Putting Colonialism to Sleep?

Anne McClintock’s recounting of English barrister Arthur Munby’s story reminded me of a sort of wonderfully awful movie that I saw a couple of years ago called The Sleeping Dictionary. Picture this: Jessica Alba and some British actor fall in love on an island that’s now part of Malaysia, but at the time of the movie was a British colony. She’s an Iban woman who is supposed to serve as a “sleeping dictionary,” a colonized woman sent to sleep with British officers and help them learn the Iban language. And, he’s—you guessed it—a British officer. Despite a couple of obstacles along the way, the film has a happy ending, as the pair end up absconding together to the jungle at the end of the movie. (Sorry, I guess that’s a bit of a spoiler.)

The Sleeping Dictionary is supposed to celebrate diversity and the interracial relationship of its two leads. The movie opens with this set-up:

In 1936, the British Empire still extended over vast areas of the globe. It was a time when young men finished their education by serving as administrators in distant lands. They sought to change the countries they ruled… but more often the countries changed them.

And, at one point Hugh Dancy (that’s the British actor) delivers the line, “I’d rather have you than a country… or a language… or a history.”  But, the movie peddles in stereotypes. Audiences are in for lots of Iban people dancing or chanting in canned rituals—although they do occasionally take breaks to deliver wise truisms in broken English—and British officers with stiff upper lips. Ultimately, it seems that although the movie uses the language of postcolonial theory, trying so hard to be progressive and anti-racist, it showcases frequent examples of McClintock’s “commodity racism” (McClintock 33).

In my opinion, the movie came off as an attempt by writer and director Guy Jenkins (who’s a white guy from Britain, by the way) to assuage some imperial guilt. Almost across the board, his white characters either renounce their racism against the Iban verbally or symbolically or they die by the end of the movie. But, by inserting white characters that seem as if they could have walked off of the streets of modern-day England into a setting of colonial Asia and writing them in alongside stale, stereotypical Iban characters, Jenkins own work seems to mock its progressive goal. The movie winds down with the loving couple dancing in the jungle and then pans out and out until it ends with a shot of a sort of tropical sunset. Unfortunately the movie’s cheesiness often undermines the seriousness of colonialism and the many injustices that have radiated out from the on-going history of colonialism. The movie commits the sin that McClintock describes at the very beginning of Imperial Leather by shelving colonialism as an issue of the past.

What do you all think? Are you about to run out and rent The Sleeping Dictionary?

Lynn Beavin


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