American Sniper: When Films Use Fear and “The Great White Hero” to Divide Diverse Audiences

It’s been a while since Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper rode the outrage waves, but as a cautionary preface to this belated critique, I have to commend any film that can convey PTSD in a way that is relatable, realistic, and even therapeutic.  Veterans are certainly a marginalized group that deserve tremendous respect. Unfortunately, American Sniper did them zero justice. It certainly should not have been successful, but the fact it was speaks volumes as to where we are as a society, which is particularly valuable thanks to the Drumpfs trying to Make American Great Again. Here’s a couple points I’ve sat on for too long:

(1) Chris Kyle is the last guy you want for a war biopic

I don’t even need me to flood you with sources to prove this point.  Kyle’s delighted proclivity for killing Muslims “like cattle,” boasting about murdering children, and showing unapologetic racism is well documented old news—he even wrote some of it himself.  Really, the more that you learn about Kyle’s worldview, the less likable he becomes, even when considering the fact he faced a lot of combat on his country’s behalf. Eastwood is 100% guilty of setting an unrealistic tone about Kyle that largely changed who he actually was and his honest worldview of other culture. He and Executive Producer Bradley Cooper (and several other white dudes) turned an incredibly flawed man with highly dangerous ideas and opinions of non-Americans into Undeniable White Hero Dude. Add that tragic archetype in with the fact that People of Color got the short end of the stick when it came to deep, dynamic, or even simply realistic portrayals as anyone other than “the enemy” in that film, and the resulting hostility isn’t even surprising. When portrayals are made like that when we live in a social climate where tensions are as high as they are towards anyone who appears Middle Eastern and/or of Islamic faith and it’s no wonder that death and rape threats were cast from (typically White, fellow) Americans. It also well explains the heated divisiveness that arose between (typically White and Non-White, fellow) Americans who disagreed on whether Kyle was really an ideal figurehead of patriotism. The ultimate problem of this glossy portrayal, though, is it created yet another artificial representation of what an “American Hero” or “Patriot” should look like—

Humble. Tortured. Earnest.

White.

Through this lens, the nicest thing you can probably say about American Sniper is that it’s a great example of where the pressure to show a “Undeniable White Hero Dude” resulted in a fabrication of a White male who never existed as he did on screen, and instead was filled with much more darkness and terrifying views on race and religion.

(2) No film that reinforces racist and xenophobic divides and elicits blanketed death threats towards marginalized groups should receive praise. I can’t even believe I need to say this. Are we in 1915? I’m serious.

This point starts with a personal anecdote. When I initially tweeted my frustration with the success of American Sniper at the start of last year, a White woman whom I had never spoken to in my life made it clear that—since I didn’t like the movie—I hated ‘Merica America. She immediately blocked me from her account after dropping her split-second decision of my patriotism over my personal opinion of a Bradley Cooper film. While I’ve yet to ever have such a ridiculously bizarre encounter over any of my other very outspoken public opinions, it definitely falls smack dab into the G-rated category of Pro-American-Sniper insults that flooded social media. #ICYMI

The fact that a movie could elicit reactions like the following from a mother of a child is mind-blowingly illogical:

“Move your America hating ass to Iraq, let ISIS rape you then cut your cunt head off, fucking media whore muslim,” wrote a rather unassuming-looking mom named Donna.”

Please, sit on that moment for bit.

It’s undeniable that liberties taken American Sniper brought out the worst in many people, like Donna.  I think that kind of ill will elicited from a film would be frowned upon in most cases, but it didn’t matter here for some reason. AMPAS famously loved the movie. They praised Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle over David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King, which consequently almost glorified the lack of accountability apparently felt by the White men responsible for producing and directing the film–Especially considering their actions appeared to create some outrageous psychological trauma in Muslim American groups caused by having thousands of fans of the film announcing publicly that they’re going to go slaughter members of their cultural group after seeing a movie. For the record, as a White person growing up in America, I’ve had and will likely always have the privilege to never have my life threatened based on the color of my skin, so I literally can’t begin to imagine how horrible that must have been for anyone targeted. That’s a privilege Cooper and Eastwood share too, which made it even more disappointing for me to see either a lack of awareness of their privilege or a conscious decision to ignore the consequences of it.*

This directly brings into question filmmakers’ responsibility and accountability to not give the audience a film that makes a marginalized sub-group even more marginalized and antagonized, especially by sensationalizing and glorifying a man who admitted to taking sociopathic-like pleasure from killing said marginalized groups.

Then again, this behavior in White audience members isn’t new.

100 Years of (non)Progress

Admittedly, these reactions to Eastwood’s 2015 portrayal of Undeniable White Hero Dude stereotype to Villainous Brown Man stereotype is eerily reminiscent to the reinforced racism and outright physical (and verbal) violence that occurred against African Americans by White Americans following D. W. Griffith’s 1915 “yay-KKK” Birth of a Nation. The success of both films are also similar–Both were critically acclaimed in their respective time periods and huge audience hits. Allegedly, 50 million Americans saw Birth of a Nation in theaters (roughly 1 in 2 people in the nation at the time), while American Sniper’s domestic gross per-theater-count literally broke records. The biggest frown upside down I have with these few apples-to-apples comparisons is that we currently have a president who didn’t host a public screening of the film at the White House and hail any of the portrayals in the film as “terribly true” like Woodrow Wilson did for Griffith’s now infamous piece.**

This is by no means to suggest that the treatment of minority groups by both film directors were equal, nor to equate the struggles that both minority groups face from majority groups in our current society. But it does highlight an interesting pattern that many White American audience members seem to embrace when they are presented with films that villainize or stereotype groups that they already marginalize–Instead of providing empathy for the cultural groups they oppress or owning up to the significant advantages that have been provided, an almost insecure hostility rises up. This hostility seems to manifest in said White groups in making grandiose public reminders (verbally, physically, and otherwise) that they (in the worst cases) are glad they have privilege and the most social power with no motivation to facilitate change despite how much it hurts other people . This being a very simplified example of a pattern that such White groups don’t care or don’t know how to break. Unsurprisingly, the lack of awareness in these populations is embarrassingly obvious, but this somehow allows them to also be the loudest.

As an aside, it’s interesting to note was the method in which racist themes were portrayed. Griffith’s racist portrayals in his film were very overt, while Eastwood’s were arguably more psychological. However, the level of hostility towards both minority groups was severe, overwhelming, and reinforcing of existing stereotypes. It begs attention to how racism has evolved and, in some cases, been reinvented over the last 100 years in the country, as the 100 year time span between these two films does not reflect a whole lot of progress on racism in the film industry. Rather, just a more subtle method of delivering it.

How it Should Have Ended

There’s a very simple solution for the American Sniper controversy: Why couldn’t Kyle be portrayed as racist in the film, simply using Kyle’s own words without flourish? Made Bradley Cooper say word for word what Kyle recorded in his memoirs, and not a bit more? It might change the feelings of the film a bit, the Pro-American Sniper audience reactions would certainly be more divisive, but it would be honest and likely an even better representation of how the worldview of a man was changed through war and PTSD.  It could even start a great conversation as to why it happened to him and not other veterans, who return from war still able to embrace individuals of all races and religions as they did before, if not even more so. Admittedly, the fact that someone like Chris Kyle was glorified in the manner that he was in this film arguably reflects much more poorly on veterans than the title otherwise suggested.

As it stands, I’d give the true message of the film, the reactions that came from it, and behaviors it reinforced:  4/4 Trumps.

Disclaimer

All this said, I don’t think it means you can’t or shouldn’t enjoy American Sniper. Movies are subjective; it’s our creative right to take what we want from them. The core point is there are things we can take both from how the film was made and how people reacted to it that are valuable for understanding culture in the industry and society (and perhaps encouraging more focus as to how we can take steps towards positive change).

 

 

 

 

*What even is the demographic of Bradley Cooper’s fanbase? Someone please tell me. Actually don’t.

**President Obama hosted a screening of Selma that year, not American Sniper.

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2 thoughts on “American Sniper: When Films Use Fear and “The Great White Hero” to Divide Diverse Audiences

  1. Pingback: Why the Jennifer Lawrence Wage Gap Argument so Easy to Believe? – Psychology of Film

  2. I am one of those that subscribe to your viewpoint. The film got such a polarized reaction though, so the two sides of the very high fence are going to conflict. The social representation of the movie unfortunately casts a horrid shadow over some very fine technical moments – and Bradley Cooper’s performance is good in the PTSD story-line. Clint Eastwood has always been on the brink of such controversy with his film-making – as much as I have admired some of his work over the decades.

    Like

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