by Chris Bodenner
A reader sends the above video:
Consider this clip from the MGM film Babes in Arms from 1939, featuring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in blackface sing with a minstrel chorus. In another scene, June Preisser’s exchanges with Rooney are totally lascivious. And Garland infuses her blackface performance with a sexiness not present in her other performances in the film. Interesting.
Another has a more nuanced take:
I guess I always knew the Judy Garland perennial “Swanee” was problematic, but my reverence for all things Garland overshadowed any discomfort I might have had watching this when I was younger. Seeing A Star is Born again more recently, I’m horrified. But also thrilled. Watching this video of Garland performing “Swanee”, it seems impossible not to see, along with the ugly stereotypes, a huge love and admiration for African culture, even if it comes to us from the horror of slavery. If you wanted to denigrate black folks, why would you learn to dance like that? (And yes, I do worry a little that this attitude is a rationalization only possible from my position of white privilege). It’s more complicated than we’re usually willing to talk about because the issue is so incendiary.
Another reader is also nuanced over the most recent classic we featured:
I remember watching Song of the South in school, as part of a unit we did on the Brer Rabbit stories. (I’m 50 – kind of old, but not super old; it wasn’t that long ago.) The crazy thing about that movie is that it’s intended as a kind of love letter to African-American culture.
A family goes back to the old plantation so their young son can meet Uncle Remus and hear those stories at his knee. That experience and the stories were seen as important and valuable. The movie itself sees itself as doing the noble work of preserving them.
I don’t think your discussion so far has really caught how central white supremacy was to American pop culture. There’s a sense that there’s something odd about the examples of racism in children’s stories that you’re pointing out. But it was everywhere, in everything. Movies that don’t really have anything to do with race would put in a gratuitous dig somewhere. That screwball comedy from the ’30s that you love will have a really bad bellhop character. He’ll only be on the screen for half a minute, but it’s enough to taint the entire movie.
Now, when everyone hangs out together – and we all have friends of different backgrounds – it’s hard. When you’re hanging around, it’s hard to say, “I really love this old Astaire/Rogers film,” because it’s going to have one of those scenes in it, and if you all watch it together, it’s bad. At least that’s been my experience with it. When I used to watch old movies, I’d just gloss over those scenes. I knew they were offensive, but they went by quickly, and there was so much other stuff in there that was good that I let it slide, I wouldn’t even remember it was there. But it is there, and if you vouch for such a movie to your friends, you can hurt people’s feelings.
Another adds to this post on Bing Crosby:
There’s a minstrel number in White Christmas too, you know. Complete with Mr. Bones and Mr. Interlocutor. They’ve just ditched the blackface. By the ’40s and ’50s, it wasn’t about race anymore – minstrelsy was a show business tradition a lot of generally tolerant people (including Bing Crosby) participated in and paid tribute to. Take that for what you will.
Fred Astaire performed only one blackface number on screen: “Bojangles of Harlem” from Swing Time (1936):
Ebert calls it “perhaps the only blackface number on film which doesn’t make one squirm today. His skin made up as an African American rather than a minstrel-show caricature of one, Astaire dances an obvious tribute to the great Bill Robinson.”
A few more examples from readers:
There’s this from the Marx Brothers’ 1933 classic, Duck Soup, when Groucho says: “Well, maybe I am a little headstrong, but I come by it honestly. My father was a little headstrong. My mother was a little armstrong. The headstrongs married the armstrongs and that’s why darkies were born.”
I can’t pinpoint a date when racism and sexism stopped being so prevalent in cartoons, but it wasn’t the ’40s. Sexism was upfront in the classic ”Wimmin hadn’t oughta drive” Popeye cartoon. Popeye also had stereotypical depictions of just about anyone who wasn’t white. How times have changed.