The visual medium of film produces and reproduces the complex tension between individual agency and social categories—between looking at oneself and being looked at by others. The development of visual technologies such as photography and cinema have intersected powerfully with the social construction of race as both a scientific discourse and a form of cultural fantasy and social control. Studies of human motion by Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) and Félix-Louis Regnault, using chronophotography (a proto-cinematic technology of rapid photography), contributed to established pseudosciences of racial characteristics, such as craniology, while emphasizing the visual spectacle of racialized bodies as a form of scientific evidence. In this and other ways—including elaborate discourses of "miscegenation" on screen, discussed below—the new medium of film taught viewers to translate the scientific and legal discourses of race into a system of visible codes and stereotypes, a phenomenon that impacted social relations more broadly.
Representations of racial "primitivism" in the earliest nonfiction films also extended to dramatic genres as filmmakers turned to narratives in melodramatic and fantastic modes. Georges Méliès's Le Voyage dans la lune ( A Trip to the Moon , 1902) centers on an encounter between scientists and exotic primitives (the "selenites") on the moon, whose costumes, shields, and spears are meant to resemble an African display. The trope of the encounter between a European explorer and awed—or hostile—"natives" continues to have a powerful presence in films such as Black Robe (1991), The Mission (1986), At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991), and in the many cinematic depictions of Columbus and even the confrontation between the rebel heroes and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi (1983). Merian C. Cooper famously translated the narrative of the explorer encountering primitive peoples in an exotic land—a subject that had introduced him to filmmaking in the first place, with Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life (1925), made with Ernest B. Schoedsack and Marguerite Harrison—in the spectacular drama of King Kong (1933).
In the nascent field of anthropology and documentary cinema, films such as Edward S. Curtis's (1898–1970) In the Land of the Headhunters (1914) and Robert J. Flaherty's (1884–1951) Nanook of the North (1922) actively suppressed signs of contemporary Native American modernity—such as rifles, wristwatches, blue jeans, and signs of written language—in order to present images of precontact, ahistorical indigenous primitives. In Nanook of the North , for example, Nanook (the Inuit actor Allakariallak) is amazed by a trader's gramophone and actually bites the record three times—a gesture that reinforces the pretense that the Inuit were antimodern, both childlike and bestial. The fact that Allakariallak is not listed in the credits as an actor, but rather conflated with the character "Nanook" that he and Flaherty created, presents the image of Nanook's inability to understand Western technology as a document of Inuit life rather than an artistic representation. In fact, as has been documented in the film Nanook Revisited (Clause Massot, 1990), the Inuit cast and film crew were so adept at manipulating Flaherty's machinery that they could take apart and fix his camera in the field. Nearly eighty years after Nanook of the North was released, the Inuit company Isuma Productions released Atanarjuat ( The Fast Runner , 2001) to international acclaim. The film, while emphasizing precontact Inuit life, explodes the illusion of the "Eskimo primitive" through its production footage during the credits, which presents the Inuit in Western clothes wielding the tools of film production and controlling the creation of their own images.
The pervasive trope of colonial encounter, with its European focal characters and masses of silenced "others" who signify the unknown, reveals an underlying Eurocentrism in cinema. Eurocentrism is an ideology that privileges European and Euro-American history and culture as the central, dominant, and superior measure of human accomplishment. Films that draw on the mystique of travel, colonial encounters, and the spectacle of cultural difference as primitivism convey powerful racializing tropes that bring the cinematic construction of race in the social sciences to the popular imagination through dramatic narratives and cinematic spectacle.