Arts & Culture

Restorative Films Rejuvenate Us

For the last four centuries, the Western world has devised a myriad of methods and systems to aid its subjugation of marginalized peoples, namely the development and dissemination of persistent ideologies through varying art mediums. Tufts students reflected on ways white-centric media pervades their sense of self and the world, and how best to combat these intrusions. 

Sophomore Aileen Guo wrote in a statement to the Tufts Observer, “White supremacy has set up a whole value framework where everything good and valuable gets associated with whiteness.” She continued, “There’s a sense that there’s no place for non-white people or communities and ideas to just exist on their own and be equally valuable in any way to whiteness.”

As white supremacy embedded itself into the collective Western mindset, namely American society, artists working in these environments inevitably projected these damaging biases onto their work. In a written statement to the Observer, sophomore Kevin Pham recalled films that utilized stereotypes to appeal to their white audience. 

Pham argued, “The treatment BIPOC face in the media is downright outrageous. I honestly feel like most stories… cater towards white supremacy,” and that a lot of these representations leave non-white people “pressured to fit into these roles/stereotypes which may be harmful.” He cited Gone With the Wind which, despite romanticizing the Antebellum South and its horrors, remains a highly regarded classic to the American public. 

Films ranging from The Birth of a Nation to Mandigo to The Passion of the Christ, became classics of American cinema despite, or perhaps because of, the way they leverage demonizing stereotypes of those whose lives are outside of whiteness. Their effects on marginalized peoples’ psyches are incalculable, leaving many to interrogate whether their impressions can ever be reversed.

Tufts students also recognize recent attempts to reclaim art and media from white supremacy through telling the stories of marginalized folks using their voices and perspectives. In a written statement to the Observer, sophomore Priyanka Anand said, “[Storytelling] has a distinctly special influence on people’s psyche.” She argued that the most healing stories possess “a certain universality and relatability,” while still highlighting the identities and unique struggles of the communities central to them. Guo concurred that stories that “explore a different value system or worldview” can be “very uplifting and relieving.”

Stories from marginalized communities can serve rejuvenating art’s ultimate mission by validating the experiences of communities and countering their dominant portrayals in mainstream media.  

Anand pointed to Bend it Like Beckham as an example of this sort of powerful storytelling. In this sports comedy-drama, audiences are introduced to the protagonist, Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra, who navigates ubiquitous struggles as she attempts to resolve conflicts between cultural ideals, familial obligations, social relationships, her personal desires, and her sexuality. However, the film also spotlights her British Indian identity as well as her Punjabi culture, featuring a traditional Sikh wedding which acts as a vehicle for plot-driving conflict. 

The film especially shines in its depiction of the protagonist’s alienation as a member of the Indian diaspora. The audience watches as she carves a distinct culture for herself out of the two clashing predominant ones, breaking and altering the rules of both in order to reach her objectives, acting in many ways as the movie’s title suggests. 

Restorative films, like Bend it Like Beckham, can deeply influence how diasporic citizens are impacted by their displacement. Freshman Jason Wang highlighted the consequences of the absence of diasporic stories within the Asian American community. He wrote in a statement to the Observer, “Things like the loss of a cohesive identity and cultural isolation among many Asian Americans are trivialized, and now many people’s connections to their ethnic culture have been basically subsumed into commodities like boba tea or anime.” 

Restorative film can also help maintain cultural values. Guo believes The Farewell acts in this way. “[The movie is] explicitly about a different social value system (whether or not you tell someone with a terminal diagnosis about it) and it doesn’t value one perspective over another (the American perspective being to tell them because they have a right to know, the Chinese perspective being not to because why stress them out and even worsen their health with a death sentence).” She argued that although they showcased the tension between the two perspectives, they never proposed that one was superior to the other, ultimately demonstrating that “everyone just wants the best for their family.”

Works like this do not only serve to humanize marginalized peoples and highlight them in mainstream media—they also challenge notions of inferiority in the minds of people of color because aspects of their culture are not demonized and relegated to positions below whiteness. Instead, they are shown to be deserving of appreciation and respect.

Although these examples, and restorative films as a whole have been shown to have great power in healing psychological wounds, many still retain debilitating tenets of white supremacy that sabotage and undermine their restorative efforts. Guo held that “there’s practically not a place in the world that hasn’t been affected by white supremacy, and it’s so baked into reality that even films that are trying to combat it, that barely have any white characters, that take place in a non-white country end up still falling into some of the same traps.” She called attention to some criticisms of Crazy Rich Asians “being more about rich people’s culture than any other kind,” as well as some of its over-the-top display of wealth not being “very useful or empowering for the vast majority of non-white people.” She continued that this made the movie seem, “very much ‘beating the white people at their own game.’” 

Guo’s analysis brings up interesting concerns about the nature of representation and identity politics. She argued, “Also, media doesn’t erase reality. You can have non-white astronauts or doctors in movies, which makes everyone think of it as a possibility, but that doesn’t get rid of workplace discrimination and a whole host of other things.” 

Restorative films, and more generally art, can help start or accelerate the healing of minds from the injuries affected by white supremacy. Regrettably, it itself is not free from the influences of white supremacy and, through the carrying of its mission, it might inadvertently cause more harm. However, this does not dilute its importance. On the contrary, it augments it. The consequences of white supremacy are too widespread and detrimental to be afforded breathing space. It must be combated with racially-conscious art just as we must analyze the biases within ourselves to prevent them from coming through our art.