The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and making excuses for older movies.

Dolly’s comment here, that Achmed “sounds like something I might not be able to swallow (what with all the β€œ1926″ racism/sexism)” prompted such a long meta-analysis of my response to the movie, that I felt it needed its own post.

Because I didn’t have trouble swallowing all the sexism and racism. It didn’t outrage me at all, which it usually does. If anything atrocious popped up, I just took a screencap for the blog, and kept watching. I thought the whole movie was rather charming.

My question to myself: Why am I making excuses for an obviously sexist, racist movie just because it’s old?

There are two different components to this answer, I think. First, it’s actually not that much worse than some movies I’ve seen in theatres lately. Second, it seems unfair to hold old movies up to modern standards, since they didn’t exist back then.

So, one at a time: this movie isn’t that bad. Which is to say, it’s terrible, and blatantly sexist and blatantly racist. But so is Mulan, my favourite Disney movie. So is almost any other movie made in our messed-up, sexist, racist society. It’s pretty hard for a movie to escape being sexist and racist. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the princesses were par for the course (or maybe a touch better), sexism-wise, and the racist caricatures produced unacceptable appearances, but didn’t restrict the Witch’s actions. Sure, black people no longer look like horrific stereotypes in movies, but they die first. And they never get to kill the bad guys. So there are ways that Achmed is an improvement. It doesn’t balance out everything– it’s still a racist, sexist movie– but it does prevent it from being OMG RACIST!!1 when compared to modern films.

Which I guess brings me to reason number two: nowadays, despite the ways in which it exceeded my expectations, I would condemn this film for being unforgivably racist. But this film wasn’t made nowadays. It doesn’t deserve to be compared to modern films at all. The world was different in 1926, a lot different. Even my grandparents hadn’t been born yet. History was approaching the Holocaust, not the Civil Rights Movement.

So, yeah, made today this film is unacceptable. But why does that matter? This is a film made in Germany after World War I, and before World War II. Not a time or place known for being racially-conscious. I think Ms. Reiniger did the best she could, with some astounding culturally-enforced ignorance.

I suspect most of the problem of the caricatures had to do with the fact that a German woman in 1926 may have never seen a black woman, or a Chinese man, so all she could use as guides to draw them were racist caricatures.

I guess that’s really what it comes down to. She just didn’t know any better, and I can forgive that.

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3 Responses to The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and making excuses for older movies.

  1. fremenalex says:

    I’ve asked myself that same question, especially about old cartoons. Old Tom & Jerry cartoons are full of horrible stereotyopes and sexist/racial slaps in the face. “But that’s how it used to be” Yeah, that’s not gonna cut it. Racism is racism, sexism is sexism, etc. why call it by any other name, it’s still wrong.
    Then I think about one of my favorite shitty movies, Heathers. I can watch this movie about once a year, tops. Still I like it. Anyways, its about these kids going to school and killing thier classmates. Back in the teen angst 80’s, that was ok. In the post-Columbine days that we live in now, a movie like that would only be distasteful, but outright offensive. My point is that our sensitivities have shifted. Sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better. Slavery is bad, so is Gone with the Wind a bad movie? That movie isn’t about slavery, they just use it as a describer of that time. If Star Trek is supposed to be us in the future, why do all the girls have miniskirts as a uniform?
    P.S. Sorry for the long-ass comment.

  2. eloriane says:

    I don’t think it’s possible to write a short response to posts as long as mine πŸ™‚

    And you’re right, the heart of the matter is that while the isms can be pretty black and white– you can say X is racist, full stop, regardless of when it was made– whether or not the movie is acceptable is very much a gray area.

    Gone with the Wind is a perfect example– it doesn’t just portray the Old South, it somewhat glorifies it, even the slavery…so does that make it not okay anymore? I think as long as we’re mindful of the context we can appreciate the good in old classics without endorsing the racism or sexism or denying that it’s there.

  3. Dollface says:

    So many people love Breakfast at Tiffany’s, yet Mickey Rooney plays a completely stereotypical and discriminatory Asian man. Does that make it unwatchable? For some, yes. For others, they just try to overlook it.

    I agree with your statement about being lenient on books/movies made in the past. However, if somethings offends you, don’t watch it. (I love Gone with the Wind, by the way, but agree about its glorification of the South)

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