Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Racism in Movies

These days my mental capacity for film-blogging has been limited.  But I have, admittedly, invested a fair amount of interest in current events, especially the recent Paula Dean controversy.  Also, I stumbled across a film-makers' recent Facebook review of the 1946 Disney feature, Song of the South -- a film that remains unavailable on home video due to its racist controversy.  Both gave me pause.  Here are two popculture moments that have been rejected for referring to something objectionable .  But, is it ideal to suppress such controversies -- to merely sweep them under the rug?

Obviously, Paula Dean's remarks were horrible.  She's apologized and has been punished.  I suspect Dean will have 2-3 months of penance before she procures a new network cooking show.  She may even retain and restore most -- if not all -- of her giant mechanise empire. 

On the other hand, Song of the South will remain buried in Disney's vaults, which reinforces that idea that parents want their entertainment merely to distract and not educate their youth.  Films that contain objectionable material may require parental intervention -- some sort of discussion.  For some, it's better just to keep these things hidden. 

However, I have greater issues with certain films with a "noble" effort to educate on the detriments of ignorance or bigotry.  I recall the first time I saw Disney's Remember the Titans in college, which received glowing endorsements from my friends--both white and black.  I hated it!  It represented everything that was wrong with morality tales.  It's resolution felt cheap and unfulfilled. 

The film starts promising.  A newly integrated football team begins to find common ground and mutual respect in 1971Virginia.  Soon, the players form a deep bond, despite the pushback by the racist townsfolk.  But, suddenly, the film ends with every last one of the racist sub characters reaching a mutual epiphany of understanding and acceptance.  No real explanation, just a nice bow tie ending.  It's the kind of the film that does a disservice to history; circumventing the real battle that was filled with sacrifice and hurdles.  It's the worst kind of fantasy film: a Frank Capra sweet-and-cuddly wrap-up without any of the dramatic payoff. 

Films that reflect on racism -- or any other form of bigetry -- do not have to be morality tales.  It isn't wrong to suggest that people who are racist are bad or remain beyond redemption.  But films that blatantly attempt to hide or brush aside the true injustices sometimes do more of a disservice to history and their cause.  It suggests that change can occur simply if we maintain our own resolves without any of the fight; that the end of bigotry requires building blocks and hardship. 

While rewatching Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, I was happy to see the racism was not overwritten.  So-called abolitionists embraced change, but not equality.  Lincoln himself had to compromise the notion of full liberties in order to pass a bill that would inevitably pave the way for more battles to come.  Despite Speilberg's obsession with spoon-feeding morality lessons to his audience, he preserves the record.  The word "nigger" is not omitted.  Lincoln reflects on the challenges that will remain after slavery is abolished.  Hearts and minds won't change as fast as the law. 

Whenever I tell folks about older films, there are some who fail to see my rationale; any reason why I would be interested.  There's a false belief that any film made before our birthdays lack any relevance -- or entertainment merit. 

There are films that carry an outdated outlook on people of certain religions, race and gender.  Films that once carried a noble message have lost their luster like Best Picture nominees/winners like A Gentleman's Agreement, in which undercover journalist (Gregory Peck) unravels the Anti-Semitism plaguing 1940's America, or Guess Who's Coming To Dinner in which Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey are shocked to discover that their Caucasian daughter is betrothed to an African American (Sidney Poitier) in 1967!  Neither of these films carry the same gravity because they literally only see the rights-and-wrongs; the (seriously, no pun intended) blacks-and-whites. 

Two of the biggest, most influencial films in cinema directly pertain to the subject of race.  D.W. Griffith's silent epic Birth of a Nation remains a milestone in drafting the cinematic language as we know it.  It's also a film that celebrates the Ku Klux Klan and villifies African Americans (portrayed by white actors donning black makeup) as vulgar, animalistic, rapists. 

The most successful film of all time remains (and will always remain) Gone With the Wind, which shows slaves who embrace their lives of servitude.  They remain loyal family members even when the North triumphs and liberates them.  There remains uncomfortable scenes, such as when we see slave children standing and fanning their sleeping white damsels. 

Yet, both films remain accessible.  You can snatch a copy of the latter's DVD/bluray at your local Walmart.  Both films showcase an undeniable truth in our history.  My discomfort with seeing children serve their white masters is a the kind of response that must be explored and discussed.  It opens a window-pane into a world that, thankfully, no longer exists. 

In a world consumed with PR, I must applaud the folks at Warner Bros and Disney for releasing archived cartoons devoid of censorship.  For example, when Disney released their Treasures sets, which featured the classic Donald, Mickey and Goofy shorts, critic Leonard Maltin pre-empted each controversial short with a remark over their historical value and the stereotypical contrivances.  When Warner's finally unveiled their infamous "Tom and Jerry" shorts, which featured their belligerent, African-American housekeeper, Whoopi Goldberg made the same cautionary introductions. 

I haven't seen Song of the South in over twenty years.  Based on my initial impressions, I can only recall the light-hearted song "Zippity Do Da" jollily recited by an African-American man.  I exited the theater only recalling the fun and affirming moments.  My innocent mind never processed any demeaning impressions.  That's for the adults to decide.  As an adult, Paula Dean did herself a disservice by not addressing why she uttered the word "nigger".  All she's done was repeatedly apologize.  Instead, she feels just like another capricious redneck from Remember the Titans.  

 I learned more from Birth of a Nation. 

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating article Chris. It's one that interests me as well because I too grew up watching Mammy Two Shoes (the character from the Tom and Jerry shorts) and other cartoons which often made a passing references to these racist caricatures. It is a shame we still don't have Song of the South considering some of these shorts have been released in full on home video. It's quite weird when something like Triumph of the Will is studied because it's subject matter is about the Nazis. Another fascinating aspect of this that I would like to see touch upon is the history of censorship regarding the matter. I'm sure you've read about the censored eleven cartoons. Those have not been seen on television since pre-1967. The list includes cartoons made by legends like Bob Camplett, Tex Avery, and Chuck Jones. One even includes Bugs Bunny. Turner back in the day had Mammy redrawn and replace with a babysitter. Even today if you watch Tom and Jerry shorts on tv Mammy's voice is replaced by a woman who sounds more reflective of these times and is quite noticeable. I suppose this is just another attempt in part to hide our racist past. What's changed maybe in the past 20-30 years is our clueless hyper-sensitivity toward our racist past. Look at attempts by some to get "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" banned from libraries. Anybody whose read Huck Finn or knows about Mark Twain knows he was very anti-slavery. Yet people forget about the context of the word and the statement Twain was trying to make about the time he was living in. I didn't want to turn this into a rant, but I think we are both people who are very anti-censorship when it comes to media. We can't just recognize the good without recognizing the bad as well.