“White” by Richard Dyer reprinted in Visual Culture: The Reader edited by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall, 2006.

British film historian and academic is today best known for his book-length analysis of the David Fincher movie Se7en and was recently quoted extensively in the media on the work of Nino Rota when the composer – the original focus of Dyer’s scholastic inquiries – died. But one of Dyer’s earlier fields of interest concerned the representation of binary oppositions in the cinema. “White” originally appeared as an essay in a 1988 issue of Screen magazine (that version excerpted by Evans and Hall) but eventually became a book unto itself.

Dyer’s main points are that caucasians as a group are not consciously represented as such in cinema, and that awareness of subcultures in film, even when sensitively represented in non-mainstream movies, has in fact contributed the continued perceptions of separation, marginalization, and alienation amid “non-dominant groups.”

Dyer is also concerned simply with the word “white” and its historical connotations. He discusses commonly accepted tenets of the physiological aspects of human vision and the conventions of the color wheel, in which “black is the absence of all colour” and “white is no colour because it is all colours.” Dyer extrapolates that the accepted definition of white as a convention of synthesis allows the more figurative notion of whiteness to occupy the cognitive spectrum of what is considered normal. This unanalyzed fact of whiteness has the cumulative cultural effect of preventing nominative media critics from seeing and therefore openly addressing and maintaining a dialogue about white identity.

Dyer purports to explore issues around whiteness denied through a study of three films: Jezebel, a 1938 movie featuring a rebellious, defiant Bette Davis character; Simba, an early (1955) attempt at an “issues” feature set in Kenya; and Night of the Living Dead, the 1969 horror film that has transcended the genre to become generally regarded as something of a groundbreaking classic. Unfortunately the remarks included in this excerpt are confined to what is probably the most tedious film to view though the one most neatly underscoring Dyer’s points, Simba.

Dyer doesn’t compare Simba to a similar film from the same era, Zulu, though clearly it is that type of movie: The main (white) character, played by Dirk Bogarde, goes to Kenya to deal with the death of a family member and while there encounters a violent uprising by an indigenous (black) tribe, the Mau-Mau. Dyer points out that the racist conventions one would expect in such a film are present, including scenes filmed in high contrast lighting which place the black characters interacting nonverbally and gesticulating in shadow or at night, while the white characters are seen speaking proper English in well-lighted daylight settings. Dyer continues, though, to address the subtext of Simba. Explicit colonial binarism is imparted through the film’s assumed values, as rational and thus implicitly more civilized black Kenyans are offered the hopeful eventual outcome of one day being as well-behaved as their British visitors.

“Simba is, then, an endorsement of the moral superiority of white values of reason, order and boundedness,” Dyer concludes, though he allows that in some way the white characters in this period film are incapacitated by their own lameness despite their self-control.

“White” by Richard Dyer, reprinted in Visual Culture: The Reader edited by Jessica Evans and Stuart Hall. (Sage Publications, London, 2006)