The power of film

Suraj N. Kurapati

Western culture is notorious for dichotomizing everything: good and bad, black and white, day and night, left and right, and so on; the list is endless. Influential films of the early 20th century, specifically D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (BON), are characteristic of such dichotomy as they establish racial and political stereotypes of the day. Fortunately, films of the early 21st century, such as City of God (COG), are making huge strides in breaking away from past legacy.

In BON, the protagonists are the heroic white citizens of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) whereas the antagonists, led by their leader who attempts to forcibly marry a white woman, are a group of African Americans. This story is stale, cut and dry, and leaves little room for the imagination. That is, it simply regurgitates social beliefs (racial and political stereotypes) of its day.

In contrast, COG presents a psychotic antagonist and an optimistic protagonist who both happen to be of African descent to make the point that it is the human being who is both good and evil: not a “good” white man against an “evil” black man. Furthermore, the film portrays this message through various characters.

For example, consider the “Tender Trio” who are a group of bandits. Western culture would paint these men as “evil” or “bad” simply because they are bandits, but COG shows them in other angles: people who steal but give the loot to the poor; people who help the underprivileged gain access to basic necessities like gasoline for cooking and heating water.

Another example is the “runts”. These are children who terrorize and loot shops in the town, so they are painted as delinquents in Western culture. However, when they avenge their comrades by killing Zé Pequeño at the end, they are painted as victors and good citizens for ridding the town of the gangster menace.

Another example is “Knockout Ned”, the ex-army lieutenant who now works as a ticket conductor in the local bus routes. Ned is optimistic, friendly, and serves as a role model for Rocket and his friend when they ride the bus. He tells the young men that if they study in school and work hard, they can make it out of the slums and reach a better future: the “American Dream”, if you will. However, the same Ned becomes a ruthless killer when he joins up with Carrot’s gang and loots banks. Here, his initial no-killing policy (representing Western culture’s “good” qualities) changes to killing anyone who gets in the way (representing Western culture’s “bad” qualities).

Finally, consider Zé Pequeño himself. Although he is a psychotic menace according to Western culture, he brought peace to Cidade de Deus for a period of time when he first took power: an accomplishment few Western politicians can claim.

In all these examples, COG demolishes racial and political stereotypes and brings light to the fact that all humans have both good and bad qualities. Western culture’s dichotomy is, in fact, a tool used to dehumanize people in order to cause harm to them whilst maintaining a clear conscience.

By showing all sides of human nature (greed, compassion, kindness, love, etc.) COG dispels many stereotypes established by the ever-dichotomizing Western culture. I feel that the true power of films lies here and sincerely hope that future films strive to dispel stereotypes and bring light to the ever-complex and ever-changing face of humanity.