September 04, 2011

Eurocentrism in Night at the Museum 2

I watched the sequel to Night at the Museum Sunday. For those who don't know the story, here it is:

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (Three-Disc Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy) (2009)Ben Stiller wrestles with extinct beasts, historical figures, and meddling monkeys in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, the sequel to the popular 2006 special-effects extravaganza. This time, the ancient Egyptian tablet (the one that brings all the exhibits at New York's Museum of Natural History to life at night) is being shipped off to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.--which, as the movie diligently tells us, is the largest museum in the world. Naturally, former museum guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) heads down to rescue it (and, by extension, keep his magical museum friends alive). He ends up fighting with a nasty pharaoh who talks like Boris Karloff (Hank Azaria, The Simpsons) and falling in love with Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams, Enchanted). All the old gang are along for the ride, including Dexter the monkey; much face-slapping and special effects ensue.Comment:  A couple of years ago, I discussed how Mizuo Peck (Caucasian/Japanese) played Sacagawea in the original:

Martin's letter to Mizuo Peck
Mizuo Peck in Night at the Museum

Peck doesn't have much to do in Night at the Museum 2. I think she has only one line: questioning General Custer's plan to announce "Attack!" before he attacks.

As before, she's obviously a "Hollywood starlet" version of a Native woman. Her dress looks like a designer Native outfit, but at least it's knee-length and demure. The movie doesn't flaunt her sexuality, as many others have done with Native women.

She has a quiver of arrows, although I'm not sure we see her using a bow. Giving her a bow and arrows seems historically inaccurate. As a teenage girl with Lewis and Clark, following her husband and carrying a baby, I doubt she did any hunting.

White characters rule

Larry Daley and Amelia Earhart have the run of the National Mall, including the 10 Smithsonian museums presently open. Four of those 10 museums feature minorities:

  • National Museum of the American Indian
  • National Museum of African Art
  • Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Asian art)
  • Freer Gallery of Art (Asian art)

  • So do minorities account for 40% of Night at the Museum 2's characters and artworks? Heck, no.

    Let's review the movie's characters:

    Larry Daley--night guard
    Amelia Earhart
    Octavius--Roman soldier
    Ivan the Terrible
    Napoleon Bonaparte
    Al Capone
    George Armstrong Custer
    Teddy Roosevelt
    Abe Lincoln
    Dr. McPhee, curator
    Einstein bobbleheads
    The Thinker

    Notice anything these characters have in common. Yeah, they're all white. The only one who might not qualify as white is Kahmunrah, and he's played by the white Hank Azaria.

    Despite being called the Natural Museum of History, the original museum encompassed all of human history. Four of the 10 Smithsonian museums on the mall feature minorities. Yet Night at the Museum 2 is almost blindingly white.

    Oh, sure...there are some minorities. For instance, blacks play a small role. George Foreman has a cameo at the beginning, and a group of Tuskegee airmen hamfistedly assert their importance in history.

    Minorities = savages

    But as you can see in the photo, here are the main ones:

    1) Attila and his Huns. Although they were Eurasian in history, perhaps a Turkic people, they're dressed like Mongols in the movie. To me they "read" Asian.

    They have no lines to speak of. They're just background characters. They're savage warriors who fill out the fight scenes.

    2) Sacagawea. Again, no lines to speak of. Another background character. Another savage warrior.

    3) Three Neanderthal-like cavemen. Grunts only (I'm pretty sure the so-called cavemen spoke languages). More background characters. Not even warriors; more like pets listening to and obeying their much-smarter masters.

    I'm not sure the cavemen count as minorities. But look what we have here. All the main characters are white. The minority or dark-skinned characters are grouped together as extras. The Indian, the Huns, and the cavemen: a bunch of unthinking savages. They don't provide any important impetus to the story. They don't do anything except glower and fight.

    I especially like the mingling of Sacagawea and the cavemen. As I've said many times, Indians and cavemen are America's favorite primitive people of the past. If you want to signify how savage and barbaric life used to be--you know, before Westerners brought civilization to the world--an Indian or a caveman is your choice.

    4) The Easter Island Moai. This talking head speaks in Tonto-style pidgin English. Why? Because he (it?) comes from a non-Western culture.

    The magic tablet lets the Egyptian pharaoh, the Roman soldier, Ivan the Terrible, and Napoleon Bonaparte speak good English. But somehow the magic doesn't extend to the Easter Island head. Or to the Huns or the cavemen, for that matter. Message: White people are civilized; they can speak properly. Non-white people aren't and can't.

    How Hollywood thinks

    With all of history to choose from, how hard could it have been to include minority characters? How about Confucius, Kublai Khan, Tamerlane, Simón Bolivar, Booker T. Washington, Pancho Villa, Harriet Tubman, or Mahatma Gandhi? If you're gonna use a random cowboy or Roman soldier, why not a random samurai or Muslim scholar or African chieftain?

    Answer: Because Hollywood thinks in racist terms. Having Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, and Robin Williams in starring roles apparently isn't enough. Every major historical figure--except the silent savage ones--has to be white. Americans will stay away from the theaters if Hollywood forces them to watch blacks, Latinos, or Asians in heroic roles.

    Yeah, right.

    The Eurocentrism is obvious here. White people matter; others don't. History revolves around cowboys, soldiers, and presidents.

    That was the perception for the last 200 years, anyway. But in the 21st century, we should be doing better.

    As for the movie itself, it's a lightweight piece of fluff--an update on the old Saturday matinees that didn't make much sense but had a lot of running and chasing. The onslaught of special-effects characters and gimmicks seems designed to amuse children. The plot loopholes are big enough to fly the Wright Flyer through. (Does the pharaoh really think a few dozen hawk warriors are enough to defeat the world's military forces?) Rob's rating: 7.0 of 10.

    For more on the subject, see "Bottom Line" Argument Is Racist, Patel's Struggle Shows Hollywood's Racism, and Movies Convey America's Master Narrative."

    Below:  The mostly white cast of Night at the Museum 2. Putting Sacagawea and Attila on this poster is misleading. The Thinker and the cherubs have more lines than they do.


    Anonymous said...

    To be fair, it is the museum's representation, and I've seen museums portray Clovis people as organized in nuclear families, with an appearance that can be summarized as "Neanderthals with Down syndrome". And the two apparently don't cancel each other out. Also, despite it being, you know, an ice age, these Clovis people always look the same: Mostly male (lots of hunting scenes, and no scene of just women and children), with the men wearing just enough that they don't have to resort to Barbie-and-Ken anatomy. Some of the most ridiculous ones give the women fur bikinis, à la Racquel Welch.

    Of course, to say Hollywood's that smart is to give them too much credit.

    Hey, have you seen Mulan? They misidentified the Mongols as Huns. Yeah, I think that confusion is now officially a trope.

    Anonymous said...

    At least that movie sucks

    Rob said...

    Yes, I've seen Mulan. I liked it, but I don't remember much about it.

    Fascinated1 said...

    I decided to watch some escapist television this morning and choose this movie. I know I've heightened awareness of micro-aggressions post-election, but during the opening scenes of the museum gala, why does the camera show an African-American couple vigorously applauding the MONKEY's ability to hold a gymnastic pose??? The earlier applause moments focused on the Ricky Gervais table a couple of times, but choosing the MONKEY as the focus for a black couple is...offensive. It reminded me of the decision to show a MONKEY gymnast commercial after showing an African-American gymnast's event during the Olympics. It lands wrong, and I wish there had been diversity of thought (usually possible when you have diversity of backgrounds) in the room when making that camera decision. Key take-away: try not to link MONKEYs to black people unless you want to make a racist statement.