Movie review: 300

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

It is difficult while watching 300, the war epic based on Frank Miller's graphic novel, to notice anything beyond the stunning visual effects.

Depicting a valiant, outnumbered band of Spartans that stands in 480 B.C. to fight an enormous army led by evil Persian king Xerxes, director Zack Snyder and cinematographer Larry Fong employ a host of innovative techniques. They drain some colors; they oversaturate others. Frantically cut scenes are followed by flawless slow-motion swings of axe, sword and spear. Battle marches seem as lifelike as the rural landscapes seem surreal.

It's a beautiful film. So beautiful, in fact, that most will miss the processes of racial characterization, legitimization and othering obscured beneath the flashes, slashes and gashes done so well by the production team.

"That's how an action movie works," said Dr. Barry Shank, an OSU comparative studies professor and my former thesis advisor. "It gets you caught up in what’s going on, so that you forget you’re at the movies."

But after the mighty Spartans obliterate numerous crashing waves of ethnic troops - each its own rasterized diarama of a historical group - it's clear that Snyder is using common visual arguments to sweeten the portrayal of his band of white brothers.

What they say without meaning to is important.

Talking with some movie critics the other night, I made the mistake of drawing comparisons too broad between this film and The Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith's 1915 picture that denigrated the efforts of Reconstruction and glorified the Ku Klux Klan. The films have different intentions, different casts and different value systems; that they exist in separate and distant social contexts make a straight comparison very difficult. In short, I found myself rooting for the Spartans; even the sight of a clan hood makes me angry and ill.

But look at the othering process - how the filmmaker gets you to like the whites and despise everyone else - and you'll see that not much has changed in 92 years.

Like the clansmen in Nation, the white soldiers in 300 attempt to preserve a way of life. They're portrayed as selfless, genuine and moral. They fight only because they must. Had Griffith the ability to include dialogue, it's likely that the clansmen would've waxed erudite about their hope for freedom and liberty. (Leonidis and his men sure did.)

On the other hand, the masses of Persians, Asians, Middle Easterners and Africans are portrayed as beastly, ghoulish figures from the far corners of the Earth. Their leader is opportunistic, unloyal and cowardly. And instead of speaking, they are allowed only to snarl commands, grunt and moan when bludgeoned by the righteous Spartan spears.

And these brutish masses are positively obsessed with sexual conquest, a characteristic that links them most strongly with the black and mulatto antagonists depicted years ago by Griffith.

"That was a classic motivator of fear," Shank said about what whites imagined non-whites would do to their women. "Not only in Birth of a Nation, but of black men in general. It was an ironic reversal of what actually happened with white plantation owners regularly going out to the slavehouse.”

In Nation, the genesis of the KKK is crystalized and legitimized when Flora Cameron hurls herself off a cliff to avoid being raped by Gus, the freed slave Griffith used to embody an assumed black sexual appetite. Whites are also incensed when Silas Lynch, a mulatto carpetbagger, attempts to marry another white woman.

Similarly, when not parading around on his throne of corruption, Xerxes and his generals are engaged in what seems to be a continual depraved orgy. Naked bodies - kissing, groping, writhing - fill the king's tent. And the Persian messengers insist repeatedly that they will sexually ensalave the Spartan women once their heroic leader falls.

These parallels are unmistakable.

I want to make clear that I don't view the efforts of the KKK in remotely the same way that I view those of the Spartans. Nor am I saying that African-Americans and the Persian army are anything alike.

They aren't.

What I am pointing out is that both films attempt to hold their audience hostage by playing on the racialized fears, suspicions and unease that have been present in the United States for centuries.

We're taught at a young age to assume that othered groups engage in behavior different from our own. So we'll take at face value the Persians' sexual deviancy because we've been socialized to value restraint. We won't question the ghastly appearance of the African soldiers, because in America, ancient Africa has been coded as being exotic, animalistic and lowly.

I doubt that Snyder meant to mirror President Bush with either leader, but within the current political context, small details are crucial to a film that pits whites against non-whites. The inclusion and exlcusion of details - one group's sexual appetite, another's fidelity; one's red cloak, another's feminine jewelry - still play an important part in making movies.

And it's clear that better technology hasn't meant a more sophisitcated vision when things come down to us versus them.