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Opinion What a dead samurai can teach us about the Covington controversy

A student from Covington Catholic High School stands in front of Native American Nathan Phillips in Washington i n this still image from a Jan.18 video by Kaya Taitano.
A student from Covington Catholic High School stands in front of Native American Nathan Phillips in Washington i n this still image from a Jan.18 video by Kaya Taitano. (Social Media/Reuters)

In a sun-dappled forest in classical Japan, a samurai is killed and his young bride raped.

Later, the incident is recalled from the perspective of four characters: a bandit, on trial for the murder; the bride, furious and in mourning; the samurai himself, his ghost channeled through a medium; and a lowly woodcutter who happened upon the body. But who can be believed?

Rashomon,” which premiered in Tokyo in 1950, thrust filmmaker Akira Kurosawa — and Japanese cinema in general — onto the international stage. For its virtuoso cinematography, groundbreaking flashbacks and complex exploration of the nature of truth, the movie has been beloved by critics, auteurs and film-school students ever since.

This week, however, the title has slipped from cinephile cocktail conversation into the pundit’s lexicon, to describe a viral video-cum-political Rorschach test that emerged over the holiday weekend. If taken seriously, it hints at the discussion we actually need to have.

We’ve all heard the story by now: On Friday afternoon, a group of MAGA-hatted teens faced off against a Native American elder at the Lincoln Memorial. The teens were in town for the March for Life. The Native American group had been taking part in the Indigenous Peoples March. Tomahawk chops were seen, insults were thrown (mainly from a tiny group of Black Hebrew Israelites, who seemed otherwise uninvolved). Conflicting interpretations abound.

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Did Nathan Phillips, the 64-year-old Omaha elder, spark the confrontation by walking toward the Covington Catholic High School teens? Were those teens — especially 16-year old Nicholas Sandmann, who in videos is seen staring Phillips down, refusing to move — disrespectful, possibly even racist? Was this a case of the “liberal news media” rushing to destroy young people’s reputations, or of conservatives attempting to reframe reprehensible behavior into martyrdom?

“Rashomon on the Mall,” pundits have dubbed it: a far less exalted version, as befitting our far less exalted times. Yet Kurosawa’s film is celebrated for its investigation of deeper questions than most of our Twitter debates have touched on so far.

In the original “Rashomon,” an attentive viewer soon understands why the incident is rendered differently in the minds of its different participants. Of course the proud bandit says that he seduced the beautiful woman and killed the samurai in an honorable duel. And of course the young bride denies being seduced by a man who is not her husband. Is either telling the truth? The viewer will never know. Motives — and flaws of memory — necessarily twist each tale.

We might consider how true this could be in the Covington case as well. Of course the teenager whose smirk was caught on video would say that he was not intentionally making faces, that he was being attacked, that he was actually saying a “silent prayer.” Naturally, the protester who walked toward the group of shouting boys would explain that he was trying to help. Both have reasons to interpret the conflict differently. Can we judge them accurately? Not really. Maybe the real question is why we’re so eager to try.

Similarly, an attentive viewer can understand why, in Kurosawa’s ancient Japan, a judge would tend to believe the word of a ghostly samurai over that of a notorious brigand. It’s not because the spectral rendition is more likely to be correct but because residual markers of class and status tend to render the former more appealing than the latter.

The same is true today, the result of our nation’s original sins. In nearly all circumstances, Americans — right-wing or not — are far more likely to believe the PR-polished statements of a clean-cut young white man than the protests of a person of color.

“That could be my son,” some think — about the Covington teens, at least. (The Trayvons and Tamirs are another story.) We may be striving for truth, but we’re inevitably hamstrung. The real “Rashomon” points out what may be painful to acknowledge but is worthwhile to ask: Whom do we find ourselves so compelled to defend, and why?

By the end of Kurosawa’s film, only two things are certain: A samurai is dead, and truth can be elusive. The same is true of the moment on the Mall: An ugly confrontation occurred, and for all our camera angles and polarizing debate, it will be impossible to truly know who, exactly, was most at fault.

Our time would be better spent turning the lens on ourselves.

Read more:

Erik Wemple: ‘Fuller picture’: How major media outlets handled their evolving accounts of the Covington story

Megan McArdle: The Covington students failed to act like grown-ups. So did the adults.

Jonathan Capehart: Nothing justifies what the Covington students did

Kathleen Parker: The Covington controversy shows a picture isn’t always worth a thousand words

Paul Waldman: Why Trump is overjoyed at the Covington student controversy

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