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   Jul 05

Paul Byrnes: Banishing racist movies

Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh),and her Mammy (Mattie McDaniel),in Gone with the Wind.When Hattie McDaniel won the Oscar in 1940 for best supporting actor, she was the first African-American to be nominated, as well as the first to win. At the ceremony, she was seated with her date on a separate table. By themselves.  She did not attend the world premiere of Gone with the Wind – the movie for which she won the award – because segregation laws in Georgia would not allow her to join the other cast members in Atlanta. To his credit, Clark Gable threatened to boycott the premiere, but she insisted he go.
Nanjing Night Net

McDaniel appeared in more than 300 movies and in 93 of them, she played the maid, according to a short TV documentary (see it on YouTube). Hattie’s Lost Legacy details how she gave her Oscar statue to Howard Universityin Washington DC, a campus that is historically black (although open to anybody). They lost it. Worse, they pretended to the filmmakers that they never received it, which is easy to disprove. Past students describe seeing and holding it at the university.

The most likely explanation is that it was stolen in the late 1960s during student unrest. The irony is that for some blacks, the statue signified the worst aspects of show business racism, rather than a proud achievement. “She was given an Oscar for a role which really demeaned people of African descent,” says Sa’ad El Amin, one of the protest leaders. He thinks someone threw it in the Potomac – an appropriate place, he says.  McDaniel died in 1952 of breast cancer, but she had an acute sense of her own choices. “I’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than $7 a week being one,” she once said.

I mention this because Gone with the Wind has been caught up in the controversy around Confederate flags, following the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, North Carolina, on June 15. A number of major American retailers have withdrawn Confederate flag merchandise from sale, although I notice that Amazon and Walmart are still selling a large range of guns. Apparently, flags kill people, not guns. The New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick took the next step, suggesting that GWTW should go the same way as the confederate flag. He didn’t call for it to be banned, just banished.

“True, Gone with the Wind isn’t as blatantly and virulently racist as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which was considered one of the greatest American movies as late as the early 1960s, but is now rarely screened, even in museums,” he wrote. “The more subtle racism of Gone with the Wind is in some ways more insidious, going to great lengths to enshrine the myth that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery – an institution the film unabashedly romanticises.”

Where do I start? Of course GWTW is a racist movie – unless you come from the South and hang a Confederate flag outside your house. That’s the thing about racism – everyone has a different definition. Birth of a Nation, in which Griffith glorifies the foundation of the Ku Klux Klan, has mostly white actors playing black characters in face paint. The depiction of blacks in general and black males in particular – salivating after white women – is hateful. Even the worst redneck peckerwood (to borrow a phrase from Sam Peckinpah) would concede that it’s a textbook of racial hatred, but it’s also one of the greatest landmarks in the history of cinema – an incredibly innovative movie at the level of craft and story-telling techniques.

Griffith may have been a cracker but he was also a genius – so should we banish that one too, or only make it available for “approved” viewings like the German government does with the worst of the Jew-hating films made by the Nazis?  Banning those just drove them underground, to be sold in nasty basement shops to skinheads who watched them on a loop till they learned all the words. That probably took some time.

Racism never disappears from movies – Hollywood or otherwise. It’s there in every genre, including comedy, and it touches every race and creed. Remember Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as the Japanese photographer? What about Peter Sellers as the Indian in Blake Edwards’ The Party? How do you feel about the mad witch doctor played by Amresh Puri in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? Was Driving Miss Daisy a compassionate film about the way the races are utterly entwined in American history or an Uncle Tom film? Then there’s the casual racism of nearly all of James Bond, the hipster racism of Pulp Fiction and the gangster racism of Tony Montana in Oliver Stone’s Scarface. “Say hello to my little fren’,” says Tony, the Cuban-American drug lord, as he blasts a hole in his hideous but expensive mansion. Not to forget black racism – like the alleged comedy White Chicks, in which two of the Wayans brothers dress up in white face and blonde wigs, as white women.

Where do we stop with this banishment? And yet, it’s not like Hollywood doesn’t have a problem with race. Ask the director of Selma, Ava DuVernay,​ if she thinks the industry has come a long way. At least she didn’t have to sit at a separate table at the Oscars this year.  I guess that’s progress.

Twitter: @ptbyrnes

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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