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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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