On Examining Old Movies Under Contemporary Lenses

Since the dawn of the movie industry our world social landscape has radically changed, thanks to revolutionary and humanists ideas of freedom and equality of rights and opportunities for all. Such ethical changes were chronicled in the movies, in a way that a concept that may seem hostile or prejudiced today could possibly be revolutionary at its time. Nevertheless, even when attempting to claim something universal and eternal, movies are not displaying what is indisputably ethical or truthful, they are chiefly commenting on the world from a certain point of view. Considering such displacement, would it be fair to judge old movies with modern perspectives? Would it even be possible for us to grasp the whole significance of their standpoint and implications at the time they were conceived?

At least in some extent, it is more realistic to expect that people judge things with their own parameters, a scale readily accessible. Surely people in the same environment and time can differ significantly, but, gregarious as humans are, we tend to conform, and our minds are highly influenced by the social topography. Take slavery as an example. Even though in the Roman era Europeans were enslaved too, in the late nineteenth century the practice of slavery was almost exclusively related to African descendants, which led to the alteration of black people’s image and to their representation in movies often in a context of  disempowerment, belittlement, poverty and violence; denying, at the beginning, their righteous images of powerful medieval warriors and ancient kings. It is hard to embody different perspectives; that is for movie makers and audiences alike. For instance, a well rounded approach to the portrayal of black people in Gone with the wind would have to consider the context of the nineteenth century – the time of the characters – and also the ambience of the early 20th century – when the book was written and the movie released.

Another crucial advance on human rights that may lead to misinterpretations of characters and plots in movies were the rights of women and homosexuals. Until the 19th century, under the doctrine of coverture, a married woman in America was considered her husband’s possession. Women today enjoy such autonomy and freedom that the whole concept of coverture is outrageous. That makes it hard for us to understand the bearings and aspirations of women at that time. On the other hand, according to the website Psychology Today, homosexuality was listed in the American Classification of Mental Disorders until 1987, which ultimately exposed homosexuals to demoralizing treatments and even actual castrations. All those misconceptions influenced the portrayals of women and homosexuals in movies. It is hard to put aside the beliefs we have today about love and marriage when considering such characters.

How old movies can be assessed, particularly in their ethical content, and how to forecast their impact on audiences today are serious issues. Advances toward a world more respectful of differences make some films seem controversial if not completely obnoxious. Others dangerously fluctuate in a grey area, subliminally bringing damaging concepts back to life. If the past cannot be changed, at least some studios are trying to change the future. Disney Studios, for example, has been clearly revising the portrayal of women in their more recent movies, like Moana and Frozen, distancing them from the image of the damsel in distress and featuring more independent and self confident young women. All things considered, judging movies is like judging art, hate speech or discourse in general: the answer is complex and virtually impossible but we still have to look for it.

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