What does early postcolonial theory offer to an appraisal of films documenting the struggle between colonialists and native people of the Americas?
Postcolonial theory can be used to interrogate cinema beneath the pervasive shadow of European colonialism. This lens can be applied to films produced by both previously colonized nations and their former oppressors to achieve a contextualised appraisal of the impact of expansionism.
How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1971) is layered with notions of cultural superiority and questions of morality that are never really resolved, as an assortment of aggressors wrestle for control of the traditional Tupinamba territories in a convoluted documentary-style narrative.
In Colonialism, Racism and Representation, Stam and Spence examine how an early postcolonial paradigm emerged during the 1970s, as theorists began to acknowledge the pervasive racism saturating western screens. However, they note that despite this new consciousness, texts such as Slow Fade to Black (1977), The Only Good Indian (1972) and The Latin Image (1977), failed to probe the damaging and deficient depictions of indigene with comprehensive textual analysis (1985, p.634).
Stam and Spence emphasize that anodyne images of marginalised groups is “inadequate and fraught with methodological dangers” (1985, p.639) and highlight the need for an approach which challenges “the specifically cinematic dimensions of the films” (1985, p.634). They pledge to address this in their essay.
They recognise that racial stereotypes are sometimes used deliberately to expose ignorance and raise questions about Western perspectives (Stam and Spence, 1985). How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman asks viewers to confront assumptions about practices like cannibalism and human sacrifice, which are perceived as bestial by most Europeans. Whilst the Tupinamba are portrayed as neither entirely pure nor virtuous, both the French traders and the French slave refer to them as ‘savages’. Without fully exploring the significance of ancient rituals, the film is skewed to the viewpoint of Western colonisers.
Nevertheless, in contrast to classic American Westerns such as Stagecoach, where the Apache are pushed to the periphery and characterised as hostile forces “encircling” the Western heroes (Stam and Spence, 1985, p.641), the majority of Santos’s film takes place at the Tupinamba camp and surrounding forest. Ironically, although the colonialist gaze is channelled through the French slave, in the world of this film, the French and Portuguese are palpably visualised as the intruders. As the Frenchman, washed up on the Brazilian shore, traverses the coastline, a low-angle over-the-shoulder shot of a Tupiniquin man watching him from behind a barricade reinforces the indigenous perspective of the European outsiders.
Stam and Spence also remind us that the soundtrack can play a powerful role in the “cultural positioning of the spectator” (1985, p.645). As the opening credits roll to the rhythmic high cries and calls of a tribal ceremony, we see a collage of European drawings of the Tupinambas killing and eating a Caucasian man. This blend of sounds and images creates an uncomfortable atmosphere drawing association with ‘savagery’ and ‘primitiveness’. This frame of reference is reinforced as quotes from European settlers and historians, appear on screen describing the tribe as ‘barbarians.’
However, at the denouement, just as the Frenchman has been killed and eaten, a text insert references the horrific massacre of the indigenous people resonating with the Frenchman’s last words: “my people will avenge me”, leaving audiences with an ambiguous message.
Stam, R and Spence, L. (1985) ‘Colonialism, Racism and Representation: An Introduction’, in Nichols, B. (ed.) Movies and Methods Vol II. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, pp. 632 – 649.