Black Robe, Essay Example

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Essay

In Paul Hockings’ Principles of Visual Anthropology , he cites Margaret Mead’s take on what she calls ‘our criminal neglect of the use of film,’ in regards to sustaining historical accuracy, she says, “the exorbitant demand that ethnographic films be great artistic productions, combined with the complementary damnation of those who make artistic productions and fail in fidelity to some statistically established frequencies of dramatic events, continues to clutter up the film scene, while whole cultures go unrecorded (Hockings, p6).” Her statement is very insightful and understandable. It makes perfect sense that Hollywood, an industry focused on making entertaining productions for profit, would cut corners with much of the historical content the reenact, specifically for dramatic effect. Most films, specifically documentary films by supposed anthropologist filmmakers, lack historical merit, which is why Black Robe attempting to portray historical relevance within a fictional plot is a breath of fresh air and the perfect counter point to Mead’s position.

Black Robe is about a French Catholic missionary and his attempt to convert the Iroquois and Huron tribes in the Great Lakes region of upstate New York beginning in 1634. In the tie of its release, the movie was overshadowed by the flashier, higher-budget American Indian. The film has been recognized for its noteworthy portrayal of American Indians and the relationship they shared with French colonists during that period. The main focus of the film is the clash between the American Indian and Europe as it pertains to religion and culture. While the specific plot of the film is a fictional account, Black Robe is a prime example of how a fictional film can be more historically accurate from an anthropological standpoint than many documentaries produced by the field. As Johnson and Vargas note, the film does an exceptional job at visualizing complex conflicts that arose due this encounter between Europe and the Native American, Iroquois Indians, they say, “The movie depicts hostility and warfare among American Indian tribes, a romance between a young French Canadian man and a young Huron woman, the physical difficulties of winter life and travel in the seventeenth century, the burning commitment of the Jesuit priests who took on this dangerous work, and the puzzled, often human, often violent reactions of the American Indians when the white man began to move in (Johnson & Vargas p110).” The authors hit the nail on the head with this description of Black Robe. I found the film to have a subtle beauty and pace to it that seemed natural and believable in its use of quiet intensity. At the end of the film, when the tribe addressed the priest requesting to be baptized, and ultimately renouncing their own spirituality, only to be slaughtered y the other tribes for embracing Christianity, I think it said droves about the real nature between the relationship between Europe and the Native American Indian. The message here is that the goal of the Jesuits was to expand the empire of western civilization, using Christianity only as a tool in the process.

In sum, Margaret Mead is correct to attack the film industry’s intentions when it comes to the detrimental influence it is having on her beloved field of anthropology. Hollywood is systematically rewriting how the public understands many historical events and cultural interactions in their past, many events that largely shape the present the ultimately the future in which they will participate. The way modern individuals understand the American Indiana’s or even French Jesuits, and other colonists, is through a much broader and unexamined field of generalizations propaganda and stereotypes than most might want to admit and only Hollywood can be thanked for this.  Black Robe on the other hand, while a fictional work, shines as an example of what is possible if a filmmaker sacrifices immediate climactic glory for historical accuracy. While there are not many action scenes, and much of the film is open to in-depth critical interpretation, the likes of which could easily leave the average audience member fatigued with disinterest, the attempts to set the record straight.  Despite being watered down by Hollywood, audiences are still keen enough to understand, that the colonists were not all good, the Native Americans were not all bad or good either and neither groups really had the best interest of the other in mind. Black Robe is a human film filled with real human emotion, with which humans can identify.

Work Cited

Paul Hockings, ed., “principles of Visual Anthropology.” 2nd edition (Mouton de Gruyter, 1995).

Johnson Julie, & Vargas, Colby.  “The Smell of Celluloid in the Classroom: Five Great Movies That Teach.” Social Education. National Council for the Social Studies, 2nd edition. 1994, p109-113

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