Moving Pictures

Don't Half-Ass Your Racism

Deconstructing Priest.

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I was surprised to discover that the movie Priest is a racist piece of shit.

To be fair, I generally expect some amount of racism in Hollywood action films. Stereotypical evil Arab villains, for example, or that black guy who unaccountably sacrifices himself so the white hero can get the white girl and go off and make white babies happily ever after. Or the magical Negro character who appears as an icon of authenticity dispensing atavistic wisdom to the white guy so he can be heroic and get the white girl and go off and make white babies happily ever after. You get the idea. Contemporary Hollywood films use racist stereotypes and narratives all the time. It’s depressing, but not startling.

Priest, though—Priest showed me something. Priest was not willing to just be another action movie with some casual racism thrown to assure you that—post-racial black president and all—America is still America. No, that wasn’t enough for Priest. Why settle for petty-ante stereotypes, says Priest, when you can advocate wholesale white supremacy and racial genocide?

You do have to admire the audacity, I suppose—and the dunderheaded simplicity of the vision. Priest is basically a sci-fit alternate universe western. And in that alternate universe, the cowboys are super-ninja Catholic warriors, and the Indians are hideous, subhuman vampires. Lots of Westerns are racist, of course. But sometimes, traditional Westerns express some ambivalence about or around Indians. I recently noted in this space that the spaghetti western Gatling Gun includes an evil half-breed character—as well as an impassioned defense of the humanity of evil half-breeds. The Lone Ranger viciously condescended to Tonto, but still Tonto was human, and admirable in many ways. There is no question that these portrayals are racist, but there’s at least some ambiguity or pushback within that racism.

But if the Indians are vampires, suddenly you don’t have to shilly-shally. One by one the Western set pieces are trotted out and stripped down to their primal level of racist hatred and fear. The (white) family of peaceful farming folk out on the frontier is beset, utterly without cause, by slavering, hideous eyeless beasts. The reservation on which the vampires are herded is an impoverished, backwards tract of dirt—surrounding a slimy, stinking pit of sub-human insectoid breeding and bloodletting.

And then there are the half-breeds. The vampires can bite and infect humans, turning them into familiars—decadent half-human, half-vampire servants. Some humans actively seek out this fate, and these race-traitors are treated with a mixture of loathing and contempt. The familiars have been placed utterly outside humanity; they’ve become the enemy. “If she becomes a familiar,” a Warrior Priestess (Maggie Q) says of a kidnapped character, “she’s no one’s flesh and blood.”

The Priestess here is referring to Lucy Pace (Lily Collins), the hero Priest’s (Paul Bettany’s) daughter who has been taken captive by the villainous Black Hat. The effort to get Lucy back drives the narrative of much of the film; a plot transparently and cynically swiped from John Ford’s The Searchers. In The Searchers, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) follows the tracks of his niece, who had been kidnapped by Comanches. He is accompanied by Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), the kidnapped girl’s adopted brother. Much of the not-quite-buried tension of the film revolves around Ethan’s determination to kill the girl if he discovers she has gone native, and Martin’s determination to prevent him from doing so. This dynamic is borrowed wholesale by Priest; Priest declares his intention to kill his daughter if she is turned into a familiar, while her boyfriend, Hicks (Cam Gigandet) proposes to stop him. But, of course, where Ford’s film at least intermittently sees Ethan’s bloody-minded racial panic as a monstrosity, in Priest there is no such bleeding heart nonsense. Racial mixing deserves death, period, and even Hicks has to admit that Priest’s absolute anti-miscegenation stance is the only true morality.

For all the terror of hybridization, it’s also inevitably fetishized. The evil Black Hat (Karl Urban) is part human and part vampire —a Priest turned to the dark side by the bloody alien seduction of a vampire queen. Combining the strength of a vampire with the knowledge and skill of a human, Black Hat is far more dangerous than the purebloods. The vampire-Indians are too stupid to destroy the humans by themselves; only when led by a half-breed do they stand a chance.

The film does not end with total victory. The vampire attack is thwarted, but that scheming vampire queen is still out there. The Priests have been betrayed by their overly pacifist Church, but God—more hairy thunderer than cosmic muffin—is on their side, along with truth, justice, and oodles of crucifix-shuriken. The war is “just beginning,” Priest intones with grim satisfaction, turning his steely gaze hopefully towards possible sequels. Regardless, the genocide rolls on, as America dreams ever more innocent dreams of ever more inhuman enemies to slaughter.

DISCUSSION
  • Go to comment.
    May 16, 2011, 12:08PM
    I can't tell from this article if the movie is racist or if the review is just more liberal "if hollywood puts it out it must be racist" tripe. The way you describe the racism in this movie sounds like a typical portrait of a villian in sci-fi. They are mostly dumb led by an exception. They have little to no redeeming value. There may be hope in half-breeds afterall. Think terminator (a movie I don't think is perceived as racist) The cyborgs (or Indians in this review) are single-minded slaves to the all powerful skynet ( a supercomputer built by humans an evil hybrid of sorts). As the series develops some cyborgs become good. Those who like the good cyborgs are often called traitors (like race traitors). Eventually we realize that balance may be regained if the good cyborgs join the humans. If you follow this logic do you, the writer, mean to suggest that most sci-fi is racist? Thoughts folks? P.S. I'm not familiar with the movie and the writer may very well be correct. I just can't tell from this article. P.P.S. I'd not be surprised if a sequal had a half-breed leading/helping the humans.
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    May 16, 2011, 12:23PM
    ^^I agree and I'd like to add that directors often take away human characteristics of the enemies so that the audience isn't compelled to root for them. This can be as basic as giving them a helmet (think storm troopers) or perhaps making them subhuman vampires.
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    May 16, 2011, 08:50PM
    Ah, yes, right on cue. It can't be racist, because, why, then...lots of sci-fi could be racist! And that can't be true because, after all, it's not like we're in a country built on genocide and several hundred odd years of slavery and racism. That must be some other country.// Oh, and why exactly is it a good idea that the audience doesn't root for the bad guys exactly? Because that might result in some moral complication, and moral complication gets in the way of enjoying genocidal fantasies? Gotcha.//I like the assumption that George "Jar Jar Binks" Lucas couldn't possibly be racist too. That's fun.// Terminator's a complicated, smart film, which absolutely has room to see a soul and heroism in the evil other. Other sci-fi films like, say, Starship Troopers, deliberately ironize and criticize the racist/facist underpinnings of the sci-fi genre. Other films, like The Thing or Shivers or Dawn of the Dead blur the line between evil self and evil Other in various ways that complicate and question racial divisions. The Dead movies in particular have explicit anti-racism themes throughout.// But Priest goes out of its way to link its subhuman antagonists to Indians — who are, you'll perhaps remember, real people who were actually at the butt end of a genocidal holocaust. Priest goes further and subverts a particular anti-racist narrative (the Searchers) in order to turn it into a racist one. That's vile bullshit, and it deserves to be sneered at.
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    May 17, 2011, 04:02AM
    Oh...and I can believe that a sequel might be less racist. It would be difficult for it not to be less racist. But even if it were less racist, that wouldn't make this one any less offensive.
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    May 17, 2011, 05:24AM
    Geez Noah, put down the tall glass of righteous indignation. 1) The point I made was that your article does not distinguish this movie from most sci-fi. I genuinely want to know if you think most sci-fi that follows the western motif is racist. 2) I said that I did not see the movie so I was questioning not attacking your arguement. 3)Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Try hard enough you can find racism anywhere. 4) Rather than throwing around accusations of moral blindness or racism, perhaps you should give the benefit of doubt to a reader you don't know. It may surprise you to find that all readers, like all sci-fi fans, are not racists or souless.
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    May 17, 2011, 11:58AM
    I think being morally indignant about racism is, you know, the thing to be about racism.//I distinguished Priest from most sci-fi movies because (a) it explicitly links it's soulless villains to Native Americans; (b) it deliberately takes an anti-racist plot and makes it racist. If that's not enough for you...then, yeah, I think you're being willfully obtuse. And willfull obtuseness is one of the main ways that we deal with racism in the U.S. And as such, it's worth sneering at.// I'm not pronouncing on your soul, incidentally, or even on your skin color, neither of which I know anything about. But your insistence that I need to know about your soul, and the filmmaker's soul, in order to pronounce on whether a really flagrantly stupid and racist movie is in fact racist is part of how institutional racism works in the U.S. of A. It's always somebody else's problem because you know yourself and you know you're not racist. Which I have no evidence to question. But racist or not, you're reflexively defending a racist movie. Which is kind of a racist thing to do, regardless of the purity of your heart.// Oh; and to your other question; I'm not sure what other sci-fi-Westerns you're thinking about. I already noted in the article and in comments that there are Westerns and sci-fi movies that aren't racist, or that at least question and push back against their own racism. So I don't think there's any reason why Priest would have had to be as egregiously racist as it is.//The comic book Preacher has Western tropes and a vampire and it doesn't advocate white supremacy or genocide. I don't think it's an especially high bar to ask my art not to advocate white supremacy and genocide, honestly....
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    May 17, 2011, 02:02PM
    Noah, 1) you must be a lot of fun a parties 2) I was not asking for you too know my soul. I was asking legitimate questions about your article and you decided to attack me for it. Is no one supposed to question your generic statements? 3) By your logic, Firefly, Star Wars, Cowboys vs Aliens, Stargate and a whole host of other sci-fi movies and shows are racist. I just don't buy it.
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    May 17, 2011, 05:56PM
    lol Noah Berlatsky is a fool
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    May 17, 2011, 06:00PM
    stereotypical evil Arab villains, for example, or that black guy who unaccountably sacrifices himself so the white hero can get the white girl and go off and make white babies happily ever after. Or the magical Negro character who appears as an icon of authenticity dispensing atavistic wisdom to the white guy so he can be heroic and get the white girl and go off and make white babies happily ever after.
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    May 17, 2011, 06:40PM
    Racism is a by-product from the age old Us. Vs. Them mentality. Just because a story uses that particular phenomenon of human nature, doesn't mean it's Racism with a capital R. Because if what you say is true, then Romeo and Juliet is based out of racism too.
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    May 17, 2011, 06:42PM
    Texan, I haven't seen most of those I doubt they're as racist as Priest, because Priest is really racist. However, as far as I can tell, you're claiming they can't be racist because you don't believe they're racist. You're not actually making an argument; you're just affirming your faith in the spotless purity of America and its popular culture. America thanks you for your support, I guess.//Star Wars I have seen (at least the first three movies) George Lucas uses occasional weird Asian or black stereotypes for his aliens, and the ewoks have an uncomfortable noble savage thing going. But the good guys and bad guys aren't separated by race (both good guys and bad guys are of lots of races) and there's no effort to identify absolute evil with a real ethnic minority. Storm troopers aren't relegated to reservations are put into the Indian roles in The Searchers. Star Wars doesn't advocate white supremacy and doesn't get off on genocide. That makes it, like most sci-fi movies, a lot less offensive than Priest.
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    May 17, 2011, 07:22PM
    Disposable...yeah, Romeo and Juliet is somewhat racist; it's working off of English stereotypes about hot-blooded, feuding Latins. But it doesn't advocate their extermination, and it portrays them as human. It's not as racist as the Merchant of Venice...and Shakespeare of course allows even Shylock a few speeches working against the plays' anti-Semitism.//Priest isn't about any us vs. them; it's about us Christian humans vs. sub-human Indians who deserve to be exterminated. That's quite, quite racist. More racist than Shakespeare who, in theory, was living in significantly less enlightened times.
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    May 17, 2011, 09:46PM
    This is retarded. it is just a movie. I suggest you spend less time reading way too much into mediocre movies and more time actually doing something to combat real racism. you're welcome
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    May 18, 2011, 04:50AM
    My god! Talk about desperately trying to find some kind of racist subtext wherever you can find it! Did you not notice that the Priests are a decidedly multicultural organisation being that there are 2 coloured men and a man and woman both of oriental decent in addition to Paul Bettany? Or is it the fact that all races didn't get any representation in there that's a bit racist? Also, the fact that this film uses a typical formulaic structure from the Western genre it doesn't automatically implicate the production team in drawing parallels between mindless killing machines of the undead and Native Indians, it just means they're utilising a structure typical of the medium. In fact the worst thing they can be accused of is running out of original ideas. Its you who's drawn that parallel. What we do agree on is that racism is an ugly thing and has no place in modern society. But people like you trying to apply a false and overbearing level of political correctness to anything and everything that could be open to misinterpretation don't really help the situation.
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  • Go to comment.
    May 18, 2011, 05:09AM
    Yes, the article smacked of P.C. 101? But what else is new? Besides, it's the critic's opinion, and I was glad to read it.
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    May 18, 2011, 05:57AM
    Yep, it's like you can click off the check boxes. "PC is what really causes racism! It's just a movie. (It's just a review, right?)//The priests are multicultural...and the multicultural priests get hardly any screen time, and are killed off almost as soon as they appear. I didn't bother to mention that since it's garden variety hollywood nonsense.//Maggie Q gets to be the hot asian fetishized ninja. I guess that's liberating? Maybe?// And sure, they're using received tropes and may well not be thinking too hard about what they're doing. I'm sure they didn't say, hey, let's make the native americans vampires in order to chuckle over Indian genocide. But...they're kind of stupid, and, like you, they try really hard not to think about the racial history of this country. As a result, they made a hideous genocidal fantasy because it seemed like a cool idea. And hey, lots of folks like you will get their backs, so I guess that worked out.// But as I said before, it's not about what's in their hearts; it's about what they put on screen. Which is a vicious fantasy of genocide aimed at the villains who are explicitly placed in the box marked "Native American."
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    May 18, 2011, 06:35AM
    Honestly it seems that viewpoints like this do more to destroy racial equity than anything nowadays. I don't see how this movie (given the reviewers description as I haven't seen it yet myself) can be construed by any logical person as racist. In fact the very thing he's claiming is racist (eg making an existing racial group inferior or "evil" compared to the Caucasian protagonist ) Vampires don't exist!!! This is a monster movie. The evil inferior race are freaking monsters!! Conceived by writers of fiction and folklore for the sole purpose of BEING EVIL!! If we can't make a movie with a fictional being or group being the bad guy without being called racist we're all doomed. The writer of this article is clearly looking for racisim everywhere when you do that you're going to find it no matter if it's there or not. And clearly it's not here
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    May 18, 2011, 06:49AM
    I don't want to be rude, LiamM, but you're off your rocker. Reviews like this don't "destroy racial equity." One, racial equity doesn't exist in the first place. Second, if you think, for example, that the anti-immigration pea-brains are getting your ideas from movies, you're so off base that it's frightening.
    Responses to this comment
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    May 18, 2011, 07:57AM
    The problem is that if you look hard enough, and want to see it, you can see racism easily, whether it exists or not. You mentioned Star Wars, but failed to mention the numerous white stereotypes used as well. Additionally, the chief iconic villain organization of the original trilogy, the Empire, is given plenty of Nazi undertones. The source of pure evil in the galaxy is all pure white, and white supremacist, no less (in the Expanded Universe, it's stated to be explicitly racist and specist). You also ignore Avatar, which had all villains, and all of the evil soldiers, as white. Hell, white villains are huge stock cliches in movies, particularly sci-fi. In Robo-Cop, the corrupt corporate executives were all white (there was a black member on the board of OCP, though he wasn't evil). The gang leaders were white as well. It would be easy to see Dark Knight as being racist, with the Joker being white, or Superman as racist since Lex Luthor is white, or... etc.
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    May 18, 2011, 08:45AM
    Well maybe you don't have Racial Equality where you live but up here in Canada I'd like to think we're pretty close. but anyway you're trying really hard to not hear what I'm saying. What I mean by articles like this destroy racial equlity is they set the idea back, they do nothing to further the cause. You just get peoples back up. You're not in the writer/director etc's head. You don't know if there's any racist intent in their story or if they're simply piggybacking on the stories people already know. Fact is it's Vampires as the villan in this movie. Not Indians, not African Americans, Not Chinese, not Irish, on and on and on. It's Vampires fictional "monsters"!!! I defy you to find one movie ever made foreign or domestic that I can't construe to be racist on just as solid ground as Noah has with Priest. It simply can't be done. This article hasn't shown a single thing about Priest in and of itself that's racist without refrencing other unrelated works. And I have absolutely no idea WTF you're talking about with this "Second, if you think, for example, that the anti-immigration pea-brains are getting your ideas from movies, you're so off base that it's frightening."
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    May 18, 2011, 08:54AM
    Mateusz, I didn't mention Avatar because I haven't seen it. And I'm not claiming that all movies everywhere are racist. I specifically noted that the Searchers is anti-racist in many ways. // Racism plugs into a history of oppression. White people have not historically been oppressed; a movie which uses white villains is generally not riffing on ideas of racial genocide. (There can be class issues, but that's somewhat different.) Superman does not portray Lex Luthor as evil because of his whiteness; in fact, he and Superman are generally shown as not only racially the same, but as growing up in the same place and having pretty much the same background. There's nothing in Superman indicating that white people need to all be killed in order to solve the problems of Lex Luthor's evil.// On the other hand, Priest explicitly links the vampires to Indians again and again and again, and then advocates for their genocidal extermination. Since Indians were in fact the target of genocidal policies, and since those genocidal policies were justified on the basis of propaganda that used *many of the same tropes as those in the movie* I think it is fair to say that this movie is a vile racist piece of crap.// Liam...you think if we can't make racist movies without being called on it, we're all doomed? That's an...interesting take. Who's doomed, exactly? Our society will crumble if you're not allowed to enjoy white supremacist genocidal narratives in peace? Ooookay.
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    May 18, 2011, 09:05AM
    "You don't know if there's any racist intent in their story or if they're simply piggybacking on the stories people already know."//Not talking about racist intent. I'm talking about what's shown in the film. And in the film, the vampires are explicitly and repeatedly linked to Indians. They're placed on reservations. They assault the innocent farmers. They take the place of the Indians in the plot from the Searchers.//Your denial that this is the case seems of a piece with your charming assertion that Canada has achieved racial equality. I'm sure that native peoples would be interested to hear that.
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    May 18, 2011, 10:12AM
    Noah, I'll make one last attempt to clarify the general trend of the comments made above. The majority here are saying that you don't back up the asertions made in the article. In fact, because of this lacking, it seems you are having a knee-jerk reaction. The comment you made above is far more descriptive than your article. I and a few other commentors stated that we have not seen the movie and that your article does not sell your argument. Instead of clarifying you have accused us as a group of aiding and abetting racism. Those type of meritless attacks further the impression that you are having a knee-jerk reaction and unwilling to entertain other reasonable points of view. I've read other entries by you and you are better than this.
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    May 18, 2011, 10:37AM
    your grasp of the English language is impeccable. I'm sure everyones in agreement that "Pretty close to" is synonomous with "has acheived" And I'm sorry what's your measuring stick. What "Exactly" does racial equality look like?
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    May 18, 2011, 10:57AM
    Texan, I've made the same points repeatedly, in comments and in the article. The issue isn't that I haven't backed it up. The case is really, really clear, I think — to anyone who's instant reaction to any accusation of racism is not to reflexively deny it. You actually say that your instinct is to reflexively deny charges of racism in your first comment. You then go on to insist you've been attacked even though I have not personally attacked you. It's almost as if you see a charge of racism made against a random piece of pop culture crap as a personal assault. I won't speculate on why that might be.//Liam, you're the one who brought up racial equality, not me. I just said I wanted my movies to avoid promoting racial genocide. As I've said before, it seems like a fairly low standard.
    Responses to this comment
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    May 18, 2011, 11:21AM
    1) Clearly, it is not as obvious as you think based on the majority of comments above. 2) Your attacks take the insidious form of putting words in my mouth (or type) that in no way reflect my comments or position "Ah, yes, right on cue. It can't be racist, because, why, then...lots of sci-fi could be racist! And that can't be true because, after all, it's not like we're in a country built on genocide and several hundred odd years of slavery and racism. That must be some other country./" and "You actually say that your instinct is to reflexively deny charges of racism in your first comment" I never said anything near this and you know it. Lying and misrepresentation are forms of attack. 3) Why not try actually reading rather than skimming comments. It would lead to a better dialog. In closing, I'll repeat the closing of my first comment " P.S. I'm not familiar with the movie and the writer may very well be correct. I just can't tell from this article."
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    May 18, 2011, 05:51PM
    No, it's clear. Lots of people refuse to believe that racism remains an issue in our culture. Even in the most obvious instances, people hem and haw and insist that it couldn't possibly exist. It's like they have a stake in it not existing, almost.//You began your first comment by expressing hostility towards what you characterized as a general tendency to impute racism to hollywood. You're telling me there that you're instinct is to reflexively deny charges of racism; you're starting out with a presupposition that such criticisms are without basis. True, you then go on to suggest that you're carefully withholding judgment, but you're initial statement rather undercuts the stance.//If you want to have a productive dialogue, you might try engaging with what I've said rather than whining about my tone. You asked several questions about sci fi and racism; I answered at some length, and you just went back to whining about my tone and insisting that you couldn't make up your mind. The calm, above-the-fray, rational denial of racism is actually an extremely aggressive stance, and one which does a lot of real world damage. The fact that you don't recognize it as aggressive does not make it less so, and the fact that you find my characterization of your stance upsetting doesn't make that characterization either a lie or a misrepresentation. //I've read all the comments. In response to points raised by various folks, I've provided fairly lengthy discussions of everything from Star Wars to Shakespeare. In response I've gotten hand-waving, ad hominems, and you telling me I'm a big meany because I pointed out that your arguments are ridiculous. But that's the internets, I guess.
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    May 19, 2011, 11:18AM
    You are right Noah, the way white christians are treated in this movie is terrible. How dare the producers of this movie suggest that all white christians are evil, indian killing/vampire killing dicks. I can't wait for the day when the church and the whites join forces to sue these racist pricks. Thanks for pointing out to us mere readers the atrocity being perpertrated against the poor god-fearing whites. Or don't you agree?
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    May 19, 2011, 11:55AM
    "Not talking about racist intent." // One of the most pernicious and undying notions in collective American thought is that racism requires intent to exist.
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    May 20, 2011, 12:27PM
    Hey Texan. Actually, I thought the treatment of the church was pretty thoroughly offensive too. Turning religious imagery into cool weaponry is clearly sacrilegious, and mocking the church hierarchy for being pacifist is pretty irritating given the church's vacillating but nonetheless real commitment to nonviolence as a matter of faith.//I think it is actually an insult to Christians to have the faith unproblematically portrayed as endorsing genocidal impulses — even though (or perhaps especially because) Christianity has in fact been used for those purposes. // So...yeah, I think the movie is insulting to people of lots of different backgrounds. You don't have to be an Indian to oppose genocide.// I kind of stuck to talking about Indians though because that was the most obvious and most evil bit, but the movie is bad on many, many levels.// The film doesn't suggest that Priest's are dicks, though. If it did, it would be Starship Troopers, which has some problems which is overall a much, much better movie.//Jason, it's part of anti-anti-racism, a pernicious philosophy which is on depressing display in this thread.
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    May 23, 2011, 09:23AM
    I find racism, even cleverly Hollywood-disguised racism appalling. But, sometimes a vampire is just meant to be a vampire. Your very intelligent and passionate, but criticizing a crappy summer blockbuster is not going to change the world....neither is offending your readers.
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    May 24, 2011, 05:46AM
    Who said anything about changing the world? And offending readers is surely a worthy goal in itself.
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    May 24, 2011, 06:11AM
    Finally, the most sensible comment on this long thread. Yes, offend readers! It makes them think, unlike most of the garbage that passes as "media" today.
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