Colonialist Dreams?

After its premier at the end of August Taylor Swift’s video for ‘Wildest Dreams’ garnered markedly different reactions from different sections of society. The video features Swift and Scott Eastwood as early 20th century movie stars who are caught in a love triangle while filming in Africa. The problem? Though set primarily in Africa the video features two Black actors (somewhere in the background, I am yet to find them). In the days following articles and op-ed pieces were published about the racist implications of such an action. NPR authors Viviane Rutabingwa and James Kassaga Arinaitwe identified that in having what appears to be an all white cast the ‘Wildest Dreams’ video invokes a sense of white colonialism of Africa. The video’s director, Joseph Khan, penned a defence of his work stating, “This is not a video about colonialism but a love story on the set of a period film crew in Africa, 1950.” Khan furthered his claim by noting,

The reality is not only were there people of color in the video, but the key creatives who worked on this video are people of color. I am Asian American, the producer Jil Hardin is an African American woman, and the editor Chancler Haynes is an African American man. We collectively decided it would have been historically inaccurate to load the crew with more black actors as the video would have been accused of rewriting history.

It is possible to see the video from both points of view. Khan is correct in stating that a movie created during the time of an insanely racist America would predominantly feature white actors and would most likely not have Black people (or people of colour, for that matter) working behind the scenes. However, Rutabingwa and Arinaitwe are also correct in pointing out the colonial undertones.

The video is set in a nameless place in Africa – just Africa – there is never the mention of the name of any of the fifty-four countries on the continent. This gives the impression that Africa is “one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals” reminiscent of Binyavanga Wainaina’s How To Write About Africa. The wild ‘Africa’ that Swift and her production team presents and then leaves is akin to the savage Africa that was in need of white Western colonization – an Africa that was useful only in the sense that it could be exploited for its people and its resources. Rutabingwa and Arinaitwe echo this sentiment,

[Swift] should absolutely be able to use any location as a backdrop. But she packages our continent as the backdrop for her romantic songs devoid of any African person or storyline, and she sets the video in a time when the people depicted by Swift and her co-stars killed, dehumanized and traumatized millions of Africans.

‘Wildest Dreams’ gives a whitewashed and romanticized version of Africa that panders to the view of the continent during mass colonization in which the peoples of the continent were irrelevant.

-Jessye and Christa.

And if matters couldn’t be worse.

Joseph Khan, tweeted the following to ‘help’ his defence of the video:

Screenshot 2015-12-04 16.52.23

 

Erin Whitney from the Huffington Post has a pretty solid reply to Khan’s misogyny:

So it totally can’t be racist, right? Especially since she’s not just kinda hot or lukewarm hot. Solid defense, dude. … we now have some advice for filmmakers. Just hire a good-looking black woman to work on all of your projects and feel free to be as racist and sexist as possible. Free pass!

 

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2 thoughts on “Colonialist Dreams?

  1. Putting questions of setting and historical accuracy aside for a moment, I take issue with the implication by Khan that the participation or lack thereof of people of color in the production of creative projects has sway over whether or not the products of the projects themselves are racist or not. While the design team in this case does seem to have gone through a considered decision process (whether or not it was the right one) about the racial implications of the video, that does not mean that people of color don’t make media that is problematic for people of color. I feel like this is actually a factor that is used to justify a lot of racially problematic actions and productions, and worth pointing out.

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  2. First, I watched the video to see if I could find any black actors; I also couldn’t.

    In terms of more meaningful commentary, I wanted to highlight that the silliness of the claim that including black actors in the music video would have been inaccurate. I looked up films with interracial couples that were made in the 1950s. It include films like Othello, The Halliday Brand, Island in the Sun, Touch of Evil, and The World the Flesh and the Devil all feature black men in relationships with white women. These films are still racist by modern standards, but they do show that the casting in Swift’s video wasn’t necessary. While I can’t easily do research on the crews of those films, it seems clear that not casting black people was absolutely unnecessary. Those movies show that the male lead could easily have been a black man and that would have been historically accurate. Swift and her team are making excuses for making a racist video. This video did not need to have the cast it has.

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