The Politics of An Accent: Action Movies and Star Wars

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It’s not always a nice thing to talk about. It sort of falls between the “politics” and “religion” no-go areas of polite Thanksgiving conversation with your in-laws. But behind some of your favourite shows and movies lies an uncomfortable truth: they can be pretty racist.

Well, let me backtrack here. Perhaps I mean a different “R” word: regionalism, or the dividing of people based into certain archetypes and roles based on their location in the world. Slightly more innocuous, but just as dangerous if handled in just the right (or in some cases, wrong) way.

So join me again as we delve into some of our treasured memories, old and new, and pick them apart in front of each other. It’s going to be fun, I think. (Well, I at least get to post up some fun pictures which might hold your attention).

Like this one! You guys like loki still, right? Internet?
Like this one! You guys like Loki still, right? Hello? Internet?

Accent Politics

In the world of movies, where one only has somewhere between 90 minutes and two and a half hours to establish a setting, plot, characters and a narrative good enough to grab your attention, it’s only natural that some of the finer details are going to fall by the wayside.

Certain aspects of certain characters are going to need to be boiled down into shorthand to save time. If a character has glasses, he or she is probably the smart nerdy one (possibly even a hacker, if you’re accidentally watching a movie from the 90s). A fat guy is always gonna be the funny one, and the girl with cute short hairdo is probably feisty.

In a way, it’s hard to blame the producers for making decision like that, with so much money going into every second of screen-time, one needs to emphasize certain aspects and cut corners on others. Why bother explaining how deep that gay best friend character is (he’s probably sassy, so you as the audience know immediately) when Matt Damon is waiting in the wings, chomping at the bit to punch some faces?

Tacit admission: this whole article is an excuse to post a picture of sean bean
Tacit admission: This whole article is an excuse to post pictures of Sean Bean

Rule Britannia: British Accents in Action Films

On the topic of action movies, let’s go to our first subject: the Brit. Being a British person myself, this one has stood out to me above the rest. British guys have been the practice targets and owners of a fresh body bags for many years. We are often killed by a charming American hero whom we tried to thwart. Looking at National Treasure, Equilibrium, Silence of the Lambs, Avengers Assemble and others, the British villain is quite a common trope (and easy to see why Sean Bean has been getting such solid work).

So, why are Brits the bad guys so often? Because we know it’s harmless, and we can laugh it off? The Atlantic “special relationship” has allowed our two countries special privileges in the field of taking-the-piss. But maybe it’s deeper; maybe it’s the residual remains of the colonies, the taxation-without-representation, the John Adam’s era (before all that fun revolution business). Or maybe it’s just a bit of fun–Hollywood making it easier to differentiate between two white guys for international audiences.

Side note on Nazis: The Indiana Jones franchise made a move that was a “one step forward, two steps back” thing in the awful Crystal Skull movie (I can’t even remember the full title), where they finally moved on from everyone’s favourite punch-bag, the Nazis, to the Russians of the cold war era. Although it was a step in the right direction, it made the narrative feel like a hammy James Bond clone, and I can’t even imagine how our compatriots over in Russia felt. They probably rolled their eyes and took a swig of vodka.

Oh God No: Star Wars

Star Wars is probably the greatest offender when it comes to using British accents as a password for “bad guy!”, but actually it’s erred so much worse that it had to have its own section in the article. Sorry, entire crew of the Death Star apart from Vader, you’re not even stereotypical enough to be the worst part of Star Wars.

Me-sa a horrible and dated stereotype!
“Me-sa a horrible and dated stereotype!”

The prequels, narratively, were kind of garbage. I mean, we’ve all seen that guy’s two-hour-long video series on the subject, and all had a bitch about the plank of wood they got to play Anakin Skywalker.

But in terms of accents, these movies said so much in its subtext they probably should be re-dubbed to save future generations from such backwards trash. Specifically, The Phantom Menace. Okay, you’ve got Liam Neeson doing his Jedi thing, Ewan McGregor being stunningly attractive, and a little kid who I could take or leave.

But then the Asian businessmen from space show up.

In what is possibly the most boring plot line of any Star Wars film to date (beat that, Abrams!), the Trade Federation shows up to blockade the humble planet of Naboo, before getting their asses kicked by a couple of white guys with laser swords. These aliens with inexplicable Chinese accents then hide away in their control deck and use their superior technology and robots to do their dirty work. Sound familiar?

Sound racist?
Sound racist?

It’s probably not a stretch to say that you already recognized all of this and have read some of this before. It’s just really important that we remember that this film was a thing, and that in the future we demand better writing.

I mean, when we’re watching an army of African bongo-drum playing swamp-fish-people goof around in 3d, it feels like the movie really is from “a long, long time ago.” (Haha. See what I did there?) Come on, people. As I keep saying, it’s the 21st century.

Is-a da twenty-first centoory
Is-a da twenty-first centoory

I guess what I’ve been trying to say throughout this entire article is this: Sir Michael Caine is doing stellar work. He’s single-handedly bringing back the British guy as the voice of reason and fun sidekick, even if he is a butler. Hell, I’ll even take a gurning (editor’s interjection) Jason Statham, holding a sawed-off shotgun, as long as he’s the “good guy”–or at least a very trendy anti-hero.

It takes a little while to notice these things, and Star Wars is a particularly heavy-handed offender. In true internet style, you’ll never unsee it.