Using films to study ethnic stereotypes

Conference: English teachers across the country are using movies to promote cultural tolerance and understanding among their students.

November 17, 2001|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Who needs to catch a matinee when you can watch movies in class? But don't expect Hollywood blockbusters at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville. Seniors in Nancy Shay's English class are taking notes on scenes from Elia Kazan's Pinky (1949) and discussing what "passing" for white means to African-Americans.

They're also learning how lighting, language and casting choices can reflect attitudes toward people of color.

The 10 students, nearly all minorities, have been primed on this day to watch how the camera frames the lead character, Pinky Johnson, a light-skinned black woman played by a white actress, Jeanne Crain.

"That's a white actress?" a Latino student asks incredulously. "Why can't they put a black woman in there? That's messed up!"

Shay, a petite Jewish-American woman who looks far younger than 38, gives her students a context for that casting choice. "Civil rights were still a question for most people: Should they open their hearts and minds to the equality of the races?" she says.

Shay is part of a small but growing number of teachers across the country who use films to teach kids tolerance in an increasingly multi-cultural country. Today, she and three colleagues will discuss their classroom techniques in a presentation at the National Convention for Teachers of English, which meets for the weekend in Baltimore.

Shay, a teacher for 16 years, has always loved movies and has often used them in her curriculum to help combat racial stereotypes.

The movie White Man's Burden, for example, portrays a predominantly black society and a white child's search for television characters who look like him. The film shows students what it feels like to be "the other," she says.

"In order to be responsible neighbors in our communities, we need to be sensitive in the way we treat others and be discerning in our understanding of each other," she says.

Shay and her co-panelists first met two summers ago in River Falls, Wis., where they attended a five-week session on ethnic cinema sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Though they already were using film in their classes, the seminar spurred all of them to search for more culturally relevant films.

"Most teachers still just turn the VCR on, pop in the tape, and retreat to the back of the room to grade papers," says panel chair Phil Fitzpatrick, who teaches writing and journalism at the Mesabi Range Community and Technical College in Virginia, Minn.

He says it takes "active viewing, small-group discussions, scene-by-scene analysis" to identify stereotypes that are often perpetuated by the dominant culture.

"Students who have experienced racism see a familiar experience" on screen, Fitzpatrick says, which may motivate them to discuss it in class. Living in a state with a sizable Native American population, Fitzpatrick became interested in ethnic films a decade ago while researching tribal treaties for the Minnesota Historical Society.

"Granted, we don't have Tontos riding alongside Lone Rangers anymore, but we don't have much else, either," says Fitzpatrick, 55. "After Smoke Signals, what has there been?"

A critics' darling at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, Smoke Signals is one of the few modern independent movies directed by and featuring Native Americans. Its two main characters, Victor and Thomas, are traveling together after the death of Victor's father.

"They're not two braves; they're two young men in their 20s who have different ways of coping" with problems that transcend their ethnicity, such as an alcoholic parent, says Anna Hazen, a film instructor at Coe-Brown Northwood Academy in Northwood, N.H. "It deals with Indian-ness and individuals, as well."

Hazen, who interned with a film teacher as a student, introduces her mostly white students to other cultures so she can bring issues of social justice into the classroom.

"We also deal with issues of personal responsibility vs. responsibility to the community," a challenge for American-born children of immigrant parents, says Hazen.

That same feeling of unease is familiar to fellow panelist Anne Kornfeld, who teaches immigrant children at Newcomers High School in Long Island City in New York.

Kornfeld worked in the film industry and even made some short films before she became a teacher. In her classes, she shows the groundbreaking Asian-American documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin? The film portrays the 1982 murder of a Chinese-American who was mistaken for Japanese in the bust days of Detroit's auto industry.

"It's important for my students to see how they are being portrayed, how certain stereotypes are reinforced in the film ... ," says Kornfeld. "When cultures come together and clash, there are cultural misunderstandings."

The film allows for a discussion on how to resolve those misunderstandings in a constructive way, says Kornfeld.

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