Running Backward: A Critique of “Unbroken.”

After my first year in college, I am displeased to announce that I have been wrong about a lot of things. In fact, I owe quite a few apologies. I, like many humans, am subject to viewing the world through my bias. For years, I have worked as an advocate within LGBTQ+ organizations. I strive to practice tolerance and acceptance of others in all that I do. If my first year in college taught me one thing it is that it is okay to be fiercely enraged.  In fact, I no longer understand looking at a question of basic human rights and dignity and feeling anything less than irate. It is my job as a member of a minority group and an ally to others to recognize signs of injustice and speak out for change. It is not enough to be a passive citizen. Instead, one should be critical of the world we live in and recognize the flaws. Often, challenges faced by minority groups are considered one and the same and labeled as discrimination. Yet, I find it essential to highlight the many different forms discrimination is packaged in and how they fit into a larger hierarchy.

Thanks to years of intensive English Lit courses, I have been programmed to analyze all media that I intake. Searching for a deeper meaning, to me, has always meant analyzing the contents of whatever was in front of me and their implications. It was not until recently that I realized the importance of also analyzing the omitted content. The film Unbroken had been one of my favorites since its release. Yet, when I watched it with this new perspective I was unsettled. Unbroken specifically challenged the divide between oppression and racism. However, Unbroken also used Louis’ identity as a token factor that begged for white-sympathy and resulted in silencing other voices. Louis Zamperini was given a platform when he was asked to share his story; and sadly, it was grossly misused to omit people of color from having an authentic narrative.

The main character, Louis Zamperini, was in a family of Italian immigrants. As a child, neighborhood kids were shown using derogatory language and violence to attack him for his heritage. Yet, Louis’ race or ethnicity play no role in the events of the film. While at first glance someone might title this as a form of oppression, it was actually discrimination. Everyday Feminism highlighted the difference between prejudice, discrimination and oppression in February of this year. Here, they explain that prejudice is the internalized biases. Next, they claim that discrimination is the externalization of those biases. Meanwhile, oppression is when an individual or group uses systematic power to dominate a marginalized group. Oppression is always discrimination; however, discrimination is not always oppression. The film shows these moments of discrimination towards Louis as a way of asking the audience to sympathize with him. Louis is different. He is the underdog. This perpetuates the idea that somehow whites can face racism. This is simply not true. Anthony Morgan, a civil and human rights lawyer, explains how racism is founded in systematic oppression. In the United States, systems of oppression have never been pushed onto Caucasian individuals. Instead, Caucasians hold the power in these scenarios even if each individual is not partaking in the oppressive action. He further explains how racism can only impact the minority group by saying, “It’s slavery, colonialism, theft all kinds of violations on systemic proportions… versus feelings being hurt.”  Louis, a white man, was at the bottom of an already privileged pack. While Louis was the child of immigrants, he had white skin. This immediately disqualifies him from being subjected to racism.

As the film continues, Louis winds up in a Prisoner of War camp during World War II. While World War II is frequently remembered fo the systematic oppression of Jewish individuals, many other minority groups suffered as well. However, in the film, Louis’ prisons have only Caucasian individuals. In fact, the only people of color featured in the film are the Japanese soldiers running the camp. Meaning, the only people of color shown were shown to be villains. Clearly, the Bird, the Japanese leader of the Prisoner of War camp, was a rival of Louis’. In all honesty, the conditions at the camp were fairly underplayed when compared to even what is mentioned in the novel form of Unbroken. My theory is consistent with that of Dr. Robin DiAngelo who explains the concept of white fragility. She describes the concepts of white fragility and centrality by claiming that “It became clear over time that white people have extremely low thresholds for enduring any discomfort associated with challenges to our racial worldviews.” Essentially, Caucasians have always been front and center for power and positive attention. When that begins to slip away and become more evenly distributed it can feel threatening to a Caucasian individuals sense of self.

Moreover, there were plenty of opportunities for filmmakers to include people of color in this film and remain historically accurate. For example, during the Olympic games that Louis participated in, his roommate was Jesse Owens – an African-American runner. Moreover, Japanese POW camps certainly housed more than just Caucasian individuals. In fact, a sector of WWII known as the Pacific War was fought heavily on Japanese soil. Here, many Chinese, Filipino, and other folks with Asian heritage were detained and placed in POW camps. This begs the question, why were they omitted from the film altogether? Even when we, as a society, want to discuss the wrongdoings of our past we tend to omit the parts that make us the most uncomfortable or do not seem relevant to us. Thus, it speaks volumes of society at large that POC were silenced even from the background of this film. The viewer gets to hear Louis’ story; don’t get me wrong, that story is pretty incredible. However, by remaining 100% void of diversity, Unbroken has further silenced POC who shared these close quarters. Louis clearly overcame a lot of barriers in his extraordinary life; race simply was not one of them. The choice to whitewash this narrative was done incredibly intentionally and can be seen throughout Hollywood in an epidemic known as ‘Whitewashing.’ The way we choose who talks about history fundamentally disadvantages POC from having their voices heard. Typically, Caucasians are given the microphone. Thus, as allies and advocates it is our responsibility to share, and sometimes even give up completely, the platform with those in less of a position of power to ensure that history remembers the truth – not just the white.

 

 

Lindsay Duede is a sophomore Political Science student and a member of Drury’s Honors Program.

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