A hand drawn image of a camera, a reel, and a clapperboard.

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The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is examining the effect that film has on social, political, and cultural norms. The exhibit is titled Making Faces: Images of Exploitation and Empowerment in Cinema and is on display now through April 30, 2017.

The exhibit will feature films from the silent era and juxtapose those against films from the 1970s. Viewers will undoubtedly notice the difference between how African Americans and women are represented throughout cinematic history. Take Birth of a Nation (1915) for example.

The film is centered on life in the South after the Civil War. The film portrays black men as being rapists who force themselves on white women. Members of the Ku Klux Klan are portrayed as being the “heroes” who step in and save the day.

Although the depiction of black men couldn’t be further from the truth, the film was still wildly successful because it catered to public fears about African Americans. It’s ironic though because if anything, it was the other way around. White slave owners would often force themselves on black women.

But the film still stands as a reflection of the widespread thoughts, beliefs, and political attitudes during that time. Of additional note is that some of the “black actors” weren’t actually African Americans, they were white men dressed in blackface.

An example of gender roles can be seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) is initially portrayed as being a fashion-forward upscale woman. But by the end of the movie, she subverts the cultural norm by becoming a brave, adventurous, down-to-earth woman who wears jeans. It’s important to note that during this time period, it was considered highly controversial for women to wear jeans.

For those who are interested in this subject, here’s a question to ponder: are films mere reflections of our social, political, and cultural norms? Or are films actually changing those norms?