Film & Television

‘Denial’ and ‘13th’: The Tragic Endurance of Racism

Racism, intended or accidental, is the question at the heart of the courtroom drama that is depicted in Denial. Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of Holocaust studies at Emory University, is seen lecturing on Holocaust denial, a topic that is her area of expertise. In one of her books, she criticized a self-educated British historian named David Irving, who claims that it never happened:  the Holocaust is a Jewish myth perpetrated to garner sympathy and reparations. There is no direct evidence that it ever happened, he claims: no documents proving that Hitler ordered it, and no proof that Auschwitz was even an extermination camp.

Amazingly, Irving brought a libel suit against Lipstadt, whose preferred stance was not to engage with such people. In the film Rachel Weisz, portraying her, says, “there are people who think Elvis isn’t dead, too, but I don’t have to talk to them.”

Lipstadt decides to go to trial, despite the fact that in Britain the burden of proof lies with the accused in libel cases. Will she and her lawyers take the course of trying to prove that the Holocaust actually happened? Will survivors take the stand as witnesses, a course both they and Lipstadt want to take, giving dignity and a voice to the dead?

Her lawyers, however, explain how the complexities of libel laws in Britain are such that her best defense is to prove that Irving, an avowed anti-Semite, intentionally lied in his books denying that Jews were murdered by Hitler. While she resisted this strategy, moving scenes are included showing how she and her legal team, (including her top-notch solicitor expertly played by Tom Wilkinson) visited Auschwitz to gather evidence for refuting Irving’s claims at the trail.

What both films have in common is the theme of how difficult it is to combat racism. For American blacks, the Civil War didn’t end it; neither did the 13th Amendment, the Civil Rights movement, nor even the election of Barack Obama. We have all witnessed it vividly in phone videos of police shootings and thinly veiled racist rhetoric in the past months.

The Holocaust did not put an end to anti-Semitism. If ever there was a stark, undeniable example of the destructive power of prejudice, this was it, yet some not only deny its importance—they deny it even happened. Both these films underscore the necessity of both further study and more action in healing the divide of racial and ethnic prejudice. It’s hard to understand for some, but even harder to fight. Both films are important contributions to understanding. Regardless of ethnic origin or race, it is vital that we recognize this continuing source of harm to our citizens and a moral challenge to us all.

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  • Janine October 29, 2016 at 12:04 am

    I feel worried about this issue. With so many people openly endorsing a racist candidate, what are we to think of our neighbors? It’s seems like this election, or at least the GOP candidate, has “normalized” the worst kinds of language and behavior.
    We are all going to need to work hard at trusting each other again after this!