Zero Dark Thirty

Spotlight on Shirley Clarke’s Short Films
April 11, 2013
Issue 11 | July 2013
July 22, 2013
By Paul Frankl
The relationship between race and Hollywood has often been one fraught with contention. Kathryn Bigelow’s first foray into feature film directing, The Hurt Locker presents yet another caricatured portrayal of the exotic ‘others’ (the Iraqis) from the eyes of a white Westerner. As a nation, according to the director, Iraqis are all sinister masked villains or helpless, speechless civilians in need of saving by the muscular, camouflage-clad all-American soldiers (as a large part of the notion behind the Bush administration’s term ‘War on Terror’ would have us believe).
What makes this film all the more dangerous is that Bigelow disguises the blatant racism with a supposed bleak exploration of what it’s like to put up with being in the army, and how boring it must be. Therefore it was hailed by all as a sensitive, thoughtful look into the lives of American soldiers. The fact that the soldiers are disarming bombs that are placed by people who wish the American army simply to relinquish control of the country and leave, is unexplored. The Iraqis are the menacing threat, nothing more. God forbid human beings with complex feelings.
Her latest film, Zero Dark Thirty, the cause of much controversy already, has a slightly more complex stance on race. Whilst the film has been heavily criticized for its extreme portrayal, and alleged endorsement of torture, this is not my immediate grievance with it. The scenes of torture (particularly the opening), in fact, paint the Americans in a fairly negative light, with horrific acts of shaming, deprivation and malicious violence being undertaken by the US agents, evoking sympathy for the tortured.
My problem with the film is, like with her last, the subtle undertones that are implied, rather than shouted out loud. Whilst its subject matter may not be inherently racist, its subtle alignment against a race of Middle Eastern ‘others’ who are (again) given little depth other than subjects to be questions, or villains to be apprehended, is far more dangerous. Whilst the audience is in some respects allowed to feel empathy for Ammar al-Baluchi (the protagonist Maya’s first torture victim in the film), he is, ultimately nothing but an enemy, who is shamed and embarrassed in front of the viewer, and gives up his coveted information relatively easily with a small trick. Whilst Maya continues to play the frustrated hero battling against a system of old men, the dangerous Arabs are rooted out and the audience placed alongside her in her quest against terror. It is Bigelow’s clever pitting of Maya against a system of old men that tricks the viewer into thinking ‘well it can’t be racist, it’s anti-America’.
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It is these subliminal representations, separating what is ‘us’ from what is ‘them’ (that so often appear in depictions of Arabs, and indeed in depictions of ‘minorities’ in general in Hollywood cinema) that solidify cultural prejudices and deepen racist ideologies with far worse implications than an overtly racist film that can be easily identified. The ‘separate but equal’ mentality is the first seed of racism, as Naomi Woolf points out, because it does not say ‘we are all human beings’. Whilst there are of course those who wish harm on others, and carry out acts of terror, the film passes up any opportunity to look into who these people are and why they believe what they do. They are only enemies to be destroyed.
Bigelow’s use of a female protagonist again softens the blow of the film’s inherent racist tendencies, as it is not often that a female character is seen in such positions of power in war films, and in relation to the extreme violence of torture. Bigelow plays with the cultural expectations of female characters by presenting a tenacious, attractive and intelligent woman at the centre of the American military intelligence, which appears to be a breaking down of gender stereotype. This does however make harder to wade through to the messages at the film’s core: we are assuaged, because we are asked to empathise with her; and we like her.
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This is also something that seems at fault in culture generally. That Bigelow was the first female to ever win the Outstanding Achievement in Feature Film Award by the Directors Guild of America seems to somehow make the film more praise worthy by many, for the fact she has broken a new gender barrier. Personally, I have little interest in whether or not she is female when judging her directing talent or depiction of the Middle East. I certainly think that her sex is not a reason to overlook the dangerous messages interlaced within her films (this would, in fact be sexist). But it seems it is an additional reason for her to be praised.
Her visible presence at Oscars, an inherently American awards ceremony, is not massively surprising what with Bigelow’s nationalistic tendencies. She looks at America in just an alternative enough way to be hailed as a great director, with something new to say, whilst maintaining a staunchly American-centric standpoint, pro US Army and governmental choices. This is no great shock, for any director who dared to heavily criticise US involvement in the Middle East would doubtless never see a nomination, let alone a win. But still, it is important to keep a sharp eye, and not let these twisted representations, however subtle, into our minds without inquisition.