“Stories can dehumanise, demonise and erase.”
August 1, 2017 4:00 PM   Subscribe

Why the Lack of Indian and African Faces in Dunkirk Matters by Sunny Singh [The Guardian] “Knowingly or not, Nolan walks in the footsteps of both film directors and politicians who have chosen to whitewash the past. But why is it so important for Nolan, and for many others, that the film expunge all non-white presence on the beach and the ships? Why is it psychologically necessary that the heroic British troops be rescued only by white sailors? What would change if brave men fighting at Dunkirk wore turbans instead of helmets? What would alter if some of the soldiers offered namaaz on the sands before rising to face the advancing enemy for that one last time? Why is it so important that the covering fire be provided by white French troops rather than North African and Middle Eastern ones?”

• How Nolan forgot the desis at Dunkirk [The Times of India]
“"There were no Pakis at Dunkirk," the late Bernard Manning had once remarked on the Mrs Merton Show, a BBC TV show during the 1990s. The British comedian had continued with his verbal assault by claiming that there were "no Pakis" (read Indians) at Anzio, Arnhem or Monte Cassino - all famous World War II battles. While many Britons wouldn't subscribe to Manning's view of the Indian role in WWII, it did reflect a general lack of awareness about their contribution. But that was 20 years ago. Today, a great amount of literature is available on the role of Britain's colonies in the Allied war effort.Oxford historian Yasmin Khan says succinctly in her book, The Raj At War: "Britain did not fight the Second World War, the British Empire did." The British public is more well-informed today about the Indian role in the world wars. Indians were there at Monte Cassino. They were there at Bir Hachiem, Tobruk, El Alamein, Singapore, Hong Kong. And they were there from where it all began -Dunkirk.”
• Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk forgot the Indian soldiers’ contribution, but does it matter? [Hindustan Times]
“But can a film which makes the conscious choice to exclude everyone but the British from its narrative be held at fault for not mentioning the Indian contribution? Is it a film about the soldiers, or the civilians who aided in their rescue, or is about something larger? These are the questions we must ask ourselves. Dunkirk is about an ideal - which is why none of the characters are defined beyond basic traits, like their first names and perhaps their rank. We know nothing about them. We care because the film inspires empathy. We don’t want to see human beings die a terrible death. These characters are meant to represent everyone who was involved in the operation. It is a celebration of the bravery shown by common people. And if Indians were involved, the film, however abstract it is in its ways, pays homage to them too.”
• 'Dunkirk' Sparks Debate in India Over Failure to Show Soldiers From the Country [The Hollywood Reporter]
“According to historical data, some 2.5 million soldiers from the Indian sub-continent served with the British army during World War II. But the depiction of Indian soldiers in Hollywood films revolving around the war have been few and far between. One of the most notable onscreen appearances was last seen in 1996's The English Patient, which featured British Indian actor Naveen Andrews (Sense8, Lost) in a supporting role as an Indian Sikh soldier, Kip Singh, serving in the Italian campaign of the war in the Oscar-winning film, which starred Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche. [...] The Indian contingent was designated as Force K-6 and departed from what was then called Bombay (now Mumbai), reaching Marseilles in France in December 1939. According to the Times of India, three companies of Force K-6 were evacuated to safety during Operation Dynamo, the Allied operation to extricate about 400,000 British forces from Dunkirk, which forms the backdrop of the film. However, one remaining Indian company was taken captive by the Nazis, and many of its men died in German POW camps.”
• Does Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk ignore the role of the Indian army? [BBC.co.uk]
“What happened with the Indian soldiers in Dunkirk is less clear. Yasmin Khan, historian and author of The Raj at War: A People's History of India's Second World War, says she has often wondered why there is very little factual data on their role in the battle, which many say cost Germany the war. What is well known, she told me, is that four companies of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, including a unit of the Bikaner State forces, served in France during the campaign on the Western Front, and some were evacuated from Dunkirk. Among them were three contingents of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps. One contingent was taken prisoner by German forces. According to one account, India also provided more than 2,500 mules - shipped from Bombay (now Mumbai) to Marseilles - to the war effort as the British animal transport companies had been phased out. An Indian soldier, Jemadar Maula Dad Khan, was feted for showing "magnificent courage, coolness and decision" in protecting his men and animals when they were shelled from the ground and strafed from the air by the enemy. The Indian soldiers and the mules were eventually ordered towards the coast. Many of the men could not take their animals on the retreat and gave them away to local people in France, according to the same account.”
posted by Fizz (58 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
A friend of mine made a remark to me about this issue recently and I've been thinking about it for the last few days. He mentioned to me that I was making a big deal out of nothing. That it's not a “white person's responsibility to tell the history of every disenfranchised minority”and that if “we” dislike how this history is portrayed, “we” should tell our own story.

I didn't really know how to respond, so I just let the conversation end. But it's weighing heavily on my mind. And I'm trying to figure out how to respond to him because I'm upset by his comment, and yet I'm struggling to articulate the ways in which he's upset me. I'm interested in seeing what people think about this topic, here on the blue.
posted by Fizz at 4:26 PM on August 1, 2017 [29 favorites]


That it's not a “white person's responsibility to tell the history of every disenfranchised minority”and that if “we” dislike how this history is portrayed, “we” should tell our own story.

You can approach it this way if the person is at all open to logic.

1. disenfranchised minorities can't tell their own story
2. they don't have the money/resources to do so on the same scale as white people
3. else they wouldn't be "disenfranchised"

So the solution is for white people to uplift their voices. Or accept that some people are just meant to be disenfranchised, too bad so sad, in which case you can safely call your friend a racist and dispose of them.
posted by AFABulous at 4:39 PM on August 1, 2017 [59 favorites]


I'm glad you posted this. I didn't learn any of it in history class. (I also haven't seen the movie, and had no plans to anyway.)
posted by AFABulous at 4:42 PM on August 1, 2017 [6 favorites]


Thanks AFABulous. I will reach back out to this friend, I'm composing an e-mail. I'm a bit surprised/disappointed that this was their point of view on a subject like this. Depending on the response I get, I may have to give a bit of distance to this friend before I'm ready to engage with them again.

I was struggling to respond because it just hit me hard, like what the hell. I should feel bad for pointing out that an important piece of my history was just entirely glossed over and whitewashed. That it's some how my problem and my fault for feeling this way. Ugh.
posted by Fizz at 4:47 PM on August 1, 2017 [7 favorites]


So...3 companies out of 400,000 folks? Like 400 people out of 400,000? Maybe they were in the movie? One Desi guy in a crowd scene would be an accurate percentage. Also We did see Black Frenchmen in the movie along with some who could be North African as well.
posted by Megafly at 4:55 PM on August 1, 2017 [9 favorites]


I would ask your friend if he thinks the movie is attempting to be historically accurate, and why they think Nolan made this choice.
posted by tofu_crouton at 4:56 PM on August 1, 2017 [3 favorites]


Also, I too didn't learn any of this in my history class. It's something that I learned through these articles. I do plan on watching the film, especially with the context of this history and information.
posted by Fizz at 4:56 PM on August 1, 2017


I saw the movie in a theater because I generally enjoy Nolan's movies in the theater setting—big sound, big visuals, all of that. I thought that the first article described Dunkirk quite well as a "fantasy-disguised-as-historical war film". Ultimately I wish it could have just been presented as pure fantasy. Its connection to a historical event compromises it, not just in the way described in these articles but in dozens of little ways.

Dunkirk is well made, well acted, and there's a clever storytelling device that some reviewers didn't like but that I personally thought was elegant. My partner and I talked on the way home about whether it could just as well have been a space opera that told the same story, and I think we agreed that it could have been. That would have been the better move.

In addition to being white as milk, every single person in the movie is clean-shaven, and they stay that way through what's supposed to be a week-long ordeal of constantly being bombed. The shaving thing really jumped out at me, but there were many other such stylistic choices that added up to the feeling that, like in many of Nolan's movies, what's being shown is more like a beautiful dream than a depiction of a realistic situation, let alone an account of an actual historical event. I would argue that this movie is barely trying to be a historical account.

But then why connect it to the real event at all? Why call it Dunkirk? Why have a title card before the end credits dedicating the movie to the people whose lives were affected by the battle? It kinda felt to me like he started making the movie because he thought of a cool storytelling device and then at some point along the way he got wrapped up in his own British patriotism a bit. And so the movie was kept from being a beautiful, suspenseful, ultimately escapist experience like Inception or The Dark Knight, which would have better lined up with Nolan's strengths.
posted by The Minotaur at 5:08 PM on August 1, 2017 [16 favorites]


I saw this movie and found it underwhelming and unconvincing, not helped by the OTT blue and gold colouring of every scene. Maybe some of the actors were black but had been whitewashed by all the post processing?
posted by Lanark at 5:24 PM on August 1, 2017 [1 favorite]


I agree that Indian and African faces are underrepresented in WWII drama. Bridge on the River Kwai - not much sign of the 100,000 Malays and Burmese that died building the railway. Anything about the North Africa campaign. However I wouldn't pick Dunkirk as a great injustice. There were 1,800 Indian soldiers out of 400,000 in the BEF; there is no way to include every group that size in the movie if they weren't central to the plot.

Side note: my grandfather was attached to the 10th Indian Infantry Division while it wandered from India to Italy in WWII. From the few stories he would tell a movie on their experiences in Italy could be a great tale. Wish it could happen.
posted by N-stoff at 5:30 PM on August 1, 2017 [11 favorites]


I recall seeing black soldiers in the film (very briefly) but no South Asians.
posted by Bee'sWing at 5:32 PM on August 1, 2017


I think that the observations of the proportions of Indian soldiers to the overall BEF are fair, but note that the article mentions how South Asian sailors accounted for 1 out of 4 sailors on British merchant marine vessels. So, surely, if the producers were interested in representing that part of the historical account, they'd show lascars being picked up along with other seamen from some of the wrecks that had been bombed or torpedoed.

A month or so earlier, I was hanging out with Puerto Rican friend and we were speculating about whether or not Dunkirk would include the French or just leave them out of it altogether, and I remember writing to him afterwards saying, "well, the French show up and do get fair credit, but also the only PoC are in the French army, and even then it's in a blink-and-you'll-miss glimpse. There are no South Asian, African or Caribbean faces on British side, so ... I guess Nolan had to play his representation card on the French?"
posted by bl1nk at 5:57 PM on August 1, 2017 [7 favorites]


I haven't seen the film yet, but had been thinking about it; Grand Narratives about Heroism are very much my wheelhouse. I am not sure, now, that I will.

I do think the erasure of people of color, along with other marginalized/disenfranchised groups, from Grand Narratives is a problem. It perpetuates a myth that Heroes are all white men, that the Everyman is a white man, and that people who are not white men are not worthy of being depicted, let alone telling their own stories.

Post-war immigration of Indians and Africans/Afro-Caribbeans to the UK was fueled by wartime promise. You fought and died with us, therefore your people can come live with our people. (I know, there was more to it than that, and post-war Britain was not exactly the Land of Milk and Honey, but that's how it was largely perceived by the immigrants themselves; see Andrea Levy's Small Island and Zadie Smith's White Teeth for fictionalized versions of this.)

There needs to be a new version of the Bechdel test for people of color in film. Two named people of color have a conversation about something other than a white character. I think the most recent film I watched that fits those criteria was the terrible American remake of Death at a Funeral.
posted by basalganglia at 6:01 PM on August 1, 2017 [20 favorites]


The Indian contigent was about 1,800 men according to India Today. Total troops landed was about 350K according to Thompson. There's no non-white presence because this is a non-white slaughter.
posted by dmh at 6:20 PM on August 1, 2017


Asking why it was "so important for Nolan" to "expunge all non-white presence on the beach and the ships" is the sort of leading question that would make a Fox News anchor proud. Aim high, I guess.

The lascar (vaguely SE Asian) charge might have some weight, though ratios aside I'm not sure exactly how many vessels crewed with them are going to be in British home waters to be involved in the evacuation; something worth looking into (also, I never thought I'd be able to use "lascar" outside of a Sherlock Holmes thread). The importance of colonial troops in the battle, at least as far as the first article goes, seems more suspect. The author claims that "it was the colonial troops who were crucial in averting absolute catastrophe for the allies". The proof for this is simply linking to another article, which claims that they were "key to delaying the German attack", but which in turn links to a (at least for me) non-accessible google book link of some sort of amateur history text about the 137th Infantry Division, a British unit. Perhaps this is due to some sort of localization issue on my end altering the google link, but as it stands it looks rather shoddy.

As for the Indian troops, how many people here and elsewhere are responding to this news with, "Huh, I never knew that"? They were probably left out because, being only three to four companies and not in the line, nobody outside of the participants, their families, and a few historians had ever heard of them, because it's roughly 0.0025% of those involved. It's like claiming that a drama or history about the Second World War that leaves out the 72-hour Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran is espousing some sort of anti-Persian agenda. Why ascribe to maliciousness what can be much more easily ascribed to obscurity?
posted by Palindromedary at 6:26 PM on August 1, 2017 [15 favorites]


Why ascribe to maliciousness what can be much more easily ascribed to obscurity?

None of the linked articles make a claim of maliciousness, from what I could see.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:46 PM on August 1, 2017 [4 favorites]


Asking why it was "so important for Nolan" to "expunge all non-white presence on the beach and the ships" is the sort of leading question that would make a Fox News anchor proud. Palindromedary

Choosing the status quo is still a choice. It is the status quo for movies to be whitewashed. That's not due to lack of talented actors of color. It's a choice on the part of directors and casting agents. Asking why a director made that choice is an entirely fair question. In this case, Nolan made that choice in a historical fiction setting where it introduced historical inaccuracy, so he really had to go out of his way to make that choice.(*) Thus it must have been important to him. I'll grant you that the importance may have been on a more subconscious level, due to ingrained racism. Unexamined values are quite frequently also important or deeply held values, however.

(* Ignorance on Nolan's part combined with someone involved in the movie doing a slipshod job of the historical research - including the choice (again, status quo, but still a choice) of failing to ask the question, "hey, people of color existed in the early 1900's, in Britain and Europe as well as in the broader British Empire and world; do you think maybe some of them were involved in WWII?" - alters the question slightly. Then the question is more, "why was it important for Nolan to make a historical film of such suspect or unverified historical accuracy?"; or, perhaps more to the point, "why was it important enough to Nolan to bother making the film at all if it wasn't important enough to him to ensure it was historically accurate?" It's hard to get around there being some sort of both choice and value judgement on Nolan's part in any case.)
posted by eviemath at 6:53 PM on August 1, 2017 [22 favorites]


It perpetuates a myth that Heroes are all white men

Indeed. I'd go further, actually and argue that Dunkirk - like Gallipoli for us Aussies - is a kind of foundation myth for national identity (in both cases ruthlessly leveraged by propagandists during and after). And when you create a foundation myth about "national character" that - factually or no - represents a very narrow demographic slice of your nation, you are conflating national identity with racial (cultural identity).

E.g. if Dunkirk, symbolically, is about 'true Britishness', and all true Brits are white anglos, what space does this leave in your national identity for other races/cultures? None really. End result is these other voices are either considered not part of the essential national character, or the national character that includes them is viewed as a a later, inferior, temporary one - and often compared disparagingly.

In this respect, I wouldn't say that historical accuracy is irrelevant, exactly, but perhaps over-rated. Films like this are myth-making not documentary, and as such are actually a comment on current ideas about national character, national anxieties and foci etc. We cannot view these artefacts through the eyes of a contemporaneous viewer; we cannot escape our horizon and thus accuracy is always subsumed to cultural concerns. The mere act of choosing to tell a certain story is eroding historical accuracy; why this story? Why now? etc.

Given our inescapably modern perspective, and the fact that creation of this art is a modern statement in a modern context, representation is more important, not less. And I kind of think factual accuracy be damned, really, as it's mostly illusion anyway.

Of course, I would say this; I feel (in an Australian context especially) that nationalism and racism are often just different points along the same spectrum, and certainly that has historically mostly been the case.
posted by smoke at 6:58 PM on August 1, 2017 [31 favorites]


"Askari" being one of the terms I'm familiar with from WWI reading, I'm fascinated to learn of "lascar":
Askari is a loan word from the Arabic عسكري (ʿaskarī), meaning "soldier". The Arabic word is a derivation from عسكر (ʿaskar), meaning "army" in Arabic. Words for "(a regular) soldier" derived from these Arabic words are found in Amharic, Azeri, Persian, Somali, Swahili, Tajik, Turkish and Urdu.
and
The Hindi word lashkar (army) derives from al-askar, the Arabic word for a guard or soldier. The Portuguese adapted this term to "lascarim", meaning Asian militiamen or seamen, specifically from any area east of the Cape of Good Hope.
posted by XMLicious at 7:00 PM on August 1, 2017 [3 favorites]


XMLicious : The Merchant Seamen's War
Extracts from Sons Of Empire.
More about Lascars
posted by adamvasco at 7:43 PM on August 1, 2017 [1 favorite]


He mentioned to me that I was making a big deal out of nothing. That it's not a “white person's responsibility to tell the history of every disenfranchised minority”and that if “we” dislike how this history is portrayed, “we” should tell our own story.

I didn't really know how to respond, so I just let the conversation end.


I'd say, reciprocally, with a conflict zone that covered the entire globe, why bother documenting WWII in some little undistinguished corner of it like Europe?

Having one or two non-white characters among the British, or even another handful of extras, would actually be a radical tip-of-the-iceberg underrepresentation of the role of everyone else in the course of telling the overall history of one of these repeating events we have where white people turn the entire planet into a war zone.

Artistic license, so freely used when it involves inserting extra whiteness into a historical setting, would have been well-spent to tell the story with even a slightly-stretched representation of everyone else ruled by British hegemony then and everyone else who participated in and was affected by this particular World War. If there's a responsibility to tell history at all with artistic license, there's definitely a concordant responsibility to not tell a story that's all about perfectly-spherical frictionless white people bouncing off of each other in a vacuum. However close to that we may eventually come in reality.
posted by XMLicious at 7:49 PM on August 1, 2017 [6 favorites]


If he can figure out how to place a One Direction singer at Dunkirk, he fucking well can figure out how to get more brown faces on the screen, because there were zero fucking Harry Styleses at Dunkirk.
posted by maxsparber at 8:12 PM on August 1, 2017 [32 favorites]


There were 1,800 Indian soldiers out of 400,000 in the BEF; there is no way to include every group that size in the movie if they weren't central to the plot.

It would have done zero harm to historical accuracy and some good--for reasons discussed above--to put more non-white faces in some of the crowd scenes. It would also have required basically zero *(&*@(& effort. This is one of those cases where there is literally no tradeoff required for simple representation.

Don't worry, you can still keep your 9,000 dark-haired Englishmen with identical cheekbones as the heroes.
posted by praemunire at 8:20 PM on August 1, 2017 [22 favorites]


I have to note that Wonder Woman managed to have Indians and Africans in crowd scenes. Of course I guess that was back in W.W.I before the Empire went all white.
posted by happyroach at 8:27 PM on August 1, 2017 [32 favorites]


Even the gloves that you see Tom Hardy wearing in the plane. In 1939 or 40 they changed the zipper on the gloves, but I was putting him in clothes that would have been from 1938. Also the seaming on the back of his urban flight jacket was different from the mid to late 1930s. Early in the forties it was changed to only have one seam, but earlier it had three seams. It was important to me to get the realism perfect. I’m making the jacket anyway, so why not make it as real as possible?

Snipped from Clothes on Film/Dunkirk: Interview with Costume Designer Jeffrey Kurland.

This level of meticulous and absolute historical accuracy is cooed over (or at least tolerated in the film budget), but representing the 1,800 Indian soldiers out of 400,000 in the BEF is a wildly picky level of detail? Meh.
posted by desuetude at 10:05 PM on August 1, 2017 [33 favorites]


In this case, Nolan made that choice in a historical fiction setting where it introduced historical inaccuracy, so he really had to go out of his way to make that choice.(*) Thus it must have been important to him.

I would argue that it is more likely that accuracy as it pertains to representing the non-white combatants was so unimportant to Nolan that it didn't factor into his decision making at all.

Ultimately, his intent is irrelevant. It's the impact that matters.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:32 PM on August 1, 2017 [12 favorites]


Having seen the film and being of British and Asian descent, this wasn't really an issue to me, nor did it seem to be an issue for the Sikh I went to see the movie with. We're both history nerds, and knew that, while there were Indians present at Dunkirk, their numbers were so few that the fact they weren't present on screen was a non-issue. If it had been a film about the North African campaign or Burma or Italy, the lack of Indian troops would have been a terrible mistake, for in those campaigns they were a huge contributing factor, but the four companies of Indian Service Corps present with the BEF was a drop in the bucket of 350,000 military personnel evacuated, to say nothing of the fact that service corps members would have been rear echelon troops and would have reached the evacuation site well before the retreating front-line troops.

We enjoyed the film immensely, and were pleased to see the inclusion of French African troops among the crowd of soldiers and women on the boats as both civilians and medical staff. I really don't think Nolan was being bigoted, on purpose or otherwise, in the choices he made as director.

As to the claim that, because the film is a fictional tale set in the maelstrom of Dunkirk, Nolan should have made it more fictional by misrepresenting the proportion of Indian soldiers present, well... I'm not sure that's a valid criticism of the film. Nolan could have made half the soldiers female, too, but he stuck with the historical proportions and roles that women had at that time and place. A lack of historical inaccuracy seems a poor reason to criticize a film.
posted by dazed_one at 11:29 PM on August 1, 2017 [14 favorites]


In a more general view, I feel Dunkirk is both an too on the nose as a metaphor for modern Britain and exactly the wrong film for the current political climate. A chaotic retreat from the continent repurposed as a heroic tale of ordinary people snatching victory from under the nose of an overwhelming enemy is not the right story to tell for Brexit Britain.

And in that context, the lack of people of colour in the movie, is worrying because the UK currently has a nasty undertow of racism that's getting more open and bold thanks to Brexit and anything that reinforces that idea of England as a white country is not helping.

Not that Nolan is necessarily complicit in all this, or that it's his responsibility to think about this sort of thing while making a film, but I do wonder why this film now.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:45 AM on August 2, 2017 [11 favorites]


Having seen the film and being of British and Asian descent, this wasn't really an issue to me, nor did it seem to be an issue for the Sikh I went to see the movie with.

I have to agree. My great-grandfather fought in World War I in the British Indian Army, a great-uncle in World War 2. I do feel that their contributions - and the extremely complicated history of South Asian contributions - are generally ignored, but I don't think Dunkirk was necessarily the film for this.

The inclusion of Indian stories in Gurinder Chadha's Viceroy House was far more appalling because it includes them in what is actually a tale of empire and does so only to be self-congratulatory and reinforce the stories the British like to tell themselves about their past. I think that is much more damaging than the exclusion of 0.5 Indians from the 1,000 stranded men we actually saw onscreen in Dunkirk.
posted by tavegyl at 1:16 AM on August 2, 2017 [3 favorites]


I urge every youngster to go out and watch Dunkirk” - Nigel Farage on Twitter.

Why only youngsters I have to wonder? nobody under the age of 82 is going to remember Dunkirk actually happening, including Farage himself.
posted by Lanark at 1:35 AM on August 2, 2017 [1 favorite]


It's one thing to say the Indian contribution at Dunkirk was small; it's troubling when people minimize it further. 1800 of 350,000 men is 0.5%, or 1 in 200. Not 0.0025%, not 0.5 in 1000.

Creators and audiences both can stand to remember that even European history was not as white as they thought.
posted by zompist at 2:05 AM on August 2, 2017 [19 favorites]


It's one thing to say the Indian contribution at Dunkirk was small; it's troubling when people minimize it further. 1800 of 350,000 men is 0.5%, or 1 in 200. Not 0.0025%, not 0.5 in 1000.

I apologise for my innumeracy.
posted by tavegyl at 2:38 AM on August 2, 2017 [1 favorite]


It's one thing to say the Indian contribution at Dunkirk was small; it's troubling when people minimize it further. 1800 of 350,000 men is 0.5%, or 1 in 200. Not 0.0025%, not 0.5 in 1000.

There are extra zeros in my figure, an error caused by me foolishly transcribing directly from division to percentages and not catching this in editing; my apologies. But overall, it depends on what figures you use. When I posted, the exact strength of the four companies in question wasn't given yet, so I used an estimate of 1,000; companies typically consist of 80-300 men, so I was using a nice round number that allocated towards the top end, I assumed.

Also, there were about 400,000 men in the Dunkirk battle; using a tally of 350,000 assumes that only those that managed to be evacuated count and everyone that surrendered/was captured was somehow not involved. Starting with a more accurate base of 400K is how I got the 0.25% (1 in 400) figure I (sort of) gave earlier. 1800 from 400K would be 0.45% (~1 in 222).
posted by Palindromedary at 2:57 AM on August 2, 2017


I'm a mixed-race guy with ancestry in different parts of the Commonwealth. I really liked Dunkirk when I saw it. But reading a few articles like this afterwards I am a bit disappointed.

No, it's not conscious racism with Christopher Nolan saying "Muhahaha, let's whitewash this history, lads!". Each decision about what to show is individually justifiable. The number of Indian troops on the beach was a fraction of a percent, it's justifiable not to show them. It's a survival story not a battle movie, so it's justifiable not to show the non-white French troops defending the perimeter. A big dramatic element is the amateur involvement, so it's justifiable not to show the non-white quarter or so of the Merchant Navy.

It's just another example of some white men who chose to tell the story of some other white men. As usual. But it's the fallacy of composition to conclude "Because each decision to show white men fighting in WW2 is justifiable, therefore it's justifiable that almost all media depicts only white men fighting in WW2".

We're never there.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 4:03 AM on August 2, 2017 [29 favorites]


As to the claim that, because the film is a fictional tale set in the maelstrom of Dunkirk, Nolan should have made it more fictional by misrepresenting the proportion of Indian soldiers present, well... I'm not sure that's a valid criticism of the film. Nolan could have made half the soldiers female, too, but he stuck with the historical proportions and roles that women had at that time and place. A lack of historical inaccuracy seems a poor reason to criticize a film.
I don't want to accuse you of arguing in bad faith, but I think that saying "Nolan could've made half the soldiers female, too" is a bit of a strawman (and, fwiw, there were depictions of female nurses on the hospital ships, destroyers, as well as women sailors on the civilian craft so at least they made it in. I was glad to see that)

I also don't want to post spoilers but I would point out that there are moments in the film that were, themselves, uncommon or extraordinary in the statistics of the battle. The number of civilian casualties was extremely low, but that kind of sacrifice made its way into the film, as do some pretty incredible moments of valor (and I do mean "incredible" as "barely credible") on the part of the RAF.

I don't think that's a mark against the film. Most war films have to depict the brutal and the rare and the extraordinary. That's part of telling a good story. Nolan almost certainly added these exceptions to history in order to depict a sense of "we're all in this together" or "the line between military and civilian. or Navy, RAF, and Army is thin and erased when crisis emerges." And he has to relay that story to a contemporary audience. So, if you're going to give a contemporary theme of unity and solidarity by making the choice of using a couple of ahistorical episodes in your film, then adding PoC actors into your scenes only adds to that theme, and it's a shame that the opportunity was missed.

And also a person of color, I should note that while I'm pointing that out, I was very impressed with the film overall and was quite happy to have seen it, even if there were ways that it could be better. It already made all of these other lovely efforts for inclusiveness, token as they may be -- French participants, Dutch participants, French PoC, British women -- and I think there's a valid case for British PoC to ask, "hey, why not us too?"
posted by bl1nk at 4:46 AM on August 2, 2017 [17 favorites]


I found this article Dunkirk: Does historical accuracy matter? by the military historian Jame Holland really interesting.

"The miracle of Dunkirk was due to the continued existence of the East Mole, large numbers of ships shuttling back and forth across the Channel, stoic defence of the perimeter, ten tenths cloud and smoke for much of the evacuation, and the efforts of the RAF. The Little Ships – although undoubtedly courageous and wonderful – were the least decisive factor in DYNAMO’s success."

He claims that the crucial breakthrough was the recognition that the East Mole breakwater could be used for embarkation - "The Little Ships lifted perhaps 5% of the total at most, while day and night men were being taken off the Mole. "
posted by Azara at 4:51 AM on August 2, 2017 [6 favorites]


It's just another example of some white men who chose to tell the story of some other white men. As usual. But it's the fallacy of composition to conclude "Because each decision to show white men fighting in WW2 is justifiable, therefore it's justifiable that almost all media depicts only white men fighting in WW2".

I feel that the problem is not that Asians and other BME are not represented in Dunkirk but that BME stories from World War 2 or countless other times and places in history are simply not told. Unless a film about Dunkirk is about the tiny minority of Indians on the beach, it's going to have Indians only as a token presence. I would love to watch a film about N-stoff's grandfather's unit because that would be a fascinating Indian story in which the Indian experience would be front and centre, not as an addendum and self congratulatory window dressing to the story of the Imperial overlord.
posted by tavegyl at 5:10 AM on August 2, 2017 [8 favorites]


oh, and for folks looking for movies about PoC soldier experiences in World War 2:

Indigenes / (Days of Glory) is a decent portrayal of a squad of North African Free French soldiers fighting in the south of France in parallel with the main Allied thrust through Normandy/Paris/Low Countries.

Only The Brave indie movie about nisei soldiers from the celebrated "Go For Broke" 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the entire US Army

The Great Raid, a film adaptation of Ghost Soldiers, a historical account of a mission to liberate a Japanese-run POW camp in the Philippines as performed by US Army Rangers working in tandem with Filipino guerillas

this is in addition to films about African American units - Redtails, Tuskegee Airmen, Miracle at St. Anna -- though in the main, American WWII films also do representation by showing some African American actors mixed in with white faces (Cuba Gooding Jr. in Pearl Harbor, Vin Diesel in Saving Private Ryan)

To the earlier point about disenfranchisement -- these are all efforts to give a platform for minority voices, but they all suffer from the obscurity of not being supported by a major studio's marketing efforts. I felt like some of the African American films do get a decent amount of budget and support, but outside of that only Indigenes felt like it was made with the sort of "gloss" that people raised on Band of Brothers expect from a modern WWII film.
posted by bl1nk at 5:44 AM on August 2, 2017 [11 favorites]


"Women are excluded from the action by being confined to stereotypical roles, such as providing tea for the homecoming menfolk. In real life, female Auxiliary Territorial Service telephonists – who received two-thirds of a male soldier’s pay – were some of the last military personnel to leave the beach. The evacuees also included female civilians, including girls, caught up in the turmoil..."
Bloodless, boring and empty: Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk left me cold, David Cox, The Guardian
posted by Carol Anne at 6:42 AM on August 2, 2017 [6 favorites]


Adding to the list of movies featuring WW2 PoC soldiers, there's also "Nos patriotes", a movie about Addi Bâ, a Guinean Resistance fighter.

It already made all of these other lovely efforts for inclusiveness, token as they may be -- French participants, Dutch participants, French PoC, British women
"Token" is something of an euphemism. About 40% (140,000 out of 338,000 according to WP; figures vary between 37 and 41%) of the soldiers evacuated in Dunkirk were French, Belgian, Polish and Dutch; between May 31 and June 4, 67% of the evacuees were non-Brits. The topic here is whitewashing, but the movie is primarily a big exercise in britwashing.
posted by elgilito at 6:44 AM on August 2, 2017 [6 favorites]


India's War is an excellent read on the largely forgotten 2+ million Indians who fought for the Allies in WWII and the geopolitical circumstances that this happened in.
posted by splitpeasoup at 7:53 AM on August 2, 2017 [4 favorites]


India's War is an excellent read on the largely forgotten 2+ million Indians who fought for the Allies in WWII and the geopolitical circumstances that this happened in.
posted by splitpeasoup at 10:53 AM on August 2 [1 favorite +] [!]


There are so many untold and largely ignored stories from WWII, especially when it comes to the campaigns that the Americans had only a small part in. The campaign in Burma - the sieges of Imphal and Kohima, the Battle of the Tennis Court especially - is crying out for film treatment, as are the campaigns in North Africa, like the siege of Tobruk or the Battle of El Alamein. All these important moments of the war had Indian soldiers playing a decisive role and would do well to be given the same treatment as the evacuation of Dunkirk was in Nolan's film.
posted by dazed_one at 9:04 AM on August 2, 2017 [2 favorites]


People love to cite statistics in threads like this, which makes me wonder: What's the magic number they're looking for? What percentage of the people who suffered through some hellish experience need to fit a demographic before that demographic "earns" the right to be represented in the story of that experience?
posted by tobascodagama at 9:26 AM on August 2, 2017 [2 favorites]


What percentage of the people who suffered through some hellish experience need to fit a demographic before that demographic "earns" the right to be represented in the story of that experience?

There's a finite amount of time within which to tell a story in a film. Of the 120 minutes that was Nolan's Dunkirk, how much of that time should have been given to the Indian soldiers before those complaining of whitewashing would be satisfied?

I understand the frustrations, the desire to see the contributions that people who aren't white made and I do feel that the Indian contribution to the war is largely ignored, but I really don't feel that a film about Dunkirk was the place to remedy this.

I think I've said all I can about this topic. I hope filmmakers see the popular outcry and decide that a war film about an important moment in the conflict where the participants weren't predominantly white is a war film worth making. I hope that potential audiences don't see the outcry as a reason not to go see a fine film and one of the few non-American-centric war films to reach wide distribution.
posted by dazed_one at 9:57 AM on August 2, 2017


People love to cite statistics in threads like this, which makes me wonder: What's the magic number they're looking for? What percentage of the people who suffered through some hellish experience need to fit a demographic before that demographic "earns" the right to be represented in the story of that experience?

I saw a tweet recently; I wish I could remember who it was. It was in response to the people who claim that we don't need to show people of color in stories set in Medieval Europe because there were so few of them, but nonetheless we will continue to focus on royalty, who represented an almost infinitesimally small fraction of the population.

We show what we choose to show. Every story we tell is about one or a few people. If those are not people of color, or women, or other groups that are typically left out, the only actual reason for it is that we have decided not to tell their story. No amount of mathing or historing or any other bullshit changes that. There's no actual, real compelling reason for not telling their story. We just decided not to.
posted by maxsparber at 10:01 AM on August 2, 2017 [15 favorites]


People concerned about the lack of colonial representation in Dunkirk would spend their time better encouraging people to rent Days of Glory/Indigènes than complaining about Nolan's choices.
posted by Jahaza at 10:22 AM on August 2, 2017


All this talk about percentages misses the point that the Indian units weren't perfectly distributed through the entire crowd; they were units. Actually having actors in units and putting the camera on them seems not unreasonable, while not misrepresenting their numbers (any more than having lots of shots of Harry Styles would trick the audience into thinking there were multiple clones of him!)

I mean, there was only 1/300,000 of any particular person, so why bother putting a camera focus on anyone at all? /s
posted by Cheerwell Maker at 10:24 AM on August 2, 2017 [7 favorites]


People concerned about the lack of colonial representation in Dunkirk would spend their time better encouraging people to rent Days of Glory/Indigènes than complaining about Nolan's choices.

Why? Why do you think that we must choose between even modest representation in big-budget big-exposure films and star billing in smaller films? Who told you that was the choice? Why do you believe in the good faith of someone telling you that you can't expect the former?
posted by praemunire at 10:31 AM on August 2, 2017 [7 favorites]


There's a finite amount of time within which to tell a story in a film. Of the 120 minutes that was Nolan's Dunkirk, how much of that time should have been given to the Indian soldiers before those complaining of whitewashing would be satisfied?
Yours is a disingenuous question but I think the simple answer to that is that we aren't discussing the exclusion of women or the French, and that's because they both got about 10 seconds of exposure in the 120 minute parade of white Brit dudes, so maybe set that as a baseline?

Though, seriously, I don't think any of us should be begging or negotiating for inclusion, and I'd refuse to discuss this prospect beyond the answer above. That's a pretty false choice for a supposedly diverse and inclusive society.
People concerned about the lack of colonial representation in Dunkirk would spend their time better encouraging people to rent Days of Glory/Indigènes than complaining about Nolan's choices.
this may blow your mind, but you know what? Some of us can do both.
posted by bl1nk at 10:36 AM on August 2, 2017 [4 favorites]


No, you're supposed to only care about one thing and not waste your time on the thing that the person thinks is a waste of time.
posted by maxsparber at 10:37 AM on August 2, 2017 [2 favorites]


We show what we choose to show. Every story we tell is about one or a few people. If those are not people of color, or women, or other groups that are typically left out, the only actual reason for it is that we have decided not to tell their story.

Exactly. And the choice to exclude diversity from our stories is all too often passed off as some kind of default position, when it's not at all. There's no possible way when making a piece of art to passively choose some kind of default portrayal. That's just not how the creation of art works. There are only active choices.

At some point, there was a casting call for extras. Certain extras were chosen, others were not. On what basis was that decision made? There was clearly some allowance for non-homogeneity in that decision, but why did that only extend to one or two groups and not farther?

Fiction is only ever going to express the spirit of a thing. It cannot express the "reality" of a thing. (One can debate whether even documentary is capable of that feat, but that's a different topic.) When crafting a work of fiction, every decision the craftsmen make speaks to what they believe the spirit of the thing they're expressing is.

In the case of Dunkirk the film, we see clearly that the spirit of Dunkirk the event that Nolan wants to convey is about heroic, white Britishers rescuing other heroic, white Britishers. We know this because those are the people he chose put on the screen and build his narrative around. The decision to exclude the other demographics of people who were there and participated in the event amounts to an active decision to tell a story about a monocultural nation saving its own rather than a multicultural empire working to protect those in need or even just multicultural empire saving its own, either of which would fit the spirit of the event just as well if not better than the story Nolan picked.
posted by tobascodagama at 11:11 AM on August 2, 2017 [12 favorites]


Dunkirk, the War and the Amnesia of the Empire [The New York Times]
“The myth of Dunkirk reinforces the idea that Britain stood alone. It is a political tool in the hands of those who would separate British history from European history and who want to reinforce the myths that underpin Brexit. A YouGov poll in 2014 found that 59 percent of those surveyed in Britain thought the British Empire was something to be proud of.

Today there is a willful distortion of the empire in the British public mind, a strange determination to misremember it. An informed history of both World War II and the empire is necessary if we want to understand modern Britain. But in post-Brexit Britain, some are more interested in turning back the clock.”
posted by Fizz at 11:24 AM on August 2, 2017 [5 favorites]


There's a finite amount of time within which to tell a story in a film. Of the 120 minutes that was Nolan's Dunkirk, how much of that time should have been given to the Indian soldiers before those complaining of whitewashing would be satisfied?

Literally all that's being asked for, in the Guardian link, and I think even by the Hindustan Times and and Times of India, is a background shot with a couple of brown guys in it. Maybe a shot of lascar pulling someone onto a boat, since they were 1/4 of the British merchant boat crews, without whom Operation Dynamo would not have been a thing. No one is arguing that Dunkirk should have been about the Indian contingent (although that could be an incredible film, I think).

The strident resistance to even the most cursory of hypothetical sops to the fact that brown people exist is interesting to note, though.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:36 PM on August 2, 2017 [11 favorites]


I have not seen Dunkirk and have no interest in it, mostly due to the echoes of Empire, Churchill and stiff upper lips it evokes. Given the number of Asian soldiers involved adding them to the movie in a representative manner, say a couple of Sikh men leading mules in the background in a scene, would look pretty close to tokenism and I'm not sure that helps. The female and civilian evacuees, the Dutch and Belgian ships in the evacuation fleet, all glossed over. As about 40% of the evacuees were French that seems like an obvious flaw in the makeup of the cast. It's odd to focus on this one thing.
posted by N-stoff at 7:45 PM on August 2, 2017


Literally all that's being asked for, in the Guardian link, and I think even by the Hindustan Times and and Times of India, is a background shot with a couple of brown guys in it.

I just re-read the Guardian link and don't get that. At all. Given the contempt is also directed to the French North African depiction, which did get the background shot treatment, I'd say it's rather explicitly not what Singh is asking for in the Guardian article.

FWIW this is literally the first time I've connected that the mental images I had playing WWII boardgames in my early teens were so influenced by WWII movies ('70s era and earlier) that even when I had deployed unit literally called "4th Indian Division" (or some such) I pictured white British guys.
posted by mark k at 9:04 PM on August 2, 2017


"It's just another example of some white men who chose to tell the story of some other white men. "
History, schmistory.
I don't recall a FFP about the lack of heroic white men in Birth of a Nation (no, the recent one.)
posted by Ideefixe at 9:12 PM on August 2, 2017


I really love how mark k's comment illustrates a cognitive revelation that Ideefixe hasn't had yet. It's a splendid unintentional after/before juxtaposition.
posted by bl1nk at 4:41 AM on August 3, 2017 [1 favorite]


As about 40% of the evacuees were French that seems like an obvious flaw in the makeup of the cast.

The evacuation of French troops is an important plot point, despite not being seen in the film, because it wouldn't fit the films narrative structure. The readiness of the British to sacrifice the French (and that in the end they don't) is illustrated though not depicted.
posted by Jahaza at 11:32 AM on August 7, 2017


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