Thursday, November 3, 2011

Mammies, Uncle Toms, & Fr. Paddy McIrish

As a kid growing up one of my favorite holiday movies was “Holiday Inn”.  It had the original version of the song “White Christmas “ sung by Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds, a cool tap dance number from Fred Astaire…and did I mention Marjorie Reynolds?  Anyway, it was on every year on Channel 5 in New York and when we finally got a VCR as a family Christmas present, it was the first movie I ever taped on it.  Some years later, in the age of DVDs, my father bought a copy of it and my old VCR tape, complete with commercials from Christmas night circa 1982, was officially retired.
The thing was, the DVD had the complete movie, unlike what Channel 5 had shown all those years.  And the complete movie included a what the hell were they thinking routine with Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds in blackface!  I had seen the movie at least fifteen times by then but this was the first I was seeing of this routine that Channel 5 had always cut out.  Now, the movie was made in 1942, a time when black characters in Hollywood movies were horrifically stereotyped if they were present at all.  But this seemed particularly egregious, and Holiday Inn has never had quite the same luster for me ever since.
Of course, times have changed.  They had even changed enough by the late 1970s that Channel 5 saw fit to cut that scene from “Holiday Inn”.  But how much they changed is certainly open to debate.  Take books/movies like “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “Mississippi Burning” and more recently the uber-popular “The Help”.  Their portrayal of black characters in the Civil Rights Era wasn’t offensive in the blackface, old shuck and jive manner of early Hollywood, but the themes were all the same: oppressed black folks, helped out by heroic, non-prejudiced white folks.  As if the real faces of the Civil Rights movement looked like Gregory Peck, Gene Hackman, or Emma Stone.
Now, I’m sure down the road I’ll take some politically correct criticism for endeavoring to write from the perspective of two slaves in my book.  I heard Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, interviewed on the radio and the first question the host asked was whether she had worried about writing in the voices of two black maids.  She said she had, and having seen the movie, I suppose I understand why.  But I was not worried…am not worried.  And I think the difference came from what was triggered in me by the beginning of my research, when I saw puffed-up gasbag historians like G.M. Trevelyan treat the Irish “Famine” as an unfortunate incident at worst, and a convenient way to lessen the surplus population at best. 
Mad as hell, it wasn’t too long a journey to see all my characters through a similar looking glass.  I’d always despised the “Gone with the Wind” ridiculous portrayal of the Old South, complete with Mammies and Uncle Toms just pleased as sweet ‘tater pie with the life they had on good ol’ Tara.  But now I was able to draw some greater connections.  Practically every Irish person in the old movies was either walking a beat as a cop, or was a gangster, or wearing a priest’s collar, or passed out drunk…maybe two or three of those all at once, come to think of it.  Just as practically every black person in the old movies was either a maid, or a chauffeur, or a criminal, or a musician, or a buffoon…and maybe a few of them all at once, too.  Ignorance is ignorance, after all, and Hollywood doesn’t discriminate…when it comes to that.

1 comment:

  1. Stereotypes (both the good and the bad... since there are some good) have existed in our literature way before Hollywood was ever even dreamed of... Shakespeare and Twain had some awful stereotypes which we later forgave them for, citing it as "satire" and we claim they were ahead of their times. In reality, talent wise both were ahead of their time, but not when it comes to matters of portraying different people and classes.

    I think it's awesome that you've veered away from stereotypes. It takes guts, and it's harder to do than some might imagine. There's always an audience out there that will be confused or angered by counter-stereotypes. Are we as a society at a point where we can have strong, masculine, homosexual protagonists, or even side-characters? Can we have an independent woman who is truly void of any male dependency (and I don't mean the typical Julia Roberts movie where they lead you to believe she's independent... in reality those films only further the stereotypes.) It's different than "Abraham" and the atrocities that black actors in the "golden age" of cinema(and TV as even the Little Rascals had it's horrid moments) had to deal with, but audiences are still drawn to stereotypes because they're easier to understand and make people feel safe.

    Which is why we should try our best to keep counter-stereotyping, because then eventually THEY won't see Native American's as savages, African American's as gay, Italian American's as crooks, Irishmen as drunk, Gay's as weak, Women as dependent, and Hispanics are uncivilized.