Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom is very racist & sexist

Est Reading Time: 6 min

Many kids have movies they love to watch over and over again. One of mine was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I’ve just seen it again for the first time in 15+ years. I suspected that it’d probably be quite racist but it exceeded my racism+sexism expectations by a lot. Another childhood favourite struck off the list!

Many people hate the mere idea of criticising a movie for being racist/sexist. A good resource about the problems with this is these three posts by Heina Dadhaboy. And if you want a case of specific harm from racist movie stereotypes, check out the testimonies about Indian people being asked if they really did eat monkey brains. The movie’s racism was also clear at the time of production — the wanted to shoot in India but the Indian government didn’t let them because the movie was so racist. They filmed in Sri Lanka instead. Helpful hint: if locals want to turn down the substantial revenues that come from from filming, rethink things.

This is by no means a complete list but focuses on the racism+sexism more easily explained by visuals. Here we go:

[00:06:32] Shanghainese gangsters are laughing because they poisoned Indy’s wine so in exchange for the antidote they get to keep both the artifact he found and his payment. This is of course an example of the Devious East Asian Person trope, since we’re supposed to be shocked that they would be so dishonourable. They cackle madly.

[00:09:00] In the brawl that ensues, Indy is desperately trying to get the antidote to save his life. Meanwhile Willie is desperately trying to find a diamond because women amirite? (Of course Willie is meant to be the counterpoint and foil to the rugged Indy, but as we’ll see later it’s telling that she’s somehow gets to be blessed with half the misogynist stereotypes bingo card)

[00:12:43] Here for example Willie just lost Indy’s gun and she’s indignant at him that this caused her to — meshits you not – break a nail.

[00:14:46] This is the only factual error I’ve bothered to include but I think it’s important enough that it’s not nitpicking or irrelevant. The plane flies over the Great Wall of China. Because how else could they show China? Then they fade to a map (I took a screenshot that has both on the same picture) showing their flight. They go from Shanghai to Chungking (Chongqing) in order to later crash-land in northern India. I’m no geographician but the Great Wall is not anywhere near that flight path. The reason this tiny mistake is actually important is because it continues the tradition of associating a country with just one thing. They’re flying in China? Forget the millions of great shots they could have included. Great Wall. At least they didn’t include the Taj Mahal later. This is similar to the trope Africa is a Country.

[00:19:23] They crash land and are adrift. This shot is accompanied by ominous music. They are being watched by a brown person! This must be dangerous, the movie is telling us

[00:19:46] On sight of this mysterious stranger, Shortie lets out a yelp…

[00:19:49]…and Willie falls over in the raft. What was so scary?

[00:19:55] This guy apparently. If you watch it, the movie is definitely setting up the audience to have the same reaction.

[00:20:58] No comment needed.

[00:22:21] Willie is disgusted at the idea of eating the food the village offers; Indy has to tell her she must or she’s insulting their hosts. This is a blend of racism+sexism because it’s set up so that we’re supposed to both find the food gross AND laugh at Willie for being such a princess at the same time.

[00:31:34] Willie is complaining that her life was really nice in Shanghai, she had a good circle of friends and they went to parties all the time — women amirite?

[00:32:32] Indy tells Shorty that the most annoying thing about Willie is the noise [of her shrieking]. Women, amirite? #NotAllMisogynistTropes

[00:32:54] Willie runs around the camp stumbling onto wildlife and shrieking which is supposed to be played for laughs. It’s worth noting that in the same scene, Indy gets the living shit scared out of him by Willie accidentally flinging a snake into the campsite. But his reaction is ManlyTM and ReasonableTM and not at all fit as an object of mockery.

[00:42:44] The gang are at Pankot palace and the banquet showcases a whole lot of foods meant to freak out the viewers, while othering India. I’ve written before about disparaging food as a way to dehumanise; but this scene is going even further since it’s just making shit up about what’s eaten “in India”.

[00:43:36] The man is wondering why Willie is not eating the giant beetles.

[00:43:53] The man burps loudly as if to highlight the “uncivilised” nature of the banquet guests.

[00:44:38] We also have eyeball soup…

[00:46:18]…and the famous monkey brains.

[00:58:41] Willie is unwilling to put her hand in a hole full of insects to pull a lever and save Indy and Shorty’s life. She has to be convinced because…because women, amirite?

[01:01:33] The animalistic POC mob trope.

[01:06:19] Willie’s eyes light up at the mention of the diamonds found inside the Shankara stones, because diamonds are a…women, amirite?

[01:14:31] Under the spell of the Blood of Kali, the Maharaja prepares to burn an effigy of Indy and magically hurt him. The glee on his face is sublime, fulfilling the Sadistic Oriental trope. Perhaps if the rest of the movie wasn’t so racist I might be more inclined to interpret this as referring to this specific character and the power of an evil cult but not in the context of the rest of the shit they pull.

[01:28:00] The kids kidnapped from the vilage by the Thuggees slave day and night digging at the mountain. Then the moment Shorty gets imprisoned there, he realises that he can use his pick to break his chains and escape. Because of course Indian kids are either incapable of thinking up of the idea or are just sheep and don’t mind servitude, right? Here, goaded on by Indy they finally start to fight back against their taskmasters.

[01:47:08] Mola Ram throws someone from his own side off the (now vertical) bridge. It’s supposedly to try knock Indy off the bridge below but again the glee in his face is perfect Sadistic Oriental. He takes active pleasure in killing people from his own side because why not?

[01:49:05] This is a bit more indirect but the film ends with the British-led colonial army swooping in to save the day and use their superior numbers and firepower to shoot at all the Thuggee soldiers. “Well it’s about time!” says Willie when they get there. This does make sense in terms of the logic of the movie but is presented as an uncompromising good. I can’t expect an action movie to have sophisticated social commentary but still, Spielberg’s ability to put that scene in unironically is telling.

Note that, a lot of the problems would have been pretty easy to fix if they cared enoug to spend 0.5% of the budget on a consultant. Then what made the movie memorable (the darkness and tension, the inventive action scenes) would stand the test of time better. The idea that the stereotypes were somehow necessary to make it a success imply that there isn’t enough creativity out there to work a few mpre constraints into the million other constraints people already face when creating movies. Which should offend movie-goers and movie-makers alike.