31 August 2009

Movies Yesterday and Today: The Good, The Bad The Racist

One of the principle reasons I cannot, like some of my film blogging brethren, limit myself to seeing movies from Hollywood's Golden Age, is that I like to allow my imagination to spend time with people of color who are afforded equal citizenship.

My 200 favorite all time English language films boasts more movies from the 1930s and 1940s than any other decades. Not even close, actually. But I do tire of seeing African Americans only being allowed to play porters, maids and buffoons and never being granted a lead role. Similarly Asians, Hispanics and to a certain extent even Jews were given very short shrift in films of yore. Openly gay characters did not exist at all, though it's hinted that some men are "sissies" and thus subjects of derision if not contempt. So here was the great deficit of films in the first half of the 20th century: it was a white man's world.

In social situations women could attain equal status (particularly in the pre code era) but politically and economically they were in the back of the bus. Truth be told women enjoyed better treatment in film than they did in the "real world." And there's the rub. It was not that the film industry that was keeping women, people of color and gays in secondary roles, no they were merely reflecting society. Of course one can counter the argument and say that films were perforce colluding in repression. Films continued perpetuating the negative, hurtful stereotypes of the Jim Crow Era and it can be argued, re-enforced them. Those images, as seen in the video montage from Spike Lee's Bamboozled (2000) (above) are powerful reminders of the role film played in oppression.

It gets complicated.

I've had students say of a film from the 1930s that it was "racist" due to the manner in which it depicted a Black character. Far worse, many adults say and believe the same thing. However when Preston Sturges cast a bug eyed, stammering, African-American cook it was not because the great writer/director was a bigot. (Was it?) This was merely a cinematic convention of the time (So?). In fact Sturges was lauded by the NAACP for his depiction of a black church in Sullivan's Travels (1941). We like to label, classify and file away. One false step by a politician, entertainer or co worker and they're out. Makes life easy. Easy and limiting.

Part of the problem is that we cannot apply standards of today to movies of yesterday. Ultimately they just ARE. We need be sensitive to and aware of how various peoples are represented in films of the past but to then condemn them is pointless. We can, with a great degree of accuracy look back at southern politicians of the time who opposed federal lynching laws and label them racist. Far more important we can examine whether odious creatures like Fox TV's Glenn Beck is racist. In dealing with the past making judgments is a false dichotomy and a fool's errand. Meanwhile understanding how the past influenced today is one of the most important exercises we can engage in. We can trace societal norms and attitudes of yesteryear to twits of today like Beck.

The past is what it is. Films from bygone days needs to be looked at, examined, interpreted and understood. Calling them names is just plain silly. I read a lot about Nazi Germany and have to restrain myself from getting angry at those beasts. Better to reserve one's anger for the dangers of today and better still to channel that anger into productive ways to counter those threats.

One night not long ago, as a diversion from our cares, my wife and I were enjoying one of those silly Mickey Rooney Judy Garland "hey-let's-put-on-show" films. It was all pleasant puffery until the two stars began applying black face for a big minstrel number. We could have stopped the film right there and shook our fists at the screen screaming epithets, but being veterans of such moments we soldiered on. Instead, for the next few minutes we realized that we weren't enjoying a musical but getting a history lesson. That's what those moments do. You heave a sigh and remember for a bit the way our society used to be and are thankful for recent advances. (I've often fantasized about traveling back in time to visit the 1930s. But live there? In an openly racist society where gays were locked deeply into closets? No thanks.)

Of course films prior to about 1967 also suffered from rigid censorship via the enforcement of the production code. There is a glimpse at what might have been for Hollywood had the code been done away with, or continued to be ignored, in the many great films of the pre code era, which ended in 1934. (See this previous post for a guide to pre code films. And this post for part 2.) The stories and characters were far more realistic. People enjoyed sex, even before marriage and even (gasp!) if they were women. A film like Baby Face (1933) would be shocking even today. Other films shone a bright light on society like Heroes for Sale (1934). Then the forces of "decency" (i.e. repression) came along and Bathsheba was replaced by Pollyanna. That great films continued to be made seems a miracle.

I used to think that a person could be shot and killed without any blood or visible mark (my vivid young imagination presumed that the bullet would send some sort of sonic boom into the body thus killing the victim). Then I saw Bonnie & Clyde (1967). Violence can be overdone and lord know it has. But it was drastically underdone for the first 60 or so years of movie history. Sex, nudity and profanity can all also be overdone (though I'd be willing to sit through a movie that tried to overdo female nudity) but they were absent from film for too long. James Cagney managed to portray some pretty despicable gangsters in The Public Enemy (1931) and White Heat (1949) to name but two films without so much as saying, "damn." But it's hard to imagine Joe Pesci in Goodfellas (1990) saying "what the heck is so funny about me" with the same impact as when he said f*ck.

Also limiting was that crime could never pay in films. So you always, always knew the bad guys weren't going to get away with it and it was just a matter of how their grand schemes would be foiled. This might have been morally satisfying but artistically it was pretty darn limiting.

I've seemingly made a case for how and why films are today are better than their forerunners from 70 years ago. But as I said at the beginning more of my favorites are from 30s and 40s. How is that possible? To fully answer that question would require an entire post, however here's the short answer: Characters and story were emphasized over special effects. Also, to a certain extent the limits placed on films back then forced writers and directors to tell a fuller story. Today sex, profanity and bathroom humor often interrupt good story telling, they become a kind of short hand. Modern movies sometimes use their freedoms to shock and titillate, again in lieu of telling the story.

Past or present films? Happily none of us have to choose. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies, DVDs and revival houses and film archives we may enjoy the best of both worlds. There is over 90 years of cinema to watch. Bon appetit.


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

An excellent, insightful essay. So many good points, so well written.

Juliette. said...

You're right about movies of the past being primarily a "white man's world." Still, there were exceptions that are great to watch, like Vincente Minnelli's Cabin in the Sky and Conrad Veidt in Different from the Others. Then there are movies that deal with themes you've mentioned. No Way Out comes to mind...actually, a lot of Sidneey Poitier's 50s stuff. Of course, it's obvious these weren't the majority, as I'm having a hard time naming several. (Though that's my fault, not theirs.)

I know you didn't say they were, but I'm going to go ahead and say I believe films 60, 70, 80 years ago are equally as good as, if not better than, most films of today. I know the Code was censorship at its most officious, yet I also know movies like Double Indemnity and the like would be drastically different without the Code. I think it inspired in filmmakers invention and subtlety, which are two things lacking in a lot of today's blockbusters.

Not to say there aren't remarkable movies made quite recently. I enjoy film in general, not just movies of the past or present.

KC said...

Ah, this is beautifully written. Though it always hurts a little, I to always manage to power through those racist moments in the films of the past. I just try to be grateful that things have changed. I must also add that I love a lot of those classic African American actors: Nina Mae McKinney, Louise Beavers, Hattie McDaniel, Ethel Waters, Rex Ingram, Juano Hernandez and many more. No matter what role they play, I can't help but be spellbound by their charisma.