The Letter is a 1940 film by William Wyler. Its production contains several themes that describe racial relations between white people and the local inhabitants of Malaya (tropical Asians). In line with this observation, this paper shows that the movie promotes white supremacy as its main theme. It uses aesthetical differences, production differences, and a skewed justice system to support this theme. Therefore, this study shows how The Letter portrays the white race as a superior racial group.
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Skewed Justice System
Most films of the colonial period often highlighted racial relations through unbalanced representations of the relationship between white people and other races. The Letter was not different because it used a skewed justice system to advance the same agenda. As seen throughout the film, Leslie often oozes an uneasy superior attitude over her workers on the farm. She orders them around and calls them “boy” (a derogatory term that infers negative racial sentiments).
This biased relationship emerges when Leslie orders Komai to get the workers from the plantation. After killing a worker (lover), she does not show remorse. Almost implicitly, she knows that she would get away with murder. Similarly, it is easy to deduce the ease that informs her judgment because she knows that most people would believe her story above any other. Her sentiments turn out to be true because white people saw her as a “hero” for killing a “rapist.” Consequently, the court acquitted her.
Her strange calm and surety that the authorities would free her underscore the powers and superiority wielded by white people in the film. The situation would probably not be the same if a female Asian shot a white man, based on the same allegations (rape). Indeed, such a suspect would be more suspicious because of the inferred racial superiority that white people exercised over other races.
Sawyer and Agrawal (72) say this racial discrimination stems from a peculiar cultural logic advanced by western societies, which presupposes that white people should manage non-western cultures because the constituents of such cultures are unable to manage themselves.
How do the Makeup, Dressing, Speech, Facial and Physical Features Highlight Racial Differences between Mrs. Hammond and Leslie Crosbie
The racial superiority that was characteristic of white people in The Letter also spread to class and social differences. This was apparent at the courthouse parking lot when Leslie’s English lawyer drove away in a sleek automobile, while his assistant (the Malayan assistant) drove off in an old and tiny vehicle. This presentation follows the film’s depiction of the white lawyer as a composed professional who understands his job.
The film also presents him as a “smooth talker” (an image that befits his status as a skilled officer of the court). Comparatively, The Letter depicts his assistant as a schemer who is out to make a living by struggling to do things right. “Odd” body languages and forced smiles try to mask the racial differences that exist between both of them.
The class and social differences that The Letter presents also manifest in the makeup and dressing styles of the actors. More specifically, the theme of white dominance emerges in this narrative because Mrs. Hammond dresses in a less flattering way, compared to Leslie.
For example, the latter wears gold chains, pearls, and expensive clothing, while Mrs. Hammond wears bad makeup. The film also depicts her language and demeanor as less appealing than Leslie’s polished linguistic prowess. This comparison also appears when we analyze their facial features.
While the film presents Leslie as a well-composed and beautiful woman, it portrays Hammond as an envious woman with undesirable physical features, as her mouth pulled towards its corners. Similarly, she has bulging eyes that do not flatter her appearance. These images further add to the narrative of racial superiority of white people. Here, the focus shifts from mannerism to physical features and dressing styles.
The class differences that emerge in this section of the paper contradict the beautiful depiction of tropical Asia by Arnold (146). He says its beauty amazed the first white explorers who came to Asia. However, they only fell in love with the environment and not its people (Arnold 146). Therefore, white people have always marginalized the locals in this regard. However, this outcome sharply contrasts the beauty that the white people marveled at when they first came to tropical Asia.
How does the Lightning of Spaces Illuminate the Contrasting World of the White Colonialists and “Others?”
When Leslie is the focus of the film, many of the associated scenes are in well-lit surroundings. Comparatively, The Letter shows Asians in unflattering environments, like the plantations, or in dilapidated homes. Furthermore, such scenes are in poorly lit surroundings (mostly at night).
For example, when Hammond and the “head boy” exert their revenge on Leslie, they do so in a poorly lit area. This analogy shows a deliberate attempt of the film to associate the white people with “flattering” environments and other races with hardships and “less appealing” environments. The sharp contrast between well-lit scenes (light) and poorly lit scenes (darkness) emphasize this fact.
This paper highlights the central theme of white supremacy throughout The Letter. It does so by showing aesthetical differences between white people and Asians, the skewed justice system, and the deliberate production differences between the different “racial scenes.” Here, The Letter suggests that white people are superior to Asians. Nonetheless, poetically, the film ends by showing how the protagonists underestimated the Asians because Mrs. Hammond killed Leslie.
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Arnold, David. The Problem of Nature: Environment and Culture in Historical Perspective, Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996. Print.
Sawyer, Suzana and Agrawal Arun. ”Environmental Orientalisms.” Cultural Critique 45 (2000):71–108. Print.