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They Can Hear Us: Surveillance and Race in “A Quiet Place”

The family in A Quiet Place (2018) lives a life marked by incessant trauma. Invisible to the hunters who are far more powerful than they are, the family remains safe from direct assault as long as they remain unheard by the hunters, who can’t see them. But that same invisibility means the everyday mundanities of life become a constant struggle marked by the terror of the horrific death that will claim them should they make an errant sound. A trip to the pharmacy could prove fatal; a hungry child could summon the hunters and put in danger the entire family. When sketched out in these broad strokes, A Quiet Place, as Kathryn Adams Burton pointed out to me when we left the theater, summons terror from its viewers by depicting the kind of institutional surveillance and violence that endanger Black lives in the US, without one person of color in the entire movie. Thinking with Simone Browne’s Dark Matters (2015), Jennifer Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line (2016), and Jared Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes (2008), I argue here that A Quiet Place places white characters in a non-white relationship with surveillance, which they overcome in a way that projects white ingenuity and strength and reinforces the centuries-old notion that those who live under the eye and ear of hyper-surveillance tactics do so because they deserve to and because they are not exceptional enough to evade those tactics.

 

surveillance screenshotThe Quiet family’s invisibility is literal: the creatures who hunt them have no sense equivalent to human vision and instead track their prey using hyper-developed listening abilities. They remain vigilant for the audible traces of their victims; sound is the thing that can put the family in trouble. Simone Browne highlights in Dark Matters the significance of visibility and invisibility in the history of antiblack surveillance in the US. Lantern laws in 18th century New York City stipulated that enslaved black and indigenous people must carry a lit lantern if they were in the streets after dark, a regulation that Browne understands as an act of “racializing surveillance,” a “form of knowledge production about the black, indigenous, and mixed-race subject” (79). Specifically, the knowledge created through the lantern laws marked bodies of color as “un-visible,” in need of illumination in order to be properly seen. And here “seen” slips into a couple of different meanings, encompassing not only the ocular but also the notion of “seeing” that connotes understanding and discernment.

The early technology of lantern surveillance, as well as the boundaries delineated by sundown towns, marked black, indigenous, and mixed-race bodies as untrustworthy, scheming, and therefore in need of ongoing surveillance that would make these bodies visible to the eye. At the heart of Dark Matters is Browne’s contention that the history and techniques of surveillance cannot be understood separate from their racializing work: “surveillance…is the fact of antiblackness” (10). So while the Quiet family is white, their relationship to the powerful beings that hunt them–an existence unseeable and unknowable apart from heightened measures of surveillance–appropriates signifiers of racialized surveillance in order to heighten the stakes of the movie’s characters.

feet sand screenshots

The family walks on sand in order to muffle their footsteps.

While Browne focuses primarily on acts of looking as mechanisms for violently enforcing the color line in Dark Matters, Jennifer Stoever traces the history of that same color line through listening practices. Stoever isn’t explicitly engaging surveillance studies the way Browne is, but her theorization of the “listening ear”–the social and political norms that shape how we hear race–includes surveillance acts that, like lantern laws, mark voices perceived to be non-white as always already ready to be monitored, bounded, and eliminated should they exceed their boundaries (13). For both Browne and Stoever, the act of surveilling uncovers a racializing sleight of hand: non-Whiteness is held up as that which stands out, though this racialization is proven backwards if we look and listen a bit closer. US looking and listening norms condition people to organize blackness and brownness and noise as aberrations against natural, invisible, inaudible whiteness, but it takes a good deal of white supremacist work to create this illusion (by “white supremacy,” I mean the social and political practices and institutions that reify and reward whiteness). Looking through brighter lights and sharper camera lenses at non-White subjects and listening through amplification devices and ubiquitous bugs to non-White subjects are both ways of drawing attention away from whiteness–the racialized construct that fuels US social, legal, and political praxis–and toward non-whiteness.

Stoever opens The Sonic Color Line by considering the violence visited upon Jordan Davis, Sandra Bland, and a Spring Valley High School student when each was considered too loud and unruly by white listening ears trained to surveil blackness. The Quiet family is listened to in the same way Davis, Bland, and the Spring Valley student were, in the same way non-whiteness has been surveilled in the US: with dire consequences for being too loud. But, by erasing black and brown bodies and histories from the screen, A Quiet Place divorces these surveillance tactics from their real-world context, where they work as tools of white supremacist systems to “fix and frame blackness as an object of surveillance” (Browne 7). Part of the fantasy of A Quiet Place involves “fixing and framing” whiteness as the objects of sonic surveillance practices that have historically worked to preserve and reward whiteness, not target it.

view of the far, screenshotWhile the Quiet family is subjected to antiblack surveillance techniques, they are otherwise marked as white–and not just based on what their skin color looks like. Farmers in a rural, hilly region of Upstate New York, the Quiet family navigates the apocalypse with a libertarian aplomb. They’re stocked and loaded when the government fails to protect its citizens, and they’re also aware of but not in collaboration with other survivors in the surrounding area. Operating outside the bustle of urban noise, which Stoever notes is marked as non-White by the listening ear, the Quiet family likely boasts generations of working class whites who benefited from the kind of social safety nets built by the New Deal, only to mistake the wealth those social programs built to be fully the fruits of their own hard work.

john krasinski watching screenshot

The father, played by John Krasinski, looks over their plot of land.

The independence and autonomy that the Quiet family demonstrates is not on its own a marker of whiteness, but the kind of wealth accumulation that makes non-collaborative survival possible is the kind that’s historically been more readily available to white folks in the US. It’s a history that is flattened, as is the history of the surveillance that shapes their lives. Their wealth simply exists, and viewers aren’t meant to wonder where it came from or at whose expense. Likewise, viewers learn very little about what the hunters are, where they came from, and why they’re here. The hunters just appear, terrifying sonic surveillers who carry signifiers of antiblack listening practices but who remain detached from the antiblack history of surveillance.

The racialized terror at the heart of A Quiet Place grows from the fear of being denied one’s whiteness, being subjected to the same controlling surveillance measures that have helped maintain the color line for centuries in the US. It’s a standard white sci-fi nightmare scenario where technologies spin out of control and subjugate all of humanity, white people included. It’s also a white exceptionalist fantasy, where whiteness–not just white people but the wealth and freedom created for white people by white supremacist systems–conquers the unconquerable. Jared Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes can prove helpful here, as he outlines the way racial ideology has shifted in recent decades to permit multiculturalism so long as it preserves whiteness. While systems like slavery and segregation were buttressed by explicit white supremacy, where whiteness = good and non-whiteness = bad, contemporary racial hierarchies are maintained by conceding that multiculturalism = virtuous and race-based solidarity = problematic. Here, white supremacy cloaks itself in diversity, hybridity, mixedness and points to any group that coheres around racial identity as regressive.

give thanks screenshotFlattening history is crucial to that ideological shift. In order to maintain a racial hierarchy that tips in favor of whiteness, past violence and kleptocratic seizures of money, resources, and lives must be removed from the equation so that the kind of multiculturalism that Sexton critiques can proceed as if all who participate do so on a level playing field. Whiteness becomes “something equivalent to the…ethnicities and cultures of nonwhite immigrants and American Indians” (Sexton 66). The field, of course, isn’t level when white supremacy has funneled centuries of ill-gotten gains to whiteness, so this kind of multiculturalism is a way of gaming the system, mixing up racial signifiers so that white folks can take on just enough racial signifiers to blend into a racially diverse society without giving up the power and privilege that continues to give them a leg up.

A Quiet Place follows a calculus similar to the multiculturalism Sexton describes. First, the movie extracts emotional responses of terror and dread through a mixture of racial signifiers, subjecting white characters to forms of surveillance rooted in antiblackness. With no historical context to explain the forms of surveillance the hunters use or the characters’ previous relationships to surveillance, the Quiet family’s whiteness becomes just another ethnicity, a flattened way of being in the world divorced from the white supremacist context that funnels resources their way. Their privilege and power become as invisible to viewers as they are to the hunters. By masking that privilege, A Quiet Place clears space for a fantasy world where the white heroes have survived by virtue of being simply more clever, more resourceful, more brave, more everything than all the black and brown people who have, by implication of their absence from the film, been killed off by the hunters.

all white screenshotA Quiet Place, then, takes a family of multiculturally white characters and positions them in roles white characters have become accustomed to occupying: that of world saviors–some of them even martyrs. Here, hyper-surveillance is simply a fact of life, and those who are able to live life free of the dire consequences of that hyper-surveillance are able to do so because they are exceptional. By this logic, what protects you from the police is either your innocence or your guile, not your whiteness. What guarantees your safety when you publicly challenge government policies is the righteousness of your cause, not your whiteness. What allows you to move in the dark without a lantern or to listen to your music loudly in public spaces without being shot or to cross borders without fear is your inherent virtue, not your whiteness. And when surveillance is positioned as a fact of life, and when those who avoid the crushing consequences of surveillance are understood to do so because they are virtuously exceptional, then those who are targeted, hunted, and killed using hyper-surveillance tactics are understood to be deserving of their fate because they are not virtuous or exceptional enough to avoid it. This is the logic that frames slavery as a choice, that cages children at the border, that influences and fixes elections across the globe but takes umbrage when subjected to the same tactics.

 

One terrible irony of a movie like A Quiet Place is that its flattened hyper-surveillance context makes it incapable of seeing and hearing the deep and rich history of black and brown evasion of hyper-surveillance. There’s an ingenuity coursing through activities of evading surveillance–“looking back,” marronage, and fugitivity chronicled by writers including Sylvia Wynter, Franz Fanon, Katherine McKittrick, and Simone Browne, among others–an ingenuity that evades hyper-surveillance and simultaneously exposes hyper-surveillance as antiblack while arguing against the notion that it is simply a fact of life and signalling avenues to freedom. Instead of those stories, though, the white Quiet family whispers to us a familiarly unsettling refrain: the white Quiet family, alone, can eradicate these terrors. The white Quiet family, alone, can fix this. The white Quiet family, alone, are exceptional.

Featured image, and all images in this post are screenshots from “A Quiet Place ALL TRAILERS – Emily Blunt & John Krasinski 2018 Horror Movie” by Youtube user Flicks And The City Clips.

Justin Adams Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his book, Posthuman Rap, is available now. He is also co-editing the forthcoming (2018) Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies. You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @j_adams_burton. His favorite rapper is one or two of the Fat Boys.

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Episode I: The Greatest Sound in the Galaxy: Sound and Star Wars

Ever tried listening to a Star Wars movie without the sound? –IGN, 1999
Sound is 50 percent of the motion-picture experience. –George Lucas

In the radio dramatization of Return of the Jedi (1996), a hibernation sickness-blinded Han Solo can tell bounty hunter Boba Fett is in the same room with him just by smelling him.  Later this month, Solo:  A Star Wars Story (part of the Anthology films, and as you might expect from the title, a prequel to Han Solo’s first appearance in Star Wars:  A New Hope) may be able to shed some light on how Han developed this particular skill.

Later in that dramatization, we have to presume Han is able to accurately shoot a blaster blind by hearing alone.  Appropriately, then, sound is integral to Star Wars.  For every iconic image in the franchise—from R2D2 to Chewbacca to Darth Vader to X-Wing and TIE-fighters to the Millennium Falcon and the light sabers—there is a correspondingly iconic sound.  In musical terms, too, the franchise is exemplary. John Williams, Star Wars’ composer, won the most awards of his career for his Star Wars (1977) score, including an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and three Grammys.  Not to mention Star Wars’ equally iconic diegetic music, such as the Mos Eisley Cantina band (officially known as Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes).

Without sound, there would be no Star Wars.  How else could Charles Ross’ One Man Star Wars Trilogy function?  In One Man Star Wars, Ross performs all the voices, music, and sound effects himself.  He needs no quick costume changes; indeed, in his rapid-fire, verbatim treatment, it is sound (along with a few gestures) that he uses to distinguish between characters.  His one-man show, in fact, echoes C-3PO’s performance of Star Wars to the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, a story told in narration and sound effects far more than in any visuals.  “Translate the words, tell the story,” says Luke in the radio dramatization of this scene.  That is what sound does in Star Wars. 

I believe that the general viewing public is aware on a subconscious level of Star Wars’ impressive sound achievements, even if this is not always articulated as such.  As Rick Altman noted in 1992 in his four and a half film fallacies, the ontological fallacy of film—while not unchallenged—began life with André Bazin’s “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” (1960) which argues that film cannot exist without image.  Challenging such an argument not only elevates silent film but also the discipline of film sound generally, so often regarded as an afterthought.  “In virtually all film schools,” Randy Thom wrote in 1999, “sound is taught as if it were simply a tedious and mystifying series of technical operations, a necessary evil on the way to doing the fun stuff.”

Film critic Pauline Kael wrote about Star Wars on original release in what Gianlucca Sergi terms a “harmful generalization” that its defining characteristic was its “loudness.”  Loud sound does not necessarily equal good sound in the movies, which audiences themselves can sometimes confuse.  “High fidelity recordings of gunshots and explosions, and well fabricated alien creature vocalizations” do not equal good sound design alone, as Thom has argued.  On the contrary, Star Wars’ achievements, Sergi posited, married technological invention with overall sound concept and refined if not defined the work of sound technicians and sound-conscious directors.

The reason why Star Wars is so successful aurally is because its creator, George Lucas, was invested in sound holistically and cohesively, a commitment that has carried through nearly every iteration of the franchise, and because his original sound designer, Ben Burtt, understood there was an art as well as a science to highly original, aurally “sticky” sounds.  Ontologically, then, Star Wars is a sound-based story, as reflected in the existence of the radio dramatizations (more on them later). This article traces the historical development of sound in not only the Star Wars films (four decades of them!) but also in other associated media, such as television and video games as well as examining aspects of Star Wars’ holistic sound design in detail.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .

As Chris Taylor points out, George Lucas “loved cool sounds and sweeping music and the babble of dialogue more than he cared for dialogue itself.”  In 1974, Lucas was working on The Radioland Murders, a screwball comedy thriller set in the fictional 1930s radio station WKGL.  Radio, indeed, had already made a strong impression on Lucas, such that legendary “Border blaster” DJ Wolfman Jack played an integral part in Lucas’ film American Graffiti (1973).  As Marcus Hearn picks up the story, Lucas soon realized that The Radioland Murders were going nowhere (the film would eventually be made in 1994).  Lucas then turned his sound-conscious sensibilities in a different direction, in “The Star Wars” project upon which he had been ruminating since his film school days at the University of Southern California.  Retaining creative control, and a holistic interest in a defined soundworld, were two aspects Lucas insisted upon during the development of the project that would become Star Wars.  Lucas had worked with his contemporary at USC, sound designer and recordist Walter Murch, on THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti, and Murch would go on to provide legendary sound work for The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979). Murch was unavailable for the new project, so Lucas then asked producer Gary Kurtz to visit USC to evaluate emerging talent.

Pursuing a Masters degree in Film Production at USC was Ben Burtt, whose BA was in physics.  In Burtt, Lucas found a truly innovative approach to film sound which was the genesis of Star Wars’ sonic invention, providing, in Sergi’s words, “audiences with a new array of aural pleasures.”  Sound is embodied in the narrative of Star Wars.  Not only was Burtt innovative in his meticulous attention to “found sounds” (whereas sound composition for science fiction films has previously relied on electronic sounds), he applied his meticulousness in character terms.  Burtt said that Lucas and Kurtz, “just gave me a Nagra recorder and I worked out of my apartment near USC for a year, just going out and collecting sound that might be useful.”

Ben Burtt plays the twang of steel guy wires, which formed the basis of the many blaster sounds (re-creating the moment with Miki Hermann for a documentary). Image by Flickr User: Tom Simpson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Inherent in this was Burtt’s relationship with sound, in the way he was able to construct a sound of an imaginary object from a visual reference, such as the light saber, described in Lucas’ script and also in concept illustrations by Ralph McQuarrie.  “I could kind of hear the sound in my head of the lightsabers even though it was just a painting of a lightsaber,” he said.  “I could really just sort of hear the sound maybe somewhere in my subconscious I had seen a lightsaber before.”  Burtt also shared with Lucas a sonic memory of sound from the Golden Age of Radio:  “I said, `All my life I’ve wanted to see, let alone work on, a film like this.’ I loved Flash Gordon and other serials, and westerns. I immediately saw the potential of what they wanted to do.”

But sir, nobody worries about upsetting a droid

Burtt has described the story of A New Hope as being told from the point of view of the droids (the robots).  While Lucas was inspired by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) to create the characters of droids R2-D2 (“Artoo”) and C-3PO (“Threepio”), the robots are patently non-human characters.  Yet, it was essential to imbue them with personalities.  There have been cinematic robots since Maria, but Burtt uniquely used sound to convey not only these two robots’ personalities, but many others as well.  As Jeanne Cavelos argues, “Hearing plays a critical role in the functioning of both Threepio and Artoo.  They must understand the orders of their human owners.”  Previous robots had less personality in their voices; for example, Douglas Rain, the voice of HAL in 2001:  A Space Odyssey, spoke each word crisply with pauses. Threepio is a communications expert, with a human-like voice, provided by British actor (and BBC Radio Drama Repertory Company graduate) Anthony Daniels.  According to Hearn, Burtt felt Daniels should use his own voice, but Lucas was unsure, wanting an American used car salesman voice.  Burtt prevailed, creating in Threepio, vocally, “a highly strung, rather neurotic character,” in Daniels’ words, “so I decided to speak in a higher register, at the top of the lungs.”  (Indeed, in the Diné translation of Star Wars [see below], Threepio was voiced by a woman, Geri Hongeva-Camarillo, something that the audience seemed to find hilarious.)

Artoo was altogether a more challenging proposition.  As Cavelos puts it, “Artoo, even without the ability to speak English, manages to convey a clear personality himself, and to express a range of emotions.”  Artoo’s non-speech sounds still convey emotional content.  We know when Artoo is frightened;

when he is curious and friendly;

and when he is being insulting.

(And although subtitled scenes of Artoo are amusing, they are not in the least necessary.)  Artoo’s language was composed and performed by Burtt, derived from the communication of babies:

we started making little vocal sounds between each other to get a feeling for it.  And it dawned on us that the sounds we were making were not actually so bad.  Out of that discussion came the idea that the sounds a baby makes as it learns to walk would be a direction to go; a baby doesn’t form any words, but it can communicate with sounds.

The approach to Artoo’s aural communications became emblematic of all of the sounds made by machines in Star Wars, creating a non-verbal language, as Kris Jacobs calls it, the “exclusive province” of the Star Wars universe.

Powers of observation lie with the mind, Luke, not the eyes

According to Gianlucca Sergi, the film soundtrack is composed of sound effects, music, dialogue, and silence, all of which work together with great precision in Star Wars, to a highly memorable degree.  Hayden Christensen, who played Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005), noted that when filming light saber battles with Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan Kenobi), he could not resist vocally making the sound effects associated with these weapons.

This a good illustration of how iconic the sound effects of Star Wars have become.  As Burtt noted above, he was stimulated by visuals to create the sound effects of the light sabers, though he was also inspired by the motor on a projector in the Department of Cinema at USC.  As Todd Longwell pointed out in Variety, the projector hum was combined with a microphone passed in front of an old TV to create the sound.  (It’s worth noting that the sounds of weapons were some of the first sound effects created in aural media, as in the case with Wallenstein, the first drama on German radio, in 1924, which featured clanging swords.)

If Burtt gave personality to robots through their aural communications, he created an innovative sound palette for far more than the light sabers in Star Wars.  In modifying and layering found sounds to create sounds corresponding to every aspect of the film world—from laser blasts (the sound of a hammer on an antenna tower guy wire) to the Imperial Walkers from Empire Strikes Back (modifying the sound of a machinist’s punch press combined with the sounds of bicycle chains being dropped on concrete)—he worked as meticulously as a (visual) designer to establish cohesion and impact.

Sergi argues that the sound effects in Star Wars can give subtle clues about the objects with which they are associated.  The sound of Imperial TIE fighters, which “roar” as they hurtle through space, was made from elephant bellows, and the deep and rumbling sound made by the Death Star is achieved through active use of sub-frequencies.  Meanwhile, “the rebel X-wing and Y-wing fighters attacking the Death Star, though small, emit a wider range of frequencies, ranging from the high to the low (piloted as they are by men of different ages and experience).”  One could argue that even here, Burtt has matched personality to machine.  The varied sounds of the Millennium Falcon (jumping into hyperspace, hyperdrive malfunction), created by Burtt by processing sounds made by existing airplanes (along with some groaning water pipes and a dentist’s drill), give it, in the words of Sergi, a much more “grown-up” sound than Luke’s X-Wing fighter or Princess Leia’s ship, the Tantive IV.  Given that, like its pilot Han Solo, the Falcon is weathered and experienced, and Luke and Leia are comparatively young and ingenuous, this sonic shorthand makes sense.

Millions of voices

Michel Chion argues that film has tended to be verbocentric, that is, that film soundtracks are produced around the assumption that dialogue, and indeed the sense of the dialogue rather than the sound, should be paramount and most easily heard by viewers.  Star Wars contradicts this convention in many ways, beginning with the way it uses non-English communication forms, not only the droid languages discussed above but also its plethora of languages for various denizens of the galaxy.  For example, Cavelos points out that Wookiees “have rather inexpressive faces yet reveal emotion through voice and body language.”

While the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special may have many sins laid at its door, among them must surely be that the only Wookiee who actually sounds like a Wookiee is Chewbacca.  His putative family sound more like tauntauns.  Such a small detail can be quite jarring in a universe as sonically invested as Star Wars. 

While many of the lines in Star Wars are eminently quotable, the vocal performances have perhaps received less attention than they deserve.  As Starr A. Marcello notes, vocal performance can be extremely powerful, capitalizing on the “unique timbre and materiality that belong to a particular voice.”  For example, while Lucas originally wanted Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune to play Obi-Wan, Alec Guinness’ patrician Standard English Neutral accent clearly became an important part of the character. For example, when (Scottish) actor Ewan McGregor was cast to play the younger version of Obi-Wan, he began voice lessons to reproduce Guinness’ voice. Ian McDiarmid (also Scottish), a primarily a Shakespearean stage actor, was cast as arch-enemy the Emperor in Return of the Jedi, presumably on the quality of his vocal performance, and as such has portrayed the character in everything from Revenge of the Sith to Angry Birds Star Wars II

Sergi argues that Harrison Ford as Han Solo performs in a lower pitch but an unstable meter, a characterization explored in the radio dramatizations of A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, when Perry King stands in for Ford.  By contrast, Mark Hamill voices Luke in two of the radio dramatizations, refining and intensifying his film performances.  Sergi argues that Hamill’s voice emphasizes youth:  staccato, interrupting/interrupted, high pitch.

And affectionately parodied here:

I would add warmth of tone to this list, perhaps illustrated nowhere better than in Hamill’s performance in episode 1 – “A Wind to Shake the Stars” of the radio dramatization, which depicts much of Luke’s story that never made it onscreen, from Luke’s interaction with his friends in Beggar’s Canyon to a zany remark to a droid (“I know you don’t know, you maniac!”). It will come as no surprise to the listeners of the radio dramatization that Hamill would find acclaim in voice work (receiving multiple nominations and awards).  In the cinematic version, Hamill’s performance is perhaps most gripping during the climactic scene in Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader tells him:

According to Hamill, “what he was hearing from Vader that day were the words, ‘You don’t know the truth:  Obi-Wan killed your father.’  Vader’s real dialogue would be recorded in postproduction under conditions easier to control.”  More on that (and Vader) shortly.

It has been noted that Carrie Fisher (who was only nineteen when A New Hope was filmed) uses an accent that wavers between Standard North American and Standard Neutral English.  Fisher has explained this as her emulating experienced British star of stage and screen Peter Cushing (playing Grand Moff Tarkin).

However, the accents of Star Wars have remained a contentious if little commented upon topic, with most (if not all) Imperial staff from A New Hope onwards speaking Standard Neutral English (see the exception, stormtroopers, further on).  In production terms, naturally, this has a simple explanation.  In story terms, however, fans have advanced theories regarding the galactic center of the universe, with an allegorical impetus in the form of the American Revolution.  George Lucas, after all, is an American, so the heroic Rebels here have echoes with American colonists throwing off British rule in the 18th century, inspired in part because of their geographical remove from centers of Imperial rule like London.  Therefore, goes this argument, in Star Wars, worlds like Coruscant are peopled by those speaking Standard Neutral English, while those in the Outer Rim (the majority of our heroes) speak varieties of Standard North American.  Star Wars thus both advances and reinforces the stereotype that the Brits are evil.

It is perhaps appropriate, then, that James Earl Jones’ performance as Darth Vader has been noted for sounding more British than American, though Sergi emphasizes musicality rather than accent, the vocal quality over verbocentricity:

The end product is a fascinating mixture of two opposite aspects:  an extremely captivating, operatic quality (especially the melodic meter with which he delivers the lines) and an evil and cold means of destruction (achieved mainly through echoing and distancing the voice).

It is worth noting that Lucas originally wanted Orson Welles, perhaps the most famous radio voice of all time, to portray Vader, yet feared that Welles would be too recognizable.  That a different voice needed to emanate from behind Vader’s mask than the actor playing his body was evident from British bodybuilder David Prowse’s “thick West Country brogue.”  The effect is parodied in the substitution of a Cockney accent from Snatch (2000) for Jones’ majestic tones:

A Newsweek review of Jones in the 1967 play A Great White Hope argued that Jones had honed his craft through “Fourteen years of good hard acting work, including more Shakespeare than most British actors attempt.”  Sergi has characterized Jones’ voice as the most famous in Hollywood, in part because in addition to his prolific theatre back catalogue, Jones took bit parts and voiced commercials—“commercials can be very exciting,” he noted.  The two competing forces combined to create a memorable performance, though as others have noted, Jones is the African-American voice to the white actors who portrayed Anakin Skywalker (Clive Revill and Hayden Christensen), one British, one American.

Brock Peters, also African American and known for his deep voice, played Vader in the radio dramatizations.  Jennifer Stoever notes that in America, the sonic color line “historically contoured, identified, and marked mismatches between ‘sounding white’ and ‘looking black’” (231) whereas the Vader performances “sound black” and “look white.” Andrew Howe in his chapter “Star Wars in Black and White” notes the “tension between black outer visage and white interior identity [ . . ] Blackness is thus constructed as a mask of evil that can be both acquired and discarded.”

Like many of the most important aspects of Star Wars, Vader’s sonic presence is multi-layered, consisting in part of Jones’ voices manipulated by Burtt, as well as the sonic indicator of his presence:  his mechanized breathing”

The concept for the sound of Darth Vader came about from the first film, and the script described him as some kind of a strange dark being who is in some kind of life support system.  That he was breathing strange, that maybe you heard the sounds of mechanics or motors, he might be part robot, he might be part human, we really didn’t know.  [ . . .] He was almost like some robot in some sense and he made so much noise that we had to sort of cut back on that concept.

On radio, a character cannot be said to exist unless we hear from him or her; whether listening to the radio dramatizations or watching Star Wars with our eyes closed, we can always sense the presence of Vader by the sound of his breathing.  As Kevin L. Ferguson points out, “Is it accidental, then, that cinematic villains, troubling in their behaviour, are also often troubled in their breathing?”  As Kris Jacobs notes, “Darth Vader’s mechanized breathing can’t be written down”—it exists purely in a sonic state.

Your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them

Music is the final element of Sergi’s list of what makes up the soundtrack, and John Williams’ enduring musical score is the most obvious of Star Wars’ sonic elements. Unlike “classical era” Hollywood film composers like Max Steiner or Erich Korngold who, according to Kathryn Kalinak, “entered the studio ranks with a fair amount of prestige and its attendant power, Williams entered as a contract musician working with ‘the then giants of the film industry,’” moving into a “late-romantic idiom” that has come to characterize his work.  This coincided with what Lucas envisioned for Star Wars, influenced as it was by 1930s radio serial culture.

Williams’ emotionally-pitched music has many elements that Kalinak argues link him with the classical score model:  unity, the use of music in the creation of mood and character; the privileging of music in moments of spectacle, the way music and dialogue are carefully mixed. This effect is exemplified in the opening of A New Hope, the “Main Title” or, as Dr Lehman has it (see below), “Main/Luke A.”  As Sergi notes, “the musical score does not simply fade out to allow the effects in; it is, rather literally, blasted away by an explosion (the only sound clearly indicated in the screenplay).”

As Kalinak points out, it was common in the era of Steiner and Korngold to score music for roughly three-quarters of a film, whereas by the 1970s, it was more likely to be one-quarter.  “Empire runs 127 minutes, and Williams initially marked 117 minutes of it for musical accompaniment”; while he used three themes from A New Hope, “the vast majority of music in The Empire Strikes Back was scored specifically for the film.”

Perhaps Williams’ most effective technique is the use of leitmotifs, derived from the work of Richard Wagner, and more complex than a simple repetition of themes.  Within leitmotifs, we hear the blending of denotative and connotative associations, as Matthew Bribitzer-Stull notes, “not just a musical labelling of people and things” but also, as Thomas S. Grey puts it, “a matter of musical memory, of recalling things dimly remembered and seeing what sense we can make of them in a new context.”  Bribitzer-Stull also notes the complexity of Williams’ leitmotif use, given that tonal music is given for both protagonists and antagonists, resisting the then-cliché of using atonal music for antagonists.  In Williams’ score, atonal music is used for accompanying exotic landscapes and fight or action scenes.  As Jonathan Broxton explains,

That’s how it works. It’s how the films maintain musical consistency, it’s how characters’ musical identities are established, and it offers the composer an opportunity to create interesting contrapuntal variations on existing ideas, when they are placed in new situations, or face off against new opponents.

Within the leitmotifs, Williams provides various variations and disruptions, such as the harmonic corruption when “the melody remains largely the same, but its harmonization becomes dissonant.” One of the most haunting ways in which Williams alters and reworks his leitmotifs is what Bribitzer-Stull calls “change of texture.”

Frank Lehman of Harvard has examined Williams’ leitmotifs in detail, cataloguing them based on a variety of meticulous criteria.  He has noted, for example, that some leitmotifs are used often, like “Rebel Fanfare” which has been used in Revenge of the Sith, A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and Rogue One.  Lehman particularly admires Williams’ skill and restraint, though, in reserving particular leitmotifs for very special occasions.  For example, “Luke & Leia,” first heard in Return of the Jedi (both film and radio dramatization) and not again until The Last Jedi:

While Williams’ use of leitmotifs is successful and evocative, not all of Star Wars’ music consists of leitmotifs, as Lehman points out; single, memorable pieces of music not heard elsewhere are still startlingly effective.

In the upcoming Solo, John Williams will contribute a new leitmotif for Han Solo, while all other material will be written and adapted by John Powell.  Williams has said in interview that “I don’t make a particular distinction between ‘high art’ and ‘low art.’  Music is there for everybody.  It’s a river we can all put our cups into, and drink it, and be sustained by it.”  The sounds of Star Wars have sustained it—and us—and perfectly illustrate George Lucas’ investment in the equal power of sound to vision in the cinematic experience.  I, for one, am looking forward to what new sonic gems may be unleashed as the saga continues.

On the first week of June, Leslie McMurtry will return with Episode II, focusing on shifts in sound in the newer films and multi-media forms of Star Wars, including radio and cartoons–and, if we are lucky, her take on Solo!

Featured Image made here: Enjoy!

 Leslie McMurtry has a PhD in English (radio drama) and an MA in Creative and Media Writing from Swansea University.  Her work on audio drama has been published in The Journal of Popular Culture, The Journal of American Studies in Turkey, and Rádio-Leituras.  Her radio drama The Mesmerist was produced by Camino Real Productions in 2010, and she writes about audio drama at It’s Great to Be a Radio Maniac.

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Playin’ Native and Other Iterations of Sonic Brownface in Hollywood Representations of Dolores Del Río

Mexican actress Dolores Del Río is admired for her ability to break ground; her dance skills allowed her to portray roles not offered to many women of color early in the 20th Century. One of her most popular roles was in the movie Ramona (1928), directed by Edwin Carewe. Her presence in the movie made me think about sonic representations of mestizaje and indigeneity through the characters portrayed by Del Río. According to  Priscilla Ovalle, in Dance and the Hollywood Latina: Race, Sex and Stardom (2010), Dolores del Río was representative of Mexican nationhood while she was a rising star in Hollywood. Did her portrayals reinforce ways of hearing and viewing mestizos and First Nation people in the American imaginary? Is it sacrilegious to examine the Mexican starlet through sonic brownface? I explore these questions through two films, Ramona and Bird of Paradise (1932, directed by King Vidor), where Dolores del Río plays a mestiza and a Polynesian princess, respectively, to understand the deeper impact she had in Hollywood through expressions of sonic brownface.

Before I delve into analysis of these films and the importance of Ramona the novel and film adaptions, I wish to revisit the concept of sonic brownface I introduced here in SO! in 2013. Back then, I argued that the movie Nacho Libre and Jack Black’s characterization of “Nacho” is sonic brownface: an aural performativity of Mexicanness as imagined by non-Mexicans. Jennifer Stoever, in The Sonic Color Line (2017), postulates that how we listen to particular body(ies) are influenced by how we see them. The notion of sonic brownface facilitates a deeper examination of how ethnic and racialized bodies are not just seen but heard.

Picture of Del Rio as Luana in BIRDS OF PARADISE, available in the public domain.

Through my class lectures this past year, I realized there is more happening in the case of Dolores del Río, in that sonic brownface can also be heard in the impersonation of ethnic roles she portrayed. In the case of Dolores del Río, though Mexicana, her whiteness helps Hollywood directors to continue portraying mestizos and native people in ways that they already hear them while asserting that her portrayal helps lend authenticity due to her nationality. In the two films I discuss here, Dolores del Río helps facilitate these sonic imaginings by non-Mexicans, in this case the directors and agent who encouraged her to take on such roles. Although a case can be made that she had no choice, I imagine that she was quite astute and savvy to promote her Spanish heritage, which she credits for her alabaster skin. This also opens up other discussions about colorism prevalent within Latin America.

First, let us focus on the appeal of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (1884), as it is here that the cohabitation of Scots, Spanish, Mestizos, and Native people are first introduced to the American public in the late 19th century. According to Evelyn I. Banning, in 1973’s Helen Hunt Jackson, the author wanted to write a novel that brought attention to the plight of Native Americans. The novel highlights the new frontier of California shortly after the Mexican American War. Though the novel was critically acclaimed, many folks were more intrigued with “… the charm of the southern California setting and the romance between a half-breed girl raised by an aristocratic Spanish family and an Indian forced off his tribal lands by white encroachers.” A year after Ramona was published, Jackson died and a variety of Ramona inspired projects that further romanticized Southern California history and its “Spanish” past surged. For example, currently in Hemet, California there is the longest running outdoor “Ramona” play performed since 1923. Hollywood was not far behind as it produced two silent-era films, starring Mary Pickford and Dolores del Río.

The charm of the novel Ramona is that it reinforces a familiar narrative of conquest with the possibility of all people co-existing together. As Philip Deloria reminds us in Playing Indian (1999), “The nineteenth-century quest for a self-identifying national literature … [spoke] the simultaneous languages of cultural fusion and violent appropriation” (5). The nation’s westward expansion and Jackson’s own life reflected the mobility and encounters settlers experienced in these territories. Though Helen Hunt Jackson had intended to bring more attention to the mistreatment of native people in the West, particularly the abuse of indigenous people by the California Missions, the fascination of the Spanish speaking people also predominated the American imaginary. To this day we still see in Southern California the preference of celebrating the regions Spanish past and subduing the native presence of the Chumash and Tongva. Underlying Jackson’s novel and other works like Maria Amparo Ruiz De Burton The Squatter and the Don (1885) is their critique of the U.S. and their involvement with the Mexican American War. An outcome of that war is that people of Mexican descent were classified as white due to the signing of Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and were treated as a class apart. (See Michael Olivas’ anthology, Colored Men and Hombres Aqui from 2006 and Ignacio M. García, White but not Equal from 2008). These novels and films reflect the larger dominant narrative of whiteness and its relationship to nation building. Through Pickford’s and del Río’s portrayals of Ramona they reinforce the whiteness of mestizaje.

Screenshot from RAMONA (1910). Here, Ramona (played by Mary Pickford) finds out that she has “Indian blood.”

In 1910, Mary Pickford starred in D.W. Griffith’s short film adaptation of Ramona as the titular orphan of Spanish heritage. Henry B. Walthall played Alessandro, the Native American, in brownface to mimic physical attributes of the native Chumash of Southern California. Griffith also wanted to add authenticity by filming in Camulas, Ventura County, the land of the Chumash and where Jackson based her novel. The short is a sixteen-minute film that takes viewers through the encounter between Alessandro and Ramona and their forbidden love, as she was to be wedded to Felipe, a Californio. There is a moment in the movie when Ramona is told she has “Indian blood”. Exalted, Mary Pickford says “I’m so happy” (6:44-6:58). Their short union celebrates love of self and indigeneity that reiterates Jackson’s compassionate plea of the plight of native people. In the end, Alessandro dies fighting for his homeland, and Ramona ends up with Felipe. Alessandro, Ramona, and Felipe represent the archetypes in the Westward expansion. None had truly the power but if mestizaje is to survive best it serve whiteness.

Poster of 1928’s RAMONA, under fair use

Edwin Carewe’s rendition of Ramona in 1928 was United Artists’ first film release with synchronized sound and score. Similar to the Jazz Singer in 1927, are pivotal in our understanding of sonic brownface. Through the use of synchronized scored music, Hollywood’s foray into sound allowed itself creative license to people of color and sonically match it to their imaginary of whiteness. As I mentioned in my 2013 post, the era of silent cinema allowed Mexicans in particular, to be “desirable and allowed audiences to fantasize about the man or woman on the screen because they could not hear them speak.” Ramona was also the first feature film for a 23-year-old Dolores del Río, whose beauty captivated audiences. There was much as stake for her and Carewe. Curiously, both are mestizos, and yet the Press Releases do not make mention of this, inadvertently reinforcing the whiteness of mestizaje: Del Río was lauded for her Spanish heritage (not for being Mexican), and Carewe’s Chickasaw ancestry was not highlighted. Nevertheless, the film was critically acclaimed with favorable reviews such as Mordaunt Hall’s piece in the New York Times published May 15, 1928. He writes, “This current offering is an extraordinarily beautiful production, intelligently directed and, with the exception of a few instances, splendidly acted.” The film had been lost and was found in Prague in 2005. The Library of Congress has restored it and is now celebrated as a historic film, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary on May 20th.

In Ramona, Dolores del Río shows her versatility as an actor, which garners her critical acclaim as the first Mexicana to play a starring role in Hollywood. Though Ramona is not considered a talkie, the synchronized sound comes through in the music. Carewe commissioned a song written by L. Wolfe Gillbert with music by Mabel Wayne, that was also produced as an album. The song itself was recorded as an instrumental ballad by two other musicians, topping the charts in 1928.

In the movie, Ramona sings to Allessandro. As you will read in the lyrics, it is odd that it is not her co-star Warner Baxter who sings, as the song calls out to Ramona. Del Río sounds angelic as the music creates high falsettos. The lyrics emphasize English vernacular with the use of “o’er” and “yonder” in the opening verse. There are moments in the song where it is audible that Del Río is not yet fluent speaking, let alone singing in English. This is due to the high notes, particularly in the third verse, which is repeated again after the instrumental interlude.

I dread the dawn
When I awake to find you gone
Ramona, I need you, my own

Each time she sings “Ramona” and other areas of the song where there is an “r”, she adds emphasis with a rolling “r,” as would be the case when speaking Spanish. Through the song it reinforces aspects of sonic brownface with the inaudible English words, and emphasis on the rolling “rrrr.” In some ways, the song attempts to highlight the mestiza aspects of the character. The new language of English spoken now in the region that was once a Spanish territory lends authenticity through Dolores del Río’s portrayal. Though Ramona is to be Scottish and Native, she was raised by a Spanish family named Moreno, which translates to brown or darker skin. Yes, you see the irony too.

United Artists Studio Film Still, under Fair Use

Following Del Río’s career, she plays characters from different parts of the world, usually native or Latin American. As Dolores del Río gained more popularity in Hollywood she co-starred in several movies such as Bird of Paradise (1932), directed by King Vidor, in which she plays a Polynesian Princess. Bird of Paradise focuses on the love affair between the sailor, played by Joel McCrea, and herself. The movie was controversial as it was the first time we see a kiss between a white male protagonist with a non-Anglo female, and some more skin, which caught the eye of The Motion Picture Code commission. Though I believe the writers attempted to write in Samoan, or some other language of the Polynesian islands, I find that her speech may be another articulation of sonic brownface. Beginning with the “talkies,” Hollywood continued to reiterate stereotypical representations though inaccurate music or spoken languages.

In the first encounter between the protagonists, Johnny and Luana, she greets him as if inviting him to dance. He understands her. He is so taken by her beauty that he “rescues” her to live a life together on a remote island. Though they do not speak the same language at first it does not matter because their love is enough. This begins with the first kiss. When she points to her lips emphasizing kisses, which he gives her more of. The movie follows their journey to create a life together but cannot be fully realized as she knows the sacrifice she must pay to Pele.

I do not negate the ground breaking work that Dolores del Río accomplished while in Hollywood. It led her to be an even greater star when she returned to Mexico. However, even her star role as Maria Candelaria bares some examination through sonic brownface. It is vital to examine how the media reinforces the imaginary of native people as not well spoken or inarticulate, and call out the whiteness of mestizaje as it inadvertently eliminates the presence of indigeneity and leaves us listening to sonic brownface.

reina alejandra prado saldivar is an art historian, curator, and adjunct lecturer in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program and Liberal Studies Department at CSULA and in the Critical Studies Program at CALArts. As a cultural activist, she focused her earlier research on Chicano cultural production and the visual arts. Prado is also a poet and performance artist known for her interactive durational work Take a Piece of my Heart as the character Santa Perversa (www.santaperversa.com) and is currently working on her first solo performance entitled Whipped!

Featured image: Screenshot from “Ramona (1928) – Brunswick Hour Orchestra

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SO! Reads: Dolores Inés Casillas’s ¡Sounds of Belonging! – Monica de la Torre

Speaking American

This is something you just don’t hear about in the history books.

–Alex Hutchinson, Creative Director, Assassin’s Creed III

What does it mean to speak American?  According to Laura Amico, a teacher in the Cliffside Park school district in New Jersey, to speak American is the opposite of speaking Spanish.  As suggested by this video, captured by students via Snapchat before they walked out in protest, to be American is the same as to speak American. Evidently, to speak American is to speak English, a historical curiosity, given that English was not spoken on the North American continent until the 17th century, preceded by many Native American languages and, ironically, Spanish. In simplest terms, “American English” is not a homogenous dialect either.  What kind of “American English” does Laura Amico exalt as acceptable for patriotic conduct?  How does an American patriot speak?

Colonel Tarleton, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1782, British National Gallery, CC license

In The Patriot (2000), Mel Gibson plays Benjamin Martin, a hero of the French and Indian War, who is forced out of his South Carolina plantation-managing life to avenge the deaths of his sons at the hands of the British during the American Revolution.  The main British villain of that film, the fictional Colonel Tavington,–played in sneering style by Jason Isaacs—is notable for his barbaric conduct (among other things, he traps civilians in a barn and burns them alive).  British audiences were noticeably aghast at this characterization, which implicitly compared British command of the time period to Nazi atrocities in World War II.  Tavington may in part have been based on Banastre Tarleton, a notorious and brutal, misogynist dragoon whose victory at Monck’s Corner was among the bloodiest battles in the dirty war fought in the south at the end of the Revolution, or Lord Rawdon, a serial rapist and generally unpleasant English officer.

Nevertheless, Tavington’s barn-burning exploits are more likely based on American General John Sullivan’s slash-and-burn campaign against British-allied Mohawks, Senecas, Onondagas, and Cayugas, a subject little discussed in American history.  This culminated in a 1782 massacre at Gnadenhutten in Ohio, where white Americans murdered 96 Delawares who had converted to the Moravian faith (pacifists).   Evidently, in The Patriot, the conflict was not a civil war, and character was constructed in part through dialect (as detailed below, dialect here refers to all the clues in the way a person speaks, not just his or her accent).

Although Tavington’s conduct in The Patriot manifested visibly onscreen, his dialect said much about him.  As noted in a recent Atlantic Monthly article, entertainment—such as Disney cartoons—can “take [bias] and pour concrete over it.”  Rosina Lippi-Green, a linguist, notes that such biases are then difficult to remove: “They etch it in.” Another linguist, Chi Luu, suggests that with English RP (see below), the effect is more subtle; such accents go beyond “pure evil” by shading villains as more educated and intelligent—but still bad.  Relating these findings to The Patriot, viewers understand Tavington as educated, intelligent, and evil through his English RP dialect; moreover, in black-and-white terms, his dialect makes tangible that he is completely different from the rough-and-ready, courageous Benjamin Martin.  An aural line is drawn between American “good guys” and British “bad guys.”  The British are fighting just to be sadistic or greedy; the Americans are fighting to defend their way of life.

Compared to media about other American conflicts, there has been little recent dramatic depiction of the American Revolution.  Historically, one reason dramatizations of the American Revolution have historically remained rare is the tradition of American reverence for the “Founding Fathers,” causing their depiction as human beings to be circumscribed.  Just as visual conventions have been built up regarding the antagonists of the conflict, so, too, have aural conventions in audio-visual representations such as a general use of a Standard North American accent for American (patriot) characters (whether they hail from northern or southern colonies) and English RP for all (villainous) British characters.  The effect of this is epitomized by the example from The Patriot above:  “good guys” versus “bad guys.”

While the way characters sound is important in most creative works—from the written dialect of Dickens’s characters to the chilling, mask-assisted tones of Darth Vader—it is no more so than in audio drama.  Richard J. Hand and Mary Traynor have argued in the The Radio Drama Handbook (2011) that the elements of audio drama are words, music, sound, and silence.  Arguably the most important of these to the audio drama are words.  Alan Beck’s work on radio acting further argues that to create character through words and sound, refinement of dialect is needed. In this context, dialect refers to more than just a regional pronunciation:  it includes details on a character’s geographical region, social class, gender, age, style, and subgroup.

In terms of The Patriot, probably the highest profile pop cultural depiction of the American Revolution until Hamilton, accents mattered.  “A well-educated British accent,” in American films at least, “had come to serve as a sufficient shorthand for villainy” as Glancy pointed out, or  “British, upper class, and a psychopath, happily burning people alive,” as a 2010 Daily Mail article put it.  Whatever his villainy, would a historical Colonel Tavington, have sounded the way he did as depicted in The Patriot?  How did those on the North American continent in the 18th century sound?

Richard Cullen Rath has convincingly argued that sound was incredibly important in colonial America, but what role did speech in English have?  David Crystal, in discussing the Globe Theatre’s 2004 production of Romeo and Juliet in original pronunciation (OP)/Early Modern English (EME), was most frequently asked one question:  how do we know?  How do we know what Shakespeare’s English sounded like?  For EME, spelling, contemporary accounts of the language, and the use of rhythms, rhymes, and puns illuminate this area.  Crystal noted that EME would not sound like any modern accent but would have the pronunciation of “rs” in common with “rural” accents, as in Ireland and the West Country (Somerset).

This is important because the association of Shakespeare with a certain kind of English accent—the RP referred to below—has long had the effect of making his works less accessible than they might have been.  If Shakespeare’s actual working dialect had more in common with “rural” accents like Irish and West Country, the latter of which is often still designated as a shorthand for stupidity in common with American southern dialect, this has a liberating effect on Shakespeare in performance.  It may sound “strange” at first, but it suggests that Shakespeare can/should be performed in a vernacular, at the very least to make it more accessible to a wide variety of audiences.

Crystal has suggested that, “It is unfortunately all too common to hear accents on stage or film in which—notwithstanding the best efforts of dialect coaches—accuracy and consistency throughout the performance leaves, shall we say, a little to be desired.” Sky 1’s recent big-budget effort in historical drama, Jamestown, set in 1619, is diverse and rich in dialect, with characters speaking with Irish, northern English, southern English, and Scottish accents—nor are they uniform in suggesting that one accent will signify the character’s goodness or badness (though it has to be said most of the southern English-speaking characters are, at the very least, antagonistic).   Most of the Native American characters have so far not spoken English rather than racist “Tonto talk,” and white English-speaking characters must speak Powhatan (or use sign language) in order to communicate.  As actor Jay Tavare points out, early Hollywood was not concerned with the accurate portrayal of indigenous languages, given that Navajo extras were most often used in Westerns (meaning the Diné language of the southwest was heard regardless of where the film was set). More recently, even such films as Dances with Wolves (1991), which has generally received praise for its accurate portrayal of Sioux/Lakota culture, included Lakota dialogue which was linguistically imprecise. Clearly, there is still a long way to go.

Suppose we decide we cannot ever know how such historical actors sounded, so we decide to depict 18th century English speakers based on other criteria.  How do directors, actors, and voice coaches bring the viewer/listener as close to the author’s intent as possible in fictional depictions of the years surrounding the American Revolution?  How is the 18th century made accessible through dialect?  As Glancy suggests above, British officers in film, television, and radio depictions of the American Revolution are most commonly associated with Received Pronunciation (RP), though the term was not coined until 1869, and, as Crystal points out, the “best speech” heard in the English court of the 16th century was “nothing like” RP.  In fact, it was probably influenced by the Devonshire accents of Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh (an English so far in Jamestown associated with servants . . .).  As Edda Sharp and Jan Haydn Rowles point out in How to Do Standard English Accents, RP has almost disappeared in England, “now confined to a very small section of society, the older upper and upper middle classes, older actors and broadcasters.”

The officer class of the British Army in the 18th century was in fact largely composed of Scots (as per Stuart Reid and Paul Chappell)—though how much they retained their Scottish identity (including accent) is of course impossible to know.  As Kevin Phillips in 1775:  A Good Year for a Revolution points out, within England, support for the colonies during the American Revolution was generally strongest in the major cities and in the eastern and southern counties—the same places where during the Civil War, support had been strongest for Parliament and Cromwell.  Support in Scotland was limited to a small fringe.  By contrast, statistics from Revolutionary America 1763 to 1800: Almanacs of American Life on the ancestral origins of the white population of Virginia in 1790 make Scotch-Irish (11.7%) and Scottish (5.9%), the second-largest groups after English.  References to the Scottish officer class are made in Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, where Colonel Munro is referred to as “the Scotsman” (played memorably in the Michael Mann film by Maurice Roëves).  Beal suggests that guides to “correct” pronunciation in the 18th century were often written by and for Scots—to pass as “British.”  The Scottish people have had a long history of wishing to disassociate themselves from rule by the English (as evident in the 2014 Scottish Referendum).  The Wars of Scottish Independence in the 13th and 14th centuries were fought between English and Scottish forces, at the conclusion of which Scotland retained its status as an independent state. However, in 1707, the Act of Union unified England and Scotland under one government.

With these many regional British accents potentially to be heard in the British Army in America in the 18th century, and with approximately 92.2% of white colonists in Virginia hailing from the British Isles in 1790 (including England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales), it is perhaps curious that there has been so little variation in dialect in media depictions such as films, TV, and radio.  Traditionally, for example, George Washington has been depicted with a Standard North American accent and not a modern southern American accent.   This is also true in the case of Colonial Williamsburg re-enactors.

Besides being generally a very sound depiction of the Revolutionary period, HBO’s John Adams (2008), based on David McCullough’s book, is also unusual as far as accents go.  John Adams gives the British King George III, played by Tom Hollander, Standard Neutral English, but it does something very unusual with its American characters.  Virginian characters (including Washington and Jefferson) have suspiciously Somerset-sounding accents.  John Adams introduces a clear regionalism in Anglo-American accents that goes beyond the singling out of the Boston accent (which is generally personified in John Adams himself).  It isn’t clear why this decision is made; the accent does not belong exclusively to Virginian characters, as it is also the accent of Benjamin Franklin, proudly Pennsylvanian, and Alexander Hamilton himself.  Is the shorthand present to aurally distinguish between Loyalists, and American rebels?  What affinity, one might ask, does the Somerset accent have with a depiction of the American character?

Standard North American speech is rhotic (people who say an ‘R’ whenever it is written), as is the Somerset accent (and, as Ben Zimmer explains, was associated with country speech in England from the 17th century).  This contrasts with Neutral Standard English Accent, which is non-rhotic (people who only say an ‘R’ if there is a vowel sound spoken after it).  Perhaps the filmmakers had in mind the best guesses about how “proper” Anglophones spoke in the 18th century, as in John Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791), where he normatively condemns rhotic English.  Then again, perhaps it is merely a storytelling expedient; look at the actors assembled to play Founding Fathers:

  • Washington – David Morse, American, born in Massachusetts
  • Jefferson – Richard Dillane, born in London
  • Hamilton – Rufus Sewell, born in southern England of Welsh and Australian parents
  • Franklin – Tom Wilkinson, born in Leeds, grew up in Canada
  • Sam Adams – Danny Huston, American, born in Rome

Standardization may have made practical sense, but the use of the rhotic sends a subtly different message than North American Standard English, and perhaps hints at the influence of David Crystal’s work on OP/EME.

First page of Noah Webster’s Compendious Dictionary (1806)

Even among linguists, North American 18th century English has not been examined to the extent that EME has, with Beal going no further than to suggest “the contact between the various regional dialects of the English-speaking colonists and the languages of the Native Americans and of other European colonists” would have influenced pronunciation, but she is not conclusive as to what extent.  Noah Webster in 1789 envisioned “a language in North America, as different from the future language of England, as the modern Dutch, Danish and Swedish are from the German or from one another” (cited in Mühleisen).  From the beginning, too, American fiction was concerned with pronunciations, with Cooper sensitive to those which “disclosed class or origins,” as Schachterle noted.  The word “Americanism,” in fact, was coined by John Witherspoon in 1781.  Its entry in Webster’s Compendious Dictionary (1806) is “a love of America and preference of her interest.”  As David Crystal points out, this was the first dictionary written in English to include words like butternut, caucus, checkers, chowder, constitutionality, hickory, opossum, skunk and succotash.  It was also the first dictionary to give now-familiar American spellings to words like color and defense.

It is probably not a surprise that many of the words above have their origins in Native American languages.  Black and Native voices (and use of dialect) are somewhat rare in media depictions of the Revolutionary period, notable exceptions being The Last of the Mohicans, with its heroes (“Hawkeye,” Uncas, and Chingachgook, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Eric Schweig, and Russell Means, respectively), as part of an extended, multi-racial family unit, speaking with a uniform Standard North American accent:

and Ubisoft’s smash video game, Assassin’s Creed III  (2012).

The hero of this Xbox/Playstation game is Connor/Ratohnhaké:ton (Noah Watts), half-British, half-Mohawk, who speaks Mohawk as well as English (again, no Tonto talk here), as taught by the project’s language consultant, Akwiratekha’ Martin.  However, again ignoring historical realities like the Sullivan campaign, the villains are British redcoats, echoing the storyline set up by The Patriot (Connor’s village is burned and his parents are killed by a British officer who sneers, “You are a nothing, living in the dirt like animals.”)  In a making-of featurette, the creators of Assassin’s Creed III note that it has more than two hours of “cinematics,” a concept that suggests that the game will be a more potent window into history for its users than film, television, radio, or books.  While it is positive that the game inaugurates a Native American action hero role model, it is disappointing that it recycles “the British are baddies” dialect trope.

In media like cartoons, video games, and audio drama, dialect supplies us with many clues about characters and what we should think and feel about them.  Class is still very much implicit in accents in Britain, and every time we open our mouths we display characteristics about ourselves, whether feigned or not.  When mass media-makers produce historical drama, they make choices.  Despite the United States’ and the United Kingdom’s “special relationship,” the “British are baddies” trope remains.  Its continued use and the future choices made by media-makers have much to say about Anglo-American relations and conventions in fiction today.

If, as suggested by several linguists identified in this article, children very quickly pick up conventions of who is “bad” via what they sound like, it behooves us to pay careful attention to the way mass media uses voices and what norms these establish, for listeners young and old.  Also, what accents filmmakers use for past accents may profoundly influence who can hear themselves as “American” in the present moment–one important reason why Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton resonated with contemporary audiences.  If teacher Laura Amico in the Cliffside Park school district in New Jersey has established that her pupils should “speak American,” what does this mean (besides the fact she expects them to speak English not Spanish)?  Should they, for example, speak like President Trump, who uses a New York Queens accent which, according to Jeff Guo, connotes “competence, aggressiveness and directness” despite the fact its speaker comes from a privileged background? As Guo suggests, the way we speak is at least as important as what we say. In response to reports that Trump mocked the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, by imitating his accent, Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi published a statement saying, “Americans are not defined by their accents, but by their commitment to this nation’s values and ideals.” That, perhaps, is speaking American?

Featured Image: Arno Victor Dorian, Assassin’s Creed Unity: Leon Chiro Cosplay Art

With thanks to Kenneth Longden and Matthew Kilburn

Leslie McMurtry has a PhD in English (radio drama) and an MA in Creative and Media Writing from Swansea University.  Her work on audio drama has been published in The Journal of Popular Culture, The Journal of American Studies in Turkey, and Rádio-Leituras.  Her radio drama The Mesmerist was produced by Camino Real Productions in 2010, and she writes about audio drama at It’s Great to Be a Radio Maniac.

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