The Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations hopes to inject some desperately needed levity into the contentious discourse on race and ethnic identity. To that end, on the evening of April 11, it launched its second annual film festival under the title, “Whose Slur Is It Anyway? Defining Ethnic Identity Through Humor and Satire.”
Harvard Foundation Student Advisory Committee member and festival organizer Ellen T. Yiadom ’06 said that the film series will receive scholarly contextualization: “We’re working on a panel discussion at the very end [of the festival]. I’m hoping to have professors, film critics, and actors to give their input on issues of ethnicity and humor.”
The Black Students Association (BSA) co-sponsored the event’s inaugural screening which, appropriately, was of Spike Lee’s 2001 film Bamboozled—the director’s merciless burlesque of identity politics in the entertainment industry.
Yiadom explained the motivation for the film’s selection: “The theme [of the festival] is defining ethnicity through humor and satire, and this film definitely screams satire. Issues of identity also come up in the film. [Bamboozled] features characters ranging from the Harvard-educated Pierre Delacroix to ‘Big Blak Afrika’ and other characters that represent a spectrum of what black is—which is contrasted against a caricature of blackness on TV.”
Following the BSA’s example, other campus cultural groups will be co-sponsoring screenings throughout the festival. When asked why co-sponsoring a film festival screening was so attractive to campus cultural and ethnic organizations Erica A. Scott ’06, president of Native Americans at Harvard College (NACH) said “everyone loves movies and can make time to see them…Plus, it’s great to observe a culture in a medium as colorful and visually interesting as film.”
Scott and the NACH co-sponsored the Foundation’s screening of the 1993 made-for-television movie “Medicine River” this past Wednesday. The film stars legendary Native American actor Graham Greene as an estranged Canadian Indian endeavoring to reconcile himself to tribal culture after his mother’s untimely demise.
Despite its somber subject matter, the film is actually a comedy. Scott said the film’s juxtaposition of the tragic and comic as characteristic of “Indian humor”: “Indian humor is an important facet of Native American culture because it reflects our ability to laugh in spite of great suffering and sadness. In popular culture, there is a stereotype that Native Americans aren’t funny, or are very stoic and serious. The movie shows that Native Americans are just like everyone else and can be comedic.”
Breaking down stereotypes through insightful, artistic representations of the variety of American cultures and sub-cultures is one of the film series’ principle goals, and the festival co-sponsors are persuaded of cinema’s unique power to achieve that end.
Felipe A. Tewes ’06, president of Fuerza Latina said: “Cinema is a really good way to become immersed in another perspective. The best way to learn about something is to see it.”
On May 9, Tewes and Fuerza Latina will co-sponsor the screening of “Raising Victor Vargas,” Peter Sollet’s 2002 independent feature that debuted, to critical acclaim, on the independent film festival circuit.
Tewes described the film as “about a Dominican growing up in Washington Heights, NYC. It’s basically a coming of age story. It’s a fun movie, one from a very different background.”
The Foundation’s film festival will continue until the end of the semester, and each screening promises to be a window into the variety of cultural experiences that comprise life in our increasingly diverse society. Subsequent screenings should prove as entertaining and provocative as its first.