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    Evil albino' of the movies is criticized

    Stereotype is both negative and optically inaccurate

    Peter J. McDonnell, MD
    In the movies "The Da Vinci Code" and "The Matrix Reloaded," evil gunmen who are albinos figure prominently. The National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation has reported that a total of 68 films released from 1960 to 2006 feature an "evil albino," a plot device that some criticize as encouraging societal prejudice and discrimination against individuals with this condition.1 One such malevolent character is that of the seemingly invincible gladiator, Theocles (The Shadow of Death), in the television series "Sparta-cus." Spartacus, of course, is the real-life slave and gladiator who fought in a gladiator school in Capua, Italy. In 73 B.C. he escaped and eventually became the leader of an estimated 70,000-member slave army that came close to toppling the Roman Empire before being eventually defeated by Roman legions. To me, the show is about is the extreme lengths to which an honorable person will go, and the terrible acts he may decide to perform, in an effort to help someone he loves (in this case, Spartacus' wife, who has been sold into slavery).

    Ophthalmic considerations

    The show occasionally has elements of interest to an ophthalmologist.

    Before the rebellion takes place, Spartacus (played by the actor Andy Whitfield) meets the gigantic Theocles in the arena. The latter has the amelanotic skin, hair pallor, and pink irides of an albino, but appears to enjoy normal vision and has no nystagmus to suggest foveal hypopla-sia. His opponents are wounded before Theocles, temporarily blinded by the glare off a helmet, meets a gruesomely violent end.

    An interesting thing about the show, "Spartacus," is that it became a huge surprise hit in its first season, which ends just as Spartacus begins his escape and rebellion. But the second season did not get filmed because the 39-year-old star was discovered to have non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Sadly, the disease was not controlled, and the actor died.2

    I sometimes watch the series while exercising. Brutally violent but with lots of action, shows like this help me take my mind off the act of exercise. Recently I was watching "Spartacus" and pondering that the actor portraying the title character looks so physically fit but harbors an aggressive cancer that would soon kill him. Then I noticed that, in one scene, he has a subconjunc-tival hemorrhage. Was that an early sign of the lymphoma that would soon take his life, some realistic-appearing makeup, or just a garden-variety hemorrhage that we see so often in our patients and usually amounts to nothing?

    Certainly there are multiple forms of ocular and oculocutaneous albinism, and the degree of visual loss may range from severe (absent foveal reflex, nystagmus, severe photophobia, abnormal decussation of optic nerve fibers) to comparatively mild. But by and large, we ophthalmologists know that the depiction of albinos as gun-toting assassins is ironic, to say the least.

    In one study of school-age children with albinism, mean best-corrected acuity improved from 20/84 (between 5.5 and 9 years of age) to 20/61 (between 9.5 and 14 years of age).3 The authors thought the improvement might relate to change in the nystagmus, use of the null point, or developmental maturation of the children. It would presumably be helpful to share this hopeful observation with parents when explaining their child's eye condition. What is probably not helpful to these parents is the consistently negative portrayal of people with albinism in film and television.

    By Peter J. McDonnell, MD director of the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times.

    He can be reached at 727 Maumenee Building 600 N. Wolfe St. Baltimore, MD 21287-9278 Phone: 443/287-1511 Fax: 443/287-1514



    1. Early viewers pan Da Vinci Code: Film's release also provokes widespread protests"; no byline; http://CNN.com/ "Entertainment" section / Associated Press Newswire, 17 May 2006; accessed 13 March 2007.

    2. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/12/arts/television/andy-whitfield-star-of-spartacus-series-dies-at-39.html

    3. Dijkstal JM, et al. Change in visual acuity in albinism in the early school years. JPediatr OphthalmolStrabismus. 2011 ;Jul 6:1-6 (Epub ahead of print).

    Peter J. McDonnell, MD
    He is director of The Wilmer Eye Institute, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of ...

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