Sunday, February 15, 2009

SLOW FADE TO BLACK by Thomas Cripps

Several years ago (25?) I was watching Channel 9 in New York. A newsbreak with reporter Denise Richardson came on during an evening movie. I can't remember the movie, but just before the break there was a scene with Stepin Fetchit doing his shuffling and stuttering act. As they cut to the break, Ms. Richardson, who thought her mike was off said, "I can't believe they're still doing this to our people," then went into the update. This caused a local brouhaha and I think may have hurt her career. I couldn't find this incident on Google, which surprised me, but I recall it clearly. I'm not sure where she works now but I've seen her in recent years on the local cut-in to the Jerry Lewis telethon.


SLOW FADE TO BLACK: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942, by Thomas Cripps, covers the long, slow climb from the first silent movies to the 1940s, when the old stereotypes started to fade during World War II. Chapter 1 reminds us that film began in the 1890s. Notwithstanding Thomas Edison's Kinetoscopes showing black troops "marching down a gangplank on their way to Cuba," in Colored Troops Disembarking, for the most part demeaning scenarios were the norm. Typical Edison titles: Prize Fight in Coon Town, Interrupted Crap Game, The Gator and the Pickaninny, get the idea.

Chapter 2 covers Birth of a Nation (1915), which is revisited throughout the book as the archetypal racist movie. Today it's in the public domain and you can see it on YouTube, but even in 2009 it would evoke outrage if shown in a commercial venue or outside the classroom.

Blacks channeled their frustrations with negative portrayals into producing their own films, the most famous director being Oscar Micheaux. As overt racism was replaced by casual racism (portrayals of criminality replaced by shuffling butlers and maids) in mainstream movies, black-produced movies suffered from lack of capital and distribution.

Some blacks turned to European cinema in the 1930s where there was less racism; two artists who crossed the ocean were Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson. However, Baker's "exotic primitives" were seen as stereotypical and "drew small audiences." Robeson was more successful in American and European films. He was in a most difficult position, held to the highest standard by his own people. Old Bones of the River (1939) was appeared to be a dignified British shoot but the final cut caused outrage in the African American press.

Cripps thesis is a slow but steady climb to the years of World War II. Blacks fighting for their country added to the pressure on Hollywood for fairness. Caught in the middle were brilliant performers such as Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Criticized by some for the way he played Jack Benny's butler on the radio, I see Anderson as clearly Benny's equal or better in the mold of P. G. Wodehouse's Jeeves.

My biggest quibble in the whole book with author Cripps is his comment that Anderson saved the Benny show. I believe this to be false. Anderson made a popular show greater. I saw no need to demean Benny and can find no evidence that his show was in any trouble before Anderson joined the cast.


You can still see racially insensitive portrayals on Turner Classic Movies. Some people want them banned. Tough question. Should Irishmen call for banning any use of the phrase "paddy wagon"? No. Should Stepin Fetchit be banned? I don't think so either, but I wouldn't object to a note that you sometimes see at the beginning of the broadcast, that some portrayals are of their time and may offend modern sensibilities.

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