The 1995 documentary, The Shadow of Hate: A History of Intolerance in America, is powerful in many ways. To begin with, the film gains a great deal of impact from the format and style. Many facts of racism in American history are presented. Episode after episode relates how members of races were treated in inhuman ways. This occurred in the courts, in communities, and throughout the entire country. The impact is then all the more strong because the film maintains an even tone. No event is related in a sensational way and Guggenheim, the director and creator, lets the facts speak for themselves. Very often actual testimony from people involved in the episodes is read. This has the effect of adding weight to the presentations and placing the viewer in the times reported. This is also enhanced by the enormous amount of photographs and real film footage of the incidents discussed. By using only a controlled and even tone, the film then has an emotional power that draws the viewer in and creates a sense of actual wonder. In plain terms, this is a history so ugly and so long, it is almost impossible to accept as real.
Another way in which the film creates impact is through the exposure of a reality not commonly believed. It is ordinary to think of certain groups as being the targets of racist hatred. Certainly, it is widely known that blacks and Jews have been victims for much of the nation’s history. This is not ignored. These are large populations and the many years of hatred directed toward them gets full attention. At the same time the film expands the range of hatred. It is very disturbing because the viewer gets a sense of how such hatred has been directed to many different types of people. For example, the earlier years of the nation reflect a hatred going back to Old Europe. As Irish immigrants flooded into America to start new lives, the Protestant power structure saw them as a “Catholic threat.” These immigrants were white and were joining a mainstream white society. At the same time there were fears that they represented danger by virtue of religion. Equally disturbing is the story of the Wounded Knee massacre, following a plain expression of how Native Americans were robbed of their lands and treated in savage ways. This alone is deeply moving and horrific. No other population had more of a right to being American but the white government completely ignored this reality, because the Native Americans were less than human to them.
There can be no doubt that the material presented in the film is accurate. Then, that racial and religious hatred has always been an enormous part of American life is well established. A great deal of study points to racism as deep within the culture of the United States. This was supported by 19th century interest in Darwin. Over time white Americans generally began to believe that they were superior to other races. This led to the belief in the “white man’s burden.” Because the other races flooding into the nation from Europe were basically inferior, the whites had to try to educate and improve them.
Of course this “burden” promoted the thinking that different races and faiths were not really valid. What was in place was a formula. As whites were convinced of their being superior, others were marginalized and abused, and this increased the white belief in its need to exert power. All of this is the message of the film and it is given in extensive evidence. The viewer has no choice but to accept that America, the nation always asserting itself as the foundation of equality and respect for all, has been constantly marked by extreme bias.
The history is, in a word, frightening. Leo Frank was unjustly convicted for the murder of Mary Fagan in Atlanta in 1913. Reports plainly referred to Frank as a Jew, and with hatred for this fact. Mobs outside the trial screamed to, “get the Jew!” It was reported that the jurors were afraid to not convict because the racist hatred was so strong. Franks was not executed by law. A mob broke into his cell and hung him illegally because the Governor had reduced Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment. In the same era Theodore Bilbo rose to political power in Mississippi by urging all blacks to return to Africa. Then, the great industrialist Henry Ford made many efforts to attack Jews publicly. He believed they were responsible for all wars. Because of Ford’s impact there can be no real idea of how much influence he had in promoting anti-semitism. The film also ends on an equally disturbing and different note. It reveals how black militants in fact echo the hatred long directed at blacks. The message is clear: hatred breeds more hatred, and this may be a major legacy of American history itself.
Lastly, there is another important aspect of the film. While the documentary centers on American racism and hatred, another message is sent. That is, the hatred seen here is a part of humanity. It is not even rational to assume that only America reflects such hatred. Then, the range of prejudices and crimes points to how any population in power will tend to marginalize those who are different. Fear is certainly a part of this and people are often quick to attack what they do not understand. This is historical fact and the history of humanity in general supports it. Sadly, then, the American history documented in The Shadow of Hate: A History of Intolerance in America is really only one part of a greater history. The hatred of Americans presented is a hatred common to the world. It is difficult to conceive of a statement more sad, but this is a reality anyone seeing the documentary must accept.
- Bowser, Benjamin, and Hunt, Raymond. Impacts of Racism on White Americans. Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications, 1996.
- The Shadow of Hate: A History of Intolerance in America. Directed by Charles