Most people I associate with are (to my knowledge) not racists. But it seems to me that,
within the category of “not racist,” there are two subsets I think of as “active nonracists” and “passive nonracists.”
Active nonracists note the presence of race (and sex, and class, and ethnicity) when they’re dealing with people, but make a point to be respectful of cultural differences. These people marinate in diversity-seminars, sensitivity trainings, and ethnic history months. These people, it sometimes seems to me, are nonracists by drawing attention to race.
Passive nonracists, on the other hand, don’t even notice race. When they learn that someone is white, or black, or Asian, or Hispanic, they assume nothing about the person. They don’t even see race as an issue. (After all, why should it be?)
George Romero, the most famous director of zombie films (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead) falls into this second category. However, because he is praised so frequently for his exemplary creative work, people forget to laud him for his breathtaking lack-of-racistness, in an industry (movies) that plays on race-stereotypes to this day.
Romero cast Night of the Living Dead, his first film, in 1968. You’d think, with all the race-riots, bus boycotts, and political assassinations going on during this time, that he would at least be thinking about the race of his lead actor.
You’d be wrong.
As is well documented, Romero cast an African-American actor, Duane Jones, for the lead role of “Ben” in Night of the Living Dead simply because he came in and gave the best audition. That was all there was to it. He was the best man for the job, so he got it. Romero was so not-racist that he didn’t even see that having a black actor would change the way his film was perceived.
The rest of the country was not as enlightened as he.
Many viewers assumed that Ben’s race was part of the film’s message, and interpreted the film’s conclusion (in which Ben is mistaken for a zombie and shot) as an allegory for lynching. Even the purportedly-progressive New York Times, in its review of the film, described Duane Jones’ character as a “resourceful Negro.”
I can almost see Romero flinching as he read that. Ben wasn’t supposed to be a resourceful Negro, he was supposed to be a resourceful man. The character’s race had nothing to do with the plot of the movie.
Perhaps because of this attention, Romero did tackle the issue of race in many of his subsequent zombie films. However, it gives me faith in humanity that, in 1968, someone had such confidence in the ability of humans to transcend petty issues of racial difference, that he could make Night of the Living Dead.
Final thought: It strikes me, as I write this, that there is no word for the opposite of a racist. “Un-racist?” “Not-racist?” “Unprejudiced?” These all negate racism, but with a negative. Where is the word for someone who does not see race as an issue at all? Maybe the word for that should be “Romero.”
People could use it like:
“Dude, did Bill assume you were good at math just because you’re Asian?”
“No way, man. He’s totally Romero.”
One thought on “George Romero, the opposite of a racist”
Hello there, I just came across this page after typing ‘george romero and race’ into google. I’m actually writing my masters thesis on the subject. I have to say I like your article, although I would probably state that Romero was certainly a Passive non-racist in his casting of Jones for ‘Night’, however he himself admits that there was more of a hidden subtext concerning race in both ‘Dawn of The Dead’ and ‘Day of the Dead’-see the opening Scene in ‘Dawn’ set in the housing complex for a great example of racial conflict. So perhaps Romero could be described also as an active Non-racist here, ie actively seeking to eliminate racism by inspiring us through the subtext of his films. The man highly deserves the praise you have afforded him here though, to cast Jones at a time like 1968 is all the proof you need.
If only we could all be so Romero.