by Tracy R. Walsh
Russell Saunders watched Peter Pan in its entirety for the first time and was shocked by its racism and sexism:
Popular media is full of beloved movies that are, in retrospect, embarrassing in some way. I remember a (straight) friend prevailing on me to watch Revenge of the Nerds with him (I’d never seen it), and then having to reconcile his remembered affection for the film with the offensively fey gay character, which he hadn’t really thought much of when he first saw it decades before. (I wasn’t all that worried about it.) Attitudes change, generally for the better in my opinion. Unless we want to constantly cull things from our culture (which I am loath to endorse), we have to address the mixed bag of good and bad that they will appear to be from the perspective of our contemporary vantage point.
But it still leaves me a bit stunned that something so obviously racist was made such a relatively short time ago and is still so universally embraced. For all the talk about whether or not Washington’s football team or Atlanta’s baseball team need new names, I would honestly have expected more attention paid to the much more overtly problematic content of a movie that has spawned a whole “fairies” franchise of its own. America’s attention to such things remains quite selective, it seems, and makes me wonder how much more attention I should be paying than I have up to this point.
by Chris Bodenner
A classic from my childhood is Holiday Inn. It’s a beautiful movie with Bing Crosby, the first movie he sang “White Christmas” in, and it also starts Fred Astaire. It has clever, hilarious, romantic, top-notch Irving Berlin numbers, fabulous dancing, and … a scene in blackface [watch an unembeddable version here]. The movie was played on TV constantly every holiday season when I was growing up, and AMC still plays it, but with the infamous scene cut. But the thing is, it’s a crucial plot device that moves the storyline, so there is a point where you literally have no idea what is going on. If that scene weren’t done the way it was, it would be up there today with It’s A Wonderful Life. Instead of Holiday Inn, we get stuck every year with that “classic” polished turd White Christmas! Why? Not racist.
If you want an amazing children’s book that has a brown, female protagonist and was written in 1939, read The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward to your kid for Easter next year.
If you think that scene from Holiday Inn is bad, watch this clip of Bing Crosby in blackface singing “Dixie” – Dixie! Update from a reader:
Let’s not forget the early Bing work with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, singing “Mississippi Mud” with the original lyrics: “the darkies beat their feet on the Mississippi Mud” rather than the later, non-offensive “the people beat their feet on the Mississippi Mud.”
by Chris Bodenner
A reader reminds us of a popular and now-controversial classic:
Here’s an Oscar-winning film that Disney has tried to flush down the memory hole for years: 1946’s “Song of the South.” It features former slave Uncle Remus, a shuffling stereotype who nonetheless is the most decent person in the film. Disney has refused to release the movie on DVD, even though Remus’ stories about Br’er Rabbit are thinly veiled tales of a black person’s ingenuity and cunning against arrogant crackers. A website dedicated to preserving the film’s memory is here. The song from the film that won the Oscar, “Zip a Dee Doo Dah,” is here.
Update from a reader:
Just one word of correction for the description that the reader provided for “Song of the South”. Anyone who has seen the film knows that, for all Br’er Rabbit’s cleverness, he is not triumphing over “arrogant crackers”. The primary dynamic in the animated scenes is between Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear, all of whom are voiced by black actors. It’s an animated version of Amos and Andy. To be honest, what strikes me most of all is how much this dynamic reminds me of the Ice Cube movie Friday. When Chris Tucker is jumping for joy that the neighborhood bully has been knocked out, it is very much reminiscent of the joy these animated characters take in seeing each other bested.
I would also like to add that the idea of the clever African American triumphing over the arrogant whites does not carry over to the live-action portion either. While Uncle Remus does teach the lesson, it is the young aristocrat who applies this lesson to best the local racist white trash. It should also be noted that the main tension in that part of the story is between the land-owning whites and the poor whites who occupy the lowest rung in this world, though it doesn’t stop them from disrespecting Uncle Remus.
I was lucky enough to find a company in Georgia that distributes remastered (though not restored) copies of the film on DVD. From what I’ve read, this is not sanctioned by Disney in any way and may even be a pirated copy. It will be interesting to see if Disney fights to retain the rights to this film and prevent it from entering the public domain, even though it does not want to have anything to do with the film.
I’m loving this thread. Eddie Cantor is one of my favorite old movie stars. Fast-talking and action-packed, his movies were early examples of screwball comedy, but most are virtually unairable on television today and thus nearly forgotten. Like so many other performers of the era, Cantor came up from vaudeville, with its traditions of blackface, “coon shouting” and racial humor. Most of his movies (like Whoopee!, Roman Scandals, The Kid from Spain) rely on some form of broad racial humor. The best one can say is that he didn’t target any group in particular; black, Jewish, Asian, Hispanic and Native American stereotypes all enjoy ample screen time.
I remember AMC’s Bob Dorian introducing Whoopee! in the mid 1990s, prefacing it with a plea not to focus on the racial stuff, but to look at it as an “indicator of how far we have come.”
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.
by Chris Bodenner
A new angle from readers:
I’m enjoying this thread immensely. Another great film marred by racism is Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Japanese neighbor Mr. Yunioshi is so incredibly over the top that it becomes very difficult to watch. I couldn’t find a good clip from the film itself, but [above] is a scene from Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, where Bruce Lee shows his discomfort at Rooney’s character.
Yes, Peter Pan is bad but, Disney has a lot of clunkers in its vault. I recently watched their 1966 Dean Jones/Suzanne Pleshette film The Ugly Dachshund, which is both incredibly sexist and racist. (Much comedy is attempted at the expense of a pair of father/son Japanese caterers.) Whoever let that film be re-released on DVD ought to be fired by Disney.
The great musical South Pacific should come with a warning label: not safe to watch with your Asian children. It’s been a long time since I watched it, but I recall a terrible scene where Shirley Jones meets the children of the man she thinks she loves, and they turn out to be the fruit of his previous union with … a native! They have dark hair and slanty eyes! As Shirley Jones recoiled in horror, my recently-adopted children (then about seven years old) turned to me in puzzlement: “Mama, why she no like those kids?” Oh gosh, was it hard to think of a quick lie about that; but my daughters were neither old enough, nor linguistically proficient enough, for me to explain the actual truth. Major ouch.
Update from a reader:
Shirley Jones isn’t in South Pacific; that was Mitzi Gaynor who played Nellie Furbush. Did this reader not understand the plot of the movie? The entire love story is jeopardized by Nellie’s racism. That’s the point. There’s even a song about it: “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”. This is why the musical won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The reader had no business showing a 7-year-old that movie in the first place. Not all musicals are for children.
by Chris Bodenner
Another classic cartoon is thrown in the mix:
Have you guys seen Dumbo? Pay close attention to the crows that appear near the end and teach Dumbo to fly. The stereotypes deployed with these characters is almost unbelievable by today’s standards. And yet, not only are they essential to the plot, but Disney has expanded the profile of Dumbo in the new Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World here near Orlando.
If children going to the new Fantasyland haven’t seen Dumbo yet (it was released in 1941), they probably will want to see it after visiting. And then they’ll see these guys (one of whose name is actually “Jim Crow”!). While their end purpose in the movie is certainly admirable, they are portrayed as cavalier bullies at first, and the way they’re berated by Timothy Mouse is just unreal in today’s context. Hell, Song of the South is almost expunged from vision at Disney, but here’s Dumbo, portrayed in their featured theme park as one of their touchstone old films. Don’t they get it?
Another actually defends blackface, in a way:
There is a contemporary assumption that it is inherently racist for a performer to perform in blackface. Obviously this was not always the case. As recently as the mid 1980s, Billy Crystal regularly appeared in blackface to do his Sammy Davis Jr. impression:
Though of course the blackface he used was quite different from the minstrel show variety featured in your thread, where performers have their mouths accentuated, clown-like, with white makeup. Still, Billy Crystal would NEVER get away with that today. But why not? His intent wasn’t racist. It was realism. He also wore a wig and a false moustache. So the dark makeup was of a piece with the rest. But cultural norms change.
Still, the assumption that a blackface performance from the 1930s or ’40s is racist just doesn’t seem on the mark. I had a pop-culture professor back in grad school who was always going on and on about the minstrel show. He actually wrote a book on the subject. He saw the minstrel show as the sort of wellspring of all sorts of musical styles that followed, from jazz to blues to hip hop and as a very positive force in black American culture, and his argument was persuasive. The minstrel show, it is important to remember, typically featured black performers (not white ones) in blackface.
By the 1930s and ’40s, these old performances were likely a well-understood part of the cultural zeitgeist of the past, along with vaudeville. Throwing the odd minstrel show number into a musical seemed no stranger than throwing in the odd vaudeville number I’m sure.
Don’t get me wrong. White attitudes towards black Americans in the 30s and ’40s were insensitive and casually racist. But these performances are not racist in and of themselves, and we would do well as a culture to try to get over looking at them in that way. (Though I must admit that I can definitely understand how a black person watching this stuff today could be deeply offended.)
Another takes more of a middle ground:
Can I ask why everybody is so uncomfortable watching those old classics? Are they not aware that times and culture have changed? I am asking because as a cartoon fan, I regularly reread the Tintin cartoons, and especially the first ones, written in the ’30s and ’40s have some pretty bleak stereotypes of the Soviets, Native Americans, Chinese, Japanese and Africans. Tintin in the Congo hasn’t been published in English in a long time because of its racism. But remember, the Congo was still under Belgian control in the ’30s! And if you read through the series, you see the change in culture between the ’30s and ’70s. And you see how author Herge gets more modern. How awesome is that?
I have never been perturbed by Tintin and old, off-tone films. Times change. Culture changes. You know it, so why not enjoy it? The changed culture does not make these old pieces of art better or worse; it just makes you aware that culture has changed. And since we live now, we think it’s for the good. Let’s celebrate that instead of cover it up. And who knows what they’ll think of us in another 50 years.
Another example of how a classic series reformed itself:
From 1910 to 1930, more than half of the American juvenile fiction market was produced by the “Stratemeyer Syndicate” founded by Edward Stratemeyer, who produced nearly a thousand volumes by providing 2-3 page outlines of proposed books to impecunious ghostwriters, who would do the actual writing. The Syndicate created numerous iconic series in the period including Tom Swift, the Rover Boys, Dave Fearless, Ted Scott and the Bobsey Twins, but their most famous series today are The Hardy Boys (starting in 1927) and Nancy Drew (1930). Edward Stratemeyer died in 1930, but his daughter, Harriett Stratemeyer Adams, continued the work of the Syndicate almost to her death in 1984.
The earliest Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books reflected their times; many of the books contained racial stereotypes (See the Hardy Boys’ The Hidden Harbor Mystery, 1935), or Jewish stereotypes (See Nancy Drew’s The Hidden Staircase, 1930). During the 1950s, the books’ publisher, Grosset and Dunlap, started receiving complaints about the racial and religious stereotypes in the old books. The old books also had outdated printing plates, and a much slower pace than the new titles concurrently being published.
Beginning in 1959, Harriett Adams and the Syndicate addressed these issues by discarding the original texts and putting new books inside the old titles. Some were just rewrites of the old story; some were completely new stories with the same title. But the racial stereotyping in the original texts was gone. One of the earliest Hardy Boys books to be revised was The Hidden Harbor Mystery, 1961. In the 1935 version, the black characters who worked on an old plantation in the South were the bad guys, stealing from the plantation owners and fomenting a feud between neighbors. But in the 1961 version, the black characters were suddenly the good guys, helping the Hardy Boys solve the mystery and end the feud.
Other stories with Chinese and Mexican stereotypes had similar revisions. Once the new book with the original title was published, the old book simply went out print, only to be found in used book stores, or later on EBAY. (Some of the original books were also reprinted as collectors editions in the 1990s). Despite their racist content, most collectors of the series think the original texts were much better written. The revised texts from the 1960s remain in print today. In addition, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew are now owned by Simon and Shuster, which continues to publish completely new titles to this day; the new titles current 2013 sensibilities.
This is an example where we went back and excised the old racial stereotypes. But did we lose something authentic when we painted over the 1930s America in the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew original texts with the more sanitized 1960s America reflected in the revised texts?
On that note:
My own experience with this kind of thing occurred a few years ago when I bought some DVD collections of the old Warner Bros. cartoons for my young kids to watch on long car rides. It turns out many of these contain vile sexist and racist stereotypes. But to Warner Bros. credit, they have mostly released these as is, with a note advising essentially that times have changed and they recognize that many of these are not acceptable by today’s standards, but that they are a record and reflection of their times.
I think this is basically healthy. I think it is good that we be reminded how recently these types of terrible images were considered perfectly acceptable. It’s a good wake-up call for folks anytime we start to celebrate how far we’ve come. Many people, especially white males, but also many younger people who may never have really witnessed racial or gender-based prejudice first-hand, need to be reminded how hard it was in this country for almost every out-group until very recently.
by Chris Bodenner
A reader takes the thread into the 21st century:
I thought I’d add to the discussion a bafflingly homophobic portrayal in a far more recent film: School of Rock. The “gay” (well, gender non-conforming) kid in that movie was ridiculed and undermined at every turn. His love of Liza Minelli – an extremely lazy joke – was presented as a mark of bad taste by Jack Black’s character, the hero of the film. All the other kids “get” rock, while the sad gay kid doesn’t. In the end, the costumes he creates (because naturally, right?) are summarily ditched in favor of the school uniforms. The kid is the only one in the movie who is not redeemed or transformed by his experience in the band.
I remember coming out of that movie thinking the filmmakers would be embarrassed by this portrayal in a decade or so. I hope they are.
Another circles back:
Your reader who recalled Billy Crystal’s Sammy Davis, Jr. impression may have forgotten that Crystal reprised the role when he hosted the Oscars in 2012. Did he get away with it? That depends who you ask: there were certainly many who expressed offense. On the other hand, Davis’ daughter defended Crystal. I think it’s plausible to argue that there’s a reasonable distinction to be made between blackface that is a generalized portrayal of a race and by definition insulting, and the portrayal of a specific person by a person who isn’t of the same ethnicity (or gender – was Will Farrell’s Janet Reno out-of-bounds?).
Anyway, as a fan of old movies who has been occasionally floored by the horrifyingly casual racism often found in them (the already mentioned Breakfast at Tiffany’s being the best example of this in my experience), I’ve enjoyed following this thread.
Another adds, “The reader who brought up Billy Crystal playing Sammy Davis Jr. 30 years ago probably hasn’t seen Robert Downey Jr. in the 2008 movie Tropic Thunder“:
Your reader is incorrect in writing that Billy Crystal wearing black makeup to play Sammy Davis, Jr. would never get away with it today. Fred Armisen wore black makeup to play Senator and then President Obama on Saturday Night Live from 2008 through the 2012-13 season. After some initial criticism, which was largely based on a why an African-American actor was not playing Obama, no one seemed to care.
Another returns to the theme of childhood classics:
Having grown up in Wisconsin, I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic series to my young daughter and discovered numerous passages that challenged me to stop reading, skip over, or explain. First, and astonishingly, Pa and Ma built the “Little House on the Prairie” in Indian Territory with the explicit intent of forcing the U.S. Army at Fort Gibson and Fort Dodge to expel the natives in favor of the white settlers. Then there is Ma’s constant racism and hatred of the Indians. And a schoolteacher whipping a child, Willie Oleson. And a fire-and-brimstone sermon threatening all with everlasting torture. And, in what must be one of the most amazing passages in children’s literature, Pa’s blackface minstrel show presented to the fulsome delight of the town and his family, singing:
Oh talk about your Mulligan Guards!
These darkies can’t be beat!
We march in time and cut a shine!
Just watch these darkies’ feet!
Throughout all this, I decided to read the text as written and answer any questions as they came. These episodes are offset by the deathly sick Ingalls family being saved by a black doctor, by Laura’s laughter at the sermon, by the individual and collective dignity of the Indians, and by the matter-of-fact truthfulness that all this was really a part of Laura’s world. But I drew the line at showing this illustration of Pa in blackface:
One more reader:
I’d like to offer a limited defense of Dumbo’s crows. No one should dismiss genuine hurt, even if the filmmakers achieve it by ignorance and carelessness rather than malice. Privileged white filmmakers, particularly those working for Walt Disney, do not deserve the benefit of the doubt.
But I do think the depiction of the crows in Dumbo is more complicated. These are highly sympathetic characters. They are smart – much smarter than the childish Dumbo, smarter than the “bad” elephants and circus-master, and even smarter than wisecracking Timothy J. Mouse. It is the crows after all who devise the “magic feather” that allows Dumbo to realize his potential. It is not at all a coincidence that Dumbo, who has been judged by his appearance, consistently terrorized and humiliated, and separated from his only source of genuine love can only find true allies at society’s margins – these put-upon black crows understand his plight all too well. At the film’s finale Dumbo is flying triumphantly with these crows – his friends and most trusted supporters.
They are of course explicitly coded as African-American. It is painfully clumsy at times (but no clumsier than the revered “Porgy and Bess”). Their musical number is not minstrelsy but a fairly faithful song in the style of popular black acts like The Mills Brothers. The singers are African-American – Hall Johnson’s Chorus – and they perform earnestly, not mocking the style. The crows are a bit silly during the song (it is a children’s film) but none of the humor has any racial logic like the awful Native-American sequence in Peter Pan. The worst aspect is the dialect, which is clearly written by writers unfamiliar (or uninterested) with the way black people actually speak.
I think parents showing this film to kids need to spotlight the depiction and explain how it misses the mark. But I think we deprive today’s kids by censoring the film outright. A film ultimately about love and understanding of those who look different than us is too rare to abandon.