The very first thing I thought of was to critique the film American History X, directed by Tony Kaye. The film unjustly portrays African Americans living in California using propaganda in the film, and using flashy film techniques and cinematic manipulation to cause the audience to empathize with the white skinhead main character.
The argument made by the skinheads as to justify their hatred for anyone different than them is that they want to keep America “American”. According to Bernays, “society consents to have its choice narrowed to ideas and objects brought to its attention through propaganda of all kinds.” (Bernays, 11) During the duration of the movie, countless film aesthetics are used in a continuous effect to capture the audiences attention and fill their heads with propaganda.
To stay on the topic of how the skinheads want to keep the nation, or at least, Venice Beach, “American” the film uses the image of the American flag, the reciting of the “Battle of the Republic” hymn, and also the extremely persuasive monologues of a purposely handsome evil dictator main character. Propaganda appeals to the audience in ways such as “visual, graphic, and auditory” among other things. (Bernays, 27) The audience, being surrounded and hypnotized by the propaganda, can’t help but agree with anything that the main character is saying.
Another element that causes black to be portrayed negatively is the visuals of blacks acting violently towards each other, shooting each other, stealing, breaking into cars, skipping school, bullying, and going to prison. All of these are negatives, and with the added persuasiveness of historical accounts of black criminals, the audiences opinions are swayed.
How can the audience possibly become so racist in such a short period of time due to a work of fiction on the big screen? An excerpt from Ewen discusses how the audience identifies with the characters, and especially the setting and environment. “Mesmerizing likeness of reality itself, movies provided a powerful model that could instruct the propagandist on how he might efficaciously construct ‘pseudo-environments.’” (Ewen, 152) It is so very easy to identify and agree with the skinhead in the film because, well, it’s a film. No thinking required. Your perspective if the main character’s, a skinhead who has been wronged by blacks (killing his father), your perception of them in the film is negative from the get-go, and the way they are described makes up your mind for you. It’s almost like watching a Nazi propaganda film by Riefenstahl. Coincidence, I think not!
It’s true that the film analyzed some serious propaganda elements from Triumph of the Will such as music, images, and the sense of community. In the film, the black gang-members who killed she nazi skinhead’s father are shot when they are caught trying to steal the skinhead’s car. After a strongly-worded dictation about his love for his family, etc. the audience is practically ready to clap for him. He is the hero, doing what he must to protect his family.
According to Ewen,
Hollywood…routinely achieved this state of being by providing visual ‘handles for identification,’ signals by which an audience might immediately and unconsciously learn ‘who the hero is,’ and so on. (Ewen, 153)
The audience must assume that it’s okay to feel this way for the main character, like him, agree with him, feel sorry for him and his family, etc. It’s not really happening, and it’s not real. They would never actually feel that way when faced with a situation like the protagonist, which are all extreme.
The ability to identify with the main character is made easier by the alpha-male mindset. He is the leader of the group of skinheads, he is smart, funny, capable, and beautiful. The film might as well be saying, “be a skinhead, they’re perfect!” However, isn’t that how the Aryan race was perceived? This is all complete propaganda, though, “raised in a world that looked toward fact-based journalism as the most efficient lubricant of persuasion, Lippman turned toward Hollywood, America’s ‘dream factory,’ for inspiration.” (Ewen, 154) This is a film from Hollywood, just pumping out dreams of how people wish they could be, but it’s not real.
Moving deeper into the film, your mind is changed again as the main character befriends a black man in jail. After the skinhead is released and revokes his was of Naziism for good, he turns a new leaf and tries to save his brother, who is on his way to becoming the next skinhead king. However, he is too late, his brother is killed in his school bathroom by a black student. The film ends there, and it is left up to the audience to decide if they want to continue being racist or not. African-Americans are portrayed as killers and thieves until the very end credits.
However, since your emotions are being toyed with by the constant propaganda this film uses to gloss the scenes, you are filled with sorrow when his brother is shot, and you feel animosity towards the killer. “The use of media images to stir emotions and circumvent thought is, today, a near universal feature of public discourse.” (Ewen, 158) It’s so very easy with great cinematography and Edward Norton with his shirt off.
So, thanks to propaganda, the outcome is black people are “bad” and white people are good, even if they’re skinheads, it’s okay, because they will change and turn good but blacks will still be “bad” no matter what happens.
Ewen, Stuart. PR: A Social History of Spin. New York: Basic Books, 1996. Print.
Bernays, Edward. Propagnada. Ig Publishing, 1928. Print.
Kaye, Tony, dir. American History x. New Line Cinema, 1998. Film.