Friday, 23 May 2014

Racism and the American cinema

This post is primarily about films before the 1960s and the civil rights movements.

Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges 1942) is a fine film, not least thanks to its hilarious characters and wit. However there is one disturbing thing about it, a bartender of sorts who is presented in a stereotypically uncomfortable way. His voice, behaviour and gestures all have the characteristics of the "funny black guy", but it is not funny in the least. (He was played by Fred Toones, known for his nickname Snowflake, who made over 200 films, often playing porters or shoeshine boys.)

Fred Toones

And Palm Beach Story is not alone in presenting such a racial stereotype; they are to be found in many American films. The 1910s and 1920s were perhaps the worst, with some improvement in the 1930s, but stereotypes like "the mammy" and comic clowns remained. It is hardly surprising that American films have these characters since overt racism was in effect a governing principle, at least in the South, until the 1960s, and on the whole films with black characters in them suffer from this. It is not only blacks, but for example Chinese, Hispanics and American Indians (henceforth referred to as Indians) are also often treated in a similar racist, stereotypical way. In the 1940s things began to change, for several reasons. One reason was the impact the atrocities from Nazi Germany had, another reason was a meeting held in 1942, instigated by NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), against racial stereotypes and for better roles for black actors. A few years later the Supreme Court also began to take an active stand against racism and segregation, with the verdict in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, against the segregation of schools, as a milestone. But some stereotypes remained, albeit muted. See for example the character Jonah Williams, in Sergeants 3 (John Sturges 1962), played by Sammy Davis Jr. It is a sad spectacle.

There is a paradox at the heart of racism, i.e. the fact that there is only one race, the human race, and any difference between whites, blacks, Asians or whatever is never more than the surface, primarily the skin colour. We do not consider people with blond hair, brown hair and red hair to be three different races yet to do so is not more illogical than to consider whites and blacks differently. (Of course, we also, consciously or unconsciously, see blondes and brunettes differently. Think of all "dumb blonde" jokes). The word "racism" is anachronistic, from a time when people actually believed that there were different races and that they were different from each other (for example in terms of IQ), and should perhaps be replaced by another word.

But to get back to film. It would be a mistake, a mistake often made, to dismiss all Hollywood films as being equally racist, and it is also a mistake to judge the films exclusively from our time in history. Everything needs to be contextualised in order to be properly understood. For example, a distinction needs to be made between films that were considered racist at the time and those considered progressive, even if they today appear stereotypical as well. D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919) is hardly an enlightened paragon of anti-racism seen from today but in its tender portrayal of a tragic love affair between a white woman (Lillian Gish) and a Chinese man (Richard Barthelmess) it is the opposite of the virulent racism of Griffith's earlier The Birth of a Nation (1915), and made at a time when there was a lot of talk of "the yellow peril", and there was a fear in American society about it being overtaken by East Asians. A film like Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat (1915), although artistically rather advanced, panders to this fear in a way Broken Blossoms does not. Although, as was often the case, the Chinese man was not played by a Chinese actor, but a white man made up to look Chinese. The Japanese man in The Cheat however was played by Sessue Hayakawa, a big star at the time.

Barthelmess and Gish

After the Second World War a number of films were made that more explicitly dealt with racism, such as Pinky (Elia Kazan 1949) and No Way Out (Joseph L. Mankiewicz 1950), and anti-semitism, such as Gentlemen's Agreement (Elia Kazan 1947) and Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk 1947). Unfortunately they are sometimes compromised by either being patronizing, or meant to make the white, gentile audience feel good about themselves. That is also a problem with the much celebrated film version of To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan 1962). One film from the 1940s that goes beyond that, and is really brave and forceful, is Intruder in the Dust (Clarence Brown 1949) with Juano Hernández, of which I have written more about here. Another good film is Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise 1959) with Harry Belafonte. An interesting twist is to be found in The Wonderful Country (Robert Parrish 1959), where the cavalry consists only of black soldiers, so-called buffalo soldiers. Their sergeant is played by former baseball player Satchel Paige and there is a remarkable sequence where a stagecoach, driven by Apache Indians, is being engaged by the black soldiers. What also happened in the 1950s was that black film stars appeared, not least the magnificent Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier. Worth mentioning is also the TV series I Spy from the mid-60s, the first series with a black actor in the lead, Bill Cosby. He plays one of the two agents the series is about, the other being played by Robert Culp.

Dorothy Dandridge

* * *

In an article last year after the release of The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski 2013), Jan-Christopher Horak wrote about westerns and Indians, proclaiming that "[o]bviously, virtually all of Hollywood’s cowboys and Indians narratives were equally racist". It is not an uncommon view but I do not see it that way. A film that is being sympathetic to Indians, and show how they suffer from the appearance of the white soldiers and settlers, is clearly not as racist as a film in which Indians are considered something that should be killed as quickly and thoroughly as possible. Both those kinds of films exists, and even if the former kind might often be considered condescending, it is wrong not to distinguish it from other, genocidal, films. So-called pro-Indian films have a long history; even though Broken Arrow (Delmer Daves 1950) is often considered the first it goes much further back than that and Broken Arrow was not even the first film on that subject in 1950. In Raoul Walsh's epic The Big Trail (1930), John Wayne's character is asked by some kids if he has killed many Indians. He says no, because "the Indians are my friends." Likewise when Walsh made They Died With Their Boots On (1942), he managed to make a film that takes the side of the Indians ("the only real Americans here") despite it being about the battle of the Little Bighorn, where the 7th Cavalry, under General Custer, was more or less wiped out by Lakotas and Cheyennes in the Great Sioux War. But in the 1950s pro-Indian films became much more common. What distinguishes them is that they are either told from the Indians point of view or from somebody sympathetic to them, and that they criticise the deceitfulness, racism and violence of the white men, not least the military, and there is often a sadness over the way things have turned out. What many of them also have in common is the unfortunate fact that it is rarely Indians actors who play the parts of the Indians. But while that is an issue it does not invalidate them, it might be considered an acceptable compromise in order to get the films made at all, and it does not necessarily loosen to force of the films. Some of them, like Tomahawk (George Sherman 1951) or Reprisal! (Sherman 1956), can be surprisingly angry and sad. Some other notable examples are Devil's Doorway (Anthony Mann 1950), Apache (Robert Aldrich 1954), They Rode West (Phil Karlson 1954), Chief Crazy Horse (Sherman 1955) and Run of the Arrow (Sam Fuller 1957). It was not just a few particular filmmakers who made these films, it was a more general tendency, although George Sherman made several of the best.

Van Heflin and Susan Cabot in Tomahawk

Consider also The Cimarron Kid (Budd Boetticher 1952). The main character, Bill Doolin aka The Cimarron Kid, played by Audie Murphy, has as his best friend Stacey Marshall, a black man played by Frank Silvera. In one scene the Kid is having dinner in the home of Marshall and his family. Such a scene would be more or less unthinkable in a film from that time with a contemporary setting, but the western setting gives it leeway. Likewise, in another of George Sherman's films, Comanche (1956), the main white character falls in love with a Mexican woman and the relationship is considered a good thing, and it leads to marriage.* That too would be almost unthinkable in a film from 1956 in a contemporary setting.

John Ford, whom Quentin Tarantino in a peculiar charge dismissed as a racist, shows quite clearly the complexity of the situation. In some of his early films Indians are just faceless threats, but in others, such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) they are shown as subjects, dignified and suffering individuals. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon even has Indian actors. When it comes to black characters in Ford's films they can be problematic as in Judge Priest (1934), but later he made the rather outspoken anti-racist film Sergeant Rutledge (1960), by some seen as one of Ford's later efforts to make amends for earlier films.

Woody Strode as Sergeant Rutledge

In Judge Priest the main black character is played by Stepin Fetchit (his real name was Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry). This too is an example of the complexity of the issues. On the one hand, with his body language, drooling speech pattern and apparent dimwittedness, he can be regarded as the very essence of an abject racist stereotype, a type known as a "coon". But, Stepin Fetchit was also an actor and an artist who had carefully constructed this persona, and at the time he was a star and a hero for many blacks, who imitated his walk and his way of talking. He was also the first black actor to be given proper screen credit, and he was so popular that he became a millionaire. It can also be argued that the persona partly worked as a defence mechanism. In a later film by Ford, the complex and quite wonderful The Sun Shines Bright (1953), made in a more enlightened era, hints are given that under this facade lies a fear, the very real fear of being lynched if not acting according to the white men's idea of black behaviour.

Stepin Fetchit in The Sun Shines Bright


A blanket condemnation, saying that all old films are racist, is unsatisfactory because it is not true; there is a scale from the outright racist to the progressive and insightful. Consequently, for the very same reason, it is not satisfactory to excuse racism in older films because they are old and people "did not know any better". Because many did. The problem has not disappeared either, people are still racists today. On films and in the larger world. Lately schools have been even resegregated in the US, as courts have been stepping back from upholding the verdicts from the 1950s and 1960s. (Here is an article about the problem.) As an example from contemporary films look at how racial stereotypes are used as comic relief in Michael Bay's Transformers films. It says a lot about how problematic these characters are that nobody takes any responsibility for having created them, instead people blame each other. Notice also how few black characters there are in war films, or, in films in general, how rare interracial couples are.

One of the least appealing aspects of contemporary anti-racist manifestations is that they all too often become nauseating spectacles that combines othering (we, the good guys, versus them, the bad racists) and self-righteousness. It is not until each one of us has confronted our own racism that real progress will be had.


This post has only been about American films, but similar problems exist in films from all countries of course. And in European cinema Anti-semitism was once very common.

I have not mentioned films made by black filmmakers, such as Oscar Micheaux, but that is subject for a post later this year.

*2014-05-26 Originally I said that the man and the woman in Comanche had a child before they were married, but I take that back. I believe I misunderstood what she said in a key scene.

I have also amended the text by inserting a bit about The Cheat and Sessue Hayakawa that had gone missing.

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