When Racist Undertones Make Us Question Our Love of Classic Films

| March 12, 2014
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Photo:  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

By Jody Amable

Near the end of last year, I went to see The Wizard of Oz at the Castro Theater. I’m a known Oz fan to a somewhat unhealthy degree (ask me about my tattoo sometime). As I settled into my uneven seat, I started thinking about what a great choice I had made for a favorite movie back when I was seven years old. “Wow, this movie has really stood the test of time in every way. I still love it; kids still love it. And best of all, it is free of the racism and sexism that so often pops up in old movies.”

Then, about an hour into the movie, the Lion growled, “What makes the Hottentot so hot?”

I winced. I mean, it certainly could have been worse – “hottentot” is an outdated term for the native people of Southern Africa that some today consider a little iffy, and the only reason I know what it means is because I stumbled on its page on a traverse across Wikipedia one day — but it swiftly destroyed any pride I had been feeling just an hour earlier.

This wasn’t the first time I’d squirmed my way through a classic film. Not long before, I had been at the very same theater to see a matinee of Casablanca, where I kept getting hung up on the character of Sam. Sam of “Play it again, Sam” fame; so sweet, so friendly, so eager to please, so…steeped in stereotype.

Once I noticed it, I couldn’t stop. After enduring years of people gasping at me when I told them the number of Mel Brooks movies I haven’t seen, I borrowed a DVD of Blazing Saddles. While the movie still holds up, “The French Mistake” gave me some serious pause.

At the apex of a film that, even today, does a phenomenal job of breaking down racist stereotypes (with some fart jokes thrown in for good measure), it suddenly takes time out to build up ones that have been wielded against gay men for ages. True, everyone gets skewered in Saddles, but as this excellent Flavorwire piece notes, “this is a scene of just pointing and laughing at a minority.”

Not long after I took in Oz, Meryl Streep reopened some age-old debates about Disney’s racist and sexist tendencies both on film and in the boardroom. Weeks later, an achievement award at the Golden Globes reignited the molestation accusations made against Woody Allen in the 1990s, and fans once again struggled to reconcile their love of his work with Allen’s alleged behavior.

Clearly, I’m not the only one who gets squeamish about these things. The thing is, these aren’t bad movies; they are some of the best films ever made, made by people with – for the most part – good intentions. But how do we, as fans, feel when iconic films start to turn a little sour?

I know little to nothing about film – I’m primarily a music writer – so I sought counsel from some people that do.

“People had a completely different sense of humor back in the day,” says Adam Bergeron, the owner and operator of the Balboa Theater and the Vogue Theater in San Francisco. He immediately brings up the example of Holiday Inn, a classic that gave us “White Christmas,” but that also contains a prominent blackface scene. “Almost every year I forget.” Bergeron works with his theaters’ booker to schedule films, a combination of indie-minded first-runs and established classics. “There’s definitely been a few we’ve struggled with and decided not to show.”

Since film, like all good art, reflects the time and place of its production, there’s a long list of controversial content in American cinema. Really early films rely heavily on ugly stereotypes — the obvious example is The Birth of a Nation, which San Francisco Women’s Film Festival organizer Scarlett Shepard saw in film school. “I remember the first time I saw it. It was really hard to watch.” Though widely criticized for being one of the most racist American films ever produced, it remains required viewing for film students, noted as a shining example of now-widespread film-making techniques.

Casting actors of different ethnic backgrounds than the characters they’re playing – and, to get the point across to the audience, putting them in what’s essentially blackface – was pretty common practice back in the day. “[I just watched] The King & I,” says Chris Huqueriza, a writer and editor specializing in LGBT issues and issues of race and color (full disclosure: we hang out on occasion). In the film, Rita Moreno plays an Asian woman, and Huqueriza admits to feeling conflicted about it. “It’s like in West Side Story — would it be better if [the actress playing Maria] was a Puerto Rican playing a Puerto Rican? It’d be great, but it’s the time period.” But there are cases where it goes way further than a fake tan. Beloved though it is, Breakfast at Tiffany’s regularly comes under fire from activist groups for Mickey Rooney’s hot-headed, buck-toothed portrayal of a Japanese man.

We could be here all day listing classic films that hinge on the racist stereotypes that permeated American culture during the Golden Age of Hollywood. A classic example is Gone with the Wind. Though it’s a regular chart-topper on round-ups of great American movies, and it really and truly did pave the way for minorities on screen (actress Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Oscar), its relevance in 2014 is often called into question for the story’s glorification of slavery. And though the jury’s still out on a lot of the claims Streep made against Disney, there’s no denying that the studio’s earlier offerings play up a parade of racist and anti-Semitic beliefs in place at the time.

Rampant blackface and exploitation of nasty stereotypes is kind of par for the course for films made before 1950, but racist caricatures can still surprise audiences in films made as recently as the ‘80s, ‘90s, and the here and now. An example I used with everyone I spoke to was the coming-of-age classic, Sixteen Candles (Bergeron’s reaction: “Oh, yeah.” Shepard’s reaction: “Oh, yeah.” Huqueriza’s reaction: “Oh, God,” followed by an eye roll). While it’s still a sleepover staple for its depiction of the horrors and triumphs of adolescence, much of its comic relief comes in the form of a foreign exchange student, of unspecified Asian descent, who speaks in a forced accent and whose name, when spoken, is punctuated with a gong sound. Huqueriza also brings up 2009’s The Princess and the Frog. While Disney touted Tiana as its first African-American princess, some of the secondary characters are rooted in long-held African-American stereotypes. Once in frog form, Tiana seeks help from a voodoo priestess and is antagonized by a sly witch doctor. “[I had to ask myself], ‘Is this cultural or is it stereotypical?’”

When you step back, there’s a startling number of unquestionably great movies that still contain racist attitudes of yore that are hard to confront, and sometimes make it hard for a fan to decide if he or she should go on loving it. And that’s just racism; that doesn’t even take into account the backwards depictions of women that seem so crude in the age of The Bechdel Test, or, as in the case of Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and so many others, films that seem tainted after an actor or creator’s lurid personal life is exposed to the public (my beloved L. Frank Baum, for example, once published a scathing screed against Native Americans, and now my tattoo of the ruby slippers feels a little heavy). So is it time to blacklist these movies, or do we all just need to chill out?

Some DVDs of older cartoons and films have been outfitted with a disclaimer in recent years, but as sensitive as I seem to be getting to this kind of thing, even that strikes me as overkill. Huqueriza admits to holding films of a certain age to different standards than newer ones. “It’s always biased when you’re looking through the lens of our time,” he says. “I love Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and The Lady From Shanghai, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but [they all] had racist undertones. Many of my friends…give the ‘product of its time’ excuse, which I totally understand. I’ve had a few friends deeply upset on certain racist films and never watch it again.” It also has a lot to do with who you are and where you’re from, and the Bay Area makes its name on being a bastion of acceptance. “You don’t want to step out of bounds here, much more than other places in the country,” says Bergeron. “For better or for worse.”

Now, when I watch new movies, I have to wonder if any of my current favorites will get the Holiday Inn treatment in 20 years’ time. “I think every film is going to be dated,” says Shepard. “I try to be self-aware about it. [If I encounter a character I find offensive, I think to myself] ‘OK, what don’t I like about this character?’, and that’s part of the larger dialogue of movies.”

How about you? How do you deal when good films go bad?

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About the Author ()

KQED Pop is a daily blog edited by Emmanuel Hapsis that critically examines the social and cultural impact of music, movies, television, advertisements, fashion, the internet and all the other collective experiences that make us laugh, cringe and cry. We focus on local, national and international experiences with a Bay Area lens. We don’t do reviews.
  • Jon

    Rita Moreno IS Puerto Rican . . .

  • MarkPritchard_SF

    I think anyone with a decent liberal arts education understands enough about history and context and art to be able to deal with these. Maybe you cringe and think “okay, that was awful.” Maybe you still accept the depiction because you understand the intention — I’m thinking, for example, of the scene in the rural black church in “Sullivan’s Travels.” So for more viewers this isn’t really a problematic issue. It’s just part of living through changing times.

    • StarrySkies

      I actually think that that’s an argument worth reexamining.

      As a person who loves literature enough to have majored in it, I often found myself the only person of color sitting in a classroom wondering silently,
      “Damn is there any classic of American literature that DOESN’t have the word n–ger or that represents people of color as more than props.” (and to be honest, there are. They just don’t seem to teach them until Grad school.)

      Then if you bring up your sense of alienation or when a particular narrative effects you in a way that your non-POC counterparts don’t seem to understand, you’re immediately dismissed, because everyone is just supposed to put it in context. Well, the context is a history of oppression and brutality, which actually can be quiet emotionally painful to think about when those people your putting into context are your family. Maybe it’s time to start using texts and films that are more inclusive because as times change so do the texts we teach. 100 years ago nobody read Moby Dick, maybe 100 years from now people won’t consider Birth of a Nation such a classic.