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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Digger in the woodpile

Peter Jackson is going to remake the original 1955 Dam Busters film and the problem is obvious to anyone who has seen it - or rather heard it. Radio Live this morning has been revelling in discussing it. From the Wiki page:

For the remake, Peter Jackson has said no decision has been made on the dog's name, but is in a "no-win, damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don't scenario", as changing the name could be seen as too much political correctness, while not changing the name could offend people. Further, executive producer Sir David Frost was quoted in The Independent as stating: "Guy sometimes used to call his dog Nigsy, so I think that's what we will call it. Stephen has been coming up with other names, but this is the one I want." In June 2011, Stephen Fry mentioned in an interview that the dog would be called Digger in the remake.

Some intelligent compromise is needed. You can't change history, but you can change aspects of its retelling and that's the trick. Stephen Fry is writing the script and wants to rename the dog. He shouldn't. He needs a way to address it - to emphasise the context - without resorting to the disservice of changing the record.

I saw a TV3 piece yesterday where a NZ veteran involved said that he never associated the dog's name with "a human... person" (I think that's what he said as he struggled to articulate himself). He got his position exactly right didn't he? The average British white man in the 1940s didn't see them as people. The term was used in informal conversation without much thought in those days, but it was still a racist epithet back then even if it was sometimes used as nick name or pet name. Now the casual racism of the past is unaccepatable what do we do with such derrogatory embarassments?

My suggestion: Keep the name and the same scenes in which the dog appears, but add a scene in which a coloured (as they would have been called in those days) airman or base staff member is in earshot of someone calling the dog. The dog runs around the corner and the white guy follows - or vice versa - and he runs straight into this coloured guy. Perhaps more than one white guy, maybe the confrontation could be with several. It could be in the mechanics bay, on the airfield, at the pub it doesn't matter as long as it gets dealt with.

In the scene we see the awkwardness between them and perhaps the white guy is put in a situation where he has to explain he's not being racist towards him personally and he has to explain that "it's just a name." The coloured guy narrows his eyes and delivers his judgement. It could be anger, disdain, disbelief, or a mix. This is the tension-breaker that a modern, multi-ethnic audience would demand - that it can't just go unanswered. Maybe it could all be delivered in a returned look rather than dialogue and just take a matter of seconds - it doesn't have to be a big scene, but it has to deliver a counter to the prevailing racism we are witnessing.

As for the historical accuracy, it is quite probable that at some point - with all the various Empire and American troops in the UK in 1943 that a situation like that may well have occured. Not that the white people would have remembered... on account of never having to take account of anyone who wasn't white. But this is a film and not real life and so there is room to make them seem less racist than they actually were - maybe a second scene where the coloured guy is present and someone calls "Nigsy" instead out of deference to him, perhaps that becomes the usual word in the film for the dog after that point (but not for the code word which would be tampering with the record).

Conventionally the audience has to root for the "good guys" and reminding us every time the dog appears that they are a pack of racists ruins that for us today, which is why that scene would have to come sooner rather than later in the film. There are ways the offence can be mitigated without altering the facts, I hope they find a suitable compromise that retains as much authenticity as we can cope with.


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