How to offend everybody in one easy step

Last week I posted an essay about 1930′s comedy star William Haines, and ignited some impassioned responses in the comments area from some Haines supporters who took umbrage at what I wrote.  I like to provoke intense feelings—I can’t see much point to wasting my life writing about movies if I don’t generate some kind of response.  I could be spending my time playing with my kids, or drinking. . . or drinking with my kids.  So, I think angry comments are better than no comments at all—but this particular firestorm has encouraged me to write a sequel.

This week isn’t about Haines, though, but is about the issue that informed last week’s controversy: how changing cultural attitudes influences how we react to comedy.  And the touchstone I’ll be using for this week’s discussion is blackface comedy of the 20s and 30s—I use the term “blackface” broadly, to cover not just white actors playing blacks but black actors playing crude black stereotypes.  If you click on the “read more” button, you will be greeted with some images and film clips I fully expect to be offensive.  Proceed advisedly.

On one level, the fact that times change, and the context of comedy changes with it, is almost too obvious to warrant any discussion.  Duh!  Consider the phrase “making love,” which used to mean verbal courtship, such that old movies sometimes provoke nervous giggles from uninformed viewers when characters seem to talk too casually and publicly about “making love.”  To get the correct meaning of those scenes, you just need to know how the words have shifted meaning over time, and that’s all.  Same for the word “gay.”  When characters in old movies say they’re having a “gay time” at a “gay party” with friends who “look gay,” they’re just talking about being happy.

Speaking of calling people gay: in 20 years of writing about movies, I’ve had the interesting experience that every single time I’ve noted a filmmakers’ sexual orientation in any context, I’ve been accused of being a homophobe.  Anyone who actually knows me thinks this is ridiculous.  I could trot out some of my gay friends and family members as character witnesses, but they deserve better than being used as pawns in some silly online debate, so let me just say this: the only reason I brought up Haines’ sexuality at all was to specifically praise him for his integrity in not bowing to the demands of the studio to be closeted.  He was true to himself, and paid a harsh price for it (I didn’t even tell the story about how he and his partner were half-lynched by an angry mob).  I think that’s among Haines’ best qualities—I just don’t think that integrity of character makes up for the fact that his screen persona was obnoxious, and I was trying to delineate my respect for one from my revulsion at the other.

What I disliked about THE GIRL SAID NO was a comedy built around a character whose behavior was an extreme form of sexual harassment that bordered on rape.  But the fact that I saw it that way had to do with the fact that I live in the 21st century, in a society that has invested a lot of time and effort in defining sexual harassment.  The words I was using, and the concepts they described, did not exist in those forms in the world in which THE GIRL SAID NO was made.  Some of the respondents last week took me to task for imposing my modern mores onto a 1930 film, as if what I’d done was tantamount to misunderstanding a 1930s reference to “gay” couples “making love.”

I disagree—I think there is a distinction to be made, but I’ll admit it gets very messy and complicated, and I chose blackface comedy as the easiest way to highlight that messiness and wallow in the complications.

The very image of a white actor wearing blackface makeup, just in and of itself, is currently a highly charged and intensely volatile image.  That’s not to say it no longer appears—in fact, many comedians in recent years have dared play with blackface gags.  Here’s a quick sampling:

SEINFELD’s Kramer meets his black girlfriend’s family for the first time, after having fallen asleep in a tanning bed by accident:

Kramer

Jenna on 30 ROCK:

30 Rock

Robert Downey Jr. in TROPIC THUNDER:

TROPIC THUNDER

And in THE INCREASINGLY POOR DECISIONS OF TODD MARGARET, David Cross spent one superbly crafted episode carefully leading the audience to expect that his character was going to put on blackface—the great thing about this joke was its anti-joke nature.  At no point was any direct explicit mention made of the idea, it was just subliminally planted in the audience’s collective minds, and then defeated—he never did anything even remotely like that.  The episode merely milked the suspense of us thinking that it might happen.

Todd Margaret

What these examples all have in common is that they exploit the audience’s discomfort with blackface.  The squirm factor is part of the joke—indeed, it’s all of the joke.  David Cross’ anti-joke in TODD MARGARET depends entirely on us thinking blackface is always wrong—if we casually accepted it, there’d be no squirming, and without the squirming there’d be no joke, because he never actually paid the joke off.

I’m no sociologist, nor am I an African-American Studies scholar, I’m just a jerk who watches movies, but it’s not rocket science to say our continued discomfort with blackface is rooted in the continued disparity between whites and blacks in the US.  We’ve dismantled the institutional aspects of racism, but that doesn’t change the fact that so many American blacks must continue to live daily with the effects of racial disharmony.  Perhaps some day in the distant future, when true racial equality has been achieved, our future society will have lost that discomfort with blackface imagery—at which time the jokes I listed above will have become like “gay couples making love” in early talkies—a reference that audiences no longer instinctively get.

Or, to cast out another hypothetical for use as an analogy—what if a future society decides that images of men dressing up as women constitutes some kind of horrifying gender-based hate crime.  Suddenly, old episodes of MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS and THE KIDS IN THE HALL would be tainted with negative cultural associations that they do not now have.  In fact, this is a better analogy for our purposes, because it gets at one of the complications ahead of us.  TROPIC THUNDER’S blackface gag is intended as satire, and works off existing cultural discomfort—as that culture changes, the satire changes, but satire was always part of its DNA.  THE KIDS IN THE HALL in drag is not satirical—most of the time the KIDS handled gender issues with greater sensitivity and nuance, not only better than other comedies of the 1990s but better than most dramas.  If a future society were to re-interpret those images with negative connotations, it would fundamentally distort what the original was meant to convey.

And this is where we find some of the 1920s and 30s blackface gags.  For example, here’s Buster Keaton in blackface from COLLEGE:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhSJ4ssrP5o]

Although the sight of Buster in blackface now carries the shock of racial confrontation, the actual scene itself intends no such thing.  Note how the actual black characters in the scene are depicted neutrally—they are not the butt of any joke—and Buster’s ineptitude is consistent with his difficulty performing any of the jobs or tasks presented him in the film.  He’s not caricaturing black people at all—he just happens to be disguised as a black man.

Modern eyes blanch at this moment instinctively, only because of how blackface has come to be so culturally toxic.  But closer examination reveals that no insult is intended—and this should make a difference.  Compare Scott Thompson’s flamboyantly gay character Buddy on KIDS IN THE HALL with the flamboyantly gay film critic Damon Wayans played on IN LIVING COLOR.  The two were exceedingly similar in superficial respects, but the implications were profoundly different.  One was a voice of tolerance and respect, one pointed and laughed.

When I try to bring these issues up with my silent comedy buddies, I am often met by a defensive response, “Well, slapstick comedians were equally opportunity offenders.  Everybody got theirs.”  That’s sometimes true, but not always—and it doesn’t work as a blanket excuse.

By way of illustration, consider Charlie Chaplin’s THE IMMIGRANT (by the way, one of my very favorite films of all time.   If my house ever catches fire, I’m running back in to save my print).  Charlie pokes fun at all the things that make immigrants seem different—they smell funny, they’re poor, they eat crazy foods, they don’t know our customs.  But here’s the trick—Charlie himself plays an immigrant in the film.  He was at the time the most highly paid and beloved movie star in the entire world.  He knew audiences would grant him their sympathy and identification—and he used that power to connect those audiences to the experience of being the other.  In a way, he got to have his cake and eat it too, making all the jokes about immigrants’ bad breath while also making a film of unfailing tolerance.

Meanwhile, Chaplin’s chief copycat, Billy West, put this gag in one of his films:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dgUF-thFTME]

There’s no tolerance there.  It’s just pointing and laughing at the other.  It’s just mean spirited, and the very essence of the joke presupposes a division between the people being pointed at and laughed at, and the people doing the laughing.

Back in 2008 I somehow managed to attend three separate theatrical screenings of an exceedingly obscure silent comedy UNCLE TOM’S GAL starring Edna Marian.  There’s a cruel irony in the fact that the film gods saw fit to preserve this horrifyingly ugly monstrosity for posterity while films like HATS OFF vanished off the earth.  I know it’s wrong for a film geek like me to ever wish for a film to be destroyed, but all I’m saying is, if a film had to be destroyed, I’d rather live in a world that still had HATS OFF but had lost this.

I’m no censor.  I’m going to prove it by using my own YouTube channel and my blog here to actually disseminate the very thing I’m arguing against.  Real censors don’t usually go out of their way to show you the thing they want to suppress. So here are two clips from UNCLE TOM’S GAL to illustrate what makes me uncomfortable.  Moreover—I’ll use my platform to actively publicize it: if you want to see the whole thing, go to Dave Stevenson’s LOOSER THAN LOOSE website and buy the DIZZY DAMSELS VOLUME 1 DVD.  Even if you don’t want to see any more of this film, if you enjoy silent comedy you should own that disc, or at the very least become acquainted with Stevenson’s offerings.

Some background: the book UNCLE TOM’S CABIN was in its day intended as an anti-slavery tool, and by depicting the terrible reality of slavery in the South helped encourage abolitionists.  Problematically, the novel’s depiction of the slaves was also tainted by stereotypes that later became so vilified that the book became more notorious for its racist content than its anti-racist agenda—in other words, the book UNCLE TOM’S CABIN became a victim of the very cultural shift we’re talking about here, left behind by a society that moved on.

In this short comedy, a movie company is making a film of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, and for no reason at all has decided to shoot on Edna’s farm.  She’s an avid movie buff given to daydreaming of being a star, and she insinuates herself into the production.  This first clip is from early in the picture, as Edna sidles up the camera with Hollywood glitter in her eyes.  Already, the film is starting to offend on as many as three levels: the caricature of slavery itself (with such lines as “Now you charcoal babies belong to me” and the image of the plantation owner brutally whipping his slave) is just a jarring to find in a comedy.  This was the problem with the book UNCLE TOM’S CABIN—the text itself hits wrong notes and raw nerves.  Problem #2 is that the “filmmakers” have cast white actors in blackface.  And problem #3, well, are Edna’s reactions to all this:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9c4p-PXrkFw]

What’s she smiling about?  It sure looks like she’s getting off on watching a black man being whipped.  That can’t be right, can it?  Surely she’s just excited by the prospect of being so near a film crew. . . but that’s not what it looks like.

Clip #2 comes once Edna has replaced the leading lady.  So, she’s in blackface now:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQNWMm0pDYY]

At each of the screenings, Dave Stevenson got up to introduce the film, and said a variation of “This movie was made in the 1920s, things were very different back then and this will be very un-PC comedy.  So, put on your 1925 glasses to enjoy this.”

I love Dave.  He’s a friend and a colleague—did I tell you to bookmark his site and buy all of his discs?—but his introduction/excuse for this film is wrong.  You cannot say that in 1925 this wasn’t offensive, that people weren’t hurt or humiliated by the dehumanizing imagery of this joke.  What you can say is that the people who found it offensive or who were humiliated by it were not in a position to voice their discomfort openly.  A mainstream audience of whites were permitted to laugh at this, to vicariously mock blacks, and never have it questioned.  Yes, in today’s PC culture that joke crosses a line that hadn’t been drawn in 1925—but saying the line hadn’t been drawn openly isn’t the same thing as saying there was no line.

It’s more comforting, certainly, to tell ourselves that these old comedies were harmless.  But ignoring someone’s hurt doesn’t erase your guilt.  Nelson, from THE SIMPSONS once described “a victimless crime” as being “punching someone in the dark.”  Mean-spirited jokes that poked fun at ethnic minorities, at gays, at women, at foreigners—these jokes had victims.  And in the pre-PC days, those victims were effectively silenced, which gave the illusion of no victims.  But notice how the people who usually say, “It’s all in good fun” are the ones making the joke, not the ones receiving it.

When I go to classic film festivals, or revival screenings, or other gatherings of film geeks, what I see is a crowd of predominantly white, middle-aged men.  People who look like me.  Showing a film like UNCLE TOM’S GAL doesn’t do much to open that tent to people who don’t look like me.  And when people who do look like me debate how offensive this stuff is, we do so at a remove—we can never really know how hurtful a stereotype is, if it isn’t our stereotype.

During my production of various silent comedy compilations on DVD, I was approached by a collector who had, among other items, a number of shorts with blackface and racially oriented humor.  He pitched making a whole DVD collection of such stuff.  I didn’t even bother to review the films before I rejected the proposal out of hand—my explicit ambition was to grow the audience for silent comedy.  I wanted to bring new viewers in, to nurture a love of slapstick comedy in folks who’d never sat through a silent film in their lives.  The last thing I wanted to do was be divisive.  I recognized that these films deserved to be preserved, and that there were people who would want to watch them, maybe even pay for that privilege, but I didn’t see it as my responsibility to put my own money into doing that.

However, I’m a hypocrite.  That Billy West clip above—the one with the family eating watermelon?  I did restore and publish that one myself.  Even though I find that joke deeply offensive, I didn’t cut out the scene (although I could have and few would ever have known the difference).  Instead, I made a point to buttress that short with what I considered counterexamples—I packed in some Ernest “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison shorts.

If the name doesn’t ring any bells—this is who I’m talking about:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=us-3m0DO_5M]

He was less than 8 years old, and he was sharing the screen with Harold Lloyd—arguably, upstaging Lloyd.  Soon he was providing support for comedians like Snub Pollard, and then Hal Roach gave him a fulltime contract.  It was the first long-term movie contract given a black actor in Hollywood.  Roach started hiring other children to surround Morrison in his own starring series—and this is how Our Gang began.

Ernest Morrison and goat

Eventually, Morrison got too “old” and Our Gang continued on without him—so when the Little Rascals did their version of UNCLE TOM, called UNCLE TOM’S UNCLE in 1926, it was up to Joe Cobb to put on the blackface and be whipped by Mikey Daniels.  Because that’s what you want from comedy, right?

Our Gang 1Our Gang 2Our Gang 3

When I watch Morrison, what I see is a sharp-minded kid who adheres to no stereotype.  But that’s just me—not everyone saw him the same way.  As the Civil Rights era dawned, Morrison was shoved aside—along with so many other black comedians of his era, who were perceived by a new generation as having been Uncle Toms themselves.

Such as Mantan Moreland—a brilliant comedian whose presence enlivens many an otherwise trashy B-movie.  The curious thing about Moreland is he had two discrete personas.  One was more in the mold of the dumb black servant, a role he played—and ennobled—in films like KING OF THE ZOMBIES.  But that was in movies aimed at whites.  He also performed live, and in low-budget films aimed exclusively at black audiences, with a different schtick.  Left to be himself, Moreland’s comedy was sped up to a crazy degree.  He and whatever comedian he’d be with at the moment would banter back and forth so quickly they trampled all over each other’s lines, running out ahead of the dialogue and racing off into oblivion.  It was a singular act, depending on a razor-sharp comic timing that would exhaust almost anyone.  Here’s a sample:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bIyMBSx5Qo]

Moe Howard loved the act.  When Shemp died, and the hunt was on for a third third Stooge, and under pressure to push the Stooges away from violent slapstick and into dialog comedy, he proposed Moreland.  The execs at Columbia rolled their eyes and patiently explained to Moe that under no circumstances were the Three Stooges to be integrated.   Joe Besser got the gig instead (in the parallel universe where Mantan Moreland joined Moe and Larry after all, the Stooges kept making shorts long after the Moe-Larry-Joe combo fizzled out).

Moreland later complained that the worst thing to happen to him professionally was the Civil Rights era, as he was shoved into obscurity by a generation that felt instinctively embarrassed by him.

So, here I am, 21st century white guy, looking back at Morrison and Moreland as examples of black comedians whose acts don’t strike me as racially problematic, and whose memories I wish to rehabilitate in the face of this overly sensitive backlash that suppressed them. . . but who am I to say that Mantan Moreland wasn’t offensive?  If it was blacks in the 1960s who said he was an embarrassment, who am I to disagree–I’m a white guy.  Even if I could draw a line between “these comedians were offensive Uncle Toms selling out their race” and “these comedians subverted the system,” the result would be to lend support to the notion that some comedians from the past deserve to have had their careers destroyed, their films suppressed, and their names forgotten.

Check out this guy:

Spencer Bell

His name is Spencer Bell, also credited as “Fred Spence.”  He played a supporting role to Larry Semon in nearly everything Semon made.  And by that I mean he performed hundreds of billions of variations of racially unnerving jokes—here he is with Oliver Hardy in HER BOYFRIEND.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tHPJMPxdQfE]

The ultimate punchline is another “scared black man” gag.  Semon did a lot of these—in one film (I forget which one, sorry) Bell is so scared he disintegrates, leaving only a skeleton (I dunno ’bout you, but that’s just about as dehumanizing as it gets).  By that standard, this scaredy-cat act by Bell is pretty tame, but the thing I’d like to emphasize here is what Bell does leading up to that moment.  The way he lovingly admires his switchblade, as he contemplates bringing a knife to a gun fight, is a beautiful piece of comic timing.  And those box-men lumbering out of the background are pretty gosh-darn terrifying—he’s right to be spooked by them.

In almost every Larry Semon film there comes a moment where white folks smear their faces with oil or tar or paint or somesuch blackening agent, and black folks are turned white by fear/paint/flour/etc.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NzqqXwLaxj0]

Pointy heads are welcome to interpret this gag any way they wish—for every person who scribbles a master’s thesis about how these images trade in the notion that race was contagious, or that black people were just dirty white people (“does it wash off?”), there’s a contrarian waiting to argue that it celebrates the fungibility of race.  I dunno, that’s not my point—all I want to say is that there is a reflexive reaction against these images, conditioned by contemporary racial attitudes, that inclines modern viewers to lump Mr. Bell in with the Uncle Toms.

But hang on—Spencer Bell made nearly 60 movies between 1919 and 1933.  He supported Larry Semon, once one of the country’s most popular screen comedians.  He supported Mickey McGuire, Billy Bevan, Andy Clyde.  He was a prolific and valued performer.  If we feel any discomfort at his act today, we do his memory an injustice to marginalize his entire career and pretend he didn’t exist.

In my earlier post I criticized William Haines’s screen persona as obnoxious, and some of you called me out for criticizing him for something imposed on him.  Well, I never meant to blame him personally for his screen role—in fact, I think I was pretty clear in what I wrote that I laid his screen characterization at the feet of his employers.  The same holds true here—whatever I feel about the way Hollywood portrayed blacks in the 1920s and 30s shouldn’t accrue to Mr. Bell’s legacy.  I find Semon’s recurring joke to be unpleasant, but I’m glad Bell had steady employment, and I wish he’d been given more to do.

But these kind of arguments fly above the level at which most people engage with movies—and certainly the level at which kids engage with movies.  The problem with letting the unreconstructed sexual and racial attitudes of the past out today without some kind of filter, is that they propagate their worldview into younger viewers.  I know that makes me sound like I’m more worried about today’s kids being corrupted by watching too many old movies than by watching the anything-goes stuff of contemporary TV, which must make sound insane, but since I spend so much time trying to cultivate new viewers for old movies, it’s an issue that weighs on my mind.

I’ve heard tell that Warner Archive is planning to finally free the Censored 11 cartoons from their purgatory of the last 50 years—and the only reason this wouldn’t happen is if Warner decided the ‘toons deserved to be full-fledged replicated DVDs rather than Made-on-Demand mail order things.  It’s about time—Bob Clampett’s COAL BLACK AND DE SEBBEN DWARVES is a thing of beauty.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4I2ni32xcg]

But who will watch it, and what will they think?  I’ve shown it to small gatherings before, and I’ve yet to find anyone who even laughs.  Everyone I’ve shown it to shifts in their chair uncomfortably and looks at me strangely.  And I choose my audiences carefully—my 5 year old nephew loves Looney Tunes, but this isn’t a disc I plan on buying for him.

Censored Bugs

In other words, it’s a collection destined for scholars and pointy-heads—destined for a segregated viewership.  I use that word advisedly—how many black customers can’t wait to get their hands on COAL BLACK?  Can you count them on the fingers of no hands?  And doesn’t that make the CENSORED 11 DVD something akin to the silent comedy collection I rejected making?  Clearly I’m not being consistent.

I know I’ve utterly failed to cohere a sensible argument on this topic.  This may be the most formless rambling diatribe I’ve ever put my name to, but the disconnected nature of these thoughts reflects the complication of the subject.  I am eager to hear your responses—but don’t bother calling me a hypocrite, because I already know that about myself.

36 Responses How to offend everybody in one easy step
Posted By Jeffrey Ford : March 5, 2011 9:38 am

Go ahead Mr. Kalat — be a hypocrite. I’m probably one too. But I think the important thing (THE most important thing as a matter of fact) is to preserve the history. There are too many people out there trying to re-write history to suit their own ends, so let’s not contribute to the garbage pile. It’s far better to know about the offensive things that exist within our film past (BIRTH OF A NATION anyone?) than it is to cover them up and try to pretend that they never existed. We need to see the offensive films and study them so that future generations can understand just WHY they are offensive. The ignorance of our offensive film past is much worse than accepting it and trying to understand it, and leads to some disgusting things like what I saw the recent documentary on Harlan and JUD SUSS: one of his twenty-something great-grandchildren stepped up and dared to declare that one of the most vicious and evil films in the history of cinema “wasn’t so bad.” Now that’s really frightening.

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : March 5, 2011 9:38 am

Go ahead Mr. Kalat — be a hypocrite. I’m probably one too. But I think the important thing (THE most important thing as a matter of fact) is to preserve the history. There are too many people out there trying to re-write history to suit their own ends, so let’s not contribute to the garbage pile. It’s far better to know about the offensive things that exist within our film past (BIRTH OF A NATION anyone?) than it is to cover them up and try to pretend that they never existed. We need to see the offensive films and study them so that future generations can understand just WHY they are offensive. The ignorance of our offensive film past is much worse than accepting it and trying to understand it, and leads to some disgusting things like what I saw the recent documentary on Harlan and JUD SUSS: one of his twenty-something great-grandchildren stepped up and dared to declare that one of the most vicious and evil films in the history of cinema “wasn’t so bad.” Now that’s really frightening.

Posted By Kevin Coon : March 5, 2011 11:56 am

Too many people are just looking for an excuse to whine and complain. Even on this board we have PC liberal whiners. Please go away, and Mr. Kalat, you are fine.
Ignore the whiners and complainers. Some people just look to be offended!!!

Posted By Kevin Coon : March 5, 2011 11:56 am

Too many people are just looking for an excuse to whine and complain. Even on this board we have PC liberal whiners. Please go away, and Mr. Kalat, you are fine.
Ignore the whiners and complainers. Some people just look to be offended!!!

Posted By Dave Kehr : March 5, 2011 12:48 pm

Thanks, David, for this thoughtful and informed post on a most vexing subject. In a better world, Mantan Moreland would have had Bob Hope’s career, but even in this imperfect one, he’s still one of the greatest masters of comic timing I’ve ever come across.

Posted By Dave Kehr : March 5, 2011 12:48 pm

Thanks, David, for this thoughtful and informed post on a most vexing subject. In a better world, Mantan Moreland would have had Bob Hope’s career, but even in this imperfect one, he’s still one of the greatest masters of comic timing I’ve ever come across.

Posted By policomic : March 5, 2011 3:40 pm

Thanks for this thoughtful post (you’re being entirely too hard on yourself in that last paragraph–it’s just that the subject is so big and complicated).

I want to 2nd Mr. Ford’s point: we have to remember our history, good and bad. Without it, it’s hard to make sense of the present.

I also want to recommend 2 great books: Michael Rogin’s Blackface, White Noise, and Melvin Patrick Ely’s The Adventures of Amos ‘n’ Andy. Rogin’s book is a little academic, but full of fascinating stuff about the history of minstrel shows, their influence on film (especially early on), and the surprising connections between blackface performance and the assimilation of “ethnic” whites.

Ely’s book explores the kinds of complexities you touch on here, for instance in what you say about Mantan Moreland. Amos ‘n’ Andy actually had a substantial African American fanbase in its early years on radio–it’s nice to see some version of your life reflected in popular culture, even if it’s distorted in some ways. By the time it reached TV, the show became a target of the NAACP, who succeeded in getting it off the air. But that was a pyrrhic victory in some ways, since it put a lot of black actors out of work, and helped scare the networks away from depicting African American life in ANY way, for years to come.

Posted By policomic : March 5, 2011 3:40 pm

Thanks for this thoughtful post (you’re being entirely too hard on yourself in that last paragraph–it’s just that the subject is so big and complicated).

I want to 2nd Mr. Ford’s point: we have to remember our history, good and bad. Without it, it’s hard to make sense of the present.

I also want to recommend 2 great books: Michael Rogin’s Blackface, White Noise, and Melvin Patrick Ely’s The Adventures of Amos ‘n’ Andy. Rogin’s book is a little academic, but full of fascinating stuff about the history of minstrel shows, their influence on film (especially early on), and the surprising connections between blackface performance and the assimilation of “ethnic” whites.

Ely’s book explores the kinds of complexities you touch on here, for instance in what you say about Mantan Moreland. Amos ‘n’ Andy actually had a substantial African American fanbase in its early years on radio–it’s nice to see some version of your life reflected in popular culture, even if it’s distorted in some ways. By the time it reached TV, the show became a target of the NAACP, who succeeded in getting it off the air. But that was a pyrrhic victory in some ways, since it put a lot of black actors out of work, and helped scare the networks away from depicting African American life in ANY way, for years to come.

Posted By Tom S : March 5, 2011 5:35 pm

There’s a great (if someone muddled) Spike Lee movie that is pretty explicitly about a lot of the questions relating to blackface- Bamboozled- that seems like it would be relevant here.

Beyond that, I agree that censorship is rarely the right movie, but I think the horror story Mr. Ford brings up, in which Jud Suss is rehabilitated because it’s unseen and its original context is lost, makes clear that for problematic material there really needs to be _something_ to help explain to people why this potentially awful thing is being shown, and how it was problematic originally.

I was reading about the history of Birth of a Nation a while ago, and was surprised to find out that it was fairly successfully picketed by the NAACP at the time of its release- they got some of the more horrifying aspects cut out, and were somewhat successful in getting it pulled in some markets. In a case like that- where the movie more or less explicitly advocates lynching and terrorism (and by all reports, successfully so in many cases) and single-handedly resurrects the KKK, is censorship justified? Would it be worth the loss to cinematic history to have buried the movie?

If it seems easier to advocate that Birth- and blackface comedies from the thirties, and Jud Suss- be shown today, it seems as though that’s probably because they’ve lost their impact, and their power to seduce.

I think the potential for seduction is one of the things that distinguishes the pointy headed scholars from the normal movie watchers- it takes either a specific act of will or a moment of shocking unrecognition to consider a movie dispassionately, not to allow it to move you as it wishes. For a modern audience, I suspect that just seeing someone in blackface will cause that moment of shock- or, say, the near rape of last week’s comedy. But if you’re showing something to a little kid, it’s almost impossible to get that Brechtian critical distance, and if you show them a racist Looney Tune, odds are they’ll swallow it whole.

I think that’s one of the scariest things about Jud Suss. I’ve seen it, and it’s a cruel and nasty movie (and one that was clearly designed to be so- the book its based on doesn’t have any particularly anti-Semetic attitude) but a lot of the Jewish caricatures and stereotypes in it are so foreign at this point that it’s hard to understand how nasty it really is. You see the same thing with blackface comedy in non-American settings sometimes, like on the Austrailian variety show Harry Connick Jr was judging, or the episode of Jeeves and Wooster wherein nearly all of the cast get into blackface.

Lord, my comment’s even more rambly than the article was. I guess, fundamentally, that my point is that in all these cases, critical and cultural context is the key- and oddly, racist/sexist/problematic material can be harmful both in situations where that context is too familiar (as in Birth of a Nation, where the audience knew the stereotypes it was playing on, and often agreed with them and had them reinforced) or too foreign (as with a modern viewer of Jud Suss.) Disentangling all that is what scholars are _for_, really.

Posted By Tom S : March 5, 2011 5:35 pm

There’s a great (if someone muddled) Spike Lee movie that is pretty explicitly about a lot of the questions relating to blackface- Bamboozled- that seems like it would be relevant here.

Beyond that, I agree that censorship is rarely the right movie, but I think the horror story Mr. Ford brings up, in which Jud Suss is rehabilitated because it’s unseen and its original context is lost, makes clear that for problematic material there really needs to be _something_ to help explain to people why this potentially awful thing is being shown, and how it was problematic originally.

I was reading about the history of Birth of a Nation a while ago, and was surprised to find out that it was fairly successfully picketed by the NAACP at the time of its release- they got some of the more horrifying aspects cut out, and were somewhat successful in getting it pulled in some markets. In a case like that- where the movie more or less explicitly advocates lynching and terrorism (and by all reports, successfully so in many cases) and single-handedly resurrects the KKK, is censorship justified? Would it be worth the loss to cinematic history to have buried the movie?

If it seems easier to advocate that Birth- and blackface comedies from the thirties, and Jud Suss- be shown today, it seems as though that’s probably because they’ve lost their impact, and their power to seduce.

I think the potential for seduction is one of the things that distinguishes the pointy headed scholars from the normal movie watchers- it takes either a specific act of will or a moment of shocking unrecognition to consider a movie dispassionately, not to allow it to move you as it wishes. For a modern audience, I suspect that just seeing someone in blackface will cause that moment of shock- or, say, the near rape of last week’s comedy. But if you’re showing something to a little kid, it’s almost impossible to get that Brechtian critical distance, and if you show them a racist Looney Tune, odds are they’ll swallow it whole.

I think that’s one of the scariest things about Jud Suss. I’ve seen it, and it’s a cruel and nasty movie (and one that was clearly designed to be so- the book its based on doesn’t have any particularly anti-Semetic attitude) but a lot of the Jewish caricatures and stereotypes in it are so foreign at this point that it’s hard to understand how nasty it really is. You see the same thing with blackface comedy in non-American settings sometimes, like on the Austrailian variety show Harry Connick Jr was judging, or the episode of Jeeves and Wooster wherein nearly all of the cast get into blackface.

Lord, my comment’s even more rambly than the article was. I guess, fundamentally, that my point is that in all these cases, critical and cultural context is the key- and oddly, racist/sexist/problematic material can be harmful both in situations where that context is too familiar (as in Birth of a Nation, where the audience knew the stereotypes it was playing on, and often agreed with them and had them reinforced) or too foreign (as with a modern viewer of Jud Suss.) Disentangling all that is what scholars are _for_, really.

Posted By Neville Ross : March 5, 2011 7:55 pm

This is what most of the people who love old movies don’t get when they hear or see that people don’t care for movies of the past: that these movies have elements that are racially insensitive, are nasty to women and are just plain dated. These films show why women and people of color especially have a hard time watching them (hell, have a hard time watching most movies from Hollywood past and present!) People in power in Hollywood and film buffs should check out the blog Racialicious and get a lowdown on why things can be and are offensive to others, and why racial depictions like these as shown in thse movies turn people off from watching older movies.

Posted By Neville Ross : March 5, 2011 7:55 pm

This is what most of the people who love old movies don’t get when they hear or see that people don’t care for movies of the past: that these movies have elements that are racially insensitive, are nasty to women and are just plain dated. These films show why women and people of color especially have a hard time watching them (hell, have a hard time watching most movies from Hollywood past and present!) People in power in Hollywood and film buffs should check out the blog Racialicious and get a lowdown on why things can be and are offensive to others, and why racial depictions like these as shown in thse movies turn people off from watching older movies.

Posted By dukeroberts : March 5, 2011 8:58 pm

This was a fantastic article. It is easy for someone of my generation to see something like this and know its wrong. Therefore, I have no problem laughing at some of it. It’s funny to me to see how ignorant white filmmakers were back then. Growing up when I grew up, in the 80′s, we were a much more enlightened bunch. I didn’t grow up with liberal white guilt about the place of blacks in society because I went to school with and played with black kids every day. And I had nothing to do with the past indiscretions of others.

To me, these movies just say something about a bygone era when things were much different. People used to think the earth was flat. People used to think that all blacks could do was serve white people. And that they were bug-eyed buffoons with big lips. To me its ancient history. But the key is that it is history. History should be preserved to the best efforts of all, to demonstrate what was done correctly, incorrectly, right and wrong.

To, if you’ll pardon the expression, “whitewash” all of the examples of these ridiculous stereotypes is to ignore them, and to ignore them is to pretend they never happened. Mammy Two-Shoes belongs in old Tom and Jerry cartoons. You don’t have to show them to your kids, but don’t get rid of her. Don’t lock Song of the South up in the Disney Vault as if you’re ashamed of it (it’s a great movie). Let it out and let people see how wonderfully rich the relationship between an elderly black man can be with a small white boy who virtually idolizes him. Actually, I’m not even sure what’s offensive about that movie. I used to work at Blockbuster and we would occasionally get requests of Song of the South on video. I cannot recall one instance where the person requesting it was not black.

Regardless of how the movies play to modern audiences they have merit. If you want to use them as instructions on how not to think, so be it. If you want to watch them to be entertained, you should be welcome to do that too. In the context of today’s America we know they’re ignorant, racist, etc., so there is no reason why we can’t laugh at some of these ridiculous things. These days, I find some of the movies and TV shows that are geared towards to be just about as stereotypically offensive, but they’re made by blacks.

Posted By dukeroberts : March 5, 2011 8:58 pm

This was a fantastic article. It is easy for someone of my generation to see something like this and know its wrong. Therefore, I have no problem laughing at some of it. It’s funny to me to see how ignorant white filmmakers were back then. Growing up when I grew up, in the 80′s, we were a much more enlightened bunch. I didn’t grow up with liberal white guilt about the place of blacks in society because I went to school with and played with black kids every day. And I had nothing to do with the past indiscretions of others.

To me, these movies just say something about a bygone era when things were much different. People used to think the earth was flat. People used to think that all blacks could do was serve white people. And that they were bug-eyed buffoons with big lips. To me its ancient history. But the key is that it is history. History should be preserved to the best efforts of all, to demonstrate what was done correctly, incorrectly, right and wrong.

To, if you’ll pardon the expression, “whitewash” all of the examples of these ridiculous stereotypes is to ignore them, and to ignore them is to pretend they never happened. Mammy Two-Shoes belongs in old Tom and Jerry cartoons. You don’t have to show them to your kids, but don’t get rid of her. Don’t lock Song of the South up in the Disney Vault as if you’re ashamed of it (it’s a great movie). Let it out and let people see how wonderfully rich the relationship between an elderly black man can be with a small white boy who virtually idolizes him. Actually, I’m not even sure what’s offensive about that movie. I used to work at Blockbuster and we would occasionally get requests of Song of the South on video. I cannot recall one instance where the person requesting it was not black.

Regardless of how the movies play to modern audiences they have merit. If you want to use them as instructions on how not to think, so be it. If you want to watch them to be entertained, you should be welcome to do that too. In the context of today’s America we know they’re ignorant, racist, etc., so there is no reason why we can’t laugh at some of these ridiculous things. These days, I find some of the movies and TV shows that are geared towards to be just about as stereotypically offensive, but they’re made by blacks.

Posted By Rob Farr : March 7, 2011 10:40 am

To make matters even more incoherent, the Billy West gag you referenced (the video links seem to have disappeared…censorship?) was devised and filmed by two immigrants! If we could go back in time and chastise director Arvid Gillstrom (born Arvid Evald Gyllström in Gothenburg, Västra Götalands län, Sweden) and star Billy West (born Roy B. Weissburg in Russia) for their cultural insensitivity to immigrants, they would, with some justification, boot our asses right back to the 21st Century. These old films, as much as we love them, were not made for our eyes and our sensitivities. We get to look through the peephole into the past(thanks TCM!), but the past will always remind us that they don’t give a fig for our judgements.

Posted By Rob Farr : March 7, 2011 10:40 am

To make matters even more incoherent, the Billy West gag you referenced (the video links seem to have disappeared…censorship?) was devised and filmed by two immigrants! If we could go back in time and chastise director Arvid Gillstrom (born Arvid Evald Gyllström in Gothenburg, Västra Götalands län, Sweden) and star Billy West (born Roy B. Weissburg in Russia) for their cultural insensitivity to immigrants, they would, with some justification, boot our asses right back to the 21st Century. These old films, as much as we love them, were not made for our eyes and our sensitivities. We get to look through the peephole into the past(thanks TCM!), but the past will always remind us that they don’t give a fig for our judgements.

Posted By DBenson : March 7, 2011 4:49 pm

Sometimes it feels like a no-win situation.

On one extreme you have the overly sensitive (or more precisely, those who assume everybody else is too delicate to be trusted with history). On the other, you have the loudmouths who brag about being “politically incorrect” — which has devolved from challenging conventional wisdom to demanding respect for crude, often infantile self-indulgence. These are the people who play the victim card if nobody laughs at their unfunny jokes.

On the one hand, I’d like to see “Song of the South” released. On the other, I don’t want to find myself siding with smirking idiots who’d declare it a victory over whining “minorities”, and/or suggest the plantation model in the film displays “good old days” in race relations (technically set after the Civil War, the only indication that slavery is ended is that Uncle Remus is fired and sent packing).

Posted By DBenson : March 7, 2011 4:49 pm

Sometimes it feels like a no-win situation.

On one extreme you have the overly sensitive (or more precisely, those who assume everybody else is too delicate to be trusted with history). On the other, you have the loudmouths who brag about being “politically incorrect” — which has devolved from challenging conventional wisdom to demanding respect for crude, often infantile self-indulgence. These are the people who play the victim card if nobody laughs at their unfunny jokes.

On the one hand, I’d like to see “Song of the South” released. On the other, I don’t want to find myself siding with smirking idiots who’d declare it a victory over whining “minorities”, and/or suggest the plantation model in the film displays “good old days” in race relations (technically set after the Civil War, the only indication that slavery is ended is that Uncle Remus is fired and sent packing).

Posted By dukeroberts : March 8, 2011 12:56 am

As I stated earlier, requests for “Song of the South” on video were almost always or possibly always by older black people who enjoyed the movie when they were younger. I wouldn’t call them whining “minorities”. Were they whining to see it? To insinuate that someone thinks the plantation model was the “good old days” just because they enjoy “Song of the South” is ridiculous. When was the last time you saw the movie? The little boy, played by Bobby Driscoll, admires Uncle Remus, almost like a grandfather and is enraptured by his moralistic tales, which in turn convince him to do the right thing on more than one occasion. I’m not sure what’s wrong with that. Also, the stories in the Uncle Remus books were adapted from black folk lore, which in turn were handed down from African oral tradition. Again, I can see no reason why this might upset people.

Posted By dukeroberts : March 8, 2011 12:56 am

As I stated earlier, requests for “Song of the South” on video were almost always or possibly always by older black people who enjoyed the movie when they were younger. I wouldn’t call them whining “minorities”. Were they whining to see it? To insinuate that someone thinks the plantation model was the “good old days” just because they enjoy “Song of the South” is ridiculous. When was the last time you saw the movie? The little boy, played by Bobby Driscoll, admires Uncle Remus, almost like a grandfather and is enraptured by his moralistic tales, which in turn convince him to do the right thing on more than one occasion. I’m not sure what’s wrong with that. Also, the stories in the Uncle Remus books were adapted from black folk lore, which in turn were handed down from African oral tradition. Again, I can see no reason why this might upset people.

Posted By Tom S : March 10, 2011 5:12 am

Dukeroberts:

While Song of the South certainly has it’s strengths, one of the persistent and really problematic myths spread in the south is that the Civil War and freeing the slaves really just served to screw everything up- before that, everyone knew their place and it was better for slaves and owners alike.

Obviously, that’s a ludicrous idea, but it’s an idea that people have attempted to back up both by whitewashing the brutality of slavery and by terrorist attacks on blacks in the south- so anything that furthers the narrative, say by showing a comfortable and respected life for an old black slave, is problematic for that reason.

It doesn’t mean that the movie is somehow inherently or totally evil, or that anyone who likes it is a racist- but the problem with that kind of message is that it’s not like black people have some sort of historical bullshit-dar that informs them that what they’re seeing is whitewashed historical fiction, and the narrative I described is meant to be one that takes in both black and white people. It’s a problem, and one that deserves to be addressed.

Posted By Tom S : March 10, 2011 5:12 am

Dukeroberts:

While Song of the South certainly has it’s strengths, one of the persistent and really problematic myths spread in the south is that the Civil War and freeing the slaves really just served to screw everything up- before that, everyone knew their place and it was better for slaves and owners alike.

Obviously, that’s a ludicrous idea, but it’s an idea that people have attempted to back up both by whitewashing the brutality of slavery and by terrorist attacks on blacks in the south- so anything that furthers the narrative, say by showing a comfortable and respected life for an old black slave, is problematic for that reason.

It doesn’t mean that the movie is somehow inherently or totally evil, or that anyone who likes it is a racist- but the problem with that kind of message is that it’s not like black people have some sort of historical bullshit-dar that informs them that what they’re seeing is whitewashed historical fiction, and the narrative I described is meant to be one that takes in both black and white people. It’s a problem, and one that deserves to be addressed.

Posted By Tom S : March 10, 2011 5:17 am

(I realize, as DBenson mentioned, that Song of the South is technically post- Civil War, but it’s still essentially showing the sweet old life that could be had on the plantation, which is still part of that same narrative. It’s not a modern idea that it’s problematic, either- even at the time of its release, the NAACP was unhappy about the “impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship.”)

Posted By Tom S : March 10, 2011 5:17 am

(I realize, as DBenson mentioned, that Song of the South is technically post- Civil War, but it’s still essentially showing the sweet old life that could be had on the plantation, which is still part of that same narrative. It’s not a modern idea that it’s problematic, either- even at the time of its release, the NAACP was unhappy about the “impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship.”)

Posted By DBenson : March 10, 2011 5:33 pm

A little experiment: There’s a silent Buster Keaton short, “My Wife’s Relations,” where the central joke is Buster accidentally marrying into a family of outrageous Irish stereotypes. To a modern audience they’re just comic neanderthals, obnoxious but hardly villainous. But at the time it was in-your-face ethnic humor.

All of them — including Buster’s unwanted bride — are musclebound bruisers. The brothers include a laborer, a cop and a fighter. The only way Buster can get a bit of dinner with this ravenous mob is by showing it’s Friday (They’re all Catholics, of course) so they grudgingly put their slabs of beef back on the platter. The film’s climax is their disastrous attempt to crash society.

Buster was no stranger to Irish stereotypes. He grew up performing in comic “Irish” makeup (the simian look you see in old drawings and current depictions of leprechauns) with his father. But the Keatons were proudly Irish themselves, so you can’t seriously claim Buster was a racist. At worst he was simply embracing what was accepted as funny.

You can show the film today with minimal controversy because the days of “No Irish Need Apply” are long gone, and the worst stereotyping modern Irish have to contend with centers on alcohol and old-school political bosses. But imagine if an Irish Catholic politician still had to prove his loyalty. Imagine there were loud factions pushing the old stereotypes, constantly romanticizing the days when the Irish were “happy” to be little more than laborers, too poor to blunder about in politics or society. Imagine if Pat O’Brien played only stupid cops and whimsical drunks, and pundits sniffed about “political correctness” when an Irish-American finally played a hero. And imagine if an Irish surname was a personal and professional liability, because certain people assumed you were probably a hard-drinking idiot who liked to fight. But they compliment you for not sounding Irish.

Given all that, you might express a distaste for “My Wife’s Relations” no matter how much you like Keaton’s other films. Somebody takes you to task, making an elegant argument that you have no reason to be upset, and you have no right casting a pall on the pleasure of those who think it’s a masterpiece. What would you say?

Posted By DBenson : March 10, 2011 5:33 pm

A little experiment: There’s a silent Buster Keaton short, “My Wife’s Relations,” where the central joke is Buster accidentally marrying into a family of outrageous Irish stereotypes. To a modern audience they’re just comic neanderthals, obnoxious but hardly villainous. But at the time it was in-your-face ethnic humor.

All of them — including Buster’s unwanted bride — are musclebound bruisers. The brothers include a laborer, a cop and a fighter. The only way Buster can get a bit of dinner with this ravenous mob is by showing it’s Friday (They’re all Catholics, of course) so they grudgingly put their slabs of beef back on the platter. The film’s climax is their disastrous attempt to crash society.

Buster was no stranger to Irish stereotypes. He grew up performing in comic “Irish” makeup (the simian look you see in old drawings and current depictions of leprechauns) with his father. But the Keatons were proudly Irish themselves, so you can’t seriously claim Buster was a racist. At worst he was simply embracing what was accepted as funny.

You can show the film today with minimal controversy because the days of “No Irish Need Apply” are long gone, and the worst stereotyping modern Irish have to contend with centers on alcohol and old-school political bosses. But imagine if an Irish Catholic politician still had to prove his loyalty. Imagine there were loud factions pushing the old stereotypes, constantly romanticizing the days when the Irish were “happy” to be little more than laborers, too poor to blunder about in politics or society. Imagine if Pat O’Brien played only stupid cops and whimsical drunks, and pundits sniffed about “political correctness” when an Irish-American finally played a hero. And imagine if an Irish surname was a personal and professional liability, because certain people assumed you were probably a hard-drinking idiot who liked to fight. But they compliment you for not sounding Irish.

Given all that, you might express a distaste for “My Wife’s Relations” no matter how much you like Keaton’s other films. Somebody takes you to task, making an elegant argument that you have no reason to be upset, and you have no right casting a pall on the pleasure of those who think it’s a masterpiece. What would you say?

Posted By dukeroberts : March 10, 2011 9:25 pm

Tom S- There are cartoon rabbits, bears, foxes and birds wandering about and singing. It’s a fantasy film for families. Reality need not apply. For this reason it need not show a realistic “master-slave” relationship. It’s full of animation, great acting (James Baskett was given a special Oscar) and wonderful songs and music.

In addition to the complaints about the “idyllic master-slave relationship”, the NAACP praised “the remarkable artistic merit” of “Song of the South”. We have all heard the complaints about the film. People should be allowed to enjoy “the remarkable artistic merit” of it.

Posted By dukeroberts : March 10, 2011 9:25 pm

Tom S- There are cartoon rabbits, bears, foxes and birds wandering about and singing. It’s a fantasy film for families. Reality need not apply. For this reason it need not show a realistic “master-slave” relationship. It’s full of animation, great acting (James Baskett was given a special Oscar) and wonderful songs and music.

In addition to the complaints about the “idyllic master-slave relationship”, the NAACP praised “the remarkable artistic merit” of “Song of the South”. We have all heard the complaints about the film. People should be allowed to enjoy “the remarkable artistic merit” of it.

Posted By Tom S : March 10, 2011 10:57 pm

@Duke

I don’t think we disagree about the quality of the movie, but having fantastic elements does nothing to reduce the potential impact of the problematic master/slave thing- and I agree that people should be able to watch it, my argument is that it should be shown with contextualizing information so that people- and particularly little kids, who don’t have much of an ability to consider what they’re watching dispassionately- realize why people have a problem with it.

I don’t think anyone here is saying the best solution is just to bury a work in the vaults, particularly for something that is only problematic in a tertiary sense like Song of the South (as opposed to, say, the above-mentioned Jud Suss). But it’s a mistake to pretend that because something deserves to be seen means that it’s not kind of screwed up.

I mean, I don’t know that I have any objections about Song of the South that don’t apply more strongly to Gone With the Wind, and nobody’s suggesting we bury that.

Posted By Tom S : March 10, 2011 10:57 pm

@Duke

I don’t think we disagree about the quality of the movie, but having fantastic elements does nothing to reduce the potential impact of the problematic master/slave thing- and I agree that people should be able to watch it, my argument is that it should be shown with contextualizing information so that people- and particularly little kids, who don’t have much of an ability to consider what they’re watching dispassionately- realize why people have a problem with it.

I don’t think anyone here is saying the best solution is just to bury a work in the vaults, particularly for something that is only problematic in a tertiary sense like Song of the South (as opposed to, say, the above-mentioned Jud Suss). But it’s a mistake to pretend that because something deserves to be seen means that it’s not kind of screwed up.

I mean, I don’t know that I have any objections about Song of the South that don’t apply more strongly to Gone With the Wind, and nobody’s suggesting we bury that.

Posted By dukeroberts : March 11, 2011 12:37 am

I think I would disagree with the “screwed up” part due to it being a family friendly, partially animated fantasy film, and mostly disagree that the master-slave issue might be problematic. I say “mostly” because I think most people, Americans especially, know that the relationships portrayed in the film are not realistic to how things were. I think that Americans are now hypersensitive to the issue of slavery and how blacks were treated prior to, during and after the Civil War. I believe there may be some of an ever dwindling number who may see the portrayals and find them the slightest bit realistic. For the reason of the existence of those people, I concur that running textualizing information prior to viewing is totally fine. Similar explanations have been done for the DVD releases of other films and classic cartoons and they are not the least bit objectionable.

Posted By dukeroberts : March 11, 2011 12:37 am

I think I would disagree with the “screwed up” part due to it being a family friendly, partially animated fantasy film, and mostly disagree that the master-slave issue might be problematic. I say “mostly” because I think most people, Americans especially, know that the relationships portrayed in the film are not realistic to how things were. I think that Americans are now hypersensitive to the issue of slavery and how blacks were treated prior to, during and after the Civil War. I believe there may be some of an ever dwindling number who may see the portrayals and find them the slightest bit realistic. For the reason of the existence of those people, I concur that running textualizing information prior to viewing is totally fine. Similar explanations have been done for the DVD releases of other films and classic cartoons and they are not the least bit objectionable.

Posted By David Kalat : March 11, 2011 9:16 am

Man, what a fantastic discussion! Thanks to everybody for such terrific and insightful reflection–

I just wanted to weigh in that there are parts of SONG OF THE SOUTH that are indeed terrific–and I’d say that aside from the potentially offensive accents of the animated characters, the cartoon sequences are probably the most accessible and certainly most enjoyable aspects of the film.

The live-action sequences, though, are the hold-up.

I actually *did* show this to my nephew, when he was 4, confident that it wouldn’t warp his mind or leave any problematic prejudices buried in his psyche. But I used to babysit a 4 year-old, African-American, of professional parents who were sensitive about being the rare dark-skinned residents in a mostly white neighborhood. I wouldn’t have shown the movie to her, and it’s that distinction–the awareness of how the same content can have different meanings in different contexts, that makes this stuff so tricky.

DBenson’s comparison to MY WIFE’S RELATIONS was very apt–once a minority group has been fully assimilated and the once-hurtful stereotypes lose their sting, ethnic jokes change their meaning. I don’t even think Keaton’s own Irish heritage as any role in that–those stereotypes just don’t hurt as much today, regardless of their source, and I suspect/hope that continued progress in race relations will ultimately salvage the likes of SONG OF THE SOUTH (and maybe even some of the more worrisome stuff that you can’t easily see thank to WordPress’ glitch that erased my YouTube clips). That’s not to say that day has come, though.

Posted By David Kalat : March 11, 2011 9:16 am

Man, what a fantastic discussion! Thanks to everybody for such terrific and insightful reflection–

I just wanted to weigh in that there are parts of SONG OF THE SOUTH that are indeed terrific–and I’d say that aside from the potentially offensive accents of the animated characters, the cartoon sequences are probably the most accessible and certainly most enjoyable aspects of the film.

The live-action sequences, though, are the hold-up.

I actually *did* show this to my nephew, when he was 4, confident that it wouldn’t warp his mind or leave any problematic prejudices buried in his psyche. But I used to babysit a 4 year-old, African-American, of professional parents who were sensitive about being the rare dark-skinned residents in a mostly white neighborhood. I wouldn’t have shown the movie to her, and it’s that distinction–the awareness of how the same content can have different meanings in different contexts, that makes this stuff so tricky.

DBenson’s comparison to MY WIFE’S RELATIONS was very apt–once a minority group has been fully assimilated and the once-hurtful stereotypes lose their sting, ethnic jokes change their meaning. I don’t even think Keaton’s own Irish heritage as any role in that–those stereotypes just don’t hurt as much today, regardless of their source, and I suspect/hope that continued progress in race relations will ultimately salvage the likes of SONG OF THE SOUTH (and maybe even some of the more worrisome stuff that you can’t easily see thank to WordPress’ glitch that erased my YouTube clips). That’s not to say that day has come, though.

Posted By JLewis : March 27, 2011 8:31 pm

It is easy to assumed that the blacks eating watermelons were utilized by the same uninspired creators who made all Scots cheap, gave each cop an Irish accent and an “O” to the last name, made blondes ditzy, Swedes go “yah yah good good”, populated each laundry with Chinese and made every “Indian” say “how”. Also, during World War II, gave the “japs” buck teeth. The stereotyping knew no “skin shade” barriers.

What makes the whole blackface situation so sticky is that many performers from Al Jolson to Bing Crosby and stretching back to Bert Williams, a black performer who “blacked up”, were all forced to do this just to sing “black” music (i.e. The Blues) in public. No point going into the exact reasons why… but society of the times required it, especially in the south. If prints of THE PIRATE had to be edited as late as 1948 in some theaters because Gene Kelly was dancing “too close” with the Nicholas Brothers, it is easy to understand why everything was “complicated” in earlier decades.

I will say this much for AMOS & ANDY. At least those two were not made of cardboard and had plenty of personal “depth” that made them enormously popular. The creators were ahead of their time in terms of white recognition of “black culture” with limited ridicule and, at least in the 1920s and ’30s, the radio show was only mildly offensive on account of the language and the fact that the leads were not as urbanly sophisticated as Sidney Poitier. Change their skin shade and they would become LUM & ABNER. Then again… the fact that the white stars “blackfaced” for a 1930 hit movie didn’t help what could have been “progress”. When the TV show began in the fifties with a cast who needed no blackfacing, the attacks were quite intense on a variety of levels… so much so that network TV remained pretty much “white” to avoid any more trouble until 1968′s JULIA. (Needless to say, I often squirm at many “blaxploitation” films and all-black sitcoms of the 1970s which are sometimes more “dated” than much that preceeded them, pre-civil rights.)

On the subject of cartoons: COAL BLACK AND DE SEBBEN DWARFS did use a few actual black entertainers for voice work and director Robert Clampett frequently hung out with them at a time when most caucasian Americans didn’t… so it was only marginally offensive in the way it spoofed the popular “zoot suit” craze. The Tom & Jerry cartoon ZOOT CAT also spoofs the craze but gets away with it simply because all jive talk comes from “normal” Tom and Toots rather than a Fats Waller type feline like the one in Clampett’s other classic “naughty” TIN PAN ALLEY CATS. Surprisingly, the cartoons that date the least are those seen the least: George Pal’s Jasper. His big lips are the main subject of question. Also, one Puppetoon featured giant watermelons. Yet the titles I’ve seen are pretty mild compared to the competition… he really isn’t much different than other “little boy” characters like Scrappy and Buddy.

But… that is just me. Maybe I’m just more “used to it”… the same way others today can stomach a lot of other offensive stuff today.

Posted By JLewis : March 27, 2011 8:31 pm

It is easy to assumed that the blacks eating watermelons were utilized by the same uninspired creators who made all Scots cheap, gave each cop an Irish accent and an “O” to the last name, made blondes ditzy, Swedes go “yah yah good good”, populated each laundry with Chinese and made every “Indian” say “how”. Also, during World War II, gave the “japs” buck teeth. The stereotyping knew no “skin shade” barriers.

What makes the whole blackface situation so sticky is that many performers from Al Jolson to Bing Crosby and stretching back to Bert Williams, a black performer who “blacked up”, were all forced to do this just to sing “black” music (i.e. The Blues) in public. No point going into the exact reasons why… but society of the times required it, especially in the south. If prints of THE PIRATE had to be edited as late as 1948 in some theaters because Gene Kelly was dancing “too close” with the Nicholas Brothers, it is easy to understand why everything was “complicated” in earlier decades.

I will say this much for AMOS & ANDY. At least those two were not made of cardboard and had plenty of personal “depth” that made them enormously popular. The creators were ahead of their time in terms of white recognition of “black culture” with limited ridicule and, at least in the 1920s and ’30s, the radio show was only mildly offensive on account of the language and the fact that the leads were not as urbanly sophisticated as Sidney Poitier. Change their skin shade and they would become LUM & ABNER. Then again… the fact that the white stars “blackfaced” for a 1930 hit movie didn’t help what could have been “progress”. When the TV show began in the fifties with a cast who needed no blackfacing, the attacks were quite intense on a variety of levels… so much so that network TV remained pretty much “white” to avoid any more trouble until 1968′s JULIA. (Needless to say, I often squirm at many “blaxploitation” films and all-black sitcoms of the 1970s which are sometimes more “dated” than much that preceeded them, pre-civil rights.)

On the subject of cartoons: COAL BLACK AND DE SEBBEN DWARFS did use a few actual black entertainers for voice work and director Robert Clampett frequently hung out with them at a time when most caucasian Americans didn’t… so it was only marginally offensive in the way it spoofed the popular “zoot suit” craze. The Tom & Jerry cartoon ZOOT CAT also spoofs the craze but gets away with it simply because all jive talk comes from “normal” Tom and Toots rather than a Fats Waller type feline like the one in Clampett’s other classic “naughty” TIN PAN ALLEY CATS. Surprisingly, the cartoons that date the least are those seen the least: George Pal’s Jasper. His big lips are the main subject of question. Also, one Puppetoon featured giant watermelons. Yet the titles I’ve seen are pretty mild compared to the competition… he really isn’t much different than other “little boy” characters like Scrappy and Buddy.

But… that is just me. Maybe I’m just more “used to it”… the same way others today can stomach a lot of other offensive stuff today.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D  Action Films  Actors  Actors' Endorsements  Actresses  animal stars  Animation  Anime  Anthology Films  Art Direction  Art in Movies  Australian CInema  Autobiography  Avant-Garde  Aviation  Awards  B-movies  Beer in Film  Behind the Scenes  Best of the Year lists  Biography  Biopics  Black Film  Blu-Ray  Books on Film  Boxing films  British Cinema  Canadian Cinema  Character Actors  Chicago Film History  Cinematography  Classic Films  College Life on Film  Comedy  Comic Book Movies  Crime  Czech Film  Dance on Film  Digital Cinema  Directors  Disaster Films  Documentary  Drama  DVD  Early Talkies  Editing  Educational Films  European Influence on American Cinema  Experimental  Exploitation  Fairy Tales on Film  Faith or Christian-based Films  Family Films  Film Composers  Film Criticism  film festivals  Film History in Florida  Film Noir  Film Scholars  Film titles  Filmmaking Techniques  Films About Gambling  Films of the 1960s  Films of the 1980s  Food in Film  Foreign Film  French Film  Gangster films  Genre  Genre spoofs  HD & Blu-Ray  Holiday Movies  Hollywood history  Hollywood lifestyles  Horror  Horror Movies  Icons  independent film  Italian Film  Japanese Film  Korean Film  Literary Adaptations  Martial Arts  Melodramas  Method Acting  Mexican Cinema  Moguls  Monster Movies  Movie Books  Movie Costumes  movie flops  Movie locations  Movie lovers  Movie Reviewers  Movie settings  Movie Stars  Movie titles  Movies about movies  Music in Film  Musicals  Outdoor Cinema  Paranoid Thrillers  Parenting on film  Pirate movies  Polish film industry  political thrillers  Politics in Film  Pornography  Pre-Code  Producers  Race in American Film  Remakes  Revenge  Road Movies  Romance  Romantic Comedies  Satire  Scandals  Science Fiction  Screenwriters  Semi-documentaries  Serials  Short Films  Silent Film  silent films  Social Problem Film  Sports  Sports on Film  Stereotypes  Straight-to-DVD  Studio Politics  Stunts and stuntmen  Suspense thriller  Swashbucklers  TCM Classic Film Festival  TCM Underground  Television  The British in Hollywood  The Germans in Hollywood  The Hungarians in Hollywood  The Irish in Hollywood  Theaters  Thriller  Trains in movies  Underground Cinema  VOD  War film  Westerns  Women in the Film Industry  Women's Weepies