In Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 volume Blink, he explains just how prevalent racism is. To do this, he describes the Implicit Association Test (1998) which uses speed-testing to measure people’s subconscious reactions and determines how individuals really feel about such subjects as money, age, sex, or race. The test shows that 80% of American whites have a preference for whites over blacks. This means, in the test, they more readily match words like “love,” “joy,” or “peace” with Caucasian faces and words like “evil” or “failure” with black faces. Probably the most surprising finding of the IAT is that even black people largely show this same bias, often easily attributing negative terms to their own race.
That is horrible news for race relations in America. I am sure that 80% of Americans know intellectually that racism is wrong and that there is no inherent difference in people because of skin color. Nonetheless, we look down on some—and even that some look down on themselves. Things are not looking good.
One of my favorite chick-flicks is Crazy, Stupid, Love. And I should be honest, it’s probably one of my favorite movies in general. I like it because it is a typical girl movie with cute guys and lots of laughs. No one is handed a trigger for explosives on the other boat; it’s just a light-hearted film filled with family fun. But the reason I really love the movie is because of its theme, i.e. the message it is trying to get across. When most chick-flicks are about pursuing self-fulfillment (the greatest lie told by The Little Mermaid), Crazy, Stupid, Love attempts to tell a story about commitment. At the end of the movie, the institution of marriage is upheld and being wholesome feels right.
Another one of my favorite movies is Gladiator. It’s a man’s movie, and every male is obliged to like it along with The Dark Knight and Remember the Titans. It is especially popular because it makes guys feel like they have good taste in film because this big-budget, sword and sandal, action flick won Best Picture in 2000. But there’s nothing wrong with that because it really is a good movie! Again, my favorite part of Gladiator is the theme it conveys: greatness is found not in seeking your own desires (like revenge), but in seeking the greater good (like democracy).
Lastly, another favorite movie of mine is 12 Angry Men. I’ve watched the movie several times, seen my brother act in a theater version, and even starred once as Juror #3 in the spoof “12 Angry Pigs.” The more familiar I get with the film, the more I appreciate it. Of course I sympathize with the heartfelt acting, but mainly I appreciate the theme (yet again). I admire how one man, though he seemingly has nothing in common, looks out for a young Hispanic boy that the odds are stacked against. He milks the phrases “innocent until proven guilty” and “beyond a reasonable doubt” for all they’re worth. He will not let his biases control him, but his logic and compassion.
Since sometime around 7th grade, I have been told that the arts—particularly books and movies—can convey profound themes to us, making us better. However, while I know the moral-of-the-story for hundreds of movies (like Gladiator), I haven’t found them to make any difference in my life. At times I have lost my interest in these themes entirely. But recently, that has changed.
In Blink, Gladwell goes on to describe how one might curb their bias and, in essence, became a little less racist when taking the IAT. The key is: think about positive portrayals of race before taking the test (e.g. consider Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, Jr.). Recently while pondering this phenomenon—seemingly unprovoked—I recalled the Hispanic boy in 12 Angry Men among these other heroes. In the movie, you only see the boy’s face for a second, but that is enough: his face is that of innocence amidst prejudice.
It was at this point that the 1957 film—a movie that serves as a beacon in my mind for equality and compassion—revealed to me how all the media I take in affects me. Every noble theme I witness on the page or on screen, whether I can identify it or not, is continuously floating around in my subconscious waiting to be of consequence. The morality of the arts is important, even if the ethical philosophies of The Dark Knight never help me out of a jam. The explicit reminder granted me by 12 Angry Men is a rarity, but that does not mean that hope is lost. Rather, the noble books and movies to which we are exposed are shaping us on a microscopic level, certainly for the better.