In spite of all the glowing reviews, marketing headlines, fanboy fetishism and the illustrious reputation of its star director, Dunkirk, in the estimation of this critic, is a ho-hum visual spectacle and a staggering dramatic failure. Christopher Nolan proves with this single film that he is no good at historical drama, and even less impressive at trying to make a war film that would put him in the hallowed directorial pantheon of other White filmmaker’s like Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Stone’s Platoon (1986), Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980) or any one of Stanley Kubrick’s great war films. The central problem with the entire effort is that Nolan doesn’t have enough of a dramatic foundation upon which to overlay his ambitious time disjuncture method where three stories intersect at different narrative points. In short, you just don’t give a damn enough about the characters nor does the film make any attempt to orientate the viewer with the immediate political context of Britain, France, Belgium and the other allied countries during the battle of Dunkirk, which took place before the Americans entered WW2. Without this important context, as well as any interesting dialogue, it is difficult if not impossible to sustain the mental effort Nolan is demanding of his viewers to keep interest in the three different time perspectives that are broken up and alternating within the film.
Moreover, the division of the film into three intersecting time periods does nothing to generate any additional suspense, cinematic intensity or to enhance our understanding of the circumstances. If anything, the three different perspectives intensifies the dramatic boredom inherent within the story of the evacuation of over 300,000 soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, who are sitting ducks to Nazi dive bombers, which is framed around the story of two cowards trying to avoid remaining on the beach and a British hero in an airplane whose aerial dogfighting skills saves hundreds from perishing in the cold waters off the shores of Northern France. The most ridiculous scene within the film which is reminiscent in its absurdity of the famous Three Stooges episode where in the effort to stop their boat from sinking Curly attempts to drill additional holes in the boat to “let the water out” is the set piece in Dunkirk where several soldiers try to stop a boat whose hull is riddled with bullet holes from sinking by placing their hands over the holes in a futile attempt to stop the rising tide of ocean water from coming in. Not until the water nearly covers their heads does someone yell, “Abandon ship.” But by that time, you almost wish they would simply drown in what has to be the most daft attempt to create suspense in the history of cinema, not to mention in the genre of the war film. In effect, some have said that what Nolan has done is to make not an anti-war film, but instead a film that is against the very genre of the war film because in concentrating on cowardice, small heroic victories, ridiculous efforts of self-sacrifice and an evacuation as opposed to broad heroism, bravery and great victories. Nolan has upended the war film genre, but I would say he has done so only at the cost of any compelling and memorable character development. It must be said that there is a qualitative difference between changing a genre with a single film and making a single dull film within a particular genre.
Yet, the purpose of this piece is not simply to negatively review the film but to discuss a single shot within the film that reveals both the unpardonable moral failure of its director and the continued historical whitewashing of big-budgeted commercial films about WW2. It is a shot early in the Mole sequence of the film where the troops are lined up on a staging harbor, waiting to board the next vessel to leave the beach. In this shot, which lasts all of 3.5 seconds on screen, we see two or three African soldiers dressed in uniforms that indicate that they are French soldiers from Senegal. These Senegalese soldiers, called Les tirailleurs, were black soldiers that fought for the French in many military conflicts going back as far as Napoleon III in the 19th century. But for this single, tightly-composed, frontal medium close-up shot that stays on screen for approximately 3.5 seconds, there are no more people of color in the film Dunkirk. Amplifying the severely diminished presence of soldiers of color from this film is the fact that the black soldiers seen on screen for 3.5 seconds are not given any lines to speak, even though their lives are just as much in jeopardy as all of the whites we have seen and will see throughout the film. Why is this 3.5-second shot of two or three African soldiers in a film about the evacuation of Dunkirk during WW2 so significant? The shot itself is a both an acknowledgment of the fact that blacks served in a global conflict that defined our modern lives as it is a betrayal of the fact that blacks served in a global conflict that defined our modern lives.
Going back as far as the first time a white person ever picked up a movie camera and began constructing images of war, the inclusion of blacks in the visual representation of these national and global conflicts has always been subject to the censorship of whitewashing. Blacks are simply removed from the representation of the circumstances or the exploits of black soldiers are simply appropriated and recast as the exploits of white soldiers. That fact that blacks have fought in many of the major wars and conflicts for white-controlled countries over many centuries is a fact that is often deliberately obscured for the purpose of maintaining an ideal of white supremacy wrapped in the notions of bravery, heroism and patriotism upon which many white-controlled countries claim to stand. This racial amnesia when it comes to the representation of war is so profound that when challenged even the most educated and liberal whites, along with the most gullible blacks, tend to believe that either there were no blacks living in or associated with the countries involved in the conflicts at that time or that the presence of blacks was so insignificant as to have no effect on the outcome of battles — let alone to have contributed to any acts of bravery worth memorializing.
But from General Dumas, who as described by author Tom Reiss was, “a black man from the colonies who narrowly survived the French Revolution and rose to command fifty thousand men,” only to have his name and the memory of all his grand exploits erased from the history books by an insanely jealous Napoleon Bonaparte — to the black man named Eugene Bullard from Georgia in the United States who stowed away on a ship to Europe at the age of 8 years old in 1903 to later become a famous fighter pilot in both WW1 and WW2 known as,” l’Hirondelle noire de la mort” (The Black Swallow of Death) and received the distinguished Legion of Honneur from French president Charles DeGaulle in 1959, according to French Black history scholar, Claude Ribbe – the heroism, bravery and patriotism of Black soldiers is deliberately obscured from the global movie screen by white filmmakers who have convinced themselves that national conflicts and global wars can only be profitably represented if all the principal characters (read: heroes) are white. (1)
So difficult is it to resolve this cinematic travesty that even when white filmmakers attempt to right this continued wrong, the white controlled entertainment industry constricts the budgets, foreign marketing and screen ratios of these war films by treating them as niche subject matter; that is, black films that only a small domestic audience in America would be interested in. Recall the difficulty in financing George Lucas encountered in trying to produce the film Red Tails (2012) about the Tuskegee Airman, the African-American fighter pilots who fought to fight in WW2. Lucas explained in interviews that he had shown all the major studios his script for Red Tails but, “… they said, ‘No. We don’t know how to market a movie like this.’”(2) Lucas went on to explain the lie that White executives still use to this day when they don’t want to finance what they perceive to be black films, he said, “They don’t believe there’s any foreign market for it and that’s 60 percent of their profit.”(3)
All of this has been said to provide a critical context through which we can see the moral failure of Christopher Nolan within his film Dunkirk which gives us a single, tightly-composed, frontal medium close-up shot of Senegalese soldiers that lasts approximately 3.5 seconds as the only image of people of color who served in WW2 and who fought and died in the battle of Dunkirk. While such a shot acknowledges that there were blacks who fought in WW2, the brevity of the shot, the silence of the black soldiers within the shot, and the fact that there are no other people of color anywhere within the rest of the film betrays the participation of black soldiers in this global war suggesting through the dramatic absence of black soldiers within the scenes of heroism, bravery, cowardice and sacrifice that they contributed nothing to the battle and by extension the entire war. It is a cinematic betrayal not unlike the real life betrayal that the Senegalese soldiers faced after they fought and sacrificed their lives during both WW1 and WW2. The black soldiers were promised French citizenship and a military pension for their services during the wars, but with all promises of equality, equity and fraternity by Whites in power — the promise was never fulfilled and this French betrayal culminated in the French massacre of Senegalese soldiers who were in rebellion at Thiaroye camp on Dakar, Senegal on December 1st, 1944. A powerful dramatic film of this rebellion was made by the father of African cinema, Ousmane Sembene, called Camp de Thiaroye (1987).
Of course, the often heard pushback from such criticism of white filmmakers and their white washed depictions of war is that black filmmakers simply make their own films about the wars within which blacks have served, fought, and died in — problem solved. No, the problem is far from solved. Because American Global Entertainment Complex known as Hollywood is white-controlled. Black films and Black filmmakers are ghettoized with half the budgets of white films and white filmmakers, limited access to foreign markets and a lack of consistent consideration for prestige awards vis-à-vis white films. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk cost $100 million to make, “…although earlier reports speculated that it was much higher,” according to Variety. (4) By contrast, Miracle at St. Anna, Spike Lee’s 2008 effort to rectify the absence of black soldiers from cinematic depictions of WW2 –although hampered by an unfocused script, lackluster direction and editing- was budgeted at $45 million — a production budget that was less than half of the budget for Dunkirk. The aforementioned film, Red Tails, was only made when George Lucas put up his own funds to finance the production after having been turned down by multiple Hollywood studios; although ironically this film was also hampered by an unfocused script, lackluster direction and editing. What is at stake in the depiction of Blacks in war is not the budget, but the vision. A cinematic genius like Stanley Kubrick has already shown us that a classic war film can be made for $30 million and zero CGI when he recreated Vietnam and Parris Island, South Carolina on sound stages and an abandoned gas works facility in England with little more than well-composed shots, powerful staging of action and the full and uncompromising development of characters.
All this is to say that if Hollywood is to remain white male-controlled, then the burden of representation is not all for black filmmakers to bear. White filmmakers must bear if not the full brunt of the responsibility to be racially inclusive in their depictions of war, history and fiction but the entire industry must be continually made aware that whitewashing (that is the depiction of majority white casts) is no longer an acceptable form of dramatic verisimilitude or authenticity. Even recently, we have heard that the producers of the highly successful series Game of Thrones want to produce an alternative history series about the Confederates winning the Civil War which could not have happened because of the determined bravery and the fierce fight for liberation by black soldiers fighting for the North as well as black spies working against the South via the underground railroad. To create such an alternative history of the South winning the Civil War is not only offensive, but it is a continuation of the diminution of the impact and the erasure of black participation in war.
If as film historian Robert Burgoyne has claimed that, “The hyper-realistic representation of combat is an important, perhaps essential characteristic of the war film. While historical films, in general, tend to strive for a sense of authenticity….” then we can conclude that the 3.5-second shot of black soldiers on the beach of Dunkirk was Nolan’s attempt at historical authenticity in his hyper-realistic re-enactment of the evacuation of Dunkirk during WW2. (5) But we can additionally conclude that that same 3.5-second shot of African soldiers on the beach of Dunkirk is emblematic of the deep seated moral failings of a white filmmaker who is unable and unwilling to conceive of the representation of war as anything but a white space of human emotion and sacrifice, bravery and patriotism.
Along with the moral failure of racial representation within the film Dunkirk, Nolan also fails to give any substantive dramatic interaction with the few female nurses seen within the film and one has to assume they also perished within the rescue ships that were torpedoed and bombed during the evacuation. But with no substantive lines of dialogue and actions that make them wholly subservient to the immediate needs of the white soldiers, females are treated with even less dramatic sensitivity than Blacks. The great moral failure of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is that the film is a continuation of representation of war as the exclusive regime of the white male which harkens back to the first time a white male ever picked up a movie camera and constructed images of war and in this day and age such a narrow-minded portrayal of war cannot be hailed as a visionary masterpiece except by those who suffer from the same narrow mindedness.
While one respects Nolan’s attempt to challenge himself by moving beyond science-fiction and artfully composed psychological drama, he must be reprimanded for his ignorance of the fact that great visual masterpieces are built on solid dramatic foundations to support what cannot be spoken through the actions of the characters- and that when the doors of perception are cleansed, visionary filmmakers must represent the world as more than just the regime of the white male, because it most definitely is not and has never been solely the regime of the white male.
- See Tom Reiss’ book, The Black Count for more information on General Dumas who was the father of the French writer, Alexander Dumas; see also Claude Ribbe’s biography on Eugene Bullard (in French) or his bio-pic on this French national hero and African-American man.
- See: George Lucas: “Hollywood Won’t Finance an ‘Expensive Move’ With an All-Black Cast” by Sofia M. Fernandez in the Hollywood Reporter, January 11, 2012.
- Op. cit.
- See article: “Box Office: ‘Dunkirk’ conquers weekend with 50.5 million, ‘Valerian’ flops” by Seth Kelly at Variety.com
- Pg. 56, The Historical Hollywood Film by Robert Burgoyne, Blackwell Publishing, Malden: 2008.