Yet another great American film list–and like the others, mostly about white people

We’ve got yet another all-time greatest films list. So what’s different about this one? It’s a list of American
films, but it’s not an American list. It comes from the BBC, and was created through a survey of film critics from around the world (and yes, Yankee critics were allowed to submit their opinions).

Of course, there’s always the question of what is an American film. When the American Film Institute made its own 100 Greatest American Movies list in 1998, Lawrence of Arabia came in 5th. When the AFI did it again in 2007, Lawrence came in 7th. I suppose that Americans like to think of Lawrence as an American film, and the British prefer to consider it British.

Like all such lists, this one has something to please every cinephile and something to make every cinephile burn with rage. I mean, did everuone just forget about The General?

I found some surprising choices here, especially in the high numbers. Movie 100, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, falls apart with ridiculous ending. And I think this is the first time I’ve seen Heaven’s Gate on such a list. I’ve yet to see the movie, remembered for being the critical and commercial disaster that destroyed United Artists, but people are beginning to re-evaluate it.

And very close to the middle, at number 47, we have one of Alfred Hitchcock’s worst films, Marnie.
Rear Window didn’t even make the list.

Following tradition, Citizen Kane came in number 1. I’m glad to see it on top again, and not knocked off its perch by Vertigo, as happened on Sight and Sound’s latest survey. (Vertigo came in third, after The Godfather. It wouldn’t have made my list at all.)

I decided to put this list through the test I discussed in Race and Casting in American Movies. You start with a list of American films, then remove all of them with a white protagonist. Then you remove those where the protagonist couldn’t possibly be white. Finally, you remove those whose protagonist is a cop, a criminal, or a soldier.

How did this group fare? 92 of the films had white protagonists. Of the remaining eight:

Some of the films are kind of a gray area. Touch of Evil has a Mexican hero, and West Side Story has a Puerto Rican ingénue, but they’re both played by white movie stars. I don’t think that counts. The documentary Koyaanisqatsi doesn’t have a protagonist–or any kind of character. And although The Lion King has a protagonist, he isn’t human; there are no people in this animated film. You can’t really talk about the race of a lion. (For what it’s worth, the hero is voiced by the white Matthew Broderick.)

Killer of Sheep, Do the Right Thing, and 12 Years a Slave all have African-American protagonists. But considering what these films are about, there wasn’t much of a choice there.

And that leaves Night of the Living Dead as the only film on the list where the protagonist isn’t white for the simple reason that a white person wasn’t cast in the role.

I don’t blame the BBC or the critics surveyed for this. I blame the American film industry.

I haven’t done a similar examination considering gender. I’m sure that would also provide some interesting results.

Check the list out yourself. You’ll find plenty of your favorites. But you’ll also find a lot that will make you cry “What were they thinking?”

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