“The More Things Change,” which has the ignominious honor of being the worst-titled session I attended at ALA, was also one of my favorite programs, tackling issues of building a responsible film collection that portrays minority communities (native, black, queer, and disabled Americans) in responsible, respectful ways.
Sponsored by the Video Round Table, Saturday afternoon’s “The More Things Change” featured five librarians from across the country and the profession. CUNY reference librarian Daisy Dominguez began the presentation with a discussion of American Indians throughout film history. She talked about the success of native filmmakers in the silent era, especially in terms of films like 1920’s Daughter of Dawn. She named Smoke Signals (1998), The Business of Fancydancing (2002), Imprint (2007), Older Than America (2008), Barking Water (2009), and On the Ice (2011) as good recent films by and about American Indians. Canada’s 2001 Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) was similarly recommended. Noting that the number of copies of Dances with Wolves and Stagecoach dwarfed the number of copies of Smoke Signals owned by libraries across the country, Dominguez challenged the audience to collect films like the recent Winter in the Blood rather than the new Lone Ranger for the future.
Joel Nichols of the Free Library of Philadelphia spoke about collection materials for a queer video collection. He recommended the 1995 documentary (and 1987 book) The Celluloid Closet; the 1996 British teen movie Beautiful Thing; Noah’s Ark (“like Sex in the City for black gay guys”); and RuPaul’s Drag Race, though he warned of issues of transphobia in the show. “RuPaul,” Nichols also said, “gives white gay men permission to be racist.” In general, he said, there are more queer characters in movies and television today, but that “they are more mainstream and more assimilationist than ever.” Assimilationist narratives often surround wealthy, white male married couples who are parenting an adopted child of color. (Think Modern Family.)
Outlining the most pervasive stereotypes about people who are disabled, San Francisco Public Library’s Access Services Librarian, Marti Goddard, warned librarians against films that feature “super crips”; deviant, sinister, and evil disabled characters; and disabled people as victims. She recommend the movies Freaks (1932), Butterflies are Free (1972), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), and The Soloist (2009)—though the last has also been criticized for its reliance on the “magical negro” trope. In general, while the number of films and shows that portray disabled characters responsibly and respectfully (e.g., Murderball (2005), Twitch and Shout (1995), and the TV series Boston Legal and Switched at Birth) has increased, there are still setbacks, like the portrayal of the character Timmy on South Park.
Latasha C. Baker of Las Vegas-Clark County Library District continued the session with a short history of the portrayal of black Americans in film. She concluded with 2011’s The Help, saying, “Fifty years later, we’re still playing maids, and still winning awards for it.” Linda Absher, the program’s last speaker, talked about librarian stereotypes, but neither offered a list of recommended materials to counteract the negative stereotypes they discussed.