By Mike Barber, Canadian Filmmaker, Race-Talk contributor
As I am typing this, I am five hours and 25 minutes into a 15+ hour trip on a slow train to Baltimore. I'm on en route to D.C. to interview sociologist and author Dr. James Loewen for my documentary film, A Past, Denied: The Invisible History of Slavery in Canada. This interview is two years in the making. In late 2007 when I originally conceived the idea to make a feature documentary on how Canada's over 200 years of institutionalized slavery of indigenous and African people is constantly escaping mention in our history books, James Loewen was one of the very first names that entered my head for interview candidates. His book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (1995) was one of the biggest inspirations for me to start think about making documentaries in the first place; an inspiration possibly rivaled only by Errol Morris' (2004) documentary film,The Fog of War).
Lies My Teacher Told Me is the result of Loewen's research into the 12 most popular history textbooks used in American schools (circa 1996). He explores the common threads of what/who is given coverage, how much coverage is given, and in what lights that coverage is made. He also looks into what is conspicuously absent, what is biased, and, finally,what is flat out false. More than myth-busting, Loewen examines the far-reaching social consequences of the history of teaching practices, a history that he finds has served more as jingoistic propaganda than scholarly discourse. At its heart, this book (and the follow-up Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sights Get Wrong) is about why the way in which history is disseminated matters,and how society could benefit from a curriculum that is unafraid to look deeply into the dark side of Canada's past as opposed to the feel-good bits.
Loewen demonstrates how the bland, celebratory versions of history found throughout the pages of various Canadian textbooks serve as a form of boosterism catering specifically to a white, middle- and upper-class audience. In essence, stories about white people written by and for white people. Page after page, Europeans are exalted for their great achievements while non-Europeans, if mentioned at all, are painted as people in need of European help. This feel-good bias doesn't feel right, however, and worse, it goes beyond the classroom, visible in pop culture and everyday discussions about historical events.
The film and television equivalent of this form of boosterism comes in the Hollywood archetype of the white saviour--a white, typically middle- or upper-class, usually male and almost exclusively heterosexual character through whom the life of a person of colour (or persons of colour) is dramatically improved. The basic formula goes like this: through the white protagonist's selfless deeds the helpless, downtrodden victim of circumstance is rescued from the cycle of poverty and violence, changing both their lives forever. One gains new opportunities that would otherwise never be afforded to them, while the other gains redemption and a well-deserved personal sense of piety. Most importantly, the white audience gets to feel good about themselves.
One problem with white saviour films is that they perpetuate the archaic paradigm of the white man's burden. They tell stories of white people going outside of their privilege to help people of colour who ultimately can't or won't help themselves. Whether it's Uncle Sam bringing "civility, education and religion" to the Philippines or Clint Eastwood teaching his young Hmong neighbour how to be a "real man," it's the same old story being played out again and again. It's been colonialism's best justification since Manifest Destiny in real life, as well as the template plot for movies like To Kill a Mockingbird, Finding Forrester, Gran Torino, Freedom Writers, The Blind Side"
(Why we never saw a remake of Pygmalion/My Fair Lady with Michael Cain as Henry Higgins and Rosie Perez as Eliza Doolittle, I'll never know. Perhaps that would have been a little too on the nose.)2