Chilled Monkey Brains and Snake Surprise: when popular films promote racial stereotypes

I have always loved the movies. One of my greatest pleasures when I was young was sitting in front of the box at Christmas as a parade of fantastic family films scrolled across the handful of channels we had back then: Superman, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Disney classics by the truck-load.

Looking back, those seem to be such innocent times. Even now, I am loath to tear up the fabric of my own memories. Certainly, it would be disingenuous of me to claim that I didn’t enjoy those films, not once, but many times over. Nevertheless, sometimes it is important, in the light of experience and changing times, to re-examine tenets we have taken for granted, to tear down institutions we have held sacred, not out of a sense of victimhood or spite, but in an attempt to learn lessons and thus improve the lot of those who follow.

Thus, it is with a slightly heavy heart that I dissect some of the great films that I’ve enjoyed over the years and say to myself: hang on, that really could have been done better.  

Let’s start with one of my favourites: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Indy was very popular in our house, and this second offering in the franchise seemed tailor-made for us: a British Asian family tuning in to a wholesome adventure set in India – what could be better? And yes, we did all enjoy this rip-roaring yarn, Indy battling the evil Thuggee cult, recovering the ancient Shankara stones, and saving the benighted Indian villagers from starvation. Hooray for Hollywood?

Not quite. The film has dated badly. Almost every scene of it now smacks of the patronising attitude towards other cultures long peddled by western film industries. The white saviour trope (Indy literally drops out of the sky to save these hapless village bumpkins!), the absurdly evil Thuggee (for the record, the Thugee were real and they were murderers but all nuance of their actual historical role in Indian history was lost in this portrayal; for instance, their eye-rolling worship of Kali is particularly troublesome – for millions in India the goddess Kali is far from a representation of evil), the slapstick Chinese sequence at the beginning, the cartoonishly stereotypical depictions of Indian culture. One scene, where Indy is invited to a banquet by a local prince, is particularly egregious. Diners are presented with ‘chilled monkey brain’, eyeball soup, and the lip-smackingly delicious ‘snake surprise’ – the surprise being that the snakes were still alive. Ludicrous! I lived for ten years in India and never came anywhere near a monkey brain, chilled or otherwise. (For the record, as far as I can discover, monkey brains have been historically known to have been consumed in a remote corner of ancient China, but not in India.) Snakes are feared and revered around the subcontinent, rarely eaten. 

Hollywood, of course, has plenty of form in this arena. 

From Mickey Rooney’s fanatically racist Japanese character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (complete with buck teeth and a hideous accent – Golightly pronounced as ‘Go-right-ree’ – a performance derided in many other articles), to Gone with the Wind’s enshrining into popular culture of the ‘mammy’ character, a big-bosomed, sassy-fussy slave-nanny deliriously happy with her lot. (In truth, Mammy never existed. Research has shown that most house servants of this type would have been younger black women.) 

Later, we encounter another of my favourites, Enter the Dragon, literally kicking off the Bruce Lee-inspired south Asian stereotype – suddenly every Asian in cinema was a high-kicking, hand-chopping, pseudo-philosophy-spouting expert practitioner of the martial arts. 

When Hollywood finally began to wake up to its lack of diversity it made a desultory stab at rectifying the situation – by inserting a single black character at the margins of every narrative, thus bringing forth that much lamented and now lampooned trope: Token Black Guy. For decades, the one certainty in horror films – a certainty as nailed on as death and taxes – was that Token Black Guy would be the first to bite the dust… And don’t even get me started on Nerdy Bespectacled Comic Relief Indian!

Why does any of this matter? Is it just harmless entertainment, in which case a certain license with the truth is to be expected, indeed, countenanced?

It matters because stereotypes do untold psychological damage, much of it hidden beneath the surface, like an iceberg. They promote and shore up negative perceptions and justify not only a continuing lack of equity in film but on the ground, in day-to-day life.

Back in 1922 Thomas Edison wrote: “I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our education system… in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks…. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture.” 

We only have to look at how children talk, the references they use, to know that in a certain sense this is true – so many of their cultural cues come from the films they are consuming and sharing with each other through dialogue, play, even toys. With family films disproportionately aimed at younger viewers this means it is even more important to get the messaging right. A film like Indiana Jones with its chilled monkey brains and snake surprise is, at its base level, ill-informed, at its worst, a vehicle for lasting negative perceptions of another culture.

Still, that was the past. 

Hollywood is changing, and for the better. (Witness this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Parasite, a terrific Korean satire.) In years to come I look forward to nuanced portrayals of diverse characters on the silver screen. And film, as a mirror of our society, as a medium of our hopes and fears, will be all the better for it.

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My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here

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