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The Issue of Racism and The Media in The Movie About Thurgood Marshall

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The movie “Marshall” focusses on how a young black lawyer for The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Thurgood Marshall, goes through one of his toughest trials in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he defends Joseph Spell, a coloured man charged of rape against his white employer, Eleanor Strubing. Banned from speaking himself, Marshall guides the inexperienced insurance lawyer, Sam Friedman through the trial. This essay will show how racism is fuelled by the media since people do not speak up even if they disagree with what is portrayed in media, further allowing racism to be internalised even though media may publish or omit content resulting in biased or warped beliefs about racism.

Firstly, due to racism’s deep roots in society, minorities fear speaking up about it despite the injustice they may feel. This can be seen from the scene in which Spell, a coloured man, had been too afraid to tell the truth and instead plead guilty to crime he did not commit. He had feared the backlash that he may receive for being with a white woman. This ties back to the Spiral of Silence Theory, which is defined by the assumption that in an anonymous society, cohesion must be ensured continually through a sufficient degree of agreement on values and goals. If people believe that their opinion shares in a consensus of public opinion, they have the confidence to speak out in private and public discussions. Conversely, when people feel that they are in the minority, they become cautious and silent, thus reinforcing the impression in public of their side’s weakness. In this case, the minority are the blacks and the majority are the whites. Spell, a minority, chose not to speak up since the majority impression of the coloured was that they were people who are beastly, uncultured and fully capable of committing criminal acts like rape, where if he had spoken up, he might have to suffer worse consequences. However, Rothman also states that the majority becomes a silent majority if influential media supports the minority. When supported by media, the minority is more willing to speak out than majority since it is strengthened by the public authority of influential media (Rothman, 1992). With the NAACP supporting Spell in the trial, coloured people were more likely to be seen outside the court house asking for justice as compared to before, where only the whites are seen. A real-life example would include people’s views on the drug, marijuana. The majority opinion publicised by the media then was that marijuana is harmful and should be avoided while the minority opinion is that marijuana has medical benefits. Big news companies feared talking about anything “pro-pot” since there may be consequences detrimental to their reputation. However, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a medical correspondent from CNN, had publicly announced his support for the drug, and that was when a change in perspective occurred. A recent poll showed a majority of Americans showing support for marijuana. Hence, this example shows how influential media, in this case, CNN, a news source with massive viewership, could potentially break the Spiral of Silence.

Next, editors of newspapers choose what they include or exclude in their stories and headlines, limiting what their audiences reads and resulting in a certain perspective formed about black people. This can be observed from the scene in which Friedman had an outburst, saying that the newspapers should have no place in the trial, but Marshall had replied that black people were losing their jobs because of these news stories. Headlines like “Wife Attacked by Negro Driver” and the portrayal of Spell as a beastly and uneducated black man fully capable of rape due to his criminal past, and Strubing as a fair-haired, educated socialite as a helpless victim led to the whites encompassing the belief that black people are evil criminals who cannot be trusted in their houses, resulting in them firing the blacks out of fear. Such headlines were created to influence readers to think that crimes are only committed by the coloured, and were people to be fearful of. Additionally, when asked about the case initially, Friedman’s interpretation of the case was, “The guy who attacked the girl from Greenwich?” This shows that Friedman had the impression that Spell was the culprit. By definition, the Agenda-Setting Theory suggests how the media organises and presents information influencing how people are likely to understand the story. The media’s organisation of a story can involve everything from verbal or visual clues to the inclusion or exclusion of facts and the order in which journalists tell the story (Croteau and Hoynes, 2019). In this case, the portrayal of black people as criminal and evil in the eye of the media through framing resulted in the whites seeing them as untrustable, resulting in innocent blacks losing their jobs even though they did nothing wrong. A real-life example would include the Scottsboro Boys in the early 1930s, which includes the false accusation of nine black youths on a minor charge of raping two white women while onboard the train. Despite the youths being innocent, the spread of the ostensible rape had resulted in an angry white mob surrounding the jail, thirsty to lynch them. An example of the headlines used in newspapers had been, “Death Penalty Properly Demanded In Fiendish Crime of Nine Burly Negroes”, where contents of the articles include “…those hellish criminals”, “This was a heinous and unspeakable crime, unthinkable in its deplorable conduct and savoured of the jungle, the way back dark ages of meanest African corruption,” and “…white man will not stand for such acts”. The content and headlines used in reporting the story would prompt readers to believe that the Scottsboro Boys were indeed guilty of the crime, and also result in further prejudice being felt towards black people, especially from the whites since the content in the articles published promotes white supremacy.

Lastly, if an audience is constantly exposed to the advocation of black inferiority and white supremacy in media, they will start to internalise racism and treat it like the norm since they start believing that that is how the way the real world works. This can be seen from the scenes in which newspapers have accusatory headlines towards black people and also during the jury selection, in which one of the judges, Mr Wright, had said “I’ll be honest with you, I don’t like the coloured. Seems to me they’re always getting into some sort of trouble.” These scenes point towards how because of the way black people are portrayed in the media, the audience, mostly white people, start to form a negative impression towards them, and start viewing black people as a whole as people who cannot be trusted and capable of committing crimes. By definition, the Cultivation Theory is concerned with the totality of the pattern communicated cumulatively over a long period of exposure rather than any other content or specific effect. While subcultures may retain their separate values, general overriding images depicted will cut across individual social groups and subcultures, affecting them all. Heavy viewers will start believing in a reality that is consistent with that shown in media, even though media may not necessarily reflect the actual world (Littlejohn, 1989). In this case, when the whites read the newspapers which constantly portrays black people negatively, overtime this caused the whites to develop a negative impression of the blacks. Additional scenes which further proves the poor impression white people have cultivated of black people includes the scene where Marshall had been addressed by the whites as a “nigger” on the way home from Oklahoma and also how a group of white men had surrounded Friedman one night, saying “Bet you wish you had your nigger lawyer friend now”, where headlines in newspapers published have often labelled black people as “negros” or “nigger”, which is a derogative term for black people as stated in the African American Registry (AAREG). A real-life example of the Cultivation Theory includes Disney shows affecting children’s racial views. Durkin (1985) states that children acquire information on racial views from watching such shows and model their behaviours according to the characters. In Disney, the heroes and heroines tend to be portrayed as fair-skinned as compared to the skin tones of the villains, which tend to be variegated. These portrayals may lead young impressionable children to believe that a princess is one that should be fair-skinned, resulting in them developing behavioural stereotypes despite Disney’s biased portrayals. One outstanding example would include 1940 Disney movie “Fantasia”, where a small dark-skinned centaur had been portrayed as a servant to other fair-skinned centaurs, where the obvious racial implication is that dark-skinned characters are subservient to their fair-skinned counterparts. The underlying racism in Disney movies may affect the way children view the world in future since they may make associations of real people to characters in the movies, where they grow up with the mindset that black people are inferior and whites are superior even though that may not be true.

In conclusion, the movie “Marshall” focusses on three main theories – Spiral of Silence where blacks fear standing up for themselves against the whites due to the belief that they are the minority opinion, Agenda Setting (Framing) where headlines and articles frame what one believes about racism and black people and lastly, Cultivation where the constant exposure to racism result in it being accepted as normal. All three theories come into play when measuring the extent of how much media affects the spread of racism. 

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