Race and Representation in Animated Documentary

This article was co-written by Alex Widdowson (AW) and Daniel Murtha (DM), each author’s contributions are labeled with their initials.

AW: In my role as festival producer of Factual Animation Film Festival (FAFF), together with Daniel Murtha, festival director and founder, we gave a presentation on ‘Race and Representation in Animated Documentary’ at the Festival of Animation Berlin. 

We originally entitled this talk ‘Race and Othering in Animated Documentary’, but after preparing we realised Race and Representation was a more accurate descriptor of our intentions.

Daniel and I recognised there was an irony to two white people taking the stage to talk about race. However, back in May 2020 when we were asked to give a presentation on animated documentary, drawing from the FAFF archive, the Black Lives Matter protests were reaching their peak, following George Floyd’s murder. 

As a result the conversation in the UK and around the world shifted away from race being a topic typically discussed by primarily people of colour, to race as a conversation that we all need to be having, especially white people, who, according to the trope, suffer from a fragility that positions race as a no-go topic. 

Daniel and I wanted to do our best to advocate for a cause we both believe in and decided to use our privilege and this opportunity to promote the ethos of Black Lives Matter in a public forum. 

DM: Alex and I are both practicing filmmakers and festival programmers, so race and representation was discussed through the lens of craft and the practicalities of making film.

AW: Our focus was on the questions of who can / should tell a story, how does one’s position inform the stories they tell and can one speak for someone else? 

Daniel and I wanted to be clear about our own positions, so the audience had a better understanding of who we are, how we identify. This hopefully equipped the audience to critique our perspectives based on more than our appearance. 

I, Alex Widdowson, am British, straight white male, I use male pronouns he/him. I identify as neurodivergent, due to my dyslexia and my history with inconsistent mental wellbeing. 

DM: I, Daniel Murtha, am white, British, bisexual, nonbinary, and my preferred pronouns are they/them.

To clarify, our degrees of marginality do not justify us talking about race and the black experience; we do, afterall, live with white privilege, however, perhaps our interest in this topic relates to the fact that we don’t come from an entirely monolithic, homogenous group. Both Alex and I view this work differently, but if you can understand who we are and where we’re coming from, you’ll better understand how we’re decoding these topics.

One Day On Carver St

Azure Allen, 2016, USA, 3:38

AW: It’s important to note that this film was made when the director was 16 years old. Azure Allen is a white woman from South Carolina, USA. She clearly had very good intentions and is a lot more socially engaged than I was age 16.

I think the John Sawhill quote presented at the end of the film is interesting in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

‘In the end our society will be defined not only by what we create but what we refuse to destroy.’ 

Clearly this was intended to refer to the maintenance of favorable memorials, but this statement  sheds a light on the statue debate taking place in 2020. In Bristol, UK, an infamous statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader, was torn down by protesters. Whereas, elsewhere vigilante groups gather around statues of confederate icons and problematic world figures such as Winston Churchill in order to protect fantasies of a simpler past. 

The director’s race raises interesting questions, what are the limitations of a well meaning white person making a film about racism? 

There is a sense of white liberal detachment to the material realities of racism. The racism that is present in this film is almost cliched. It manifests as hooded KKK members and the hypocrisy of hotel managers who expected entertainers to sleep elsewhere. Despite being legitimate grievances from the pre civil rights era, these tropes have been well worn by Hollywood’s white saviour films. 

By focusing on the overt grievances present before the civil rights movement, a subtext is created that positions racism as a thing of the past.  

Another absence is noticeable in this film. The people of colour, selected as protagonists were all presented as victims, and the story of black power, and the potential for resistance or even protest does not enter this selective history. 

The black figures presented in this film are nearly all entertainers. Here the filmmaker unwittingly perpetuates the fetishization of the black body as magically gifted for song and dance, a trope that persists to this day. One black character who is not themselves an entertainer is Charlie Fitzgerald, the business owner, who is brutally abused and never recovers. He is punished by society for stepping out of the accepted pathways of black professionalism. 

This film was created with the best intentions, each of these specific points were all raised in the context of illuminating some of the horrors of racism. However, the construction and emphasis in this film seemingly draw more from the tropes of Hollywood’s attempts at anti-racism, suggesting a limited perspective and shallow analysis of the complex systematic and unconscious aspects of historic and contemporary racism.

 I Never Picked Cotton

Students of USC, 2018, USA, 3:38

DM: A group of 12 students from the documentary programme at University of Southern California, decided to forego traditional production hierarchies and share the director title. This film features personal testimony from Yolanda Morgan, a young black woman who is also one of the co-directors. Morgan delivers an anecdote about overt racism that she was exposed to at a very young age. I find this film profound because Morgan recognises she is already too cynical to live innocently in the world without seeing it through a racial lense, however she points to her younger brother as someone for whom there is hope. 

It is hard to imagine what it must be like to approve an animation sequence in which your siblings are shot, and yet this is a possibility that Morgan has to contend with as a black woman living in the US.

This film exemplifies a consciously collaborative approach to filmmaking. While Yolanda Morgan did not have complete creative control, the organisation of this project positioned her to offer feedback and a sense check on every aspect of the production. Much of the success of this project lies in that a young black woman was given a platform to tell her story while being positioned to maintain a degree of control over her own representation and narrative. 

Land Of The Free? 

Students of USC, 2018, USA, 4:19 

AW: This film weaves the story of Colin Kaepernick, taking the knee during the national anthem, into the history of American protest, revolutionary theory and post-colonialism. This concise and powerful story is constructed by another group of 13 students from USC. 

It seems hard for us to understand why some Americans, in the name of patriotism, object so strongly to taking the knee in the national anthem. We get the impression these might be the same people who take part in celebrating Martin Luther King jr. Day, i.e. people who don’t think they are racist. But I think what this shows is that privilege and comfort can be an inhibitor for building empathy and understanding for those in different circumstances. 

Segregated by Design

Mark Lopez 17:42

DM: 

‘Explainer’ films are all over the internet, though underrepresented and under-discussed in festival discourse. Typically these films are not compatible with the auteur filmmaking approach. The animated documentary canon consists of more personal or idiosyncratic films, but the value of Segregated by Design resides in the calm delivery of argument, supported by sources and facts, providing valuable knowledge to complement some of the personal testimonies elsewhere in this programme.

This film makes use of the well-worn documentary mode, exposition. A tradition that stretches back to the first feature documentary, Nanook of The North (Flaherty, 1922). 

The expository mode is easily criticised for representing the narrator with unwavering authority. This so-called Voice-of-God exposition has historically presented a straight, white, middle class male’s perspective as if it were the monolithic, linear history of the world, while failing to acknowledge the possibility of multiple perspectives on truth. A marxist/postcolonial framing of exposition associates the voice-of-God narration with hegemonic ideologies. However, it’s interesting that this film presents an anti-establishment perspective delivered by way of a hegemonic trope, with the goal of exposing a system of hegemony and oppression.

While there is clearly value in the ‘explainer’ format, be aware that audiences are easily overwhelmed with detail and may prefer not to have facts hurtled at them in a didactic manner. ‘Showing’ an argument through story can be more compelling.

We included Segregated by Design firstly because it is well-made, but also because it highlights truths about systematic racism; we often fail to see that even when legal discrimination is technically abolished, insidious and deliberately disguised forms of discrimination can creep back in. 

Hair 

1:20, UK, 2020

Zainab Sanyang

DM: A successful doc doesn’t need to have a explicit thesis; it is enough to show a place or person in their honest form. This film is really simple: young black people expressing positive comments about their hair. That’s it!

Black bodies are often battlegrounds — debated and excluded, regulated and shaped — and black hair is no different. In 2016 it was reported that searching for ‘unprofessional hair’ in google produced screens of afros, cornrows and dreadlocks, hairstyles that require as much upkeep as straight hair, but that all happen to be black (Guardian Online, 2016). A film as simple as this is novel and refreshing, and permits black hair to exist apart from the subtext with which western societies have encumbered it.

‘Black is beautiful’ is a black power slogan from the 1960s, and it’s worth highlighting that this message still needs to be said today. Internalised prejudice, i.e. prejudices held about a group by members of that group, has always been a powerful inhibitor to change. If the medium is the message, then films like this are statements of freedom by their existence.

I Don’t Protest, I Just Dance In My Shadow

Jessica Ashman, 2017, UK, 5:21

DM: As white people we tend to look outward at racism rather than inward, and while we may try to interrogate ourselves, we often overlook our institutions. Most people believe that rapists are strangers or outsiders, and fail to see rape culture amongst their family, friends and partners. We are just as blind to racism, often because we actively choose not to see it.

AW: I could identify at least four of the eight participants in this doc are People of Colour who studied or worked at the RCA. In the last few months the RCA Universities and Colleges Union has been working hard to highlight the systemic, implicit and casual racism that persists at this prestigious art school.

View this post on Instagram

Student testimony #generationrca

A post shared by RCA UCU (@rca_ucu) on

In the talk we showed a few posts from the RCA_UCU instagram feed, testimonials from staff and students about racism at the RCA. 

Decolonising the institution is a major theme within the British art world that is building momentum. Ashman’s film displayed the landscape of unease that bubbled up and contributed to the tensions being played out through protest in the UK and around the world.

Our Story

Lorenzo Latrofa 4:31

 

DM: This film is chiefly about immigration but the overlaps with race are overt.

If the film didn’t give us the date of ‘March 1946’, it could be set any time from WW2 to the present day. Indeed, the animation that accompanies this story shows refugees from Africa and the Middle East arriving and striving in modern-day Italy. The narrator is sparse with details, but two minutes in, and we realise the narrator is talking about immigrants in a different place, in a different time.

The film eventually gives the names and faces it withheld at the start, and ties these two complimentary tales into one, a universal one, ‘our story’.

This film was worth including in part because the animation is very appealing, and from a craft standpoint, shows the benefits of a limited colour palette.

It’s worth asking, in a medium in which anything can be portrayed, how far an animator should dive into metaphor and fantasy e.g. this film represents the abstract idea of hatred as a pack of wolves. It is interesting to consider if a scene closer to real events may be more or less impactful. Perhaps this depends on the audience. 

Marcus McGhee

Alix Lambert & Sam Chou, 4:19

DM: This is one of our favourite animated documentaries, and we couldn’t not include it in a programme on race. 

AW: Interestingly, the directors of this film are an Asian Canadian man, Sam Chou, and a white American woman, Alix Lambert. I think this is a perfect example to show that you don’t have to be a member of a group to make a film about issues that affect that group. 

I personally think it’s a very dangerous message to say only black people can create black stories and only white people can make white stories. This further segregates how we produce culture. My point is that if you’re not a member of a community you are more at risk of perpetuating narratives that serve your own community. These risks are serious and result in tropes like the white savior that are still being played out in mainstream Hollywood. However, with a lot of openness, sensitivity and respect, it is possible to represent people from another group well. 

In Marcus McGhee the representation of criminals is an obvious example of actively resisting black criminality stereotypes by diversifying the perpetrators. More importantly, we feel the directors truly engage with the perspective of their protagonist. Personally I would advocate collaborative filmmaking between a protagonist and filmmaker to ensure the filmmaker’s attitude or gaze is not problematic or misconceived. 

DM: As a programmer I see that often filmmakers seem to think a serious subject requires a serious tone. But dropping the viewer’s guard with humour is a powerful method of changing minds. It’s also worth adding that this is a story about shit police. The most explicit comment about race is as much about patriarchy.

The KD Doc

Students of Reynolds Elementary, 2016, USA, 2:37

Online video unavailable 

DM: kids talk about why they admire a basketball player, what’s not to like?

AW:  It makes me sad that merchandising is such a prominent aspect of this film. These kids really are captivated by consumerism, but it’s also very interesting to see ideology being interpolated so clearly. 

Aspiring to be a sports star has a racist component to it. Alkala, a british musician and author, wrote a book called Natives, in which he describes the different experience of visiting schools in Uganda and London. The Ugandan kids had a wide variety of career plans, whereas the black british boys he spoke to all either wanted to be rappers or sports stars (2019).  The lack of diverse role models and dominant stereotypes significantly shapes children’s psychology. This example adds weight to the adage “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” As filmmakers we need to diversify the way we represent minority characters within mainstream and independent media.

Daniel and I ended our talk with two questions for the audience, many of whom were animators. We’ll let you ponder your own answers. 

How would you feel being asked to make a film about a subject that affects a minority of which you are not a member? 

What would you do to make sure you didn’t fuck it up?

Finally, Daniel and I were interviewed about our talk by Robert Loebel (director of the short films Island, Wind and Link) for his podcast Trickfilm Forscher (Animation Explorer) as he gave us a lift back to the hotel on the last night of The Festival of Animation Berlin.

Bibliography: 

Akala (2019) Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. John Murray Press.

The Guardian Online (2016) ‘Do Google’s ‘unprofessional hair’ results show it is racist?’, Leigh Alexander, published 08/04/16. Available online [accessed 16/10/20]:https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/apr/08/does-google-unprofessional-hair-results-prove-algorithms-racist-

Loebel, R. (2020) ‘interview with Alex Widdowson and Daniel Murtha’ in ‘Folge 38 – FA Berlin 2020 (Teil 2)’, Trickfilmforscher [Podcast], published on 17/10/20. avaliable online [accessed 18/10/20]: https://soundcloud.com/trickfilmforscher

Author: Alex Widdowson

Animated Documentary Director and Researcher

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