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Is 300 Racist? A Counter-Argument…

I know that we’re officially about five years past this discussion, but I was thinking about it lately. 300, as imagined by Zack Snyder and Frank Miller, gets a lot of slack for its perceived Islamophobia and racism towards Persians (modern-day Iranians). There’s a rather excellent article here outlining one perspective, which makes the argument that it’s a fundamentally racist film. I sat down and I watched it, and I kept the ideas in mind, and I jotted down some thoughts. it should be noted that I’m just a layman, I’m an expert or a professor in film or literature, but it seemed to me that a lot of the critics were taking the film far too seriously at face value.

I'd want to make this argument on sure footing...

Before we really jump into the meat of the article, I should probably just clarify a few things, just so people don’t get the wrong impression. I like to think I’m relatively colour-blind. My first pick for Captain America: The First Avenger was Will Smith, because he’s just got all the quintessential American properties. I’ve found this whole discussion about casting Idris Elba in Thor to be downright ridiculous. I have issues with the casting of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Hell, I think that James Cameron’s Avatar is one of the most racist big-screen productions I’ve seen in quite some time (as was The Blind Side). I don’t go into films looking for racial subtext, but I can’t help noticing some from time to time.

I should also outline my position on writer and artist Frank Miller. I am, to be entirely honest, not completely comfortable with his portrayal of women. After all, that meme (though more than a little over-simplified) wouldn’t have caught on without a reason. His fixation on women as prostitutes is something I have a bit of difficulty with – especially his insistence on portraying Selina Kyle as a hooker, when there was nothing to support the idea beforehand. However, we aren’t here to discuss that, as much as the “he’s possibly got issues with women therefore he’s a homophobic racist” logic seems to have a lot of sway in on-line debates. It’s a facet best left to other discussions, as jumping into it here would make a long article even longer.

I don’t think Miller is the be-all-and-end-all of comic book writers (nor, contrary to popular belief, that he ever was), and I do think he goes too far sometimes. I’m sure he intended All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder to be a parody, but I’m not entirely sure he planned for it to turn into what it ended up being. That said, I don’t believe he’s racist. Nor do I believe he is an uneducated moron (as far too many on-line critics are keen to label works they don’t agree with or don’t completely engage with). A lot of his works improve significantly with a little analysis. It’s still not enough to make The Dark Knight Strikes Again a good comic, but it’s something.

A topic always assured to start a fight...

Okay, so 300.

For those unfamiliar. The film tells the story of 300 Spartans personally stopping the Persian war machine dead in its tracks. Albeit temporarily. Anyway, the story becomes myth and the myth becomes legend and the Spartans end up going on to win the war, against all odds.

The problem with the film, as a lot of bloggers will tell you, is how it portrays the two sides. The Spartans were, to put it mildly, not nice people. They were fond of all sorts of unsavory practices which would likely make any sane human being want to vomit. They were, to be frank, a bunch of uncivilised barbarians – but they were the bunch of uncivilised barbarians that the other uncivilised barbarians used to warn their kids about.

All's well...

You can see traces of this in the film. Most notably when the King of Sparta, played by Gerard Butler, breaks the unwritten rule of international etiquette (which is hand, since it’s likely most of the Spartans couldn’t read) and kicks an international ambassador to the bottom of the town’s well. It looks impressive, occurring as it does in stylised slow motion, but it’s undermined when you realise that Leonidas has kicked a dead body into his own village’s fresh water supply. What a douchebag. By the way, that “really” happened – as much as we can be sure that anything around that time actually happened.

These guys are portrayed as physically perfect and sophisticated specimens of masculinity. They all look like they wandered out of an underwear catalogue, and seem to portray all the familiar virtues of love and companionship which we’ve come to expect from hordes of Greek barbarians. No togos for these guys – but would you wear one if you had abs like that? They’re the heroes, the good guys, the paragons of virtue. Their own ambiguous and disgusting practices go unremarked upon.

Check out those bodies...

Anyway, in contrast to this horde of bearded Greeks, we have the Persians. A civilised society by the standards of the time, enlightened and educated (and controlling a vast empire) they were pretty advanced in comparison to any other civilisation trotting the globe in that era.

These are portrayed as a bunch of scary foreigners driving a huge war machine run by slaves and treachery and primitive magic. The ring leader of this whole fiasco, Xerxes, has a face full of expensive-looking bling and a deep voice, but he really looks like he’s missing a moustache to sit there and twirl as he directs his armies to conquer Europe.

The movie has drawn all sorts of sensationalist comment. For example:

If 300, the new battle epic based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, had been made in Germany in the mid-1930s, it would be studied today alongside The Eternal Jew as a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war. Since it’s a product of the post-ideological, post-Xbox 21st century, 300 will instead be talked about as a technical achievement, the next blip on the increasingly blurry line between movies and video games.

Even without invoking  Godwin’s Law (whereby any attempt to invoke Nazi Germany to win an argument immediately forfeits said argument), I think that’s a rather shallow perspective. And, as I’ll explain below, I think that underestimates modern film-goers.

Don't be such a Xerx...

Bloggers and critics point to the narrative’s similarity to any number of racist fantasies – the idea of European being overrun by foreign ethnicities, or the implication that those visitors from overseas are nothing but primitive barbarians. It’s the triumph of the perfectly white good guys over the decidedly darker skinned baddies, something that the audience is asked to cheer on as it is portrayed in a highly bloody and stylised fashion.

Except that it’s not.

The film isn’t about the 300 Spartans fighting off the Persian invasion, despite the fact that it takes up most of the runtime.

It’s about stories and myths and how we shape them. The audience is told the story by the sole surviving soldier as he tells to a bunch of children like a bedtime story. This is his version of the story, not an objective portrayal of what actually happened. The movie isn’t about what actually happened, it’s about how we can translate and distort what occurred in order to serve our own ends. In this specific case, it’s about how Sparta can distort and manipulate the actions of 300 soldiers in order to build a myth which inspires the city to victory.

The fields of war...

Everything about the story is manipulative and self-serving. If this were a straight-forward “triumph against the odds” film, it wouldn’t be so heavily stylised. The movie opens with Leonidas telling his own story about growing up in Sparta, obviously embellished to make it seem more legendary or mythical. The movie shows us the story as the narrator tells it, rather than how it actually was.

You might argue that it’s still racist to imply that the Persians were nothing more than dark-skinned barbarians to the Spartan soldiers, but I don’t think you’re digging deep enough. Dilios, the narrator, needs to stir up nationalist sentiment – so he tells all manner of fiendish distortions and lies to make the Spartans seem incredibly heroic and the Persians seem like monsters. The film is a criticism of the sort of story-telling that most detractors accuse it of, rather than a straight-forward example of it.

The film drips with hypocrisy. I don’t think Miller is stupid. He knows that the Spartans were just as much “boy lovers” as the Athenians, but the insult betrays how the Spartan characters are willing to manipulate the truth in order to improve their standing. By insinuating that the Athenians are “boy lovers”, it allows the Spartans to insinuate that they aren’t (without outright lying), thus making them seem morally superior to the Athenians when the point is moot. Miller doesn’t intend the insult as a moment of explicit homophobia, but as an example of the blatant hypocrisy of the Spartan system.

The Hunchback of "Maybe Our Research Didn't Give a Damn?"

Take, for example, the portrayal of Ephialtes, the traitor. In the movie, he’s portrayed as a hunchback who sells out his nation-state for idle riches – while ended up completely unhappy. However, there is no indication that the historical Ephialtes was in any way deformed. Miller has done his research, he’ll know this. However, it suits the narrator to tell the story as if he were – to assure those listening that Ephialtes was as ugly on the outside as he was on the inside. You might argue that it’s a horrible stereotype to reinforce – linking physical deformities to evil behaviour – but Dilios is speaking to an audience of ancient Spartans.

One need only look, for example at the way that Miller portrays the other definitive myth-makers of the time. Religion has always exploited stories as a means of enduring throughout the ages and rallying individuals to their cause. They manipulate and distort accounts of how things occurred in order to remain in power. Dilios, the narrator, looks with contempt on the priests as a bunch of inbred freaks who will lie and cheat for their own ends. The point is obvious, and the parallel is clear. Who else in this story is manipulating the facts to suit their own ends?

Dilios. It’s also worth noting that Dilios is missing one of his eyes – perhaps to symbolise that his vision and perception of the events might be incomplete or askew, perhaps even lacking in depth. In mythology (especially Greek) it’s common for characters to blind themselves as a punishment for failing to see what was right in front of them – Oedipus comes to mind. It should be noted that Dilios is not completely blind (symbolism tends to associate complete blindness with even-handedness or prophecy like Tiresias or the “justice” statue, implying blindness grants a person a greater perception). Dilios is not completely blind, so we aren’t supposed to imply that he has a deeper perception. He is partially blind, making it very clear his vision is flawed. Dilios is 100% fictional, so the symbolism is Miller’s own.

What's the Dilios?

And if Dilios thinks so lowly of other myth-makers, what must he be like himself? Surely the audience must be fools to take him at his words and not to question anything he says. What, do we just digest whatever crazy story is placed there in front of us? Are we too brain dead to question the accounts that we are given?

I honestly can’t pin down Frank Miller’s political views. He frequently mocks both the left and the right (they’re just extremes of Kennedy’s vacant charisma and Nixon’s dark paranoia to Miller’s cynical eye – check out Elektra: Assassin if you don’t believe me). However, he has been consistently critical of the media during his career – especially the news media. Even in superhero fare like his superb Daredevil run, he’s mocking the mindless stupidity of unquestioning media consumption. It’s amped up to eleven with The Dark Knight Returns, which spends as much time with media talking heads as with Batman himself.

The media are modern mythmakers, at least to Miller. They’re the people who tell these stories. They are the ones who manipulate and edit them in order to get the angle they want or to push their own agenda. And the audience rarely questions.

This, to me, is the central point of 300. It’s not a racist movie, it’s a movie about how racist myths are built up and consumed. It’s not about the battle fought by the 300, but about how that truth can be distorted in such a way as to serve an agenda. There’s a reason that the movie is so consciously stylised, and it’s not just because Zack Snyder likes funky camera work – we aren’t seeing anything that really happened, we’re seeing a very filtered version of it. Except Dilios doesn’t use blue screen and CGI, he just manipulates your perspective. He makes the people listening see their adversaries as barbarians rather than an enlightened other culture.

Was the movie intended to spearhead debate?

You might argue that Miller ought to make his point more explicit – but that would ruin the point. I hate movies which condescend to their audience and tell them what to think. At least have the courage to throw your idea out there without a label, and let the audience make what they will of it. There’s little point in spoon-feeding an audience the idea that they are being told lies and distorted truth about a particular event. If you want that, go watch something as patronising as Rendition or Body of Lies.

Indeed, the bulk of argument against 300 claims that the vast majority of “enlightened” cinema goers won’t be sucked in by the racial dogma, but that some viewers are liable to interpret it rather directly:

It may not surprise anyone that King Leonidis [sic] repeatedly makes reference to “freedom” and calls the Persian troops slaves. The average audience of 300 – which I assume to be 16-year-olds taking time off from playing computer games – would not know that the Spartans were notorious as slavers, and that Persepolis was built by wage earners.

Ignoring the clear prejudice of the above comment and its “assumptions”, even if people are that ignorant and interpret the film as the very thing it decries (an attempt to rewrite history) – how many “16-year-olds taking time off from playing computer games” can make the correlation between Persia and Iran? 75% of 18- to 24-year-olds cannot locate modern-day Iran on a map.

Even if some morons can link Iran and Persia while still being unable to tell that this is a stylised exploration of mythmaking and distortion, why does that reflect so poorly on the rest of us? Must we pander to the lowest common denominator? There’s the crazy suggestion that this action film, directed by Zack Snyder, might inspire racist violence:

When Frank Miller’s “300″ film was released, I was absolutely outraged by the racist content of the film and more so at the insensitivity of movie-goers who simply argued “it’s just a movie.” Later on, I would hear these same individuals say, “The movie makes you want to slice up some Persians.”

Look, if people want to slice up some Persians (in a non-ironic way), they have problems. If they want to slice up anyone in a non-ironic way, they need serious help. I don’t believe the movie makes anyone racist – and I think that all the energy spent arguing over it could be used to find and combat the real root causes of racial prejudice. However, if we banned anything which might cause harm if stupid and ignorant people got ahold of it, we’d ban cars or beer or electric drills. I’m not arguing the movie is as essential as a car or a drill, but the principle’s the same.

Does this mask a more interesting debate?

Poe’s Law states:

It is impossible to tell for certain the difference between genuine stupidity and a parody of stupidity.

In this case, you might argue that “it is impossible to tell for certain the difference between genuine racist revisionism and a critique of racist revisionism”. However, to deny us the latter because it might be the former would be a serious and unfair error – a clear example of assuming the audience is the lowest common denominator. And that sells them short.

300 didn’t explain itself – it presented itself as a bold challenge rather than a boring thesis. I appreciate it for that. There’s nothing that can match stimulated on-line debate. It’s interesting to see ideas thrown around back and forth, which never would have happened had the movie worn its heart on its sleeve. I admire that bravery.

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44 Responses

  1. Excellent. If only I’d seen it.

    I’ll have to refer to this later.

  2. Whoa! This is some deep, comprehensive argument Darren. I never saw 300 as racist, and yeah, it’s a movie so embellishment is to be expected, some more than others.

    • Thanks Ruth. I think I might have rambled a bit – but I think a lot of people miss that it’s a movie fundamentally about perspective. It enver pretends to be real and uses the device of a narrator for a reason, I think.

      • Yep, what you said. I think even Zack was baffled when people ask him all this political questions and which sides he’s on, etc. I think I remember him saying it’s just a cool movie, not a history lesson or even commentary.

      • Yep, from his commentary he seems like a nice guy. he just loves what he’s doing. I don’t doubt that he had no political or social commentary in making the film. Frank Miller, on the other hand, is a writer who just loves to stick a political grenade in the middle of has latest noir-themed grim and gritty adventure.

  3. Fantastic analysis. I believe you can enjoy the movie on two levels: the pure visceral fun of watching a great epic tale, and the way you laid out.

    I’m not entirely sure that Frank Miller isn’t on some level bigoted, but 300 is not an example of that.

    • Thanks Justin. I’m similarly not entirely comfortable with certain aspects of Miller’s writing – especially with regards to women. But I think racist is a very strong allegation to make.

  4. Excellent job Darren.

    I like both Snyder and Miller a lot more then the average movie goer/comic reader (Though The Spirit and Dark Knight Strikes Back both probably qualify as hate crimes against genre fiction.)

    The thing about Miller is that he paints himself as a pretty easy target. He loves iconography so he has a character like Mantu, but he’s also a smart enough writer to give us Martha Washington. The fact that both of the characters came from the same mind is boggling.

    I think the perfect example of this is in the first Martha Washington book, with the space station full of Gay Nazis. If you look at the knee jerk reaction the joke is “Hurr Hurr Ghey” But really the target of the joke isn’t homosexuality but the latent homoeroticism in Nazism.

    Same with his supposed Homophobia, he’s taken a lot of flack for it. But in the final two Sin City Books he puts Gay Couples (of different genders) at the center, indulges in virtually no stereotypes and has them kick yards of ass. I’d like to see the people who give him so much shit write something that so unabashedly gives the people Miller supposedly hates the lead.

    And as far as I’m concerned The Dark Knight Returns remains one of the most perfect pieces of pulp fiction ever written.

    • Thanks Bryce. I think people tend to have difficulty with the idea that a writer as straight-forward as Frank Miller can also have depth. With Grant Morrison, for example, the reader is forced to think and to engage, rather than passively enjoying the film. With Miller, the surface level flows so smoothly that it’s easy to take it at face value.

  5. No it’s not racist. If we’re talking about it on the superficial level anybody thinking it’s racist will undoubtedly be in debt to, then everyone in the film is a “foreigner”.

    I wouldn’t for a minute believe it was Snyder/Miller’s intention to make a thinly veiled accusation against American foreign policy and immigration. If it was, they should have done a much better job of it.

    • Very good point, actually. “Stupid Greeks!”

      • …I didn’t want the above to sound flippant but the film doesn’t come across as racist. Certainly not in the same way as something like the Martin Lawrence/Steve Zahn film National Security which is disgusting in its sentiments on race. At least 300 is adult entertainment, National Security is a knockabout comedy intended for family consumption.

      • No, I’m sorry if I made you sound flippant. My fault, there.

        I like to think I am “reasonably” sensitive to concerns about racism (as in, the Blind Side made me uncomfortable – and so did Avatar with it Native American metaphor), and I don’t see it with 300. As you said, there’s a lot worse out there that nobody really notices – and then when something different comes along, people pounce on it.

  6. Darren! I must start by saying this is a very well-written article. However, I think you are missing a few things. Art is always open to interpretation. I have no idea what Frank Miller had on mind when he wrote it. But, don’t you think an average movie goer does not always share the creator’s perception of the creation. In other words, you can argue Frank Miller meant this to be Dilios’s version of the events and therefore, not necessarily accurate. Truth is, this subjectivity never occurred to me until I saw your article. If someone who is well-educated like me doesn’t get it, don’t you think that whole argument is pointless?

    I am not opposed to freedom of expression. But I think a huge number of (young) people who watch this movie would, at a subconscious level, relate white (ethnicity) to good/attractive, and black/dark to bad/unattractive. These people lack the perspective you have, to see this as a mere work of stylized fiction. How long is Hollywood going to make these films with racist undertones? While making money is definitely important, I think Hollywood should act a little more responsibly.

    • Thanks for visiting, Nirvem, and thank you very much for the compliment.

      I can see what you’re saying – and I accept that my perception of the movie might be any more valid or any less valid than any other random person’s, and I accept that. It’s true of everything from opinions over a work’s political stance to the basic premise of whether it’s good or not. I accept that one is more serious than the other though, and it’s just an example – not a comparison.

      However, I don’t think that to ban any book or movie based on undertones that can be read into it is a good decision. It’s easy to agree on cases such as a Birth of a Nation or Song of the South (both of which are very clearly racist). I’m not going to make an especially principalled argument (other than to say that I believe only the most extreme speech should be censored, and even then we should be able to talk about it like adults), but argue from a more practical and realistic stand point.

      I’m reminded of the Seduction of the Innocent scandal in the fifties, where the development of comic books as an artistic medium were set back by forty years because it was suggested that there was something unwholesome about an orphaned billionaire bachelor living with a fourteen year old boy in a mansion. Undoubtedly there are still those who do see the escapism of Batman and Robin representing some sort of creepy pederist agenda, but I wouldn’t censure the book for that. Just because you can look at a work of art one way, doesn’t mean that’s the only way to look at it. There are people undoubtedly, who don’t agree with my view or your view, and think it’s “just a film” that has been over analysed to death (or may have their own theories – I’d love to hear some).

      I’ll accept that some people may have their racist views reinforced by the film (and, in those cases, we should be tackling the root causes of the prejudice, rather than pandering by removing something that they misconstrue), but I don’t think 300 makes a racist of anyone.

  7. Well.. There’s white (not ethnicity), there is black. And then, there is gray. I would say “Birth of a Nation” would fall under black, while movies like 300 fall under gray. See.. For argument’s sake, a filmmaker like Zack Snyder wouldn’t openly say “White people are always better when it comes to warfare, etc.”. However, that’s the message someone who doesn’t see the big picture might get from such a movie. This “someone” does not have to be a racist xenophobe. It could be a high-school kid, a college student, etc. What kind of outreach program would do you think would help change these people’s attitude towards minorities?

    Film is an effective medium. When someone gets bombarded by the same images, it gets to them. African American actors like Denzel Washington and Will Smith are referred to as handsome today. Have they always had their looks? Definitely. But it took a few movies with Denzel and Will as the leading men for people to believe they are good looking and leading-man material. You see? That’s the power of the visual media. Movies like Avatar and 300, while being technically superior, get some important things wrong. Only in the name of catering to the ethnic majority (Caucasian), do these movies get made with such casting. Don’t you think something is wrong with that picture? And who is Sam Worthington? He might be a talented actor, but no more talented than a lot of good-looking young African American actors. Casting a black actor would not have made much difference since the character is mostly CGI anyway. But no, they HAD to cast Sam Worthington as the lead guy just like they HAD to cast Zoe Saldana and Wes Studi as the natives. That’s my argument. While these filmmakers are not being openly racist, they are being racist indirectly.

    You know where a movie that openly says “black people are bad” stands. But the “grey” movies like 300 and Avatar while claiming to just to be faithful to the original material, are doing more damage than can be expected. I say this once again.. Filmmakers must act more responsibly.

    • If you want to argue that white actors are more over-represented in Hollywood, you’ll get no argument from me.

      And I think Avatar is a racist film. It’s a racial fantasy in which Cameron tries to alleviate his racial guilt by replaying the genocide of the Native Americans, only this time a white man is there to stop it.

      On the other hand, it’s really hard to argue that the heroes of 300 are really “heroes” if you watch the film with your eyes open. They kill a diplomat with little provocation. They trade women into sex slavery with a depraved and deformed institution (the Oracles). They send children to face wolves. These aren’t the acts of a civilised society. And we see the Persians AS THEY SEE THE PERSIANS, through their myopic xenophobic lenses.

      If anything, it condemns the Spartans as rascist, we just see the film from their perspective. And because we see the film from their perspective doesn’t mean we have to sympathise with them, to adopt such a position is to argue for the over-simplification and the dumbing-down of cinema – I like to watch morally ambiguous leads, because they feel more complex, and they don’t insists on patronising me by telling me stuff I already know.

      They are the protagonists of the story, which is the entire point – it’s an oral history of the conflict – but you can’t really examine the stuff that happens objectively and call them “heroes”, which was exactly what Frank Miler ws going for.

      The entire point of the way it is handled isn’t to patronise you and tell you that Sparta was a very flawed society, but to put all the evidence there and let you reach the conclusion yourself. I hate it when a film thinks its audience is so dumb that it feels the need to state things as obvious as “the Spartans are aggressive, destructive, racist morons.”

      300 is a story about stories, and how history is changed and distorted and rewritten through oral tradition.

      • He kills a diplomat, kids are thrown to face wolves, but it isn’t to portray them as flawed a society . It’s to show how bad-ass and cool they are. The intention is to feed the audience emotional satisfaction and even prejudices. It has nothing to do with putting a mirror up to Spartan society, 300 is more about smashing that mirror. You’re the bad guy, we’re the good guy. And the audience roots for us. There’s no ambiguity about the film’s intent. As you claim the critics are taking the film too seriously, I think your defense of the film gives the intentions of the director way to much credit. The “flaws” of Spartan society are intended to be attributes to the average american boy that the film is geared to.

        I agree that too much shouldn’t be read into the film.

        The good guys should be cast as white and good-looking. We need color in the film, but they can’t play they good guys because the audience won’t relate to it, so we’ll cast them as the villains. This is what it is in a nutshell. Attacking the film is more about attacking Hollywood casting practices. Like casting british people as villains, it really isn’t a coincidence.

        Starship Troopers, on the other hand, is an example of how to correctly do a film with moral ambiguity. The “heroes” are really a metaphor for nazi Germany. We do root for them but the film, through the nature of the dialogue and propaganda speech, exposes the joke played on the audience. It’s all about playing with ignorance.

      • On this page, a commentator calls me an “uneducated rat.” Nobody has questioned him or called him out on it – hopefully because it’s obvious he’s wrong. I don’t need another poster to stick a “he’s a whack job” label on him. His actions speak for themselves. In the same way, I don’t need the film to label its characters as racist small-minded hypocrites. The actions speak for themselves.

        Let’s take a comic book movie: consider Bruce’s decision to tap all the phones in Gotham. Nolan never explicitly states this is a violation of civil liberties. The character who objects to it still uses it. Nolan trusts his audience to recognise how compromised his hero is, rather than putting “this is bad” in big neon letters.

        Because of that willingness to respect his audience, it’s a far stronger commentary on The War on Terror than, say, Syriana or Rendition, which treat audiences like idiots.

    • Well said. I see the writer didn’t reply to this. You have to watch out for people who say they’re not something before they say something. Kind of like that guy at work that says “I’m not trying to be an asshole, BUT”.

      • Sorry, never published my reply to the above. Kinda fell on the back-burner with everything going on.

  8. I am Iranian, I am an Atheist, and a supporter of democracy and liberalization. I wanted to support America and help establish a secular republic in Iran. But thanks to this movie, I have become a staunch Muslim and a staunch supporter of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

    Until a counter-movie to 300 is released, my hatred towards America and Americans will never end. Good day. My hatred towards Americans is unbelievable.

    By the way, you uneducated rat, Persia is a Greek word, Persia changed its name formally to Iran in 1935, think Deustchland-Germany you moron.

    • “Uneducated rat”? I like that. It’s snazzy, sophisticated. Must use it more.

      When did I say that Persia wasn’t a Greek word? Or that it didn’t change its name to Iran?

      So… just to be 100% clear… you’re saying 300 completely reversed your political beliefs and opinions? As in, a film Warner Brothers released in the middle of March? Not a book (or the original comic book), not a speech by some controversial figure, not anything that happened directly to you, not a political policy of any government, not any discussions with your peers, nor any world event or circumstance?

      A two-hour slo-mo CGI-heavy action movie from the guy who directed Watchmen is the most important thing that happened to your political beliefs? Wow. “300 Changed My Life.” You should – and I’m being entirely honest here – sell that story, or at least try to get it published. I might sound like I’m mocking, but I’m not. I genuinely think that people need to know that it’s not actual world events that alienate people from the West, but Zack Snyder action movies.

      Anyway, I’m publishing your comment in the interest of free speech. However, do not that if you don’t fill out a proper email address next time, it will probably be marked as spam again (and I can’t promise to catch everything).

  9. Brilliant article. I love 300, have seen it many times, and having just watched it again I headed over to IMDB to read peoples reviews. To my surprise many people were calling the film racist – I honestly hadn’t heard this point of view till today. The first thing I thought was “it’s a story being told from a Spartan point of view. Obviously exaggerrated and embellished in order to inspire the country to go to war”. I thought this was pretty obvious, didn’t people wonder who the narrator was and why he was there? I mean the exaggerations were pretty hard to miss… 30 foot tall giant elephants for example?! Anyway I did a quick search to see if anyone else had the same thoughts and found this article – you have put pretty much my exact thoughts out there in a way much better than I could express them. I hope people that thought 300 was racist, or slammed it for being inaccurate read this article and hopefully see it in a different light because of it.

    Thanks, I’ll be looking out for your blog in the future!

  10. This is an excellent review of 300, and it really establishes one of the basic things about the film that people forget, in fact, that point itself is made explicit.

    “The media are modern mythmakers, at least to Miller. They’re the people who tell these stories. They are the ones who manipulate and edit them in order to get the angle they want or to push their own agenda. And the audience rarely questions.”

    This rounds up the entire response well. One of the biggest problems facing critiques is that everything they talk about they link with “the TRUE intention of the author is___” That is simply Intentional Fallacy. We can never know what the author intended, we are not talking to him (or her). What we can do is talk about the work itself, and what it gives us. One of the biggest flaws of this kind of thinking is that it mixes the author’s intentions with those of the character’s.

    I have my own interpretation about 300, about what the myth that has been created inspires, but this review is something that deserves to be heard more. It’s excellent. I gave it 5 stars. And I got here though Frank’s own sit. :) Kudos.

    • Thanks Nate. I think you’re right. And, of course, that means no interpretation is any more or any less valid than any other, but I’m always frustrated by how unwilling people who decry the movie are unwilling to engage or discuss, or even acknowledge other interpretations exist. I would, for example, argue that Avatar is far more racist than 300, but I’d never argue that it should be banned – because it’s my own personal perspective, and it’s no better or worse than anyone else’s (save, perhaps to me).

      What’s your theory, do you mind me asking?

  11. I’m an Iranian (not muslim). Darren, have you read my review about 300?

    http://blog.shadpay.com/reviews/300/

    • Good article. Very good observation about the wolf and the thirty years. You clearly know your stuff.

  12. All the spartans are buff beautiful abercrombie models who hate “boy lovers” and anyone born into society with a physical defect or imperfection is thrown off a cliff. Basically they are kind of a metaphor for nazi germany.

    The bad guys are made up of gays, blacks and browns.

    There are obvious racial undertones, but the film makers are probably too stupid to realize it.

    • This is the point where we should probably shake hands and agree to disagree. You aren’t willing to consider my arguments, and I’ve already stated my response to your core thesis repeatedly. It’ll convince who it’s going to convince, and those who aren’t convinced never will be. I’m happy to keep pushing forward, but this point has been made.

      The good guys look like models and the villains are presented in a Xenophobic light because this is a story told by the Spartans, who are small-minded racists. People accuse the film of being racist propaganda, but miss the point that it’s about racist propaganda. The Spartans make themselves look good and demonise “the other” (even, in the case of pedophilia, projecting their own uglier traits on to them).

      The film’s not about the battle or the 300 men who fought it. Because the battle is ultimately pointless. The battle changes nothing. It’s a shaggy dog story – not just in the context of history, but in the context of the story, which explicitly puts the accomplishing of Leonidas’ goal (vanquishing the invader) outside the closing credits. It’s not about the Spartans defeating the Persians.

      Rather, it’s about the story of those men and those battles. It’s about the power of the story. It’s about propaganda. So many critics fail to acknowledge that we’re seeing the story the same way the Spartans being told the story did – hence the importance of framing the events as a story told by a storyteller. But, hopefully, we’re smart enough to see and to question. It’s ironic, in this era where people accuse cinema of “dumbing down”, that people seem to want to be spoonfed a “this is bad” message, and any film that doesn’t treat it’s audience like idiots is frowned upon.

  13. This is great.. I am printing this out to read more carefully :)

  14. What a great escape goat for racist movies…from now on, have a character in the movie to tell the story. This character is not shown much to not stir up too much negativity towards him. Since it’s “his feelings” and “his story” who are we to judge the contents? Blame that character not the writer for any racist propaganda in the movies and games. Except make sure the character is not explored much, so his presence is not felt much and his words seem more authoritative being the storyteller.

    Ideas for new movies: have a Nazi character tell a children’s story about the plight of evil child-rapist jews with their hooked noses that they use as weapons to skewer white babies. If anyone calls the movie racist, make a blog to prove they are idiots for not realizing this story is told by a Nazi character….

    Props to you!

    • Funny. They already had a movie about a former Nazi who writes a play glorifying Adolf Hitler that becomes a massive broadway success and cult hit. The Producers is generally accepted to be an example of a story that portrays a racist philosophy without explicitly condemning it, because the end result is so ridiculous nobody could take “don’t be stupid, be a smartie, come and join the Nazi Party” as Mel Brroks authorial intent.

      Somehow comedies seem to be thevone genre where you don’t need to include an obvious “… and that’s terrible” at the end of a movie in order to help the audience grasp that racism is not a good thing. Although people will still be unable understand that Robert Downey Jr’s role in Tropic Thunder was a a deconstruction of inherent Hollywood casting racism rather than an example of it.

      300 is ridiculous. No normal person believes it offers a true and accurate account of the events it portrays. It even eschews the laws of reality and physics, let alone any valid political or social observations. It instead offers Greek propaganda, and – as such – serves as a clever examination and defonstruction of the nature of such imperialist propaganda.

  15. It would be beyond naive to think that Frank Miller was not trying to emphasize his own hatred and racism in his 300 graphic novel on which the movie is based. Just take a glance to his interview :

    http://www.theatlasphere.com/metablog/612.php

    • That interview was years after 300 was written and, crucially, years after September 11th, which has defined the writer’s output since. Miller has directed his rage at some inappropriate targets since, culminating in the by-all-accounts rather uncomfortable Holy Terror. I haven’t read it, but there’s no denying that Miller’s political views have shifted to extremes since September 11th, so it feels a bit disingenuous to use his current statements to impeach his past work. I am not familiar enough with his recent work to comment on them, but there’s no denying that Miller’s views have shifted. I don’t see The Dark Knight Returns and 300 belonging on the same ideological plateau as Holy Terror seems to.

      • If there is an interview or commentary of his, at the time of writing 300 I would like to see it. If it actually shows him as a liberal, even better. You need to back up your claim that his views have “shifted”, as if he was not a neo con before and 9/11 pushed him over the edge. At the lack of such evidence, human psychology approves that he would have had the same tendencies before, although maybe less (or not).

        As for your comparison to The Producers, I would have agreed with you fully given the following condition: Spartans/Greeks were universally known to be bad guys through constant reminders, schools, media, etc… thereby making a movie showing them as glorious would be so absurd that it’s clear the movie is trying to impart a message about propaganda.

        You and I both know this is far from the case here. In fact, in light of the political views of the author, you can hardly argue that his work is not born from a place of supremacy and racism. It’s absolutely disingenuous to claim a person with such extreme views (of which let’s assume he was a bit less extreme at the time of writing the comic) is criticizing his own views in his work…come on….you must agree it’s too much…

        Miller is so ignorant to first equate ancient Persians with Muslims of today which shows his own lack of education on the matter. It is apparent from his views that he is projecting his own beliefs of superior heroic freedom-loving West against the inferior, monstrous oppressing East. To his defence, this is the view of history that is taught in the schools in the West anyway.

        Now more than ever, to justify their current wars, Frank Millers of America need to relate their roots to Greeks and cast Persians once more as barbaric and backwards, to legitimize current conflicts.

        You are truly downplaying the effects of this film. No one is saying that a common american does not know realize that Persians were not Ogres and monsters but what would they answer if you asked them what/who Persians were? Are you seriously suggesting that their answer would be “I don’t know” ? Or is it infinitely more likely to get an answer like “an oppressive evil empire that tried to take over Greece and got its ass kicked by Spartans.” Hell, and that’s probably an answer from a college graduate…

        The point is, there is already a very deep bias in the history taught in the West about Persia. Creating a movie that even further bends the already biased beliefs throws this generation of historically uneducated people to a deeper abyss of ignorance.

        To reiterate and further explain, you would have a point, we would have been overreacting and this movie though has racist undertones would have been a movie about the nature of propaganda if:

        It was universally accepted that Persians were not backwards, in fact they were in some sense so much more culturally advanced than the Greeks, to the point that even Greek historians with their clear nationalistic bias still complemented them in their historical accounts. That aside from what’s shown in 300 and will be taken as truth by just about everyone, Persians were the first to actually pay wages to workers (rather than have slaves as were commonplace in just about any other ancient nation) and in Persia women could own property and lead armies, something that Greeks actually made fun of Persians for. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, forget about system of government, technologies, first document of human rights, ….

        Yes if these were general knowledge, you would have a point. You seem to be rather educated yourself, answer me in all honesty, did you know any of these facts? How can anyone claim that movies like this, and Alexander (which basically showed everything exactly opposite of truth) are not lies and propaganda and in essence rewriting the history? How many people who watched 300 will now go and research Persia to find the truth (which btw was already biased having been written by the Greeks) ?

      • Fair points, but I still think that the assumption audiences will (a.) know enough to contextualise it enough to detect a clear political subtext, without (b.) knowing enough to know that the account is ridiculous biased and flawed is a bit of a stretched.

        To be entirely honest, I didn’t know all of the examples you mentioned, but I did know about property.

        It’s worth noting, in terms of Western educational bias, as a student in Ireland our history cirriculum does cover the Greeks and Romans in much more depth than Persia or Eastern history in general. It also covers Greek and Roman history in far more depth than American history as well, for balance. European history and all that.

        It’s worth noting that, according to the version of Greek history taught here, the Spartans are very much presented as “the bad guys”, in contrast to the Athenians. As much as we learn about Greek civilisationa nd philosophy developed in other regions of the penninsula, we are also taught that the Spartans were little brutally efficient savages. (Cultural relativity be damned, our history doesn’t endorse culling helpless children and then having the ones who do survive kill each other.)

        We learn about the Middle East in general as the Cradle of Civilisation. We also cover it in our classes on the Renaissance, where it is made very explicit that European cultural advances would not have been possible without the knowledge they (a.) developed themselves and also (b.) preserved with more care and consideration than the European civilisations.

        In contrast, our coverage of American history is also relatively brief, only covering where they directly interact with our own. World War I, World War II, Cold War. Even then, we learn more about Stalin than any Roosevelt, Kruschev than Kennedy, Brezhnev than Nixon.

        With regards to Miller’s shifting political position, I don’t generally read interviews with creators. It’s not like I subscribe entirely to the death of the author, but I don’t like it to cloud my reading. But compare the satire of The Dark Knight Returns, where Superman is a government funky, Ronald Reagan has set up a police state and US foreign policy is leading to nuclear annihilation. Miller also attacks the media for tabloid journalism, which is the most right-wing aspect of it. His might-makes-right Batman is portrayed as both mentally unstable and physically monstrous. Or even his Daredevil run, where he condemns the moral absolutism of the Punisher. Both far less conservative than recent works.

  16. Mein Kampf… parody.

    What? you say it’s racist?

    You need to read some interviews with Miller… he’s clearly sexist, homophobic, and racist. I’m not sure why you are in denial.

    Maybe because he’s a good artist? And you couldn’t enjoy him if you acknowledged what he’s about. I liked 300 too, but it is what it is.

    • In fairness, I concede that, to my reading, his work has some gender issues. In fact, I do so in the article that you are commenting. And I’ve conceded that I can’t argue to his own personal beliefs on race, and that there was a noticeable move towards the extreme right discernable in his work post-9/11. (At least with regards to religious beliefs.)

      However, I think it’s still a valid reading of the text. And what’s fascinating is that very few of the attacks criticising the post actually engage in it, with many going straight for Godwin’s Law.

      But, on the subject of Mein Kampf and in the interest of engaging in an actual discussion, have you heard of The Iron Dream? By Norman Spinrad? Basically, it’s a book written by an alternate version of Hitler (called The Lord of the Swaztika, in case you didn’t get the point), one who moved to America and became a fantasy writer. It was written by Spinrad as a brutal deconstruction of conventional fantasy narratives, and to demonstrate that quite a few have some seriously uncomfortable undertones. However, Spinrad was also careful to include a framing device, an essay explaining why this fictious novel written by a fictious Hitler was a terrible piece of work, lest anybody pick it up and construe it for Spinrad’s own racist fantasy. In his own words, Spinrad did it because he didn’t trust readers to recognise his attack on the propagandist undertones of mythmaking:

      To make damn sure that even the historically naive and entirely unselfaware reader got the point, I appended a phony critical analysis of Lord of the Swastika, in which the psychopathology of Hitler’s saga was spelled out by a tendentious pedant in words of one syllable.

      How, here’s the thing. If he hadn’t have included that foreword, I’d like to think people would have gotten the message and realised that it was a deconstruction rather than a neo-Nazi work. I’d like to think that he didn’t need to treat his readers like morons. Though, I suspect that might have been the correct decision in hindsight. We are, after all, all familiar with Poe’s Law. I find it funny that people condemn being spoonfed by Hollywood, but when a movie dares to come along with enough intelligence not to treat its viewers like morons, then we lambast it.

      Also, in response to what I assume to be a sarcastic barb, I’m not actually a fan of Miller’s post-Daredevil artwork in general. Too ugly and blocky for me, at least aesthetically. (Although, I do like the idea that Miller’s Batman literally physically morphs from a vaguely Neal Adams figure into a fascist monster over the four issues.)

  17. Yes, perhaps Miller was trying to tell a story about propaganda, I kind of doubt it given content of his interviews, but I don’t know for sure.And yes, the way the movie is styalized makes it somewhat difficult to take seriously or as an accurate portrayal of history. That all said there is a large piece in this whole debate about social learning theory that is not being acknowledged here.

    We learn behaviors and develop understanding of the world, both as children and adults, from others modeling these behaviors to us. Our brains are filled with specific neurons, mirror neurons, that are dedicated solely to helping us mimic and model the behaviors of others. In this regard subtle messages about whether this is a story about how we create propaganda isn’t even a consideration in this process. What does matter is a process of symbolic modeling or learning behaviors and attitudes from media despite it not being real or accurate representations of the world at large. You expressed concern that viewers of the film are not being given enough credit as smart rational people. While I hear that unless you are somehow able to show that eloquent film analysis is able to override basic neurological function, then we have to concede that one can be a smart rational person and still be influenced by basic learning theories and brain physiology despite not wanting to.

    Watching someone assault a blow up clown doll is ludicrous but research shows time and again we still all model that same behavior and generalize that learned agression to other things. Thinking that you are shocking someone to the point of possible death for nut twisting a sequence of words back correctly is illogical too, and yet 2 out of 3 people will do it with the number increasing if an us versus them dynamic is created.

    It sounds like you are acutely aware that some aspects of the film come off as racist: ignoring any accomplishments of the Persian culture, depicting them as deformed and depraved, dressing them in clothes that are highly associated in the western world with terrorists (300 came out in 2006 right in the midst of the Iraq war, large anti Muslim sentiment, and our battle against an “axis of evil”). And we can have a back and forth about whether these images were meant to be racist or meant to make a statement about racism but it doesn’t matter either way because those images and ideas are still there and present. It’s a matter of intent not impact. Bandura, the founder of social learning theory stated, ” children and adults acquire attitudes, emotional responses, and new styles of conduct through filmed and televised modeling.” Given that the impact of those images and attitudes is kind of frightening regardless of whether it was intended to do something else.

    This is not to say ban all movies that aren’t completely culturally sensitive. But perhaps we need to hold our media up to higher standards so that it is not unintentionally modeling concepts that further divide us. Perhaps rather than launching a counter argument about claims of racism in the film it is more helpful to sit with those claims.and see them as sparking a much needed discourse about how we portray the “cultural other” and remind people that that portrayal while entertaining is not ok to hold as reality. Perhaps, with a sequel due out, it is better to stop arguing about the intentions of the film and instead focus and acknowledge the impacts

    • The problem with looking at the impact, though, it that it turns pop culture into a scapegoat. I’m not comfortable with that.

      To pick a more extreme example than this, consider the witch hunts that always start up around violent video games or films in the wake of tragedies. Millions upon millions or people are able to watch something like The Dark Knight Rises or to play something like Grand Theft Auto or Manhunt without turning into a violent sociopath, so why do we assume that these media are the cause? Why can’t we say that people who use material like this to justify horrible acts are wrong? (Or, in some of the more sensationalised video game related cases “who let those kids play that anyway?”)

      There’s something very pandering and patronising about that argument. I trust anybody over the age of 15 (the age certificate issue by the generally reliable Irish Film Classification Board) to be smart enough to make what they will of the film. I’ll agree that kids probably shouldn’t be watching the film. I will argue in favour of better regulation of cinemas or video stores. However, I won’t argue that people over that age threshold are incapable of choosing what they want to watch and that they don’t control their own awareness enough that such films are able to influence them in a profoundly negative manner. A healthy sound-minded person watching 300 will not become a racist.

      If we accept the argument that some people see 300 as justifying xenophobia and intolerance, and so the film deserves a rebuke or a boycott or a ban, then what about the work of Martin Scorsese? Goodfellas, Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street roundly condemn their subjects, arguably in a clearer way than I would argue that 300 does, but they have also been adopted by people who simply don’t get the message and buy into the superficial narratives.

      (Consider how crime in America has been documented to have been inspired by The Godfather, with certain gangs even adopting the made-up “kiss the ring” tradition from the movie.)

      How far does this go? At what point is pop culture deemed “worthy” or “acceptable” or anything like that? At what point do we stop laying the blame for people’s actions at the foot of art? Is the threshold that “nobody could ever possibly take a negative message from this work no matter how superficial the reading”? Because, if it is, that’s a very high threshold for any piece of work to pass. (And, ironically, has the same effect that many detractors accuse Snyder of attempting – it reduces art into little more than propaganda. Just, you know “good” propaganda, as much as those two words have any meaning when used together.)

      It’s worth acknowledging that problematic readings exist (as they do with The Godfather, to pick a much better and more artistically credible film), but that doesn’t mean that everybody has to agree with that reading and it doesn’t mean that any criticism of that reading or response to that reading is a defense of those problems. And it works both ways. I find The Reader to be one of the most offensive films to receive a major release in the last decade, and far more problematic than anything in 300, and I will argue until the cow comes home as to why that is the case. However, I don’t require everybody to agree with me, and I have no issue with those who don’t. And I certainly don’t insist that everybody take my opinion as a starting point on the debate.

  18. You seem smarter than that- Americans who couldn’t tell you where Iran is on a map, aren’t going to pick up the sub context of “seeing it” through a small minded story teller eyes. I think that interview makes it pretty clear where the author’s mindset was when he made that film. You notice Hollywood’s racist hiring practices.So your blindness on this one is curious to the point of disbelief. There is nothing to indicate that there was any sort of distortion, and it is easy to forget the narrator is one of them. In any event if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and seems to be racist as fuck as a duck, it’s cuz it probably is. THe sequel, though I didn’t see it is apparently much the same.

    • I saw the sequel. It is pretty dodgy, mainly because it lacks the sort of ironic self-awareness on display here.

      Even accepting there are people who aren’t shrewd enough to read irony or subtext, should we really be pitching our movies to that audience? Does the fact that people worship the gangster lifestyle in The Godfather and Godfellas mean those are bad films? Does the fact that people were inspired to emulate Gordon Gecko mean Wall Street was a celebratory ode to greed?

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