Why Does America Worship Awful White Men?
Next up: Tom Hanks as a Confederate “hero” in News of the World.
America needs its heroes, and Americans often look for and find them in all the wrong places. Andrew Jackson, Jesse James, Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, John Wayne, and Robert E. Lee — the Confederate general who led the Southern troops fighting against the Union during the Civil War — come immediately and frustratingly to mind. All were awful White men who, at various times in history, have been exalted to the status of iconic American hero.
The movie News of the World, a vehicle for Tom Hanks and a follow-up collaboration between him and his Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass, asks us — no, practically begs us — to give Hanks’s Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd the Robert E. Lee treatment.
To set the historical context, an early scene has Captain Kidd stumbling upon the body of a Black man dangling from a tree with a sign that reads TEXAS SAYS NO! THIS IS WHITE MAN’S COUNTRY hanging around his neck. The action that follows unfolds in the Lone Star State five years after the Civil War, yet grim lynching visual aside, News of the World mostly sidesteps racial issues and the racist mood that pervaded the Deep South circa 1870. It uses White America’s 19th century trouble with Native Americans — who like the few Blacks that pepper the nearly two-hour film, are represented in non-speaking roles — as a framing device and then dwells almost exclusively on White people.
No matter how much of a do-gooder Captain Kidd is shown to be, the Black corpse casts a pall over the entire movie. Even if Kidd didn’t tie the noose — or sign — around his neck, we know he fought for the side that made lynching a post-Civil War staple, regardless of whether the movie acknowledges it.
The abolition of slavery may not have been foremost in the mind of the average White Union soldier, but at least they were on the right side. For this Black man, no Confederate protagonist will ever qualify as anything other than a traitor, an awful White man.
Can White Movie Racists Redeem Themselves?
We seem to prefer big-screen bigots unrepentant or dead at the end.
After Captain Kidd’s encounter with strange fruit, the rest of the film pretends there was no real Black presence in Reconstruction-era Texas. Meanwhile, Native Americans maintain a sort of phantom presence. The violent skirmishes between them and White Americans provide the story’s backdrop, but once it’s erected, the primary conflict shifts to White men vs. White man (Kidd). Although the stench of racism lingers, the narrative works hard to stifle it.
It’s a time-tested historic-movie device that once again renders non-Whites more collective entities than individuals. The young girl Captain Kidd befriends forged a Stockholm Syndrome-type bond with the Kiowa Native Americans who killed her parents when she was an infant and subsequently raised her, and the only ones we see in the film are the kindly men who give her and Kidd a horse, apparently because she speaks their language.
White men in period pieces with racial backdrops tend to fall into three camps — monstrous slave owners, White saviors, and Confederate “heroes” — and they rarely dig that deep.
The 12-year-old German actress Helena Zengel does solid work as Johanna Leonberger, a German girl who has adopted the Kiowa ways and their language (she’s one of two characters, both White, that we hear speak it), but the movie would have been more effective and certainly darker if it had tackled racism head on by casting a young, Black lead. (Check out The Life Ahead, 86-year-old Sophia Loren’s 2020 movie comeback, on Netflix to see how that works.)
Then Captain Kidd would have had to grapple with his own prejudices and the messy racial questions that White protagonists in Westerns generally avoid tackling. White men in period pieces with racial backdrops tend to fall into three camps — monstrous slave owners, White saviors, and Confederate “heroes” and/or romantic leads like Captain Kidd, Gone with Wind’s Rhett Butler, Cold Mountain’s W.P. Inman, and Patrick Swayze’s Orry Maine in the ’80s TV miniseries North and South — and they rarely dig that deep.
Ironically, I watched News the morning after seeing It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time. The 1946 classic features Jimmy Stewart, the Tom Hanks of his era (has there ever been a female equivalent?), as George Bailey, another man we are expected to admire and adore in spite of glaring character defects. The American Film Institute even named him the ninth greatest movie hero of all time.
At least It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t whitewash or gloss over Bailey’s assholery. In one centerpiece sequence, he’s so verbally abusive to his wife Mary and three of their four kids I was certain he’d hit one of them. It wouldn’t seem so out of character, given that earlier in the movie he declares his love to Mary while grabbing her by the arms and shaking her.
If Black actors had been allowed to play characters more significant than butlers back then, I wonder how White America would have responded to the sight of one of them in the family blow-up scene instead of Stewart. Would their kids and grandkids have been conditioned to embrace both him and the movie as precious artifacts from Hollywood’s hallowed White golden age?
Would his violent-ish declaration of love to Donna Reed’s Mary still be considered sweet and romantic? Would White viewers today be as inclined to excuse his tantrum below as the acceptable overreaction of a desperate, disappointed man?
Of course, Bailey is played by the beloved Jimmy Stewart, a White actor who cemented his onscreen persona as awkward, lovable men, so all is forgiven. And how can we hold Captain Kidd’s fighting for the the pro-slavery side against him with Hanks in the role?
In an era where everyone gets judged by our political leanings, we’re supposed to bask in the basic decency of Tom Hanks and overlook that the character he’s playing fought on the Civil War team that wanted to preserve slavery and overthrow the US government.
The two Black actors most cited alongside Hanks and The Father’s Anthony Hopkins as contenders for a 2020 Best Actor Oscar nomination — Da 5 Bloods’s Delroy Lindo and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s Chadwick Boseman — also star as deeply flawed men in their own films. But tellingly and predictably, their Black experience and the way White audiences are meant to process them are markedly different.
SPOILER ALERT: Like George Floyd, the closest thing Black America had in 2020 to a hero (though for me, hero is an action noun, so he’s less a hero than a symbol of and catalyst for resurgent Black awareness who did not deserve his fatal fate), neither Lindo’s Paul in Da 5 Bloods nor Boseman’s Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom get the happy ending News of the World gives to Captain Kidd. Boseman’s angelically heroic Norman in Da 5 Bloods doesn’t either. In an ironic twist, Paul (all five central characters in Da 5 Bloods are named for an original Temptation; Boseman’s Norman is named for Norman Whitfield, one of the group’s primary Motown producers) wears a “MAGA” hat and staunchly supports President Donald Trump, possibly the worst of the many awful White men who have ascended to the level of POTUS.
America’s strange relationship with awful White men doesn’t mean movies always sugarcoat them. Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Promising Young Woman, two of my favorite 2020 films, are both unsparing in their assessment. The two movies work largely because they take the main focus off awful White men and place it on the White women they so often violate and traumatize. Their female protagonists have their issues, but the movies don’t beg us to love them, nor do they give either a heartwarming happily-ever-after.
These complicated women, however, aren’t played by Jimmy Stewart or Tom Hanks, two acting icons whose legacies and reputations rest on their personas as upstanding guys for whom any patriotic American must root. Hanks, 64, is clearly miscast in News of the World as an action hero who can win a 3-to-1 gunfight. The role actually seems better suited to a younger Jeff Bridges, who played a similar character in True Grit, or an actor at least 20 years his junior, like Matt Damon, his True Grit costar.
It’s easy, though, to see why Hanks nabbed the part of Captain Kidd, a gunslinger so far removed from Mr. Rogers and Walt Disney, both of whom Hanks has previously portrayed onscreen. He brings built-in goodwill to a role that doesn’t hold up to rigorous moral evaluation. In an era where everyone gets judged by our political leanings, we’re supposed to bask in the basic decency of Hanks and overlook that the character he’s playing fought on the Civil War team that wanted to preserve slavery and overthrow the US government.
Only an American story would require us to love him and root for him anyway. If the US can turn Robert E. Lee into a symbol of American heroism, surely we can reserve a spot in the pantheon of great American heroes for another Confederate soldier, especially one who looks just like Tom Hanks. Right?
Well, not for me. As much as I appreciate the appeal of Hanks, I demand more from my heroes. I’ll take a seriously flawed but promising young woman over any awful White man Hollywood or history throws at me, no matter who’s playing him or how many statues are built in his honor.