Hard to Watch

Looking at Classic Films through Different Lenses
Hattie McDaniel, Olivia de Havilland, and Vivien Leigh in ‘Gone with the Wind’ / Wikimedia
Hattie McDaniel, Olivia de Havilland, and Vivien Leigh in ‘Gone with the Wind’ / Wikimedia

This year’s rancorous debate over statues honoring Confederate generals left me wondering whether its loudest participants could benefit from bifocals.

Before I explain, let me make my own feelings about the controversy clear. I’m in favor of the statues being removed from public view and put on display in museums or any exhibits dealing with the Civil War. My reasons are simple and hardly novel: these leaders were fighting in a bad cause. But I also refuse to label all defenders of Confederate statues racist, even though some of the statues were erected in the 1950s, apparently to defy the expanding desegregation movement. The southern military tradition contributes to the hero worship that such displays, alas, were meant to evoke, and we should bear in mind that many southerners are descendants of Confederate veterans. I want the defenders to lose the debate but I don’t want their motives impugned. The politicians who erected the memorials and now defend them (as well as that ultimate avatar of nihilism, Donald Trump) may be acting malignly, but some defenders may be without malice in their veneration. (I can’t believe that the creeps who marched in Charlottesville were interested in the statues rather than in seizing an opportunity to express hate.) So, by wishing that all participants in the debate would acquire intellectual bifocals, I’m simply hoping that the controversy might be drained of rancor. Wearing bifocals, you have a choice: see clearly up-close, or see clearly faraway, depending on what you want to look at. But to avoid hysteria and self-righteousness, we have to use both halves of the lens before forming an opinion.

These thoughts are rooted in my experience as a longtime movie critic. Intellectual bifocals are needed when assessing how many of the most famous movies handle the issue of race. Even when it’s easy to spot the racism that poisons parts of them, the more interesting and pertinent question is what makes some of these films engrossing even now. To avoid addressing this not only denies the multifarious ways works of art and entertainment affect us. It also ignores the complexity of viewers who respond to such compelling if questionable works. The poison and the allure aren’t always easily distinguishable; the ingredients are often mingled.

When D.W. Griffith’s silent epic The Birth of a Nation premiered in 1915, it was immediately clear that an extraordinary advance had been achieved in handling lengthy narrative on film. Griffith, by enforcing restraint upon actors accustomed to pitching their emotions to the back rows of a playhouse, made movie audiences, perhaps for the first time, read the unspoken thoughts of the characters. His cameraman, Billy Bitzer, captured the elegiac mood of Mathew Brady’s photographs. And, adapting techniques of Dickens and Hardy to the screen, Griffith cross-cut among multiple locales, thus increasing the dramatic pressure that action confined to one set could not produce.

Many audiences, especially southern white audiences only a generation removed from the Confederacy (as was Griffith, whose father was literally a Kentucky Colonel), felt that the epic had an additional historical virtue: it justified a widespread notion that the post-war federal efforts to change the South’s political structure was a villainous mistake, and that Jim Crow was a fine remedy.

Black audiences were repelled. They saw clearly that the movie was profoundly racist. It portrayed freed slaves (played by white actors in blackface) as barely anthropomorphized apes—sex-mad, vindictive, shiftless, incapable of meaningful politics. The only exceptions were a few ex-slaves (designated by the title cards as “faithful souls”) who help their former masters resist Reconstruction. The NAACP and other groups rightly ignored Birth’s artistic advances and concentrated on the dehumanization.

Griffith’s epic helped revive the Klan; could it not serve as a Klan recruitment film even today?

Today’s intellectual climate vindicates the protestors, but the film’s iconic reputation as the first great triumph of cinematic narrative art persists. In the 1960s, film critics Pauline Kael and Parker Tyler lectured at a screening of Birth, where the audience expressed their displeasure at the racism. Kael gripped Tyler’s arm tightly and whispered, “How can we convince these people of what a masterpiece it is!” Kael, plainly liberal and no racist, felt the artistic breakthrough of a film pioneer was being ignored for the sake of social conscience, and she was eternally on the side of the artist, no matter his personal or social blemishes. At that moment she was looking through the artistic half of the bifocals. Was she wrong to do this? Since she was counting on her audience to possess all the decent social values she held, and since her function at the screening was to comment on Griffith’s artistry, how could she not do this?

But Birth has a problem that simultaneously challenges the social conscience and the aesthetic sense. Yes, we’re excited by the wonderful crosscutting between the heroic riders and the besieged family the riders are trying to rescue from some government ruffians… but wait a minute! The rescuers are hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan and the government ruffians are black Union soldiers trying to enforce Reconstruction. The more effective Griffith’s artistry is, the more we’re coaxed into cheering on evil. Kael’s stand was easy enough to take in a liberal east coast enclave of the 1960s, where virtually everybody shared her politically progressive opinions. But in the South of the nineteen-teens, Griffith’s epic helped revive the Klan after it had been severely disabled by President Grant’s heroic attorney general, Grant Woods. Could it not serve as a Klan recruitment film even today? Especially today?

 

Gone With the Wind, the one Hollywood product that challenged Birth of a Nation’s preeminence as the most epic of Civil War movies, shared with it a sentimental view of the white-supremist South, but denunciations of the 1939 blockbuster have been more sporadic and more anemic. Why? To be sure, there were some accusations, and they were just. The black American poet Melvin B. Tolson wrote a brilliant and angry column for the Washington Tribune (an African-American newspaper) shortly after the movie’s opening. He saw that the moviemakers, producer David O. Selznick and collaborators, in order to be faithful to novelist Margaret Mitchell’s glamorization of the antebellum South, completely erased the brutal facts of the Southern plantation: no slave markets, no breakups of black families, no rapes committed by slave owners. Instead, we had a Mammy who was no more than a lovably grouchy nanny to Scarlett; dignified house slaves functioning as footmen; docile field hands supervised (at least on screen) only by other blacks; and, in the post-war sequence, a loyal ex-slave who saves Scarlett from a white rapist. “Gone with the Wind,” wrote Tolson, “shows not a single economic or social or political course that led to the Civil War. How could a civilization be ‘gone with the wind’ unless there was something to MAKE it go? ... I sat for four long hours waiting for that gigantic historical truth to appear—and all I saw was the heartless action of Scarlett O’Hara.”

Correct. But, as that last sentence indicates, he may have hit upon the very reason the film mainly escaped both white and black censure. Selznick’s concern wasn’t to understand American history, but to capture the sentimental trials and tribulations of Scarlett O’Hara that had made the novel so popular. And so, like the novel, the film is much more an inflated soap opera than a true epic, despite the much vaunted restaging of the burning of Atlanta. But the remarkable sequel to this is that the sentimentalities of the movie have belatedly, almost accidentally, benefitted from one particular progressive political current: feminism.

On NPR a few years ago, I heard a white professor of literature—and an ardent liberal and feminist—talking about the classic books she had assigned to her undergraduate classes. One was Gone with the Wind. I know, I know, she said, it’s supposed to be junk, but what drive the narrative has! What a page turner! And then there’s Scarlett! And she proceeded to lay out a case for Margaret Mitchell’s heroine as a character of exemplary strength, a case that could with even greater justice be made for the movie character, thanks to Vivien Leigh’s great performance. From a feminist angle, what Tolson termed Scarlett’s “bad actions”—her post-war ruthlessness in keeping her family alive thanks to sharp business practices and two marriages for money—were for the professor an enactment of gutsy independence that could inspire any young woman today. Obviously, this professor wasn’t ignorant of the historical deletions by both book and movie, but they are soothing deletions that allow one to concentrate on Scarlett and her struggles while softening the problems of race and the Reconstruction.

Consider:

  • Brutal slave labor? In Gone with the Wind, we only see slaves returning from the fields, and the boss who calls quitting time is just another slave who enjoys comic, friendly relations with his fellows. Later we learn that the O’Haras employ a brutal white overseer, but he’s a northerner, and we never see him in action. Had he ever raped one of the female slaves? No, but he’s impregnated a female specimen of “poor white trash,” and for that he is discharged. In the movie’s post-war section he returns as a carpetbagger!
  • White paranoia about black-on-white rape? In Birth, a vagrant black man drives a little southern belle to suicide rather than submit to his attack. (A scene excised from the original print showed the attacker being castrated.) In GWTW, a hint of that paranoia persists but it’s watered down, with Scarlett facing two brushes with rape by whites; in the second instance, a black man merely restrains Scarlett’s horse while his white companion (in a memorable close-up) lowers his leering face toward the unconscious heroine; soon a faithful former slave appears and fights off both attackers. But in the novel, the would-be rapist is black while the white man holds the horse. “The negro was beside her, so close that she could smell the rank odor of him… .” Selznick mollified Mitchell’s racism throughout.
  • Reconstruction and the South’s resistance to it? The carpetbaggers here are the white northerners bribing utterly innocent, naïve ex-slaves with “forty acres and a mule” in return for their vote. In other words, the South’s resistance was aimed against a corrupt force of occupation and not against the newly liberated blacks. Birth basically took this line too, but it showed blacks gaining seats in state legislatures and then disgracing themselves by eating fried chicken in the assemblies and putting their unshod feet on their desks. Griffith’s racism is always up front and ongoing. But in GWTW, except for the blacks who return as faithful servants to Tara, African-Americans simply disappear from the final hour of the movie. Ultimately, the only Reconstruction is the reconstruction of Tara. And it’s reconstructed by that heroic exemplar of proto-feminist strength, Scarlett.

 

Title card from D. W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (1915) / Wikimedia
Title card from D. W. Griffith’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (1915) / Wikimedia

The feminist professor wasn’t countenancing racism. She was wearing bifocals and looking through the feminist lens rather than the lens that would reveal GWTW’s racial insensitivity (just as Kael was looking through the aesthetic lens and not the historical one). And those of us who enjoy this film do this, too. For who can resist Scarlett as portrayed by Vivien Leigh? She endows the character with a fascinatingly quicksilver temperament encompassing greed, frustration, courage, mean wit, familial loyalty, and occasional bursts of tenderness—you can’t help but put your social conscience on hold in order to enjoy her. I think most of us, consciously or unconsciously, employ similar strategies when we indulge our guilty pleasures. And a political progressive putting on hold one political sentiment (racial justice) in order to feed another one (feminism) demonstrates another kind of guilty pleasure.

 

And now let me offer a very personal example (and confession).

In 1932 the fraternal cartoonists Dave and Max Fleischer produced a series of Betty Boop cartoons. Knowing I was working on this piece, a blogger-friend from the Boston area, Robert Astyk, drew my attention to several of them (available on YouTube) as instances of racism mitigated (or at least accompanied) by the great music of Louis Armstrong on the soundtrack. When I watched one, titled “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You,” a somewhat unsettling feeling of déjà vu seeped into me. I had seen this cartoon when I was about six, and one image from it has inhabited my subconscious in a not particularly pleasant way.

The narrative of “I’ll Be Glad” is nothing but a series of chases. After a brief introductory live-action shot of Armstrong and his band playing the title song, we see Betty Boop, a once-famous caricature of a ’20s flapper with an hour-glass silhouette, saucer eyes, and bee-stung lips, being carried in a sedan chair by Koko, a clown with the torso of a sausage, and Bimbo, a dog-like dwarf, through an African jungle. They’re attacked by cannibals who carry Betty off while Koko and Bimbo race to the rescue. It all ends up with our heroes escaping and the cannibals incinerated by a volcano. “Satchmo” Armstrong and his musicians take a bow. The End.

To contemporary eyes what’s racist here is patent: the assumption that all native Africans are cannibals, and the equation of all blacks, African or American, with savagery. Sickeningly, that equation is made through jazz, one of the great cultural contributions of African Americans. The pre-feast cannibals are gyrating to Armstrong’s music as if it were a daily feature of their village. A female cook pounds a couple of wooden spoons into a cauldron, then the animation fades her cartoon image into the live-action image of Armstrong’s drummer pounding his drum. Were the 1930s audiences, white or black, being told that, if these great jazz musicians were divested of their tuxedoes, put into grass skirts and transported to “Darkest Africa,” they too would turn into cannibals? Because of all this, the Fleischer cartoons could be dismissed as unresisting imbecilities, and the lively music on the soundtrack as just another instance of good black art commandeered by white exploiters. Yet….

The animation, for all the racism of its imagery, makes “I’ll Be Glad” a perfect example of homegrown surrealism accomplished with such verve and free-associative wildness that it makes the contemporary European efforts of Dali, Bunuel, Max Ernst, and others look, well, effortful. Fleischer’s figures and backdrops are crudely drawn, but the flow of the imagery takes the commonplace plot to unexpected levels of nonsense and grotesquerie, beyond the muscle-bound and slavishly faux-realistic works of Disney and Pixar. Consider the footsteps that Bimbo and Koko follow on their rescue mission: they leap up from the ground, reverse themselves, and lead our heroes in the opposite direction. When the chums find themselves in a boiling cauldron, they escape by climbing nearby trees that become the headless bodies of ostriches, ideal getaway steeds. And when Koko is forced again to flee on foot, his rear end turns into a speedometer. This is Ovid for the masses, and what the Roman poet celebrated in his Metamorphoses—unceasing transformation of human flesh into animal, vegetable, and mineral forms—is what the Fleischers achieve here.

Is it enough to make us forget the racism? Not when the surrealism so often spotlights the racism. And the best instance of this is the most inventive and haunting piece of surrealism in the cartoon, a moment that lodged itself long ago in my six-year-old head and subconsciously stayed there for decades. Koko, temporarily abandoned by Bimbo, is being chased by a single native. Suddenly the cannibal’s head detaches itself from his body, floats up into the sky, and leers down on his fleeing prey like a malevolent moon. Then it morphs into Louis Armstrong’s face! Armstrong now sings the title song, originally the plaint of a betrayed lover but now, in the context of what we see, a bloodthirsty anticipation of poor Koko becoming dinner.

It wasn’t only the sheer weirdness of the detached floating head that unsettled the kid I was, but also the very expression on Satchmo’s face—eyes popping, mouth ever-widening (not for nothing was he nicknamed “Satchel Mouth”), head shaking, lips pursing, gritted teeth flashing (“Louis toms, but he toms from the heart,” said Billie Holliday)—that sealed itself into my brain. The comic horror of body parts, dismembered, exalted, expanded, and turning against humanity itself (if you can call Koko humanity): isn’t this close to the essence of surrealism?

And, to ask again the same question, does the bracing surrealism excuse the obnoxious racism? No. But at times it overwhelms it and makes me want to ignore it. Still, I suppose we ignore such things at our psychic peril. Better to use bifocals and take in the whole picture.

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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