WHITE NIGHTS

SUBJECTS — Dance; World/Cold War & Russia; U.S./Diversity;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Breaking Out; Courage;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Trustworthiness; Respect.

AGE: 13+; MPAA Rating — PG-13;

Drama; 135 minutes; 1985; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

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MOVIE WORKSHEETS & STUDENT HANDOUTS

TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students’ minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film.

Film Study Worksheet for ELA Classes and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.

Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.

DESCRIPTION

An internationally known dancer, Nikolai Rodchenko (Mikhail Baryshnikov), has defected to the West from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He is flying to Japan when his plane is forced by mechanical problems to crash land at a Soviet air base. Although he tries to destroy his U.S. passport, Rodchenko’s identity is discovered by the Soviet KGB. A black American tap dancer, Raymond Greenwood (Gregory Hines), has defected to the Soviet Union because of his disillusionment with the Vietnam War and with racism in the United States. He and his Russian Wife (Isabella Rossellini) are ordered by the KGB to take Rodchenko in, watch him, and convince him to dance again in the Soviet Union.

SELECTED AWARDS & CAST

Selected Awards:

1985 Academy Awards: Best Original Song (Say You, Say Me); 1985 Golden Globe Awards: Best Original Song (Say You, Say Me); 1985 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Original Song (Love Theme).

Featured Actors:

Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gregory Hines, Isabella Rossellini; Jerzey Skolimowsky.

Director:

Taylor Hackford.

BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE

This movie explores the role of an artist in a totalitarian society and during the Cold War. It shows the little-known phenomenon of African Americans defecting to the Soviet Union to try to find a society free from racism. It contains beautiful modern dance and tap sequences.

The movie contains a fascinating episode about racism, Russian style. Greenwood and his wife have a biracial marriage and are deeply attached to one another. The KGB Colonel in charge of the operation is a racist. To put pressure on Greenwood to watch Rodchenko more carefully, the KGB takes Greenwood’s wife away from him. In a ruse to get the KGB to return the woman, Rodchenko thanks the KGB Colonel for removing her, pretending to be disgusted at seeing a white woman married to a black man. He leads the KGB Colonel into a discussion of racist prejudices about sexual attraction between whites and blacks. The ruse works, the wife is returned (in an effort to increase the pressure on Rodchenko) and the couple is overjoyed. This incident is the first step in the development of trust between Rodchenko and Greenwood, which leads to the resolution at the end of the movie. The episode allows us to look at racism as an outsider and, in the process, learn about racism in ourselves and our society.

POSSIBLE PROBLEMS

MODERATE. Roland Petit’s ballet “The Young Man and Death” is featured at the beginning of this film. While the dance is beautiful, it involves a portrayal of suicide by hanging. This scene should be used as an opportunity to explain the dangers of playing with ropes or scarves around one’s neck and the permanent nature of suicide.

There is no graphic violence, but Greenwood is slapped once by his wife and there is a brief punching match between Rodchenko and Greenwood which resolves into a type of embrace.

There is a moderate amount of profanity in the movie and most four-letter words are used at least once. Rodchenko smokes and drinks, but not to excess. Excessive consumption of vodka is shown in a negative light through other characters, including Greenwood.

PARENTING POINTS

This film will be great for children interested in the arts or in politics, history or political intrigue. See the Helpful Background section. Be sure to discuss with your child the dangers of playing with ropes or scarves around their neck. Immediately after the movie, or at odd times over the next week (for example at the dinner table or in the car on the way to school) bring up the Quick Discussion Question and at least the following: Discussion Questions 2 & 4; Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Question #1; and Moral/Ethical Emphasis Questions 1 & 2. Help your child to answer them.

HELPFUL BACKGROUND

To understand this movie, children need to know something about the Cold War (1946 – 1991), how powerful and feared the Soviet Union was, and how the communist totalitarian dictatorship oppressed its artists. The movie will fill out and develop this understanding. For more on Russian Communism and for another film relating to the role of the artist in a communist dictatorship, see Learning Guide to “For Love of Country “. For a description of the situation in which Soviet Russia and the U.S. almost fought a nuclear war over missiles in Cuba, see Learning Guide to “Thirteen Days“.

In the period 1930 – 1975 there were a few African-Americans who defected to the Soviet Union seeking a society without racism. The Raymond Greenwood character was one of these. As shown in the movie, they were usually cruelly disappointed.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

1. Standard Questions Suitable for Any Film.

 

2. Why did Rodchenko’s lady friend decide to stay in the Soviet Union? What would you have done had you been in her position?

Suggested Response:

Defecting to the West was frightening. Success in the West was not guaranteed. The artistic environment in the West, which was virtually free from state control, was different than what artists in the Soviet Union had known. The tastes of audiences in the West might have been different from what audiences in the Soviet Union appreciated. Successful artists in the West already had their networks of friends and admirers. Undoubtedly this woman had the same in the Soviet Union. If she left, all of that would be abandoned and she would have to compete with artists who had been building up networks for decades. Rodchenko (Baryshnikov) was one of the best dancers of the 20th century. His success in the U.S. and Europe didn’t mean that his friend, a set designer or choreographer, would have similar success. Rodchenko’s friend already had success and some status in the Soviet Union. She preferred to continue to work there, even under the restrictions imposed by the government, rather than risk a new career in the West.

In addition, the families and friends of defectors would at least be questioned by the secret police. If it was determined that they had helped the defector or knew about the defection in advance, they would be disgraced and sentenced to long prison terms. For this reason defectors kept their intentions secret. However, in Soviet Russia there was no due process and no rule of law. Therefore, there was no assurance that people who were innocent would be free from punishment. So, defection put the families and friends of the defectors at great risk. Rodchenko was willing to put his friends and family through this. She may not have been.

 

3. What effect do you think Rodchenko’s smoking had on his dancing?

Suggested Response:

Nothing good. Unfortunately, dancers concerned about their weight often smoke as a way of obtaining oral gratification without eating.

 

4. If Rodchenko had been such a big star in Russia before he defected to the United States why didn’t the young ballet students know about him?

Suggested Response:

The ability of the Soviet propaganda machine to rewrite internal history was legendary. Rodchenko, having defected to the U.S., became a non-person. The Soviet state didn’t want the young dancers to admire him and possibly to emulate him by defecting to the West. And so they simply erased him. Even though he had been a big star in Russia before he defected, he was not mentioned to young dancers and information about him was deleted from publications and histories.

 

5. The screenwriters were trying to tell us something with the names that they chose for the male characters in this film. What was it?

Suggested Response:

Greenwood is someone who is naive and unseasoned, just as wood cut from a living tree is unseasoned. Greenwood defected from the U.S. to the Soviet Union naively thinking that he would find a society without racism. In fact, Russian society is very racist and Greenwood was not happy in Russia. Rodchenko is an upstanding and upright man who will not bend to the Soviet system.

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING

BREAKING OUT AND COURAGE

1. Why was Greenwood’s wife willing to risk her baby by trying to escape with Rodchenko? Would you have done the same?

Suggested Response:

Many people in the Soviet Union were willing to risk their lives for a better life in the West. The reason was that they had no hope in Russia. Given the racism shown in the film, what would it be like for a baby who was half-black? At least in the U.S., there was a community that would accept the child, even if that community itself suffered from discrimination. In addition, she and her husband would be punished if Rodchenko escaped, which he was determined to do.

 

2. Who acted most courageously in this film in their decision to try to reach the U.S. Embassy? Rodchenko, Greenwood or Greenwood’s wife?

Suggested Response:

There is no one correct answer to this question. Each was courageous. Each had strong reasons to try to reach the Embassy.

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)

Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.

 

TRUSTWORTHINESS

(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends, and country)

 

1. See the Quick Discussion Question.

 

RESPECT

(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)

 

2. The Russians portrayed in this film are extremely prejudiced against black people. Is it worse to be an American and prejudiced against blacks than to be a Russian and have the same prejudice?

Suggested Response:

All racism is bad, but African-Americans have been part of the history of the U.S. for more than four hundred years. They helped build the nation. They gave their blood for this country in the cotton fields and on battlefields. They have contributed to U.S. culture, especially to its music, but also to its literature, dance, and art. They are part of who we are as a nation. There are no black communities that are part of the Russia. While all racism is bad, racism against your own people is worse because it is also disloyal.

 

3. What did you think of the discussion between Rodchenko and the Russian security officer about the biracial couple?

Suggested Response:

Sexual stereotypes are an important part of racism. People fear the unknown. They fear people who are different from them or different from people that they are accustomed to meeting. Comments like these come from the Russians who really didn’t know black people. (If children then say that these stereotypes also exist in the U.S., TWM suggests the following response: Generally, the oppressed class (in this case black people) is feared to have sexual prowess, the men more virile and the women more sexually active. This arises from some type of psychological mechanism, probably guilt. For example, white slave owners and overseers raped and used their power over black women to coerce or seduce them in such numbers that there are few “black” people in the U.S. today who do not have some caucasian ancestors. (With the increased rate of intermarriage, the reasons for this are changing.) However, the myth was that black women were particularly sexually active and that black men were after white women. The truth is that if you give one group power over another, some men of the oppressor group will take advantage of their power or wealth to force or induce women of the oppressed group to have sex with them.)

ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES

LINKS TO THE INTERNET

For websites relating to the Cold War, see Learning Guide to Thirteen Days.

This Learning Guide was last updated on December 18, 2009.