supremacy – not necessarily by making only films about paraplegic black lesbians or whatever other sarcastic response a white supremacist might put defensively in place (although why not have many more such films?), but by being and/or becoming more responsible for how we think, how we express our thoughts, and how we live with each other today.

That is, if we can spread a wider understanding of how white supremacy works, then perhaps the fabric of films like The Gentlemen might change. Producers, actors, writers, editors and so on would not want to make such films, and so such films would change. This in turn might change cinema. And by changing cinema we might in turn change society.

Such changes need to be made…

* Another white supremacist contention might be aimed at the writer of this blog as a white (cisgendered) male, etc: am I not also implicated in white supremacy, the recipient of many of its benefits and so on? That is, am I not just a virtue-signalling hypocrite in writing anti-white supremacy blogs? I am indeed complicit in white supremacy, and this has emerged in different ways at different points in my life – and it likely will never not be the case. However, as I grow increasingly to understand the workings of white supremacy myself, I feel it important not only to seek to change my own behaviours and complicity with that system, but also to share what it is that I am learning in a bid to bring about wider change. The process of learning has not ended and likely never will end. To bring it to an end, though, is what we might call a project: a part of one’s life work, something that goes on until death, but which may well give meaning to such a life, rather than persisting in meaningless complicity.

Smart people are stupid (in a good way) – and ‘stupid’ people are smart (in a bad way)

Blogpost, Film education

(A note of thanks to staff at the University of Reading, where I presented a paper that is loosely on a related topic to this post on 1 November 2012. In particular, discussion with Simone Knox, John Gibbs, Lisa Purse, James MacDowell and Ian Banks, allowed me to think critically about what I had discussed at Reading, such that this blog post might come into existence.)

I teach a module to first year film students called Reading Visual Aesthetics. The first exercise that we get students to do for that module is to describe what they see in a ten-shot sequence taken from a film.

When I first taught this module, I thought that the exercise might be a bit pointless; perhaps more time should be spent on analysing rather than describing. However, as time has gone on, the more I appreciate what a fantastic exercise this is to get students to undertake.

For, what is excellent about this exercise is how it reveals and/or exposes how we take for granted – or look unthinkingly – at many of the things and objects that surround us in everyday life, but which perhaps we should not take for granted.

This year, we showed a ten-shot sequence from the opening of The Opposite of Sex (Don Roos, USA, 1998) – and as happens every year, many of the students wrote their description pretty hastily and then sat in the classroom looking bored as the two-hour time limit that they have clocked down.

This in spite of my exhortations to check through work, to keep looking at the sequence (which we show 15 times over the course of the two hours – it becomes etched in your memory) and to keep writing down details that they see. I always insist that the exercise is harder than the students think, but nonetheless this does not stop many students from assuming that the exercise will be – in the parlance of our times – a piece of piss. And by and large those who believe this do most poorly on the exercise…

Which will lead me to the conclusion that I will make at the end of this blog and which is outlined in its title: smart people are stupid (in a good way) and ‘stupid’ people – by which I really mean lazy people – are smart – but in a bad way.

This blog is not about the poor spelling that I find in these descriptions, nor about the common errors that film students make with regard to film terminology (for example, barely any students correctly identified the opening sequence’s crane shots as crane shots, but instead called them pans or simply camera movements; this is not to mention how editing remains practically invisible to most students – and filmgoers more generally – with barely any students making mention of the dissolves that feature in this sequence).

The kinds of errors I have just mentioned are common, particularly to students just starting out in film – and they are common enough these days that I almost feel no point in commenting on them, especially – sadly enough – the spelling.

(Indeed, a quick comment: I had to read nine essays before finding one that spelt the word cigarette correctly. However, I should make clear that this is not a criticism of the students at my university in particular. I have come across poor spelling at all of the institutions at which I have taught film, which include Oxford, St Andrews and Roehampton. So anyone inclined to make any assumptions about the latter university and/or its students as a result of its not being so well known as the other two… well, desist immediately.)

Instead, what is interesting is the nature of the descriptions made. Or rather, how many things that are right before our eyes are often invisible to us, or do not seem worth commenting upon.

In the opening sequence of The Opposite of Sex, we see a firebrand Dede (Christina Ricci) trash her stepfather’s funeral and run away from home with the help of her quasi-boyfriend Randy (William Lee Scott) to Indiana, where she hopes to stay with her half-brother Bill (the wonderful Martin Donovan). There she meets Bill’s boyfriend, Matt (Ivan Sergei), whom we see towards the end of the self-same opening ten-shot sequence (he opens Bill’s front door in shot nine).

So, what sort of details from this sequence did barely anyone talk about?

Well, we can start with quite general things. Only one student mentioned that the characters speak in American accents, with no one making any reference to their race (all of the characters are white in this sequence).

Well, isn’t this obvious, you’ll perhaps say to yourself, since this is an American movie about white people? So obvious that it is not worth mentioning.

Well, yes. On a certain level it is obvious that we are dealing with white Americans – if you know anything about the film in advance – but that’s precisely my point. We should look at things precisely as if we knew nothing about the film in advance. For the minute that anything is obvious to us, we start regarding that thing as natural and we no longer question what surrounds us.

If, when asked to describe what you see in a film sequence depicting white Americans, you feel that someone being white is not worth mentioning, nor that someone is American (let alone from which part of America, what class their accent seems to betray, etc),then their whiteness is (after the venerable Richard Dyer) invisible, or naturalised.

Now you might say that you would not pass comment either if the characters were black and/or spoke with Russian accents. You – you will tell me in your best thinking or unthinking David Brent impression – are colour blind.

Well, aside from the fact that so-called colour blindness negates difference (something that we should do at our peril), and aside from the fact that I would probably not believe you (since I don’t think colour blindness exists – or if it does, it only speaks, as it does in the case of David Brent, of a condescending and predominantly white attitude towards racial difference), I think that we must describe what we see in the best and most appropriate language that we have.

And since we see someone’s skin colour, we should during a description exercise describe it.

Failing to do so implies that anyone who reads the description shares a similar white or white-centred outlook on the world, and the implicit assumption that the world is white. By virtue of this being an unthinking assumption, it also is only a few steps away from suggesting that the world should be white and/or white-centred.

Similarly, to feel that an American accent (even perhaps the fact that the characters are speaking English) is not worthy of comment also belies the belief that all movies are American, that America is somehow the natural home of cinema.

In other words, if it is considered ‘natural’ (well, naturally the film is about white Americans) that a film like The Opposite of Sex is about white Americans, then whiteness and Americanness are naturalised. By which I mean to say that they are normal, not necessary for comment, while all that deviates from this norm is, well, abnormal, deviant and somehow unnatural.

I can imagine some people having a hard time agreeing with, so I am going to bring forward three other examples that hopefully will make more clear what I mean.

During this sequence there are two night-time shots, one featuring Dede packing a bag in her bedroom, and one featuring her sneaking from her house, across a lawn and to Randy’s car. In the first shot, we see a bedside lamp and in the latter we can see lights from the house’s interior as well as a flash of Randy’s headlights.

What is interesting is that many of the sequence descriptions that I marked suggested that the lighting throughout the sequence is natural lighting.

That students put this in spite of repeated explanations in class that more often than not what looks like natural lighting is as a result of very powerful lamps is not the point that I wish to make. Rather, the point that I wish to make is that we know absolutely well that neither an electric bedside lamp nor a set of car headlights is natural lighting.

These are man-made phenomena. And yet they are so commonplace to us that they have become naturalised; we mistake as natural something that is man-made and, to a certain extent, artificial.

So if we end up mistaking manmade inventions like electric lighting for nature – perhaps a typical occurence for those humans who are surrounded everyday by such items – then perhaps we can see how this also becomes the case in terms of whiteness and Americanness. So commonplace are whiteness and Americanness in cinema that we take them as natural – when of course cinema could be very different.

Perhaps another way to think about this is that if electric lighting has become so commonplace as to be natural, then we should understand that nature is perhaps malleable and not absolute or fixed in nature. In this way, cinema need not predominantly depict whiteness and Americanness – but for some reason it does.

So we need to think about why this is the case – and we can perhaps then begin to construct a different cinema that is not so white-centred and Amerigocentric, but which instead is more ‘democratic’ and egalitarian.

The second of my three examples is the notion of costume. One student did very insightfully put that the costume in the film mimics the fashion of the late 1990s – or words to that effect.

We often unthinkingly assume that films should be about the contemporary age (and perhaps we do not even question the constructed nature of costumes in, precisely, costume dramas and period films).

And yet costumes in films – and costumes in general – are constructed and they tell us information about where and when they come from – even if most of the time we do not bother to analyse such things.

Finally, a couple of students noticed a yellow car in one shot that shows Dede approaching Bill’s front door (though none identified it as a Volkswagen, which surprised me; nor even as a hatchback, which disappointed me).

Only one student, however, said that this is a funny detail since we might typically associate a little yellow VW with a gay character – and Bill is a ‘real life homo’ as Dede tells us in her voice over during this sequence.

My point here is not to deconstruct why a yellow VW hatchback might be deemed gay – though such an argument no doubt deserves to be made elsewhere, since the link between the one thing (yellow VW hatchback) and the other thing (homosexuality) is certainly not natural, but a cultural construct.

Rather, it is to say that I am surprised no one commented on the car at all.

I have no empirical evidence for this, but I suspect that most students notice Bill’s yellow VW hatchback and that it conforms to Dede’s characterisation of him as gay in the voice over.

That is, while the visual joke that is made might well have been lost on some viewers (particularly those who precisely do not see the link as natural between a yellow VW hatchback and a gay owner), my guess is that most viewers ‘got it’ but did not feel the need to describe the car or the ‘appropriateness’ of the car’s colour – again because the point is supposedly too obvious.

This despite the fact that students have only been asked to make a description!

Now, here is where we send this blog in the direction of its title and conclusion – but we’ll do this by turning to what various scholars say in film studies about the experience of film viewing.

The great David Bordwell – and many cognitivist film scholars before and since – have long argued that the brain is working overtime during film viewing and that it really is a miracle of intelligence that people can work out that a shot of a woman at a desk after a shot of the outside of an office block means that the woman is (most likely) inside that office block and working at her desk.

This is no doubt true – and its truth pertains to the yellow car gag from The Opposite of Sex, too. It is a miracle of intelligence that people ‘get’ that the yellow car is a visual gag that reaffirms that Bill is gay (while at the same suggesting to us that what we are seeing is Dede’s version of events – as affirmed by her self-conscious voice over – and not necessarily, therefore, a trustworthy account of events. That is, in Dede’s head Bill of course has a yellow VW hatchback because he’s a complete flamer – but this is not necessarily the truth, nor how Bill would see things, nor necessarily as things are or were).

However, while it is a miracle of intelligence that we get the joke so quickly, automatically even – i.e. without having to think about it – it is also problematic precisely because we do not think about it.

Why do I say this?

I say this because the making-automatic or natural of associations and thoughts (manmade lighting = natural; contemporary clothing = natural; predominant whiteness and Americanness = natural; yellow VW hatchback = gay) has what I shall call a profoundly ideological aspect to it.

This is most clear in the “yellow VW hatchback = gay” idea. Yellow VW hatchbacks are of course not gay – but the association between a stereotype of homosexual American men as liking bright colours and small, relatively sporty and European cars has been made natural that not only did most people see the joke, not only did (I wager) most people get the joke, but when specifically asked, so natural did the joke seem that only one student even thought to comment on it.

We might say that finding a yellow VW hatchback to be gay is harmless. Ostensibly it is, and I do not think The Opposite of Sex a homophobic film – though it certainly deals with explicit homophobia as a theme. Nonetheless, we make these kinds of unthinking and automatic associations the whole time – and sometimes they really can be of a problematic nature (historical – unthinking? – shorthand would reach for World War Two Nazi propaganda here: it is unhealthy when a society starts to associate Jews with rats).

So you may not think that there is a particularly worrisome ideology about the yellow VW hatchback joke in The Opposite of Sex, but there is an ideology at play nonetheless.

(And it is Dede’s – problematic – homophobic ideology that is on display here, since it is she telling the story and she who would paint Bill as a typical flamer with a yellow VW hatchback – even if at play there is also the film’s own, non-homophobic ideology that creates some distance between us and Dede – we hear her voice over and so know that she might be manipulating events such that we see things her way and at the same time we learn not to trust her, meaning that we are not necessarily sharing her homophobic perspective but rather laughing at it as we see the yellow VW hatchback – making of The Opposite of Sex a very sophisticated film indeed.)

My argument is not that ideology = bad. I am of the view that one cannot escape ideology – but I am also of the view that ideology becomes dangerous when unthinkingly do we accept as natural, unchanging and as a given something/anything that is not natural, precisely because nature is malleable and susceptible to change (as opposed to being, precisely, unchanging).

Ideological perception – seeing the yellow VW hatchback as gay – needs to be thought about explicitly. In other words, we need to make un-automatic that which is automatic in our minds; we need to bring into thought precisely that which is otherwise unthinking. Because, as mentioned, otherwise we run the risk of some form of Nazism, or fascism.

Or, put less hysterically, if we just accept the world in an automatic or unthinking fashion, then we are not looking at the world for ourselves, but we are seeing it as others want us to see it. We are willing accomplices in our own subjugation to a version of reality that we could change if we wanted to.

(A sidenote – aimed mainly at film scholars: it is beginning slowly to be acknowledged – but the kind of automatic thought whereby yellow VW hatchback = gay means that we see films, and perhaps reality itself, as a system not of stand alone objects but as signs (yellow VW hatchback is not gay, but that we see it as such means that yellow VW hatchback has stopped being a yellow VW hatchback and has become instead a sign of homosexuality). In other words, that we see semiotically means that semiotics – and film as a language, language here being defined as a process, as the making-linguistic, the making-semiotic of cinema and of reality itself – might well rear its head back into film studies – even if it was precisely against such a semiotic approach to understanding cinema that David Bordwell and other cognitivists adopted the cognitive framework in the first place!)

If we are seeing the world not for ourselves but as others want us to see it, then perhaps nowhere is this more clear than in, of course, film viewing. That most students did not put into words the yellow VW, or the edits that of course they did see but to which they did not pay attention, makes this most clear: we see the film, but we do not see through the film. We see what the film shows us, but we do not see the film itself. We see the content and the story – but not its form, or how it is being told – even though this form, which exceeds our attention, is incessantly before us, right before our very eyes for us to see – if we had the eyes to do so.

When we have the eyes to see the invisible links, to rethink the associations that are otherwise automatic, then we begin to learn. Learning is the confrontation of the new – it is the rewiring of neurons in the brain, the making of new associations. The minute we stop learning, our brain will begin to atrophy – since only the same old clusters of neurons will fire as we begin to see the world in an automatic and unthinking fashion.

The minute we start thinking, or rewiring neurons, then we are no longer (as much) prey (be that willing or unwilling) to ideology; we move into changing ideology – we become political beings – as well as social, ecologically-embedded beings working on the construction of reality, of what is deemed natural, whether or not everyone agrees with the direction in which we want to change things. We bring into our conscious mind that which previously was unconscious – we become smarter – we develop the possibility to control our own destiny – we develop free will – we develop our capacity for freedom, both of thought and of deed.

So here’s where the title and conclusion of this blog post comes into play.

When our automatic perceptions rule our existence, in some ways we are functioning in a very smart fashion; we are efficient and do not need to waste energy consciously thinking about stuff since we can negotiate and navigate our way around reality in a smooth and energy-saving fashion.

But this is, after Daniel Kahnemann, also laziness. So ‘stupid’ – or what I really mean is lazy – people are smart. They are efficient and don’t have to, or don’t want to, think about things. But I see this, laziness, as being a bad thing. Why? Because it is not to get involved in the world, it is not to think and to re-think reality and what surrounds us, to fulfil one’s potential – to waste one’s life, in short.

(Note: a footballer gets so good at football that it becomes unthinking to them. My point is not that we should resist automation entirely – because sometimes being able to naturalise or automate skills, such as controlling and passing a football, are good things. But we should not rest on our laurels and we should always work at improving our game, on acquiring new skills. What is true of football is true of thought, even though thinking is frowned upon in British society and even though our government is prepared to take away much of the investment in education – sport for the brain – at the same time as pouring money into sport, even though sport by definition can employ or make employable far fewer people than can education as a whole. Scholars may not be as famous as David Beckham – but they are as good at what they do as Beckham is at what he does. A.J. Ayer is as big a man as Mike Tyson.)

Smart people, on the other hand, are a bit stupid, because they expend energy on analysing, rethinking, and asking questions. However, while intelligence is therefore not necessarily efficient (and therefore runs counter to the capitalist ethos and ideology that drives our society, if not our whole world, making the question of education and thought a deeply ideological one!), intelligence is the means to freedom, to thinking new things, to invention. It is by definition experimental; it is by definition somewhat speculative. But unless we create the conditions – for ourselves and for others – to realise our potential, then that potential is just going to be sat wasting away.

I imagine a film sequence description that one day will become obsessed with trying to take into account the particles of air that are in the frame of the camera, but which are too numerous to mention, and each quivering blade of grass in the wind – in addition to all of the large or human scale objects that we can see.

And while such a description might not get top marks (since in dedicating its energy to elements of the film that most people overlook), I will surely know that there is a keen, inquisitive and free intelligence at work – even if its intelligence is signalled in the very stupidity of its description (the description being stupid because mildly inappropriate). And I will expect future great things of that person.

Indeed, what importance are grades? Truly original work cannot really be graded at all – since it will at first seem entirely inappropriate and stupid to the person marking it. But university – perhaps education as a whole – is not and should not be about grades (which is to impose upon people a fixed – automatic and unthinking – system of thought that has its final goal, or telos, decided in advance, or a priori). That education and university are about grades is a direct manifestation of the capitalist and unthinking logic that is invading every last aspect of our world. So it is time to rethink such things…

So don’t worry about grades, but instead worry about thinking, about fulfilling potential, about working out what your brain and your body can do, what you can do in, with and for the world, about bootstrapping yourself into conscious thought, about being different, about becoming free.

(But please, dear students, don’t take this as an excuse not to make any effort, to be lazy. On the contrary, stupid intelligence of this sort cannot be lazy – but lazy intelligence is perhaps one of the most stupid things around.)