Capturing the Reel Racist - A Debate

Posted by Howard Gluss on

A Reader Asks: I have read your book REEL PEOPLE on developing psychologically sound characters. I am working on a character who has to transition from being somewhat of a racist into being a full-blown racist with murderous intentions. Can you give me any insight into what personality type would act this way and what may cause this violent outburst? Can you recommend any films that I can look at?

Joshua, New York City

Dr. Howard Gluss Responds:
A film that I have seen recently that you should study that depicts bigotry and specifically Anti-Semitism in a fascinating manner is The Believer. The character of Danny, a self inflated Jewish anti-Semite, is a fascinating portrayal of the Borderline Personality gone violent. He appears to be a walking contradiction. He has very little control of his impulses, especially his intense rage, and possesses a fragile unstable self-image filled with self-hatred. In a powerful scene depicting projected self-hatred, he beats a Hassidic student because he sees him as weak. In truth, Danny is really beating himself up. He loves the Torah but hates its doctrine of ambiguity. Like most Borderlines, he wants the world depicted in black and white with no gray areas. Writer/Director Henry Bean opens the film with the powerful Latin quote "I hate and I love, who can tell me why?" Danny has aspects of what can be termed "The Hitler Disease." Luckily, it is a rare combination of psychosis, psychopathology and genius that usually remains powerless.

Joshua, I believe the roots to violent acting out are understood by defining panic. In a panic state, the person believes that they are in danger, whether it is real or imagined. The Jew, in the case of The Believer, is seen as the enemy and must be destroyed. Danny, in desperate confusion, living in world that polarizes experiences into feminine and masculine characteristics, attempts to dilute any forces that may interfere with his hyper-masculinity or macho-ness. The Jew, seen possessing the qualities of pacifism, intellectualism and feminity, is reviled. Added to the confusion of Jewish anti-macho feeling is the secret envy of the Jew. He is believed to be influential and privileged. Internally, Danny hates his Jewishness because he believes it has castrated him. As he releases his intense rage, he finds others with the same explosive venom. Underneath their pseudo masculinity and convoluted psychologies lies highly fragile, empty and dependent individuals who beat their women and kill all that they see weak in themselves and others.

Josh, with a strong understanding of the psychodynamics of racism, I feel that you will be able to make more interesting and authentic choices in your characterizations. Other movies you may look at include Pleasantville, Mississippi Burning and Malcolm X, just to name a few. Good Luck in your writing!!

[Note from the Editor: In addressing our reader's question, Dr. Gluss - psychologist and Hollywood story consultant - states he deliberately took a "controversial" point of view - that of describing racist behavior from the point of view of the individual's internal conflicts and drives (otherwise known as psychodynamic theory). We wish to note that there are other schools of thought regarding racism that point to the social environment as the main cause of racism, as in: racists are made not born. The "Nature vs. Nurture" question is an ongoing debate among theorists and practioners.]

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