Jaws – The Terror of Racial Integration

Jaws (Spielberg, 1975) presents a metaphor for the fear and upheaval caused by court mandated student busing initiated to achieve a racial balance in American public schools. The panic engulfing the citizens of Amity as a murderous shark trolls the local waters for prey mirrors predominantly white communities’ passionate overreaction to the government’s well intentioned attempt to integrate society through the educational system.

In 1974, Judge Arthur W. Garrity ruled that the city of Boston violated 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling by engaging in racial segregation of public schools. To remedy the situation, black students from lower income inner-city neighborhoods were shuttled into the white suburbs in an attempt to balance the racial makeup of classrooms. Protests and riots erupted in effected areas such as South Boston, a predominately Irish community.

In retrospect, white’s vile reaction to the presence of black children seeking a better education seems both shocking and disgusting. The children themselves were not a threat, only the prospect of foreign intrusion by the uninvited. In the film, Jaws, local’s first instinct is to hunt down and kill the shark following the death of a small boy at the beach. The bloodlust seems justified, yet one wonders if the call to violence is simply a response to the breach of local waters by an outsider. Characters repeatedly state the need to “protect our shores” from danger just as concerned citizens of white communities picketed schools with signs bearing similar slogans with a call to “protect our schools”. In the movie, the danger is plain to see, yet the “danger” of inner city children attending white schools remains vague and undefined.

Spielberg captures repeated scenes of panicked crowds fleeing the shore in fear of the shark. The sequences correspond to the “white flight” syndrome that occurred as a result of the bussing dilemma.  Shots of half-naked beachgoers running for safety differ little from whites selling homes and fleeing their community to escape the perceived danger of encroaching blacks.

The film’s biggest critique targets the greed and incompetence of the local government who favor money over the safety of the community. While the shark is the obvious “villain”, it is the mayor and fellow councilmen whose lust for wealth that plays a primary role in the death of several people. Similarly, federal and state judges laid the groundwork to open suburban classrooms to inner-city kids. Whether in support of or against the idea of public school desegregation, the government set the stage for what followed. Pseudo-liberals might cheer the government for forcing the issue while others view theses judges as “villains” who destroyed communities by playing chess with black and white children as pawns in a political game.

The intense contrast between the film’s characters feelings toward the shark reflect the racial sensibilities of society as some see ethnic and economic differences as a bridge that joins us together while others perceive them as elements to dived and separate. Brody and Hooper represent the liberal outsider who seeks to understand rather than react. While local fishermen categorize the shark as a menace, Hooper speaks of the creature with awe describing it as, “a perfect engine, an eating machine that is a miracle of evolution.”

The character, Quint is a man at peace in his relationship with nature. The embodiment of masculinity, he surrounds himself with trophies from triumphs over the beasts of the sea. Like the shark itself, Quint suffers no conflicts over his choice to hunt down prey. He too, is “a perfect engine”. In contrast, Brody and Hopper are intellectuals, unable to reconcile thoughtless acts of violence. Neither can come to terms with their place at the top of the food chain and thus anthropomorphize the shark with nefarious traits to justify their quest to kill. The three men represent various aspects of the political spectrum. Like Quint, conservatives are at peace with their contempt for individuals or groups who pose a threat to their value system. Liberals, on the other hand, are caught between wanting to force their altruistic will upon society and bringing impractical applications to fruition.

In the end, Brody embraces his base, primal urges and destroys the shark in a violent explosion just as suburban white’s seized the vilest racist instincts once pushed to the edge by politicians bent on forced integration. Perhaps, hate is a mirror that forces us to confront an ugly, internal truth and the magic of Jaws is its ability to illustrate that the xenophobic nature of men is as dark and threatening as anything that lurks in the deep sea.

 

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