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Racism In Vintage Films: It’s Not A Simple Black & White Matter

By , 5 March, 2010, 9 Comments

Cliff talks about Handling the Subject of Racism as a Classic Film Blogger — and there’s lots of interesting discussion in the comments too, including mention of a post about the film I reviewed, The Toy Wife.

I agree that too many vintage films are underappreciated — if they’re seen at all. Which is partly why I didn’t mention my queasiness about several scenes with slaves in The Toy Wife. But that wasn’t the only reason…

Along with struggling with how to balance presenting the issues of racism in films of the past, of not wanting to let the known facts of past ruin a film for potential viewers, I struggle with being a white woman discussing it. It’s one thing for me to point out gender issues (I am one, and can honestly react as one), but when it comes to racism I flounder.

It’s not simply a matter of white guilt, or of defensiveness, or even of committing a sin of omission that a person of color can call me out on; it’s about how to honestly portray my horror without co-opting the issue, of committing some sin of insensitivity… If that makes sense. (I bet that does make sense to at least a few other white folks though.)

Eartha Kitt

Eartha Kitt

But, like all the discussion points at Cliff’s post, we shouldn’t just ignore mentioning the subject any more than others should let being told about racist depictions in films sway themselves from watching old films; it’s avoiding the past.

Because of that, I don’t think we should sanitize the racism from vintage films (and animated works), editing out the scenes with mammy’s like cigarettes from Bogart’s hand. Racism is shameful, but like our past obsession with smoking, we can’t deny it simply by giving it the old whitewash — for whatever reason. We have to remember our past honestly, even if it’s painful.

But these are my views… My questions for you, dear readers, are:

* How does racism in film affect your viewing? Do you stop watching &/or avoid films because it’s so uncomfortable? Do you just write it off as “unfortunately, that the way things were…”?

* Do you find the racism so uncomfortable in vintage movies that you wish it was edited out of the film — or that there were edited versions available?

* If you review or blog about movies, do you mention the racism? Why or why not? And if you do, how do you do it?

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9 Responses {+}
  • Bianca

    I have not seen the Toy Wife yet. However, frankly, I would rather it be more truthful than the eternal perpetuation of the “happy darky” myth.

    I am black, and watch movies. I admit whenever I see the blackface or the jolly mammy, it gives me an odd jolt. I suppose its a similar feeling to what GLBT community might feel when watching crude gay humor on SNL, even to this day.

    I usually do not know how to feel about it. And it can run the gamut as well. Something as innocuous as the mammy cookie jar all the way to Birth of a Nation. It does not keep me from watching the films but often leaves me a little sad inside. I admit, there are times I prefer not to see it. Particularly when its just a person singing in black face, for no reason at all, other than it was in fashion. But at the same time, I think it should be shown and not forgotten.

    So, I guess I didn’t really provide many coherent thoughts on this. I have mixed emotions about it.

  • Lizzie

    It’s hard watching scenes that are racist. Still, I’d rather squirm than have the movie edited.

    The sad thing is that people’s perceptions of slavery in 1938 cannot possibly reflect the reality of slavery. Neither GWTW nor The Toy Wife is good history. But we do pick up these images and they unfortunately stay with us.

    I’m not Black, so I can’t say how I would feel about these portrayals, but I am from the southern Applachian Mountains, and I can tell you that Hollywood’s treatment of mountain people is humiliating. Still, I may get angry at “hillybilly” jokes, but I’d never advocate removing them from a vintage movie. The movies are what they are, and do reflect the times in which they were made. To take out scenes that make us uncomfortable would be trying to rewrite this record of our past.

  • Jaynie Van Roe

    Bianca, your thoughts are coherent — at least I follow them 😉

    How you describe your reactions to racist depictions is very much how feel about misogynistic depictions; sometimes I can’t watch either. But I don’t want things sanitized to pretend such things didn’t exist, such thoughts didn’t happen.

    I think we all have mixed emotions about this issue, anger, embarrassment, shame, sadness… It’s not a simple issue.

    Sometimes I even wish they wouldn’t have edited out scenes on the old cartoons/animated shorts like Heckle & Jeckle and Tom & Jerry… But since many people just place their kids in front of the tv screen, to err on the side of caution is probably best.

  • Jaynie Van Roe

    Lizzie, again, your comments about “hillbillies” sound much like my feelings about the treatment of women (including in contemporary films).

    While a film in 1938 doesn’t accurately reflect the realities of slavery, it does reflect (to some extent) what folks in ’38 thought of slavery — but then too, we have our own personal and current reactions while viewing it… When I saw The Toy Wife, I couldn’t quite tell if some of the things shown were an admonishment or an acceptance of slavery. I wish we had some contemporary interviews from the makers of the movie to tell us what the intent was.

  • Francy

    I feel very much the same way as you and the others who have commented so far. It makes me uncomfortable, but I think it would be dishonest to edit it out. I would rather be uncomfortable watching something real, then feel perfectly safe in front of something that’s been censored because someone thought I, and other viewers, just couldn’t handle it. I also don’t know how to bring it up as well. I guess I’m too worried something I say or write will come across the “wrong” way, which I would never want.

  • Angel

    I am black and a lover of classic films. In my experience, it has been the absence of black people in most of these movies, or the limiting of black people to stereotypical Mammie roles, that has been the hardest for me. It is hard to look back on these movies and feel that you’ve been erased in cinematic history. And envying the fashion and glamour is bittersweet when there is the nagging thought that the retro look somewhat excludes you.

    Reactions to blatant racism are complex. I recently watched both the 1934 and 1954 versions of Imitation of Life. While I found the 1934 portrayal of a black woman more objectionable (due to the use of her as a cheap comical figure at times) I actually enjoyed the film overall more than the 1959 version due to differences in treatment of gender and due to the fact that the 1934 version was honest about the mistress-servant relationship between the white and black women (In the 1959 version, they were technically friends but the black woman was still nothing more than a glorified servant). Contextually and on the whole, I felt disappointed that the 1959 version was less progressive than the version that came 25 years earlier. On the other hand, Band of Angels was a movie I found offensive due to its sanitation of the hardships of slave life and its placing the culpability of slavery on Africans. I am not sorry I saw it nor would I wish for it to be censored. And Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a horror show of prejudice, but it gives an insight into American attitudes toward the Japanese at this time. Still, these portrayals make me cringe, and I have to say that I am glad that Gone With the Wind was censored before its release. I do not know if I would be able to call the film a favorite if they used the n- word or kept other racist aspects.

    What I have the most difficulty with are the cartoons, such as Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarves. When a mammie role is portrayed on film, at least there is still a living, breathing human to identify with. With cartoons, the characters are nothing but pure racism, their humanity completely nonexistent. They drew us as grotesquely as they wanted. The disdain and hostility is unadulterated. When I watch them, there is no way to ignore or gloss over the ideas racist whites had of us. It is too in your face. When I see them I have a visceral reaction. They are painful to watch. To add insult to injury, some of the most racist projects are continually being hailed as the most innovative (i.e. Birth of a Nation, Coal Black and the Sebben Dwarves), and it feels like a sly way of validating and keeping alive the racist content.

    I think the best thing bloggers can do no matter what their skin color is to just acknowledge the racism. Ignoring the racism does a disservice to people hurt by the racist content and to people who otherwise may not be aware of the long history of certain racist stereotypes and how it relates to today’s world. You don’t have to have a in-depth discussion about it or try to justify why you enjoy the film. As long as you are unequivocal in your repudiation of certain racist elements of a film, I think most affected would feel satisfied. It is when we are in doubt that people today fully denounce these caricatures that what seems like history to some comes alive and arouses our ire.

  • Jaynie Van Roe

    Angel, I nearly forgot about Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s! I find myself with a pained smirk when he’s on the screen… But at the same time, I’ve seen that film so many times, I think I’ve not merely become desensitized, but already had the intellectual arguments surrounding the portrayal.

    Slavery, on the other hand, is far more shocking and appalling; maybe also because it is more distant in timeline (and from my family’s history). But I suspect it has a lot to do with the absence and purging of black people and their stories from film that you’ve mentioned.

    Thanks for sharing your so well-explained points of view on this. Your comments have reminded me of another topic I should discuss here soon 🙂

  • heather

    I am late to the conversation but this blog came up on search of ‘heckle and jeckle racist’… oddly, I am doing a research project on the Honor/Shame culture of the South post Civil War. Uncle Remus came up in my research and I asked my boyfriend if he knew who Uncle Remus was. I remembered the Zippety Doo Dah song but had never seen his face. For those that might not know the Uncle Remus story it was written soon after the Civil War and the central character was a gentle wise old slave who would tell didactic stories to the white children (Br’er Rabbit & Tar Baby) who loved him and followed him around the plantation. My boyriend did not know about Uncle Remus either. But we had both heard of Br’er Rabbit which was slang for Brother Rabbit. My boyfriend is black and I am white… just so the context is clear! When I was looking into Uncle Remus I discovered some references to Heckle and Jeckle being racist. I was shocked! This was my FAVORITE cartoon as a child. So I asked my boyfriend about Heckle and Jeckle and he said that yeah, everyone knew it was racist and his parents did not let him watch it as a child. This was also shocking to me because his parents are not exactly activists on any level and how did his parents know but my parents did not know? I am not sure that my thoughts will be as easy to follow as the eloquent words written before me but I think that whitewashing does more harm than good. We cannot understand the effects of racism if we are not honest about the role it has played in our society. I grew up in a very race neutral family… the n word was a dirty word but the cultural diversity in my world was on television. In my eyes the world was equal and racism was something that backwards people were. When we whitewash our past media we take away the reality of the message that millions of people received growing up. And this opens the door for some types of people to point their white finger at black politicians and call them racist because it is easy to believe the world is fair when you are the big fish with all the opportunities so when you hear someone pointing out the injustice you might just put your fingers over your ears and fast forward through the painful indiscretions of your ancestors rather than acknowledge that time is not linear and forgiveness matters even today.

  • Marie

    heather, it is just as prejudiced to say white people are “big fish with all the opportunities” as it would be to say that all Mexicans are lazy.

    I’m Hispanic American and loved the Frito Bandito as well as Speedy Gonzales. I’m infuritated that Hispanics and PC-correct non-Hispanics tried to take these characters from popular culture by declaring them racist images of Hispanics. The same goes for characters in movies. I loved watching old Charlie Chan movies w/my dad growing up – my Korean American friend doesn’t have a problem with it, but my European American (read “white”) friend decries his films as racist. I’d rather watch the movie and make my own mind up.

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