Quality vs. Equality: Why it's More Important to be Ethical than Entertaining
Most people tend to think of the medium of film as nothing more than entertainment, and once upon a time I probably did too.
But it isn’t true, not in the slightest.
Film is an extremely powerful medium that affects the way our society sees the world. And as such, it has the power to inflict great hurt on people. A common saying is: “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.” So when that line is crossed, it needs to be addressed.
Argo has been praised at multiple festivals and is receiving rave reviews from critics. The subject is a true story about how during the Iran hostage crisis, a CIA agent got the ball rolling on a fake film production that saved the lives of several people trapped in that country. The movie is directed by and stars Ben Affleck.
But there is a huge problem, one that should not be happening in this day and age: Affleck is white. The real life man he is playing, Tony Mendez, is not.
When I see the true Mendez, I see someone that looks more like Esai Morales or Edward James Olmos than Affleck. There are plenty of talented Latino actors in Hollywood that could easily have played the role. Yet, once again, Hollywood chose to whitewash the part and add yet another example to its long history of racial discrimination (a UCLA study found that of all leading roles, only 1.2% go to Latino actors).
Yet, not a single review out there has mentioned this. None of them. Not even Roger Ebert, who has brought up such issues for other films. It boggles my mind that any fellow critic with a brain, heart, spine, or conscience would outright ignore this fact.
But what makes this film especially offensive is that it’s based on real events and real people.
I’m reminded of U-571, which presented the Americans as the ones who cracked the Enigma code during World War II. This is a complete lie; the code was actually cracked by the British. Argo apparently does something similar, as it portrays the involvement of the Canadian government in the operation with having less of a role than they really did. A role that was perhaps even more important than the CIA. So credit for an incredible heroic feat by a Latino man and the Canadians is now given to white Americans.
So how should a critic judge this film? Do these factual distortions taint everything else about the movie?
If I were to review Argo, it would receive an automatic 1. Racism like this is not tolerable whatsoever, and those who perpetrate it need to be reviled.
Think of it this way: do we judge books by the grammar or the actual words? Does it matter to us if something like Mein Kampf is well-constructed grammatically and features an extensive vocabulary? That The Turner Diaries has a well-crafted plot?
The bad these works do far outweigh any redeeming qualities. In fact, it makes those qualities impossible to value. Who’s really going to enjoy the descriptive language in a passage that promotes racial genocide?
So now let’s transfer this over to film. The heyday of obvious propaganda may be behind us, but films that serve as propaganda still get made, and that is precisely what Argo has become. By striping away the true identities of those involved, the movie only serves to foster racist attitudes, undermine Canadian valor, and could go so far as goad Americans into supporting yet another war with a Middle Eastern country.
People will see this film and believe it, and in many cases, remain ignorant of its distortions and lies.
Think about it, what sticks with an audience the most after they leave the theater? Do they discuss the acting and camera tricks? Probably only if they are very incompetent. What sticks is the overall message. And what you think about that message is what you take away from the whole thing.
Social justice is of a much higher importance than amusement. No matter how large the amount of the latter there may be, it means nothing if it’s in something that contributes to this world’s evil. When themes of morality and decency are present, then the factors that provide the entertainment can truly be appreciated.