Tuesday, November 23, 2010

White Men Are the Best at Everything: Mapping the Birthplaces of the Directors of American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Films of All Time

My original map is on Google. You can link to it by clicking here.

In 1997 the American Film Institute issued its first list of the top 100 films of all time entitled “100 years… 100 movies.” This was to commemorate the first 100 years of the existence of motion pictures – 1896 – 1996 (Why these dates, I am unsure. Most scholars go back and forth between 1894 and 1895 for the start of the motion pictures). In 2007 this list was revised and republished. Both lists were created from the input of 1,500 “…leaders from the film community (me, not being one of them). Gone from the second list were films like The Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer which had characters performing in blackface and, though, technically significant to the history of cinema, were wrought with controversy surrounding their content. Added were films like Do The Right Thing and The Sixth Sense which seemingly added diversity to the list due to the fact that their directors – Spike Lee and M. Night Shaymalan – are men of color. The purpose in mapping where the directors of AFI’s 100 greatest films of all time were born along with a poster of their acclaimed film(s) is an attempt to show that while the new top 100 list attempted to expand the range of films and filmmakers incorporated into it, that the perception of excellence in motion picture production is still from a very white European-American male perspective. Thus, the list reinforces the idea that American films are the best films in the world and the only visual stories that matter to the cinema canon are feature-length fictional narratives.

This is not to say that mapping the locales of the director’s births did not provide any surprises. I was surprised that so many of the directors were European by birth. I was also surprised to find that legendary Hollywood directors Billy Wilder and Frank Capra were not born in America, but rather Italy and Poland. Capra immigrated to the United States around the age of four while Wilder came to the United States after Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany and took over the film studio where he was working. When clicking through the map the juxtaposition of images of these very iconic American stories – like Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life – with Europe is interesting and jarring at the same time.

Also surprising was that John Ford, who is so well known for his Westerns, was originally from Maine. Spike Lee, who is known so much for his urban stories set in New York City, was actually born in Atlanta. What this showed me is that you do not need to be from a certain place or necessarily embody a positionality similar to the characters in your film to tell stories that resonate with audiences and critics alike.

However, with that revelation came the issues of all the things that are missing from the list and from the map. First, there are no female directors on the list. There are no documentaries or experimental films. None of the films are non-feature length. None of the films are foreign produced or in a language beside English. All were made within the studio system in Hollywood. This seemed quite odd to me until I looked at the voting criteria on Wikipedia:
  • Feature length: Narrative format typically over 60 minutes long
  • American film: English language, with significant creative and/or financial production from the United States
  • Critical Recognition: Formal commendation in print, television, and digital media
  • Major Award Winner: Recognition from competitive events including awards from peer groups, critics, guilds, and major film festivals
  • Popularity Over Time: Includes success at the box office, television and cable airings, and DVD/VHS sales and rentals
  • Historical Significance: A film's mark on the history of the moving image through visionary narrative devices, technical innovation or other groundbreaking achievements
  • Cultural Impact: A film's mark on American society in matters of style and substance
The reason why I used Wikipedia as a source was that this information was not available on the American Film Institute’s website. Buried in the text on the AFI website is the fact that they were only considering the top 100 American films, but the tagline on the webpage simply says “AFI reveals the 100 greatest movies of all time” which continues the deception that this list might encompass more than just American fare. Also not mentioned is the fact that the leaders of the film community were only given a list of 400 nominated films to choose from. Who chose those films and if they used the same criteria listed above in their selection process is unknown.

This exploration and visualization really helped me to think about the naturalization process that is such a big part of the cinema history canon. The fact that AFI failed to prominently mention that they were only considering American feature narratives for their top 100 list is telling of the different ways in which other modes of cinematic production are othered in critical discourse. For instance, at the Oscars there are categories for Best Documentary and Best Foreign Language Film, but the grand prize – Best Picture – lacks any qualifiers. A more appropriate name for the award might be Best English-Language Fictional Feature. Additionally, the inclusion of the work of several European born directors – Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, etc. – shows whose creative input we value in the American studio system. In fact, only four directors on the list – M. Night Shyamalan (India), Peter Jackson (New Zealand), James Cameron (Canada), and Norman Jewison (Canada) – were born outside of the United States or Europe.

Primarily, I think the map brings up fascinating points about immigration; who we allow into our country to pursue the "American Dream." Aside from Capra and Wilder there were several other directors on the list that immigrated to the United States. While the rhetoric surrounding immigration is very anti-Latin America at the moment, because they will "steal our jobs," it is telling that we've allowed multiple white European film directors to immigrate and to hold one the most exclusive jobs in the country and then revered their work as the crowning achievement of what can be achieved in their profession. It says a lot about what we value in American society.

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