Is <em>300</em> a Vile, Racist Diatribe ... or Harmless Fun?

It's not that those subtle prejudices aren't there. But leaning on tired clichés isn't quite the same as celebrating them.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

The movie 300 -- a tale of Spartans dying gloriously in battle -- comes to DVD ($34.98; Warner Bros.) as the most surprising and polarizing movie of the year. It grossed an astonishing $70 million on its opening weekend in March thanks to a cool look that rivals The Matrix. Everyone was caught off guard, but it steamrolled on to more than $200 million in the US and $450 million worldwide.

Is it a vile, racist diatribe? Is it a veiled look at the world from Bush's eyes, with Iraq as the last stand of freedom and goodness against tyranny? Is it just a homoerotic video game come to life? Or is it all of them combined, indicated by one critic who said the movie was "what a Nazi propaganda film would look like if it had been drawn by Tom of Finland."

Watch the film again on DVD and it's hard to burden the story with any of the weight critics have placed on it. Director Zack Snyder chats away on the commentary track in full geek mode -- detailing moment by moment what shots were CGI or on a real set, whether a sword was plastic or metal, which arrows were real and which inserted later, how they got the capes to billow out and on and on. If a political or social or military thought ever entered his mind, he disguises it well. All Snyder wanted to do was make the coolest, goriest, awesomest adaptation possible of the Frank Miller graphic novel it's based on.

It doesn't mean those subtle prejudices aren't there. All the bad guys are dark-skinned. And it's pretty outrageous to insinuate that the Persians are "deviant" when the Spartans likely celebrated pederasty and men taking young male lovers as much as any other society of Greece. But leaning on tired clichés isn't quite the same as celebrating them. And Bush was surely the farthest thing from Snyder's mind.

Mostly, it's just a mindless, kind of cool looking action film. Perhaps in the future the buried prejudices of 300 will seem embarrassing. That's the case with Popeye The Sailor: 1933-1938 ($64.98; Warner Bros.). This lovingly packaged collection of the 60 theatrical shorts made by the Max Fleischer Cartoon Studio begins with a warning.

"The animated shorts you are about to see are a product of their time," says the disclaimer. "They may depict some of the ethnic, sexist and racist prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. While the following shorts do not represent the Warner Bros. view of today's society, these animated shorts are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed."

Now if only Disney would copy this reasonable stance, they could finally release "Song of the South" without fear of being accused of racism. (Adding on commentary tracks from historians and the like would help, too.)

The worst sins of these Popeye cartoons include vile stereotypes of Japanese as World War II approached and the sight of two men fighting over a helpless woman. Among the extras are many commentary tracks, quite a number of bonus cartoons and two substantial documentaries, including "I Yam What I Yam: The Story Of Popeye the Sailor, which is relatively frank about the decline of the cartoons after the era covered in this set. (By the Seventies, Popeye wasn't even allowed to hit anyone. What's the point, wondered one animator?)

Some DVD releases this week actually battled stereotypes instead of reinforcing them. The TV show "Hawaii Five-O" was manna from heaven for Hawaiians who saw the beauty of their state celebrated on TV every week and Kam Fong playing the most distinguished Hawaiian in TV history as Detective Chin Ho Kelly. "Hawaii Five-O Second Season" ($49.99; Paramount) as it barreled into the top 20, where it would remain for most of its 12 year run.

So here's the question: are you offended by the inclusion of racist stereotypes in a collection of old cartoons? Or do you think presenting them with some historical context takes care of it? And were the critics right who lambasted 300 for trafficking in tired, ugly clichés? Or did they make too much out of a fanboy fantasy that had nothing on its mind but gore and super-cool violence?

Popular in the Community